Arts Initiative: Tell us a bit about yourself and what brought you to the directing program at Columbia.
Jimmy: I am an Oregonian who has been living in the city for almost 10 years now, working and training primarily with a theater company called Tectonic Theater Project. Through working with Tectonic Theater Project and its artistic director Moisés Kaufman, I learned their particular method for creating new work, called “Moment Work” (which I’ve used to make Spoon River Anthology). I come from a strong documentary theater background as a writer/director, and this method works well for collecting text and forming it into a play (for instance, it was used to create The Laramie Project from interviews following the Matthew Shepard murder.) When I chose to enter the directing program at Columbia, I was seeking to take this foundation and supplement it with the training and theory behind Anne Bogart and Brian Kulick’s work, in order to pioneer a unique style.
AI: Can you describe the process of conceiving this play? How did you use the poems to create a dramatic structure? How did you start off tackling the staging once you had put the text together?
Jimmy: Before I had 100 actors, I started the rehearsal process with six. I had all 240 poems from Edgar Lee Masters’ collection (plus a few more) as raw source material, and the actors and I started doing improvisational “Moment Work” to find common narrative threads between the many interweaving themes of the poems. We explored the ways narrative can be told using many different elements of the stage, from lighting and costumes, to music and dance. Then I took that generative work and creativity, and went away to write the adaptation. When I later presented the script to the 100 actors, the initial six (who I credit as co-creators and dramaturgs) were helping to recreate and shape those performative moments in rehearsal, making it possible to delegate and reach a cast of 100 throughout the process.
In order to structure the adaptation as well as the rehearsal process, I came up with a 3-Act structure that was broken down into 3 sub-acts, all organized by a combination of theme, character, plot and the dramatic form by which I planned to frame the narrative. I wanted both the town’s ‘associative narrative’ (as I called it), and the stage form (from period to post-modern) to both have their own structure that sometimes worked in conjunction with one another and sometimes in contrast. Since the original structure of the poems is 240 individual ‘monologues,’ each from a different character, I needed a dramatic structure that could both keep an audience rapt and guessing, as well as add into a cumulative effect over the course of two hours.
AI: What brought you to these poems initially? What made you choose this project as your thesis?
Jimmy: The themes Edgar Lee Masters was writing about are so fundamental in questioning the human condition – from the binaries between life and death; earth and the stars; to the ineffable desire to be remembered. I found that by working on the adaptation and through our rehearsals, the idea of memory in terms of the individual and collective took a forefront thematically. In a way, every one of these characters are fighting and asking to be remembered.
AI: Anything else that really excites you or is important about this project that you would like to share?
Jimmy: I find it so comforting that from a theater-maker’s point of view, a collection of poems about memory can inspire other artists to pick up the baton and further inspire. For instance, there would be no Our Town were it not for Spoon River Anthology. I hope that through re-investigating this work, we as an ensemble of 100 are creating new memories — looking forward as we look back.
Spoon River Anthology runs April 18 – 21 at Riverside Church, 91 Claremont Ave, NYC, and April 24-28 at Invisible Dog Art Center, 51 Bergen Street, Brooklyn. Tickets for Riverside Theatre are FREE with any student ID! Tickets for Invisible Dog Art Center are $15. For more info visit: http://www.spoonrivernyc.com/home.html