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A pattern for working together: Playwright, director present new play at CATF

June 30, 2013|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE | crystal.schelle@herald-mail.com
  • Contemporary American Theater Festival director Kent Nicholson and playwright Liz Duffy Adams are shown inside the Stanley C. and Shirley A. Marinoff Theatre on the Shepherd University campus. Her play, "A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World," makes its world premiere at CATF.
Joe Crocetta /

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- —  In the world of theater, a playwright writes the words and an actor speaks them. But it is the director who has to make sure the playwright’s vision goes from the writing on paper to being portrayed by walking, talking human beings. 

And for playwrights today, especially ones who are staging new pieces of work, the partnership between the playwright and director is invaluable. 

For Contemporary American Theater Festival first-timers playwright Liz Duffy Adams and director Kent Nicholson, their long-time partnership continues Friday night with the world premiere of her play, “A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World.” 

But their partnership was forged years before CATF. Adams said they met several years ago at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival in San Francisco when Nicholson was set to direct one of her play.

“I think that process set the pattern for the way that we work together,” Adams said. “There was a moment in the play that was off.”

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After a reading in front of an audience, the feedback was that the play was well received but Adams said they couldn’t understand what was wrong with that moment in the play. 

“So in rehearsal Kent said let’s just try different ways,” she said. “I said, ‘Let’s take out that line and do it again. Let me cut that and do it again.’ In 10 minutes — boom — problem solved. That was the production draft. It was that nice, easy collaborative process that was very encouraging and gave me confidence in him.”

Now, several productions later, Adams and Nicholson have it down to an art. 

“We trust each other,” Adams said. “We have this great shorthand. You know what you’re in for.”

For Nicholson, it’s also understanding what his role is as a director. 

“A director’s job is to help, when it comes to new work in particular, is to help articulate the writer’s vision for the play through other people’s artistry,” he said.  “For example, the actors and the designers, and to really make sure that it’s a cohesive idea of what the play is and what the story being told is. It’s helping the actors achieve the tone and style of the play. To help the designers create a world where the theme of the play can live and exist. And to help coordinate and cohere an artistic vision for the show.”

It also is having an appreciation of the playwright’s work itself.

“I find Liz to be one of the most inventive playwrights around right now,” Nicholson said. “She has a love of language that runs very deep. Her plays all use language in very specific ways to create the world in which the characters inhabit. Whether that be something like her play ‘Dog Act,’ like I did, which takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. Or this play, which takes in an historical United States, 1702 New England. All of the characters have this particular way of speaking. The language creates the world. Her writing does that.”

He said he also finds Adams’ work to be political and relevant.

“This play in particular, even though it takes place in 1702, it’s very much a play about now,” Nicholson said. “And even though it’s about the Salem Witch Trials, and sort of references Arthur Miller’s ‘Crucible.’ Just like ‘The Crucible’ is very much like the ’50s, this play is very much about 2013.”

“A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World” is set in 1702 New England, 10 years after the Salem Witch Trials.

“It has to do with people 10 years later still coming to terms with what happened in that terrible crisis and it’s meant to reverberate things that are happening now and things we are concerned about now,” Adams explained.

Adams said there were two central inspirations for “Discourse.” The first is that she grew up in Essex County, Mass., and was steeped in the history. And Adams, who still lives in Massachusetts, watched a production several years ago of Miller’s “Crucible.” 

“I was very struck by the fact that he allows Abigail Williams to escape. She was a real historical character. He made free will of her facts, as playwrights do, to make her the center of a sexual triangle and the deliberate instigator of the crisis. But at a certain point in the play she was gone. ‘Oh, she stole money, she ran away, she’s gone,’” she said. “I was left with this such fanciful impression that she was so powerful that she was able to escape Miller’s knee-jerk mid-century misogyny — with all due respect to him because it is such a fantastic play. But it made me wonder what happened to her.”

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