Forum Theatre’s next undertaking is the ambitious world premiere of Holly Down in Heaven. The tale of young Holly, a brilliant fifteen-year-old born again Christian, who becomes pregnant and confides in her dolls, may not sound like a hilarious and poignant comedy, so check your baggage at the door.
After receiving the 2008 Princess Grace Award for this script, playwright Kara Lee Corthron put four years of precise fine-tuning into this text. She and Forum’s artistic director, Michael Dove, sat down with me for a discussion about their process for this production.
Joe: Kara, where did you start with this piece?
Kara: The original idea came about five years ago. I was visiting with my niece, it was Christmas Eve, and she just received this really weird gift. It was a Carol Channing ventriloquist doll. I thought, “Wow, that’s the weirdest gift I’ve ever seen.”. And she said, “Well, I call it Tess.”She then was trying to make it work and she wanted to learn how to be a ventriloquist. I said, “You know that’s a real person? Carol Channing? This is a doll based on a real person. A living person. She’s had a whole career.” And after that, I kept thinking about how I could get Carol Channing to be in the middle of a play. At that time, I was really trying to break out of a particular way I had been writing.
I was interested in what would be visually appealing and unusual, so I was getting interested in the idea of seeing basically tons, a world of dolls on the stage. I wondered what that would look like. And then, I got the idea of doing puppetry, because I like puppetry. But to challenge myself as a writer can I marry several worlds, can I write something where there are other things going on that aren’t exactly specific to my genre? I was also writing another play that was really dark and heavy, so I wanted to write something that would make me laugh.
Joe: You worked on the piece for several years, you workshopped it for some time, so you had to have seen some big changes in the text. What were some of the most significant alterations you made as the workshop process went on?
Kara: That’s a really good question. You know what’s interesting is that, compared to other scripts, I don’t think anything changed wildly. I’ve had some scripts where I’ve practically started over from scratch after doing a workshop, because I realized it was going in the totally wrong direction. I didn’t really have that with Holly. What I think evolved from the very first draft, and still was evolving when we were in rehearsals, was the role and the power of the dolls. At first, they were more amusing, weird, and more secondary, except for Carol Channing; Dr. Know Nothing, she was always was a real character. I liked the idea of them being this demon chorus, almost. I wanted to see what power they would have if they had more evil intent. And that was something I found in workshops. Not only is it more active, it’s more amusing and interesting, a little bit scary, and dolls are kind of scary.
Joe: After all the workshops and re-workings of the script, why do you think it’s ready now for public consumption?
Kara: (laughs) Because Forum wanted to do it. (Big laughs, all around)
Joe: Sounds like a good time to ask, Michael, what was your first take on this script?
Michael: It’s actually a play I heard about, probably three years ago is when it was first mentioned it to me. Julia (Harman Cain, Forum’s managing director), she kept talking about it, but I think she thought I wouldn’t like it, or something, because I was picking things like Scorched and Mad Forest. She didn’t quite think it would fit into what I liked. But, she always mentioned the Iranian dolls line, which is her favorite. Then last year, at our season planning meeting, I put out a bunch of things like, “I wish we could find a play that was like this or like that.” and one of the things I mentioned was that I think the hardest thing for the type of plays that we want to do, that are about big ideas, maybe not controversial, but about big topics, is that it’s almost impossible to find comedies. Comedies that aren’t satirical. Julia suggested it and I ended up reading it and I immediately decided we were doing it.
Joe: Kara, this piece has been described as a, “…comedy [that] explores birth, faith, and life outside of heaven.”. That’s a very provocative notion to me, this idea of already very earthly things existing outside of heaven. How does this idea speak to you?
Kara: I don’t know. I think heaven means many things to many people. And in this play, while Holly has her very conventional idea of heaven, that she is supposedly working towards, down the line. Really her heaven is a safe haven that she created. It, sort of, turns on her and it isn’t quite the heaven that she thought it would be, which is eventually why she realizes she has to be expelled from it. It’s not quite heaven, it’s not eternal.
Joe: Holly banishes herself into this other place, this basement. She made a choice to be there. What are your thoughts here on self-banishment?
Kara: In her mind, she’s found a way to hide that fits quite neatly with the dogma that she’s recently adopted. It’s a kind of running away. She doesn’t want to deal with the pregnancy, she doesn’t want to deal with how it happened, she doesn’t want to deal with her Dad. The only thing she was willing to do, other than screw around with her dolls, is to continue to be educated. Other than that, she’s just happy to burrow herself in the ground and, “ I’ll become like… such and such, from the bible. I’ll be banished to the desert. I’ll just do it to my basement.”. It’s very much her own creation, her very skillful re-creation of these ideas of Christianity.
Joe: It seems a very insular story.
Kara: It is, in the fact that she’s a very demanding, often insufferable, character. So, in that way she sort of dictates the world around her, and in a sense is forcing the audience to be stuck there with her, “You’re not going anywhere either.” But, I think throughout, the world trickles in, and whether or not she takes it in, absorbs it, that’s up to her. Her tutors are bringing in Africa. Into her basement, and she can’t keep that out. The more she tries, the more it creeps in on her and generates a maturity in her.
