Six lives get desperately entangled in the fragile but dangerous ecosystem of the Great Dismal Swamp, where the underground railroad, George Washington’s financial failures, and the complexity theory behind the blinking of fireflies all mysteriously converge. Can an entomologist, his undergraduate assistant, his wife, her “alternative healer,” a mathematician, and the dean of a Christian college figure out what connects them… before it’s too late?
Commission: the Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Readings: Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival (DC, 2013); Pinky Swear Productions (DC, 2011); Ensemble Studio Theatre (NY, 2007). Workshops: currently in development with The Inkwell (DC, 2013-14).
I’m pleased to be able to share a link to the Pinterest board on which my design dramaturgy partner and I have been assembling images in support of the still-developing script. (The image above was taken on a personal trip to the swamp.)
About the Play
The following passage is paraphrased from the proposal I submitted to the Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the commission of this play:
The project on which I have just begun work is a play that will give dramatic form to complexity theory. THE GREAT DISMAL is set at a fictional Christian college located beside the real-life swamp of the play’s title. It features six characters whose lives gradually become more and more entwined as the story unfolds, their connections emerging and solidifying, like a network arising out of the chaos of their disordered lives: Adam, an entomologist looking at population growth patterns in swamp mosquitoes; his wife, Sheila, a painter obsessed with fractals; Harry, his colleague, a mathematician and a direct descendant of the slaves who used to hide in the swamp; Hedge, his boss, the Dean of the college, who resents the evolutionary implications of Adam’s work—and who is sleeping with his wife; Mina, his graduate assistant, who supports her studies by working as a dominatrix; and Belle, an “alternative healer” who needs as much help as she gives.
My inspiration for the play—as well an image I use in it—is the spontaneous emergence of order in the blinking of fireflies. My hope is that the complex lives of these characters, by the end of the play, will cohere into one rhythmic blinking (metaphoric) light that will illuminate the stage. I also intend to use the form of the play itself, as much as possible, to manifest a sense of complexity; my plan is to stage multiple scenes simultaneously, with dialogue occurring between various pairs of characters at once, their lines occasionally overlapping or even repeating.
To make this vision manifest, I began by visiting the swamp for several days, taking long hikes along the ditch trails, observing the wildlife, photographing it, soaking it in. I visited local historical centers, too, and spent a good deal of time in the nearest towns, writing and reading as much swamp history as I could. In time, I established one close connection—a friendship that served to provide me with an essential inside perspective on my subject. My friend both grew up mere miles from the swamp and attended the nearby Christian university. Her insight about various drafts of the play have been invaluable.
The draft I developed to complete the commission was, I think, solid… but it just didn’t work. I think I was just too far inside my head. So I made what I think is a rather radical decision earlier this year: I deleted that draft. Every copy of it. (Well, there’s one on an old hard drive somewhere, but I really don’t know how I’d find it. Really.) And set out to start over, entirely from scratch. It was exhilarating. I highly recommend it.
The new version of THE GREAT DISMAL is currently in development with the support of The Inkwell. They’re exactly the right partner: they understand the aesthetic of the piece, and they’ve been super-generous with the resources necessary for me to re-devise it. They’ve assembled a fantastic dramaturg, a team of music and movement designers, a pair of thoughtful directors, and a slew of actors, and they’ve given me time to explore. A taste of what we’ve all been doing: The Great Dismal Swamp—Tree Exploration.
The new script is still quite raw… but it’s much closer, I believe, to where it needs to be. And I continue to wade in the swamp to discover what’s hidden there. So far, I’m finding a lot.