It’s strange to say, about the components of a project called The Great Divorce, that they are a team that is returning. But they are — they’re back, they being C.S. Lewis, Fellowship for Performing Arts, and Max McLean.
They’ve been here before. Well, Lewis, of course, has been with them only in spirit, as inspiration. The widely-read and wildly influential man of letters, perhaps best-known for his Chronicles of Narnia, died more than half a century ago, on that same grim November day when the attention of a shocked world was focused on Dallas. (Death comes in threes, they say — Aldous Huxley died the same day.)
They’ve been here before with The Screwtape Letters, and that came to us in threes as well. The first time was in the spring of 2008. The show returned over the winter of 2009-2010. The last time DC audiences saw it was the winter of 2012-2013.
The Screwtape Letters has already had a long life, and it will have a future life, I was told by Max McLean. He is Artistic Director of Fellowship for Performing Arts (hereafter FPA) and was the co-adapter and leading man of The Screwtape Letters. “It’s on a short hiatus, but will be back on tour. It’s still in play. It may come back to DC again.”
When I asked McLean what provoked the hiatus and the impulse to develop a second theatre piece from the work of Lewis, he said, “I’m a huge fan. I read him daily.” Lewis’s oeuvre, he noted, is so complex, has so much to give, that you can’t ever get to the bottom of it. However, “theatre allows a view of Lewis’s world view that is very clarifying, that takes away some of the density.”
“In terms of switching to The Great Divorce,” McLean continued during our phone interview, “in many ways, it’s the opposite side of the same coin. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis draws a picture of spiritual warfare and temptation from the demons’ point-of-view, how they view humans, in the extraordinary view of Lewis. The Great Divorce is the same story from the opposite point-of-view, from the heavenly point-of-view.
“Lewis is a medievalist. He really believed that behind the material curtain, there is extraordinary spiritual activity going on that humans don’t see.” But humans experience it, on some level, and Lewis is attempting to “pull the veil off of that curtain” and make us aware of that spiritual activity on a personal level: “that is the world view that he lives in and writes about extensively, almost exclusively.”
McLean told me that they’ve been doing The Great Divorce for about a year. “The Screwtape Letters originated in New York and then went on tour. We’re taking the opposite approach with The Great Divorce.” It’s been developed in New York but not seen yet in New York. It’s now on a 25 city tour, aiming to land in New York sometime during the 2015-16 season, presuming they can find a suitable space.
“We’ve enjoyed a really good relationship with the Shakespeare Theatre Company,” at whose Lansburgh Theatre The Great Divorce will play, as did The Screwtape Letters. STC does a lot of marketing for them and provides box office support, and FPA uses a lot of STC’s backstage talent, but “We take the risk. We’re the producer.”
During the most recent DC run of The Screwtape Letters, FPA trained an actor to replace McLean in the lead role, and that actor finished the run. McLean is now focusing on producing and writing. (His co-adapter of The Great Divorce is Brian Watkins.) The Great Divorce features three actors playing nineteen characters. “It’s a Nicholas Nickelby approach, a Thirty-Nine Steps approach,” he continued, referencing two popular adaptations of literary works for the stage in which relatively few actors perform in an epic-scale, multi-character story.
“It’s a highly choreographed piece. One interesting thing is that we have had to replace one member of our cast. We’re bringing in a new actor in DC. He’s fabulous.” The new actor is Michael Frederic, who joins Joel Rainwater and Christa Scott-Reed in the cast. Scott-Reed, it turns out, is a local — born at GW Hospital. Though she left the area when she was very young, she returned to do the Philip Barry chestnut Holiday at Olney Theatre Center in 2001.
I asked if McLean and Co. were still massaging the script, or if that work was pretty much over. He indicated that, once they integrate the new actor, and “once we run in DC, we’ll have a good idea where we are heading. The script is ready. We have a fabulous design team, a really strong design team.” He named Scenic Designer Kelly James Tighe, Costume Designer Nicole Wee, Lighting Designer Michael Gilliam, and Sound Designer John Gromada, who also provided the original music.
“A unique scenic element is the heavy reliance on projection design. The ‘gray town’ is a metaphor for hell, for being outside heaven. A distinction is clearly made between the feeling of being in a dreary place and the lush, beautiful environment that represents paradise.” Projections are by Chris Kateff; the production is directed by Bill Castellino. The performance runs about 90 minutes with no intermission.
I noted that the company has ended up in Washington often during the holiday season. “Its not necessarily a coincidence. We’re aware of the holidays as a high ticket-buying season and we want to be in a big theatre market. The Lansburgh is available. We book in advance.” But also, Washington is “one of our favorite cities to come to. C.S. Lewis — he’s the draw. He has so many fans in the DC area. If we do a credible representation of his work, we’re going to get an audience.
“I think DC must have an exceptional number of theatre-goers,” McLean continued, adding that DC feels to him the way New York used to before all of the “spectacle, before the massive, expensive musicals. We used to talk more about ideas in New York theatre. It was more middle class. Now, it’s more tourist-oriented. I think that there is a real desire to think, to explore in DC. That’s affirmed by the fact that there are so many theaters doing really good work here. My experience is that New York, Chicago, and DC are the three most interesting theatre towns. But especially for smaller, think pieces, you have a smorgasbord of options in DC and in Chicago.”
Chicago, McLean told me, is on their dance card for March. I asked, given that they’ve spent so much time on the road, what their other favorite cities were. “We do very well in LA, San Diego, Southern California in terms of attracting an audience. (As a producer, that’s very important to me.) The Bay area has been good for us. Dallas, Houston, Atlanta — those places, and Phoenix, Kansas City, Charlotte.”
THE GREAT DIVORCE
December 20 – January 4, 2015
Fellowship for Performing Arts at
450 7th Street NW
Tickets: $29 – $59
Details and Tickets
I asked if all the touring was wearing on McLean’s quality of life. “It’s mixed. Thankfully, a lot of our events will be for a weekend in a large theatre, a series of one-outs. That’s much more palatable than being away for six months at a time. That would be untenable. But it’s a mix. One good part is that I have my mornings free to think and to write, which I enjoy. You can find a positive benefit to being in a hotel room. But it can be a drain, too, no doubt about it.” But if they do three or four shows in a venue that seats 1,000-1,500, that can yield as much traffic as a longer run in a smaller space. “It’s almost like a music tour.”
Final thoughts concerning what about The Great Divorce would interest audiences who have seen The Screwtape Letters, as well as those who never have? “I’m very much aware that audiences self-select. They see what they are interested in, or what their friends and colleagues recommend. What we offer [both categories] is another Lewis experience that is a unique experience unto itself. We aim to, and succeed in, entertaining — it’s a funny show. For a lot of people, it will open up areas of provocation and reflection. That’s the reason that a lot of people go. And the actors are extraordinarily talented.”
McLean talked about the satisfaction of translating to the stage material that might seem to some “impossible” to dramatize. “When you read the books, you might think, ‘How could you put that on stage?’ That’s something we are really proud of.”