Rogue Machine Artistic Director John Flynn hosted a free salon last month to introduce playwright/director Phyllis Nagy to the LA theatre community prior to the American premiere of her Never Land. The discussion centered on her tenure at London’s Royal Court Theatre and the panel included playwright Ron Hutchinson and British actress Katherine Tozer, both who were also in residence at RCT. Playwright/critic Steven Leigh Morris moderated. Nagy, who has dual citizenship and is a native New Yorker, came to LA five years ago to direct her first feature, HBO’s Mrs. Harris starring Annette Bening and Ben Kingsley. The film received several Emmy and Golden Globe nominations including ones for Nagy’s writing and direction.
Nagy, who occasionally tugged at her short-cropped hair, was forthright and amusing during the salon as she is for this interview. She discusses her association with The Royal Court Theatre as well as the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, all of which have commissioned her to write new plays.
She says, “I was writer-in-residence at the Royal Court Theatre during Stephen Daldry’s tenure as Artistic Director in the mid-to-late ’90s. Four of my plays have premiered at the Court, of which Never Land is one. I do have outstanding commissions from all three of these theatres and I intend to get around to fulfilling them… someday. Unfortunately, film work has interrupted that process; I hope to get back to the ever more satisfying task of writing plays within a year.”
She returned to the US, and specifically to Los Angeles, to make Mrs. Harris, which she describes as “a wonderful experience. Always rather an itinerant soul, here I stay, working on various film and television projects in development. For the moment!”
Her association with Rogue Machine came about early this year when Flynn and RM producer Matthew Elkins approached her British agent about the American rights to Never Land. Nagy says, “We all met shortly thereafter and I was impressed by their genuine passion about challenging theatre. I had been hesitant about licensing an American production of the play and have said no to various production requests. I often follow my hunches and I had a hunch this was the right situation in which to do the play with this new, intrepid theatre company.”
What inspired her to write Never Land? “While rehearsing my first play in the UK in 1992,” she says, “I came across a tiny wire story in a British tabloid newspaper about a French family who desperately wished to become English. To that end, they took some astonishing imaginative steps–not all of them entirely healthy–to achieve their goal. I can’t say much more about it without giving away things that are probably best discovered in a viewing of the piece but my own status as a person recently displaced (I had moved from New York to London in early 1992) into a culture I had expected would not be as entirely removed from my native culture as it actually was, fueled my interest in this tiny wire story. It took me six years to finally complete the play.”
How is the rehearsal process different here than in England? She pauses before making the comparison. “In practical terms, if it is a professional show in the UK, actors are paid a weekly salary, however small or large, even in the smallest of fringe theatres in London. So there is a regular rehearsal schedule that everyone adheres to over the course of approximately four to six weeks and there is no time off for any reason, apart from the most extraordinary personal circumstances or illness. I won’t get started on aesthetic differences until the rehearsal process is completed… Though I will say there would appear to be real differences in the ways in which actors need to arrive at where the play requires them to be, some of them thrilling and some of them not.”
What other differences is she finding in LA?
“I’ve now been here for five years so I’m not sure I feel the differences as fully any longer,” she says. “But certainly what at first appears to be the lack of weather was something I struggled with. I now can chart the subtle turns in the seasons here and do appreciate them very much. Other differences, philosophical and cultural, I don’t feel able to discuss without a couple of bottles of good California Zinfandel and several hours….! That’s another difference that has been a delightful surprise–the depth and variety of California reds as opposed to European reds. I am now a convert to California wines.” What else? “Baseball, a lifelong passion of mine. I no longer have to stay up until 1 am to watch baseball games broadcast live in the UK. Instead, I am a Dodgers season ticket holder which feels a bit like heresy as I am a Yankees fan but we make do with what we have at hand. Also, I did miss a good slice of old fashioned NY style pizza in the UK.”
