Dallas — Meg Miroshnik is probably a genius.
Her play The Droll (Or, A Stage Play About the End of Theatre), having its world premiere at Undermain Theatre this week, is about a period of 18 years when theater was illegal in 17th Century England, though Miroshnik purposely keeps the setting vague.
She also keeps the language vague, or “opaque” as she calls it. The language was inspired by the irregularities in spelling and grammar of that time. The characters use “Drollspeak,” Miroshnik’s invented language, but she assures the reader that “ the audience will experience five minutes of estrangement—and then they will also become fluent in the play’s language.”
An example (from Act I, Scene 3):
The Droll cuts out
the half-checked bits of JESTERY
from proper Stage-Plays
and just sutures them all together.
Put together a vulgar slice of this and that to make popular pie.
The invented language and words are easy to understand. Words like “gleeking,” which is something akin to fun or enjoyment, and “jump” (used for “just”), begin to seem perfectly normal as the play progresses. It doesn’t hinder the comprehension at all. What the language does is put the play perfectly within its own world, but the world of The Droll also seems terribly modern and relevant.
The play begins with a “welcome” of sorts from the beastly character Roundhead, which also works as the typical “turn off your phones” speech theatergoers are used to hearing. There is something sinister about Roundhead’s speech; it leaves the audience somewhat unsettled. This is the world of The Droll.
Miroshnik, whose The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls was seen at Undermain in 2014, dedicates The Droll to actors, and she speaks lovingly about them. She recognized the parallels between a time when theater was illegal and the current time when many actors can’t use the skills they’ve been given at all. It is the worry—a very real one to many actors—that theater might not have a future. This is why she doesn’t set the play as strictly period.
“These characters are highly trained actors that probably feel very unsatisfied doing the work they’re doing. Having had friends that are amazing, nuanced actors, and they have to work as like an amusement park character. It’s something that ‘scratches the itch’ like ten percent. Not using the full range of their talents.”
The Droll is part comedy with touches of bleak drama hidden inside. “The Droll” within the story is the theater the characters have assembled out of their desperate need to act. These plays are the funny pieces of many different plays stuck together. “If you don’t have a plot, it can be as long or as short as you need it to be. It is silly, scatalogical, escapist. It offers flexibility,” says Miroshnik.
Fairytale Lives (directed by Undermain Artistic Associate Dylan Key) inspired a partnership between the playwright and company. Miroshnik visited Dallas for the play and was impressed by the hospitality the folks at Undermain showed her, as well as their willingness to take on new work. Artistic Director Katherine Owens and Executive Producer Bruce DuBose mentioned at the time that they had read The Droll and loved it. Miroshnik was excited to partner again on this production. During her visit to Dallas she has been able to sit in on rehearsals with director Blake Hackler, who returns to direct after his hit earlier this year, The Flick. The cast of The Droll includes includes Rhonda Boutté, Jack Greenwood, Jenny Ledel, Justin Locklear, Alex Organ, Anthony Ramirez and Katy Tye.
Miroshnik sat down with TheaterJones to talk about how The Droll came together.
TheaterJones: What has the timeline been for this play? When did you start developing it and how has it come along since then?
Meg Miroshnik: The Droll has been workshopped quite a bit. It was originally a piece I worked on during grad school [Yale] as part of a sort of “48 hour bakeoff” for playwriting. We were given a set of “ingredients” and a weekend to basically write a first draft.
So how is it different now from its original product that began the bakeoff?
It was originally a take on The Tempest. I was inspired by an older reading I had seen of Caliban where he was this funny character. He’s not at all. He’s complicated and tragic. It kind of became this layered piece that eventually became Hamlet even though I was pretty much assigned Tempest.
Why do you call the play “A love letter to actors?”
I love actors as a species. I’m a terrible one. There’s this great poem that talks about how when an actor dies there’s all these parts that they could have played that die with them. The work they do every night dies with them. There’s a part in that poem that says how they are like “salamanders that live in the fire.” To me, actors are our most visible roots to theater. I grew up in Minneapolis, which is a great place to fall in love with theater and I did a lot of it. I absolutely cannot live on stage. To me, laughing on stage is the most difficult thing. I could never figure out how to lose myself in it. I have deep respect for the work actors do. I know a lot of actors who belong on the “island of misfit toys.” They can’t seem to find their place. It’s an ode to them.
You use a lot of lines that involve sound like, “windy shadows” or “rustling of shadows.” Talk about the sound cues and the sensory aspects of the play.
I was once told by a sound designer that I use 1,000 sound cues. I love sound in plays. It is so specific to theater, I think. I want you to feel the play through your ears. That’s an important way of experiencing it fully.
The following passage jumped out when I read it (from Act 1, Scene 7):
Existence is oft not gleeking, Nim.
It’s a cold thing, to look out at the undiscover’d country
from whose bourn no traveler returns—
To look out and then to look inward at the cesspool the World has sunk one’s soul into
and to know, scale-headedly, that these are the only two choices a Human Being is ever given...
It is not a gleeking business Hamlet is engaged in, Nim, that is true.
Can you talk about that?
This is about my struggle. This is kind of what I’m getting at with the whole idea of “The Droll” as theater. These are the “dark bargains” I talk about in the play. The stuff you don’t want to deal with, but it makes you more human to work it out. It’s the worst, most guilty feeling, but I know that everyone has it because comedies tend to sell so much better. So when you get that “pass” from having to work in your entertainment you sort of feel a relief. At the same time, the things I carry with me, and I will carry with me to the day I die, are the things I had to “work” for. The productions that are indelible, that I will never forget. Those things were not just, “sit back in your seat and be comforted.” There is a weird tension as an audience member where I know that I need more when I’m not being given it. You understand that Nim [the character] has had a hard life, and he wants something that takes him out of that. And James is saying here, “Well, that’s not the whole human experience.” This comes from a very personal place for me. The idea to be an adult, and be in the world, make bad decisions, and have disappointed people.
Why is Hamlet the play they have to put on as their last chance at theater?
It’s the idea of finding the “one” text that stands for all of time. It’s passing on one text that’s going to stand for all of theater. And the “Great Actor” is who makes the decision, and he’s wrong in the end. It’s not Hamlet that gets passed on. Hamlet is the play about the individual at the center. It’s a very 19th century play. It’s what this character wants to live on.
Have you enjoyed being here and watching the work coming together onstage?
This play has been workshopped a lot, and that’s been good for me. There have been lots of drafts, and it’s been shortened quite a bit. When I’m writing alone, just for myself, I don’t realize how smart audiences are. They will piece it together and compress it to be something essential. I am always a little apprehensive at first, but to watch a director who is also an amazing actor like Blake [Hackler], it’s amazing. This cast is perfect. I have loved watching them bring it together.