Aditi Kapil recaps her experiences with “Agnes Under the Big Top”

Posted on March 26, 2012

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It doesn’t happen too often that a playwright gets the opportunity to have his or her new work produced… by three different theatre companies. Mixed Blood Resident artist Aditi Kapil was given that opportunity when the NEA New Play Development Program selected her play Agnes Under the Big Top, a tall tale for the 2009 Distinguished New Play Development Project. Agnes was produced by three different theaters with three different creative teams as part of a program of the National New Play Network (NNPN): an NNPN rolling world premiere. The show’s first premiere was here at Mixed Blood in 2011, then moved to the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut, and lastly premiered at Borderlands Theater in Arizona. Below, Aditi shares with us her experiences working with all three of the theaters involved.

Agnes Under the Big Top, a tall tale

by Aditi Brennan Kapil

Mixed Blood Theatre, Long Wharf Theatre, Borderlands Theatre

“Agnes under the Big Top” had a long development journey; the writing of it ranged from exhilarating to torturous, and the fact is I didn’t fully figure out what the play was about, what its beating heart was, until it went into production. That is, in many ways, depressing– I’d like to believe that as an artist I can get a solid handle on a thing before it’s on a deadline to opening, sets are being designed, press releases are going out… I actually do believe that I generally get a handle on the central theme of a new work well before those things happen; it just wasn’t the case with this play. This one was hard, it was close to home, it was a lot of truth about a lot of big ideas that wrap themselves around a lifetime–and my entire family, and a whole lot of dreams and terrors that I’m not all that comfortable looking at dead-on. So this particular play could not, despite three years of generous development and exploration in the company of really smart people, get finished until production. Which brings me to the blessing that has been the NNPN rolling world premiere.

Mixed Blood-

Agnes went into rehearsals at Mixed Blood Theatre first, by a day. The Mixed Blood and Long Wharf productions rehearsed virtually simultaneously, which is how I became the director for the Mixed Blood production. (Eric Ting had originally been slated to direct both.) If I could change a thing, I wouldn’t have minded some space between the two productions. I know Eric would have liked more access to me during his rehearsals, more of my undivided attention to the process at Long Wharf. Directing the 1st step of the premiere wasn’t my first choice, but a really great outcome was that it made me directly accountable to what I had written in a  really useful way. I did extensive rewrites that first week of rehearsals that came directly from working with the actors as director. No matter how many times we had tried to simulate this exact circumstance in workshops, there’s just a difference when actors know that “now it’s for real, we’ll have an audience in a few of weeks, I really do need to fully understand this moment and I need to fully understand it now”. When they got hung up, I either knew the answer or I didn’t. And if I didn’t, I demanded clarification in the form of a rewrite from the writer, which I then promptly provided myself for the next rehearsal. Not having a separate director between playwright and actors also means not having anyone to massage your weak areas and cover for you when you haven’t quite done the job. Endless thanks go out to my actors for their flexibility and fearlessness in going on this journey with me. My one regret is that we didn’t have one more week of rehearsal–I sent them forth just that tiny bit under-cooked because our time ran out, but they’re such ridiculously talented pros that they covered not only their own asses, but mine too.

So the Mixed Blood production opened, and in it I got to see pretty much exactly what I wrote, without filters. And it worked.

Long Wharf-

Which is why I was really excited to see what was going on with Eric Ting’s production at Long Wharf. Eric was my first choice to direct Agnes, both because he had a passion for the play, and because he brings artistry above and beyond the script itself to his work, which is something I really wanted for this piece in particular. I know Eric would have liked to have me around more, but in the end I was (selfishly) grateful to see a production created outside of my potentially overwhelming influence. I visited the process in mid-rehearsals, then in the days before opening, and I saw the play again at closing. Eric and I had a deal: I would send him any and all rewrites, and because he was already in process he had the right to veto. He only used it once, when an actress had grown attached to the old text. He found a way to marry the old with the new that I actually think was better than the rewrite, so I ended up keeping his version. The Long Wharf cast was so different–the set, the vibe, really everything was different, and when I was there I tried to find a balance between being useful and being overbearing. I’m not sure to what degree I succeeded or failed. The playwright has such authority–we write the thing, so anything we say has the ring of absolute truth. Which is a weird position to be in when you don’t hold the absolute truth to what is already in process with a particular production. The fact is I trust Eric so much with my work, and yet so much of what his production was doing was so contrary to how I heard things in my head. But I’d already had the opportunity to be overbearing and hear things exactly the way I wanted them in Minneapolis, so this was my opportunity to hear the play differently. And my trust in Eric as an artist was so complete. Which didn’t necessarily make it that much easier to butt out; I have no doubt that if I’d been in the room throughout the rehearsal process I would have been tapping him on the shoulder incessantly, trying to influence delivery, rhythms, trying to not control the process and failing, which would have hurt both of us.

For Long Wharf I rewrote a scene that had never quite landed the way I wanted at Mixed Blood. I stripped down some of the voice-overs to see if I would miss them, and I adjusted the final scene for productions that don’t have a train for Shipkov to physically climb up on top of, which was an interesting realization: the play would still work without that image.

The experience of seeing the show on opening was bizarre. It dawned on me 20 minutes in that it was beautiful, but I had been so guarded about enjoying it because it was different from anything I could have imagined, that I’d kind of missed the train on experiencing it. The second night, I was on board. And how amazing to see that the play stands up to rhythms, emotions, images, sounds, that were so different from the Mixed Blood production. It’s got some give, that’s an amazing thing.

Borderlands-

The Borderlands production was almost a full year after the first two, and had the smallest budget, which is particularly relevant because this is a hard play to cast, and has technical demands. Barclay Goldsmith is a fearless soul, and his experiences in casting and bringing this piece to life in Tucson have been some of my favorite production stories. Long Wharf showed me the aesthetic range of the piece, Borderlands showed me that you don’t need all the fancy sets and big budgets. I’m so very proud of Borderlands for pulling this piece off–they faced more challenges with less resources than the other productions put together, and they told the story.

An interesting experiment that we indulged in in the months between the CT production and the AZ production- Barclay and I discussed the possibility of rewriting “Agnes” to be a Latina rather than Liberian, for the Borderlands production only, a conversation that I wouldn’t have entertained with anyone other than a partner theater: what playwright wants to open up that can of worms? But as an exploration with one of my premiering theaters, it kind of made sense to try something, particularly if it helped the theater connect the play more closely with their community. I did the ‘Borderlands rewrite’. Barclay went on to have a reading and several conversations with his collaborators, and a few months later he called me back and said that they wanted to do the play as written after all, so that draft will never see the light of day. But it was kind of great to spend the first year of the play’s life and engagement with the world so completely open to trying anything.

I’m probably done messing with it now. It’s an explored piece; it’s been stretched, tested, investigated. And in production number one it wasn’t even finished. Which is clearly the beauty of the NNPN rolling world premiere. For which I am profoundly grateful.

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