William Christopher Stevens (as Michael Carver), Katherine Tozer (as Elisabeth Joubert), and Lisa Pelikan (as Anne Joubert)
|Who is in the cast of Never Land? Nagy smiles with pride at her selections. “Katherine Tozer is an actress I’ve worked with on several occasions. She is a trusted and valued collaborator as well as being a wonderful friend. I would not have done this production without her. Lisa Pelikan and Bradley Fisher are company members at Rogue Machine and I was delighted to find them fairly early on in the interview process. Will Stephens, Shannon Holt, Bill Hunt and Chris Shaw are not Rogue Machine members but come to us through various connections. They are a brave and imaginative company which I value very much. They were all invited to join the production because of qualities I felt they all possessed–a certain fearlessness, a certain understanding of the humor in the play, and all those things directors always talk about; in addition, I felt they’d make a good fit with each other, both as actors and as people.”|
So far, Nagy has written 13 plays, including translations or versions of plays such as her literal translation of The Seagull. She adds, “And one unproduced, fledgling effort which shall remain unproduced.” How does she select her topics? “I tend to think the plays choose me, not the other way around, in that an image will occur to me, or a series of images–often inspired by something I’ve seen or read in real life–and these images will evolve over a period of time into a play that has a shape and a narrative. It can sometimes take the writing of a play for a writer to understand fully why he or she is drawn to material or image and this is why I think many mature writers find they are constantly exploring the same ground, pondering the same questions, in each new piece of work.
“But what I never do is sit down to write by saying something like, ‘I want to write a play about love’–or war, or the banking crisis, or any other ‘issue’ because that is death, in my opinion, to art. When I’m done with a play, I may discover it’s really my response to, say, a political situation but to know that in advance leads to some pretty static and boring writing, I think.”
How does she approach adapting a play from a novel, such as Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, compared to an original work? “It is always original work,” she says. “The only thing that’s different–and a bit of a gift–is that plot, the least interesting dramatic element, is handed to the writer on a plate. How freeing that can be. I see my job as adapter as one of honoring the source material’s tone–crucial, and often mangled in dramatic adaptations–its image structure and its metaphorical concerns.”
Besides the film and television scripts Nagy is developing, including an adaptation of Highsmith’s Carol, she would love to direct more plays or, she says, “Even get to the point where I could open a theatre that was modeled entirely on one like the Royal Court. That will require a great deal of money and time and a shift in how commitments to stage plays in LA are viewed by actors and other artistic personnel. Again, a very long discussion best had over a good meal accompanied by copious amounts of booze.”
LISA PELIKAN ENTERS NAGY’S NEVER LAND
Actress Lisa Pelikan, whose flowing red hair is tousled about her head, has an extensive list of credits in film and television as well as New York and local theatre (visit her website at lisapelikan.com). I first saw her in a brilliant production of Craig Lucas’ Blue Window at South Coast Repertory in 1985, her initial West Coast stage outing. Filmgoers will remember her sharing the title role in Fred Zinnemann’s Julia (1977) with Vanessa Redgrave and Shadow of Doubt (1998) with Melanie Griffith.
How did she become involved with the fledgling Rogue Machine? “John Flynn and I have known each other since 2003 when he directed me in an episode of Strong Medicine, a TV show he also produced (for Lifetime),” Pelikan explains. “At the same time I was directing a production of ‘night, Mother with Interact Theatre and he came to see it. So, we began our mutual respect for each other. Our professional lives continued to cross paths when we were both working at the Odyssey Theatre and I recommended he direct Suzan-Lori Parks 365 Days 365 Plays when I couldn’t. I sit on the Odyssey’s Board of Directors so I am very involved there.
“In 2008 I came to see Rogue Machine’s inaugural production of Compleat Female Stage Beauty and I was just blown away by it. The direction, the concept, the set, the costumes, the actors…everything! And, there was John again. The Rogue was holding readings of plays being considered in the future and I just started showing up. John and I began a series of conversations where he explained his concept: to only present plays never seen in LA before. I wanted to support his vision because I felt it was vital to the LA theatrical scene. It’s the same way I felt when I saw Stephen Sachs’ production of After the Fall at the Fountain Theatre. I knew I wanted to be around people who were making great art.”
