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TBA Online: News & Features: August 2014

Playwright in the House: Andrew Saito

Wednesday, August 27, 2014   (0 Comments)
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By Andrew Saito


My revision process previously saw several years transpire between drafts. It has now accelerated to roadrunner speeds as I prepare my play Mount Misery for its May 2015 world premiere at The Cutting Ball Theater, where I am blessed to work as resident playwright. It's Friday as I write this. This past Monday, we held a table read of my latest draft of Mount Misery, which had been finished that morning. In the intervening days, I have discussed the play with Cutting Ball's artistic director, Rob Melrose; managing director, Suzanne Appel and literary manager, Rem Myerson; the current draft now boasts crossouts, brackets, wide-arcing arrows, and many notes. I clearly see the next steps. Instead of spending my Friday night out and about, I opt for a threesome…with Donald Rumsfeld and Frederick Douglass.

Say what?!

 Playwright Andrew Saito.

Mount Misery
occurs on an eponymous Maryland property. The New York Times and The Economist reported its 2004 purchase by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his wife Joyce as a weekend getaway from Washington, D.C. In 1834, Mount Misery was rented by poor farmer Edward Covey, known regionally as a "negro breaker." Slave owners rented to Covey particularly rebellious slaves who desired to flee North to freedom. Covey received free field hands in exchange for physically whipping them to break their disobedience. One of these slaves was sixteen-year-old Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, who, after fleeing to freedom, became Frederick Douglass.

This play occurred to me while reading The Economist on a stationary bike at The University of Iowa, in 2009. The article, about oyster farming in the Chesapeake Bay, mentioned the Rumsfeld-Douglass connection. My dramatist bellows ignited. But, being in the midst of graduate school, working on several plays, I soon stuck Mount Misery in my mental filing cabinet. There it remained for years, until I shared the idea with Rob Melrose. Rob shared his enthusiasm for the concept, and has now directed three readings, and will direct the full production next spring!

This rapid progress is new to me. I love it. I previously juggled writing with a day job or graduate school (which, despite fantasies of lying all day on a grassy field, is crammed with classes, teaching, rehearsals and fearing a future with a terminal degree in Pretend). But as Cutting Ball’s resident playwright, a gig made possible by the vision and generosity of the Andrew F. Mellon Foundation, I can devote myself fully to writing, and am diving deeper into Mount Misery than I have with any prior play. I now own eight books by or about Rumsfeld. I have visited the Pentagon and Douglass’s birthplace. I have seen both characters played by three different actors, which helps me imagine casting, and hear my dialogue in different voices. The script is water on the page, further distilling as it sheds lines once deemed critical. Its essence emerges more and more powerfully with each subsequent draft.

Rob and I have conversed for over a year about Mount Misery so far. He committed to producing it before nary a word was put to paper, and I've developed the script with this particular director in mind, engaging with his feedback continuously. Some of his comments have been crucial, including: "Extend the suspense and mystery at the opening of the play as long as possible"; "Rumsfeld sounds too much like a doofus; have the humor emerge from his intelligence"; "Bring out more of your political commentary—it's some of the best stuff." "This script feels too much like a movie—can you condense the action to fewer locations?" and, "Write a play that only Andrew Saito can write."

During this extended process, Mount Misery has transformed in myriad and unexpected ways. I cut Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice. Two scenes with Covey's wife are gone. An early vision of the play emulated Groundhog Day's structure. In the first draft, Rumsfeld, Douglass and Covey play Scrabble. That draft is exiled to my external hard drive.

Lucky new plays in the United States hop from reading to reading at various festivals and theaters. Competition is intense to participate at the Eugene O'Neill Center's National Playwrights Conference or the Sundance Theater Lab, for example, but even selection for one of these few coveted spots does not guarantee a professional production, or further life for the play. Neither, often, do commissions. These programs are still enormously valuable, and I continue to apply for them. As, I hope, do you.

But I am blessed to not write into the great unknown. I write for the stage at 277 Taylor Street, for a collaborator I know, love, and trust. Without his vote of confidence, and without the time and space built into my residency, Mount Misery would still be blank pages gathering dust in a drawer.

Andrew Saito is one of 16 playwrights around the United States awarded a three-year playwright residency funded by the Andrew F. Mellon Foundation at an established theatre company. The other Mellon residency playwright is Peter Nachtrieb, in residence at Z Space