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David New interviews ensemble member Eric Simonson

by David New and Eric Simonson

DAVID NEW: What prompted you to write Carter’s Way? ERIC SIMONSON: Whenever I work out of town I like to find the old haunts of the town I am in and investigate that history. With Kansas City, that means jazz. I worked at Kansas City Repertory Theatre a couple of times and so I studied the history of that era and became aware of the rich heritage, the music, and the famous jazz musicians and innovators who populated the city at the time. DN: What was your entry point to that research? ES: I was reading lots of books about Charlie Parker and Lester Young. Also, having done plays with music before, I noticed a different kind of culture. Musicians act and behave differently than anybody else in the world. They are very quiet, keep to themselves, and are hard to pin down. I don't know how many times I've worked on a show where I’ve hired musicians for a six week run and one of the musicians has come up to me and said, ‘Hey, I got this possibility of a gig tomorrow night. Do you think I can get out of the show?’ It has fascinated me. And reading these histories of Charlie Parker and Lester Young reinforced the idea that these people lived in a parallel universe. Parker, Young and Count Basie built a world for themselves on their own terms. I find something fascinating and really admirable about that. I wanted to write a play that had music in it that would resonate beyond just a historic sample. DN: You've done a lot of work that contains strong musical elements in past. ES: Mother Courage and Her Children, which I directed at Steppenwolf in 2001, had original music that was composed by T. Bone Burnett and Darrell Leonard. That's how I met Darrell, who composed all the music for Carter's Way. I've directed a lot of opera, most recently a premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s The Grapes of Wrath with the Minnesota Opera. It was a stunning success, and it's going to be performed at the Pittsburgh Opera next November. DN: Will it then become part of the repertoire of the Minnesota Opera? ES: It will. They've already decided to do it again in a couple years. DN: That's great – congratulations! You were involved in the telling of that story in the production here at Steppenwolf in 1988, right? ES: Yes, I was in the cast. Third Okie from the right. (chuckles) DN: But you were on the Tony Awards. ES: I was! It was the last time I appeared on the stage. DN: How did that experience inform your direction of the opera? ES: Everything I know about directing I learned by watching Steppenwolf ensemble member Frank Galati put our production together. I also learned a great deal by watching the company pace through readings, an extended rehearsal period, the original Chicago run, the run at La Jolla Playhouse, and the performances in London and New York, all the while making changes and being patient with the process. I don't think I ever would have written anything had I not been in that show. I had never been involved in a process where the playwright was very meticulously putting everything together the way that Frank did. It gave me the idea that maybe I could adapt a play from a book, which I did. Three years after Grapes of Wrath I wrote my first play, which was Bang the Drum Slowly, an adaptation of the novel by Mark Harris. DN: The theme for this season revolves around the question “What does it mean to be an American?” We have chosen plays that may not have the answer to that question, but that certainly provide fallow ground for conversation. How do you think Carter's Way fits into that theme? ES: It deals with what may be the two most compelling issues in America, at least by my understanding: commerce and race. This democracy is integrally intertwined with capitalism. There is no way that you can separate the two. It's all around us; you cannot get away from people trying to sell you something, people trying to get in on the game and make it on their own. Oriole Carter’s struggle is to keep his talent alive without being distracted by the temptations of all the commerce that surrounds him. And Johnny Cozollo, his rival in the play, is just the opposite. He can recognize talent, but his primary focus is on getting the sale. And then there is the other issue of race, which absolutely complicates the story of the play but it also absolutely complicates this country, mostly because I think we are not ready to deal with it directly. Nobody knows how to deal with it. DN: In the first play of our season, The Crucible, Arthur Miller uses the lens of 1692 to look at 1953. Carter’s Way is set in 1935, and one of the things that makes your play so viable, but also distressing, is that we are still living with these issues today. ES: Absolutely. Even if you take race out of the story, there is still the struggle between those who are trying to make a buck off the artists and the artists themselves. DN: Which is also vividly tied up in new technology. ES: I hadn't thought about that, but yes. You're talking about intellectual and artistic property rights. We've seen it most recently with the writers’ strike. A sense of justice is something that is in our genes. It’s primal. We have that, monkeys have that – chimpanzees have that. They know that when the monkey over there has two bananas and they have none that that’s not fair. But we know that too. DN: What accompanies that feeling is entitlement, right? That we are entitled to justice, that we are entitled to equality. ES: Right. And it's a paradox because we believe in equality and at the same time we believe in independence. We believe in both the individual and the collective. Every man for himself; may the best man win, but also E Pluribus Unim: Out of many, one. DN: Oriole Carter is an artist who, at the beginning of the story, we see as a collaborator, a jazz musician working with other jazz musicians. The Oriole who emerges at the end is an artist who has found a singular expression that the rest of the group finds difficult to accept because it's new, unique and personal to him. ES: Again, it’s playing on that theme of the individual versus the collective. In order for Oriole to succeed he has to have a band that is tight, that plays well together. At the same time, it’s his band and it’s all about his expression. DN: That brings us to the title of the play. ES: Well, it is a double-entendre. It’s his way or the highway, as they say. His style, his direction, his music, his rules; his way. DN: So, it’s Carter’s Way. ES: And then there’s the path this man takes, the arc of his life. So it’s also Carter’s Way. DN: You mentioned that you found inspiration for this play in the Greek myth about Orpheus and his wife, Eurydice. ES: There were certain topics that I wanted Carter’s Way to address, but, ultimately, I wanted it to be a love story. The myth is a heart-breaking love story, and there are a lot of elements from it that are in the play. In the myth, Orpheus is not supposed to look back as he is escorting Eurydice out of hell, but he does. What’s tragic about Oriole is that he carries a lot of baggage with him. He carries a lot of hurt and pain that he accumulated when he was younger and it’s just hard for him to let that go. The myth has a literal lesson that doesn’t make much sense but it also has a metaphorical message that makes a lot of sense. It speaks to the importance of living life one day at a time, not looking back, remembering your mistakes but not living with them. In the play it happens very literally and also metaphorically.