She was cast in Never Land as a result of Flynn telling her about a play he thought might have a role for her. “I read it,” she says, “and I loved it! It’s beautifully written. Very different. Very special. John set up a meeting with Phyllis last March. We talked and fell in love, so to speak, and then she asked me to come back and read. I was cast in April.”
How does she describe Never Land? Pelikan says, “The play, to me, is a love story; a love poem and I am part of that love poem. Anne Joubert is a French woman who has fallen in love with a very specific man for a very specific reason. She will follow him anywhere. As she says in the play, he is ‘the only man who will hoist the burden of me upon his shoulders and run with me all the way to the end. And that is worth my fidelity, my complicity in each of his endeavors.’ He is worth everything to her. Of course they are not all lovey-dovey. There is a George and Martha aspect to their relationship.”
Pelikan welcomes playing complicated roles. For Joubert she says, “In approaching a part like this, it’s really about allowing the character to settle down into my bones. I have been very fortunate to have had her with me since April. I have had time with her, to live and breathe with her, to dream on her. This is how I have taken her into me.”
Has she worked before with playwrights who also direct? “The only other time I have worked with a director who was also the playwright was in a staged reading of Simon Levy’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby,” Pelikan recalls. “So, this is really the first time I have had an experience of a full production with a playwright/director. The play is a beautiful piece of writing. I think Phyllis Nagy is a poet and a musician. She directs unlike any other I’ve worked with before, really more like a conductor. She’s very aural and hears everything. In rehearsal, Phyllis says things like, ‘This is an opera!’ and ‘This monologue is the soprano’s aria.’ Also, ‘This scene is the chamber piece.’
“As a director Phyllis is very specific, very clear, about her vision and what she wants. It will be a very stylistic piece. Not unlike Des McAnuff who I worked with on Twelfth Night at La Jolla Playhouse. He, too, was a very exacting director; about every word, every movement… and that production was included in Time magazine’s 10 best productions of the year. Hopefully, this one will turn out as well,” she laughs. “This production truly is Phyllis’ vision as she is the playwright and the director.”
Since Pelikan has been doing theatre in LA for nearly 25 years, what can she suggest that could make it more vital, similar to New York and London? “It seems simple,” she says after a thoughtful pause. “We need to pay actors a living wage. If actors are given a way to live by working their craft, then they will have a deeper commitment to the work.
||“I truly believe stage acting is a craft that can only be improved by doing it. If actors can be working with other actors and artists who are also making their living in the theater then the entire level of theater in Los Angeles will be raised much higher. Audiences will come flocking as they do now in New York or London. Right now it is hard for audience members to know where to direct their time, their energy and their money. If audiences know they can show up to any play in LA and be assured of a great experience then theater will be taken more seriously and the Times will start devoting more space for theater news and articles which will raise our visibility.|
“I highly commend Barbara Beckley of the Colony Theatre in Burbank, where I have been fortunate enough to work on several occasions. She works her butt off to make sure actors get paid for rehearsals and performances. It’s not a lot, a couple hundred dollars a week, but it makes a big difference. And, because of the contract she uses with Equity we also get health insurance. If more theatres here could even do that much, I think it would really help this town. I have always hoped each film/TV studio in this town would adopt one theater and pay for the running of it, including decent salaries for the artists.
“There is great theater happening here. I hope we, as members of our community, will be able to find a way to better respect and acknowledge our theater artists. It’s amazing what Rogue Machine has been able to accomplish in a little over a year. Its goal is to build a theatre of ideas and nurture the development of plays from contemporary writers that also reflect current culture and consciousness. I think John Flynn and Rogue Machine are achieving its goal. I hope the community will support them.”
Feature image of Phyllis
Nagy and actors and story images