Next week, from Monday, January 14 to Wednesday, January 16, Arena Stage's The Kogod Cradle Series will feature three workshop performances/open rehearsals of The Age of Innocence, a new adaptation of Edith Whartons' classic novel by resident playwright Karen Zacarías. In this workshop/open rehearsal format, our audience participation is to development of Karen's new play still in process. What's more, there will be post-workshop discussions with Karen and New Play Institute Dramaturg Jocelyn Clarke. All tickets are $10 and can be purchased here. You'll want to hurry, because tickets are selling out fast!
About the Play
Newland Archer couldn't be more pleased with his recent engagement to the beautiful debutante May Welland. However, his world is thrown upside down by the sensational arrival of May's cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska. A cast of favorite DC actors, including Michael Russotto and Tonya Beckman Ross, help bring Zacarías’ new adaptation of Edith Wharton’s American masterpiece to the stage, exploring love, loss and longing through the lens of New York’s social elite.
I'm enamored with the novel and can hardly wait to see Karen's beautiful work. I'll be attending the performance on Wednesday with friends. I became even more excited after speaking with Karen about her new play development process and her own passion for the Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Here's our conversation:
Jacqueline Lawton: What is it about writing plays that draws you…as opposed to writing poetry, songs, or fiction?
KAREN ZACARIAS: I love all forms of writing ... including songs, poetry and fiction ... but playmaking is my passion. I love the interaction of characters both on the page and on the stage. I am fascinated by the interpretation, subtext, and "fullness" of dialogue.
JL: What inspired you to adapt Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence?
KZ: I've loved the book for years, so much that I used an except of it in my comedy THE BOOK CLUB PLAY. At one point, while we were rehearsing the scene and I was talking about the essence of the book, Molly Smith turned to me and said, "I've never seen a theatrical treatment of The Age of Innocence. You are the person who should adapt that book for the stage." It was the right encouragement at the right time.
JL: What has been the most challenging part of the adaptation process? Which character’s voice or situation was the most difficult to capture?
KZ: To me, the true beauty of The Age of Innocence goes beyond the plot and lies in the lush and eviscerating description of human nature and love ensnared by habit and societal rules. The compelling "plot" of the book is of deep yearning and inaction; but the real "story" is of a man waking up to the decisions he is constantly making by choosing to be part of a community. The theatricality of the book lives in the dynamic details and wry wit of Edith Wharton's observations. The only way I could find to really honor Wharton's work, was to make sure her voice stayed front and center; that meant I decided to choose to break certain standard playwriting "rules". Capturing Edith Wharton's voice and building the atmosphere of the time has been the greatest challenge and reward by far... and a personal act of questioning certain playwriting "standards."
JL: Written in 1920 and set in upper-class New York City in the 1870s, Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel. What makes this bold, passionate and beautiful novel relevant for audiences today?
KZ: THE AGE OF INNOCENCE is about a society in transition, re-defining social mores and attitudes about marriage, while reeling from a NYC banking scandal...which could be a description of the 1870's or... of 2013. Although so many of the particular rules and constraints of the novel don't exist for us today, we have built a whole series of new ones for our generation (write a Facebook message in capital letters at your own peril) In fact, sometimes it feels like we have done a 360- going from the tragedy of an "inarticulate lifetime" in the 1870's to the phenomenon of what I call " constant commentary"- and I wonder if either scenario allows for self-reflection or examination of who we are and why we do what we do. Meeting Countess Ellen Olenska forces Newland Archer to question things he always assumed were answered; reading Edith Wharton does the same for me-it makes me question my everyday choices and forces me to examine why I live the way I do-which is vital...and uncomfortable and very easy to avoid.
Last week, there was a great article in the Washington Post by Philip Kennicot about the web's fascination and acceptance of ugly images in our time. In it he states "Something is happening, some kind of cleft in the moral life that is being widened, channeled out by the torrent of small images that invite us to enjoy suffering or think ill of others. If all of this is widening the canyon between our better and worse selves, on which side of the chasm will we end up standing?" It is a question that Edith asks herself and we now, over a hundred years later ask ourselves: Is our Age of Innocence over?
JL: Why was it important for the production of Age of Innocence to be a part of Arena Stage’s Cradle Series? How has this experience benefited the growth and development of the piece?
KZ: Arena Stage, my dramaturg Jocelyn Clark, and I are approaching this new adaptation in a very dynamic way- the hope is not just to create dialogue around the story of THE AGE OF INNOCENCE but also create a conversation around play development. Instead of spending the time at the table with my script- we are choosing to physically "build the play" from the first day with eleven actors, sound, music, movement, eleven chairs and two tables. The three presentations at the Kogod (Jan 14,15,16) will be in essence open rehearsals of a run-thru of the whole play- a play under construction. It will be a 3 dimensional presentation of the theatricality embedded in the script...instead of the standard of actors reading words. I think revisiting the idea of "reading and play development" is at the core of the Arena Stage residencies- and what theatrical experimentation, and growth are all about. A playwright creates a script but a PLAY lives in the actors and grows with an audience. All need to be a dynamic part of the process. I'm very excited and a little bit scared of opening up the process and product simultaneously with an audience. It will be an adventure for all involved.
About the Cradle Series
The Kogod Cradle Series supports the exploration and development of new and emerging work in the Kogod Cradle with visiting companies, artists and ensembles. Focusing on the development of new plays and devised work by artists from throughout Greater Washington and around the country, this series of readings and workshops invites artists and audiences to explore the development process and allows artists and audiences to participate who otherwise might not be able to easily access Arena Stage. This series also supports the development of local artists and seeks to further develop our local talent pool of playwrights, actors and directors here in Greater Washington.
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!