By Clementine in the Lower 9 dramaturg and Forum's Senior Dramaturg, Hannah Hessel (@hanvnah)
Clementine in the Lower 9 playwright Dan Dietz has been in residence with Forum Theatre for almost two weeks. The opportunity to have the playwright in the rehearsal room, making changes, being a part of the collaborative process is crucial to the creation of a new work. Despite its previous production Clementine is continuing to grow. Forum Theatre has been pleased to be a part of the development of this powerful new play.
Dan was kind enough to sit down with me and talk about the play, its influences, and the process:
Hannah: Where was Clementine in the Lower 9 born?
About a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina
, I was living in Austin, and working as a Guest Artist at Florida State University. This meant a lot of driving back and forth between Austin and Tallahassee. New Orleans was my mid point, and as I drove through the city, I got to see close up the devastation that still remained--and the herculean efforts of rebuilding. I was struck at the bravery and faith of it all. How do you rebuild in the wake of a tragedy so huge, it obliterates entire neighborhoods? I think that question formed the seed of Clementine in the Lower 9
H: In choosing to set your story in the Lower Ninth ward, did you have any fears of cultural appropriation? Given your own background, how were you able to enter and explain that world?
D: I absolutely worried about it. So much so that I contacted a good friend of mine, the Literary Manager of a major American regional theatre, and explained my concept for the play--basically asking her, "Should I walk away now? Do I even have the right to tell this story?" And her response was pretty wonderful, because it was both encouragement and challenge: she advised me to embrace the challenge of writing the play...and do whatever it took to do so honestly and with as much authenticity as anyone who's not from New Orleans could. So I did tons of research: through documentaries, interviews, anecdotal accounts, official accounts, photographs...and of course driving those city streets. Then I channeled all the southern rhythms I'd gotten in my bones from growing up in Georgia, let them flow through all those discovered voices and knowledge, and a play began to take shape. It's a unique place with a powerful voice, and I've done my best to do it justice.
H: With the base of a Greek tragedy behind it, the figure of Apollo still looming within in, it feels like you are creating a modern mythology. Do you think we have a similar need for communal catharsis as the Greeks? Do we have another need from our storytelling?
D: What we think of as theatre was in part born in Greek amphitheatres. And I think there's something about that dramatic philosophy that resonates today. Their idea was that a society should go to the theatre to see themselves reflected onstage, their societal struggles played out by heroes and witnessed by a Chorus. And that somehow the act of watching this as a group would give us all the chance to face powerful truths about ourselves--and perhaps find some kind of release, or a path to something better. That's what theatre still does, for me at least. There are problems so big, it takes a larger-than-life world to contain them.
H: Do you think we carry with us our own mythologies? If so, what's yours?
D: I think we tell ourselves the story of ourselves continually. And my own personal mythology has transformed over time. First, I was the Outsider: a midwestern boy growing up as a transplant in the South. Then there was a Homecoming: when I found and was embraced by the electric and experimental theatre community in Austin, Texas. Now I'm an Ex-Pat of sorts: a playwright who's gone off to LA to write for television. And like all mythologies, these bring certain parts of my life into sharp focus while obscuring others. That's the nature of storytelling, I guess.
H: The play is interwoven with music, is this your first experience of weaving music into your storytelling? What was the process to create this soundscape?
I've actually been experimenting with weaving music into plays for quite some time. My play Tilt Angel
also used blues music to evoke the world of the play, working class Tennessee. And my play American Misfit
(which just had its premiere at Boston Court in Los Angeles
) uses rockabilly music to drive the action and explore our rebellious (and destructive) American spirit. In all of these plays, there is a central musical character who serves as a sort of guide through the story. For Clementine
, I got to work with the amazing composer Justin Ellington (who is also in residence for the Forum production). Justin has a deep understand of the blues, and of New Orleans jazz and blues specifically. And he brought all of that wonderful knowledge into the pay, working with me to weave it into and through the action.
H: What were you able to learn from the first production of Clementine that you are looking forward to exploring here with us?
This is the second production, after a wonderful and gratifying premiere at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, CA
. That show taught me so much about the play and how it lives onstage. So of course, my hope has been to take what I've learned and use it to make the script even stronger. Forum has been incredibly generous, bringing me out here and embracing any changes I wanted to make to the play. While the vast majority of the script has remained intact, there have been a number of key changes. For instance, I've decided to trim down the play and cut the intermission--so now the story takes hold of you and doesn't let go until it's done. Structurally this feels so much stronger to me. I've also explored new ways that music can interact with the story (after becoming hungry for them while watching the TheatreWorks show). And the play's ending has been richly and deeply explored as well. It's such a gift when a theatre company like Forum opens their doors and their process like this, and I couldn't be more excited or grateful.