One of my favorite writing subjects is myth and fairy tale adaptation. Robin Byrd, whose new play The Grass Widow’s Son is part of the DC Black Theatre Festival on 6/28/12, kindly blogged here about a talk that I gave on the topic at the Dramatists Guild National Conference last year.
Award-winning Bay Area playwright Patricia Milton has a new comedy opening in August in San Francisco titled Believers. It’s a fairy tale adaptation, and sounds fascinating—about a love vaccine. I interviewed Patricia via e-mail to learn more about her new show and her fairy tale adaptation process.
Q: Please tell us about your new play Believers. What’s it about?
Milton: In a remote pharmaceutical lab, brain researcher Rockwell Wise works to develop a love vaccine so he will never again suffer the pain of heartbreak. His ex-lover Grace Wright shows up to lead his drug development team, bringing her own agenda — her plan to create a love activator. Their maneuvers to achieve their own aims result in unexpected side effects.
Q: A love vaccine. What sparked the idea? How’d you come up with it?
Milton: I read an article in the NY Times about the brain synapses involved in romantic love, and was intrigued by the article’s assertion that if a love vaccine were made, there is already a large market for it. I immediately wanted to write about this: I think it is funny and touching to follow a protagonist whose desperate, heartfelt goal is totally wrong for her or him. I wanted to adapt a fairy tale as a couple’s backstory. I also was eager to explore the notion of pharmaceutical side effects. Brain-altering drugs are a boon for many people, but when their side effects are ignored or concealed, there are tragic results. In a similar way, sometimes our own actions produce unintended consequences that hurt the ones we love.
Q: Sounds like so many people can relate to this play! When did you start it and what’s your development process been like?
Milton: I’ve been working on it for about two years. I developed it in several writers workshops, including at Playwrights Foundation and Central Works writing group. It has had three public readings: at Playwrights Center of San Francisco, Playwrights Revolution, Capital Stage Company, Sacramento, and Wily West Productions, San Francisco. From the last reading, Wily West decided to produce it. As a side note, the Playwrights Revolution reading was directly as a result of Twitter: Stephanie Gularte, artistic director of Capital Stage, read my tweet about the play and asked to read it.
Q: That’s great that social media helped you get a reading. Speaking of readings, what’s their value in terms of a play’s development?
Milton: I learned so much from each reading. Believers is a comedy, so sitting in the middle of the theatre, listening for the laughter, told me a lot about what was working in terms of what was funny. The play explores a complex mash-up of ideas, and has an intricate plot, so I asked a lot of questions in talk-backs to make sure audiences were following the action. There’s still some juicy ambiguity, but the action has become clearer with each rewrite.
Q: Believers is based on a fairy tale. Please tell us about your fairy tale adaptation process.
Milton: Fairy tales are fascinating to me: layered, deep, and speaking directly to the unconscious. Many of the fairy tales we know here in the U.S. have been “Disney-ized,” removing some of the darker elements. In “The Frog King,” a princess promises to love the Frog King forever and ever if he will rescue her gold ball from a pond. When he delivers the ball, she refuses to keep her promise. Now, many of us know a version where the princess kisses the frog to change him into a prince. But in the fairy story I found, the princess changes him by throwing the frog against a wall! To me, this version is not about physical violence. It depicts the power of love to completely, often fiercely and uncomfortably, shatter our psyche as it transforms us. I was challenged to figure out how Grace “throws Rocky against the wall” to bring him to his fully realized self. One other aspect of the play is that the frog is both a religious symbol (as in Egypt’s plague) and a fairy tale symbol. I was prompted to explore the apocalyptic side of the frog as well as its fairy tale side.
Q: Any thoughts on writing comedy you can share with us?
Milton: I want to put in a good word for romantic comedies. For centuries, all comedies were romantic comedies. Hollywood, with its frequent use of stale formulas and generic couples, has somewhat tarnished the rom-com. I’m doing my part to reclaim the genre for smart people. I’d like to also make a plug for Wily West: a fantastic production company, employing talented women artists like our director, Sara Staley, Lead Designer Quinn Whitaker, and Executive Producer Laylah Muran de Assereto, as well as many other talented actors and design professionals. Founded by Morgan Ludlow, Wily West Productions produces only local SF Bay Area playwrights.
Q) A female-driven production company? We certainly want to support that. Thanks, Patricia, for all the good information. Congratulations and we can’t wait to hear more about your show.
Wily West Productions presents the world premiere apocalyptic comedy, BELIEVERS, by Patricia Milton, directed by Sara Staley. August 2-25, 2012. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8 p.m. at StageWerx, 466 Valencia Street, between 15th and 16th Streets, San Francisco. For more information: www.wilywestproductions.com