Joe: Micheal spoke about big ideas, and now you mention taking the audience some where. How do you bring an audience with you on a journey of such intangible concepts?
Kara: That’s my job as a playwright. In any instance, I have to find a way, within the first five minutes, to bring an audience in or the play generally doesn’t work. That’s just something you have to do. You have to trust. You have to trust that they are going to go with you, or they’re not. If they’re not going to, it’s their loss and that’s unfortunate. Many people will not be willing to go on that ride. But that’s their decision, and they have to commit to that, as far as I’m concerned.
Michael: And from a surreal standpoint, I guess, is there’s two hundred and thirty talking dolls. Once you get passed that you’re good. The way you connect to it is it becomes obvious that the dolls stand for something and that they have real desires and needs for being there. It doesn’t feel like it’s a tacked on supernatural thing, for color. I kept asking Kara, poor Kara, “What are the rules of this world.” And she’d say, “There are no rules.” So, it’s surprising and this world constantly changes. And rules do break pretty often.
Joe: Do you have to, to a certain degree, just present the story, and if the audience comes with you, great! If they don’t, there’s really nothing you can do? Teen-pregnancy, born-again-Christian, for some people, it will be hard to empathize with a character that is a victim of her own chosen circumstances.
Michael: There are theatrical layers. I mean, how many born-again-Christian-teen-pregnancy comedies are there? There are talking dolls and other supernatural elements that allow you to see it from a different angle. That allow you to appreciate it through the theatricality, that you wouldn’t for an After-school special. Or, something, you know, like “Juno”.
Kara: I have to write an engaging story. We have to create a story for the stage. You have to make a conscious effort not to be engaged. You’d have to come in with an agenda or a decision about what Christianity is about. These are your sacred cows, and I feel like anytime anyone is doing that you’re setting yourself up for an unfortunate time. I don’t think we have much control over the audience.
Michael: Yeah, it’s just a really good script that contains those things. She’s pregnant and she’s fifteen, but we’re presenting it in a way that, maybe, you’ve never thought about before.
Joe: Is Holly’s world that she’s created entirely of her imagination, or does any of our real world influence her manufactured heaven?
Kara: There are elements of the real world, but they’re blown up and magnified, as she sees them. She’s isolated, so she doesn’t have a whole lot of understanding of the real world. She was a bit sheltered, so we’re not even sure what her knowledge of the real world is. The dolls are the dolls. Some of it’s from her head, some of it’s not. It just is.
Joe: Michael, you have a week-ish before you open. What needs to be done technically in this last week?
Michael: The dolls are a bitch. (Huge laughs)
Kara: I’m sorry!
Michael: In a super exciting way. How to make the dolls work and how to make the dolls work as puppets. The only legitimate puppet is the Dr. Know Nothing puppet. The rest are porcelain dolls, cabbage patch dolls. So, it’s a lot of figuring out, “How does this doll move? How do we make a Barbie doll move in a box?” Some dolls are voiced by actors on stage, some are pre-recorded. A lot of experimentation. Finding all those pieces and making sure they all speak together. That, for me, is the biggest technical challenge of the next week. We shall see.
Joe: Kara, where is the line drawn for a playwright to step back and let go of a new piece like this?
Kara: I think it depends on the playwright. For me, it depends on the piece. For this particular play, I’m not worried. I feel like, when I come down there, if there’s some things that need to be looked at, or if I can help by changing some things, I’ll do that. That’d be great. With this one, I’m not feeling that kind of stress. For other pieces, like the one I’m in rehearsals for now, here in New York, I just finished the final draft, so I think, I may…I’ll probably have changes up until the last minute. It’s a newer piece, but with Holly we’ll be fine.
Joe: So tech will be fun! So, why should John Q. Public come see this?
Kara: I think people won’t see anything else quite like it this season. People should at least come experience it.
Michael: Yeah, it’s a crazy ride. I’ve never done a play like this. Everyday feels like this huge, exciting challenge. It does marry all of these different things all at once and it’s never been boring. It’s such an unexpected and original style of storytelling and story, I think that’s it. It’s super fun.
Joe: What is one thing you are really excited for the audience to share in this piece?
Kara: The dolls in action. Especially, when they fight and it gets violent. I’m very excited to see that.
Michael: There is a little horror scene.
Kara: I’m very excited to be sitting with an audience when Carol Channing first talks. I just want to see them watch that. I think it’s going to be very fun.
Michael: I like that it’s really subversive. It takes a lot of turns. This Carol Channing doll is a psychotherapist, but talks to the other dolls in really derogatory ways. There are these wonderful moments that just smack you in unexpected ways. Like in one scene—spoiler–he runs up the stairs and yells, “NO, YOU’RE WRONG.”.
Kara: And he’s running!!!
Joe: Having no idea what you’re talking about, I’m still very excited.
Holly Down in Heaven, by Kara Lee Corthron, directed by Michael Dove, featuring Parker Drown, Maya Jackson, KenYatta Rogers, Vanessa Strickland, Dawn Thomas, with Luke Cieslewicz and KyoSin. Scenic Design by Steven T. Royal, Lighting Design by Brittany Diliberto, Costume Design by Denise Umland, Sound Design by Thomas Sowers+, Props Design by Debra Crerie, Stage Managed by Stephanie Junkin.