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Cap T interviews Gidion’s Knot playwright Johnna Adams

4 February 2014

Cap T Artistic Director Mark Pickell had the distinct pleasure of asking Johnna Adams a few questions about her work. They talked about Cap T’s current production Gidion’s Knot as well as what is in the future for this up and coming playwright.

Can you share with us a little about the origin of GIDION’S KNOT?  
GK has a few different origin stories. The idea came to me shortly after school shootings first became a media and cultural phenomenon. Originally it was going to be a play for three men, because my father has always been a champion of my work in a really touching way. And that was the germ of what I was trying to make the audience live and feel with the play. That version, which featured the teacher, principal and father went into the exposition extensively– there were lots and lots and scenes with the teacher and principal before the parent teacher conference even happened. And for some reason it didn’t work and I put that draft down before I got to the parent teacher conference scene– which was what I really always wanted to write. Fast forward six or so years and I was in my first year of grad school, studying with Tina Howe at Hunter College. And she really didn’t like the play I wrote first semester in her writing class– it was a large-cast rhyming farce in iambic hexameter set during the Napoleonic Wars in London. She called it my “fruitcake” play– full is sweet sugary pieces, but ultimately a play no one would want (like no one wants fruitcake!).  So going into my second semester I needed an idea that Tina would like. I admired her so much, I didn’t want to waste the rest of the time I had working with her and had her attention on another play that wasn’t really worthy of her attention. So, my three amazing classmates at Hunter (Chris Weikel, Holly Hepp-Galvan and Callie Kimball) went on a retreat over the holiday break and played a game where we all went into to separate rooms and came up with a list of 10 play ideas in 45 minutes. Then we got back together around a fire in the borrowed house we were staying in on an extremely cold, snowy night, and shared the ideas going one by one in a circle. When I saw their reaction to my revised Gidion’s idea– which was now a two woman show to reflect the fact that this play was really a dialogue between me and Tina Howe, and was now a real-time parent teacher conference with none of the exposition I had got bogged down in the last time I tried to write it– I knew I had a winner. Chris got the idea for his superhero play, Secret Identity, which was featured in the Lark Playwright’s Development Labs Playwrights’ Week– which is a pretty prestigious thing, too. And for any aspiring writers out there, getting a group of friends together and playing the Hunter College Idea Game is a great exercise.
What are some of the changes that came to the script during the development process?
This script was written very quickly over a few months at the start of my second semester at Hunter. Like all plays that are written fast enough that the original impulses get recorded quickly, it came out very cleanly and hasn’t been revised much more than a few trimmings here and there. I did have to take two tries at Gidion’s story. That wasn’t easy to write. And it has been very hard to resist going in and shaping and editing it. I wanted it to feel like he was writing very freely with no restraint on his impulses– in a way I am not really capable of anymore. So I wrote the story once– freed myself of all regard to what people would think– and just wrote with no sense of boundaries. Going back in to shape or soften it would have destroyed all that. So I have not touched the story except to cut a section once, realize that was a mistake based on a failure of courage, and then put it back.
What playwrights do you feel have been most influential to your playwriting style? Why?
Sam Shepherd was a huge early influence. I love his play A Lie of the Mind. One of the most beautiful American plays of the 20th Century.  All the early career playwriting friends that I have that no one has ever heard of have been huge inspirations: August Schulenburg, Mac Rogers, Eric Eberwein, Jeremy Gable, Kristin Palmer, my classmates at Hunter, etc.
What were some of the challenges writing for only two actors in what is a very intense exchange?
The challenges writing in real-time with no scene breaks center often on making believable transitions work between the character’s topics of conversation. And to make those transitions seem natural. In real life people move from subject to subject pretty rapidly and sometimes without a logical trail of thought to follow– but actors find that very challenging. The script depends heavily on the actors to find a way to change the subject from A to C without a lot of support in the writing in some places. And to some point I meant to give the actors a bit of a struggle in that way. Organic conversations don’t follow neat laws and so I didn’t want this conversation to be entirely logical. Especially toward the end, when things get intense, the lines and transitions start to make emotional, but not logical sense at times. There is a breaking down point in the conversation and that is tough for the actors. And I had the very basic challenge of trying to find a reason that these characters don’t just walk away and leave the room. That was one of the most difficult things.
What has surprised you the most about GIDION’S KNOT in actual production?
I am most surprised that it is even getting all these productions (14 and counting this season). This month alone there are 6 productions in performance or rehearsal. It was a huge shock. My agents told me there might be one or two really edgy theatres that they could possibly market it to, but not to get my hopes up. Then it appeared last year in American Theatre Magazine and there was this massive amount of interest. I keep going to productions and wanting to ask “Are you sure you want to do this??” Also, I have seen it in several cities and it is amazing how differently the audience’s react and how tied to the geography that feels. The play was actively hated in Sarasota and St. Louis, but Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington DC loved it.
What do you think gives your play such broad appeal?
I think there is a shortage of good roles for actresses “of a certain age” in our theatre today and that is part of the appeal. Almost everyone who has produced has gone into it with actresses in mind for the roles. Actresses they don’t feel they get to see enough of on their local stages. And everyone seems to relate to the mother’s love for her child and to the teacher’s dedication to her role as a teacher. And I think there is a cleanness to watching them come into conflict this extreme in the context of a fairly typical event– the traditional parent teacher conference.
But, I am just guessing. I am actually pretty mystified.
You grew up in Central Texas.  Can you tell us a little about your childhood here?
We lived in Midland until I was twelve and then moved to Austin where I went to middle school and high school in the Round Rock school district, up near Jollyville. I barely recognize the city when I come home (and I still think of this as home). Austin has changed in wonderful ways. And the traffic is crazy.
I feel like growing up in the liberal, weird and welcoming Austin culture in my formative years gave me a sense of freedom and safety that other writers I have met didn’t get in their childhoods. This is a very accepting and artistic place.
Tell us about how you came to know the director Lily Wolff?
Lily directed a reading of my play Rattlers at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, at an old opera house. It was a great reading with Joey Collins and Johanna Day– some Broadway superstars. Gidion’s Knot was getting its world premiere there, but the director really liked my play Rattlers for some reason and gave it to Lily, whom he also liked a lot, to do the reading. I was delighted when she got back in touch with an interest in doing Gidion’s Knot for the fringe here. It is a great excuse to come see my parents how have never seen my work produced in Texas (although Stages in Houston and Kitchen Dog in Dallas, will be producing Gidion’s later this year, so I am getting produced all over now! I just need to make a connection in El Paso to really lock the state up.) I hope the 50,000 friends my parents have invited to the show aren’t easily offended.
Whats up next for you?
I am working with the Flea Theater in Manhattan on an ambitious project to dramatize the bible in 50 ten minute plays. I wrote a ten minute on Adam and Eve in the garden. After their creation and before the Fall. What happened then you ask? (Since when I went to read the part of the bible I was supposed to dramatize, I realized there really isn’t even a paragraph about that time!)  Come to the Flea and see. I am also working at New Dramatists when I get back on a 15-minute musical with a composer and librettist they have assigned me for a festival there. And I am writing two new full lengths. One of which I think will be ready to send out places later this winter or early spring.