The second collaboration between Broadway playwright Lanie Robertson (Lady Day at the Emerson’s Bar & Grill, Broadway & HBO) and Director Natalie Villamonte Zito, The Trial of Mrs. Surratt is a historical exploration of the lives of those infamously dubbed as the Lincoln conspirators. From dinner table conversations to federal trials and journal entries, this piece explores 1865 post-Civil War America in a way most have never imagined. Striking period costumes juxtaposed with re-imagined modern Civil War battle hymns is just one way The Wandering Theatre Company uses the manipulation of time and space in this surrealistic drama.
Liz Imler: How did you two come to collaborate?
Lanie: Well, what is the collaboration? [Laughs] I give her a script and she does this miracle work with it. I would say my collaboration with her [Natalie V. Zito], which I hope is ongoing, comes about by having witnessed her work on the first play of mine she worked on. Instantly when I saw what she had done with Insanity of Mary Girard, I realized this is an outstanding director and talent. It certainly was one of the best – possibly the best – production of that play, which I’ve seen so many times. So I was hoping Natalie would be interested in looking at some of my other scripts. I gave her this play because it is a world. And it is “down her alley, right up her alley” or whatever the phrase is. She’s proven I was correct. So, what’s your part of the collaboration? [Laughs]
Natalie: [Laughs] My part is…I fell in love with his work. Insanity is beautiful. I love it. I think it’s so special. And I think that Lanie’s work is so right for Wandering and Wandering’s mission. So to me, it’s perfect to have this American playwright that deals with American history and issues and who does play with time and space. I don’t know…I love his work a lot. So, when he gave me The Trial of Mrs. Surratt I was honored that I was even reading something like this and that I was even given this opportunity to workshop it for one of the first times.
Lanie: Well, I just lucked out by her choose The Insanity of Mary Girard. I don’t know how you got hold of it or why you got a hold of it, but I’m awfully glad you did. The thing about Natalie’s work is that it’s – for me – what I call “total theatre.” It is not just two people sitting in a chair talking the way we’re doing right now, but it’s entering into the world that one enters into when one writes a play. She enters into that world and makes it manifest on stage, so that the inner life of the psyche – the people involved – is visibly presented.
In the present production – what I saw in Vermont – was this theme that I think the audience experienced with The Insanity of Mary Girard: a total, kind of an amazed, theatre experience. So much of theatre, unfortunately (I think) is restricted to the dialogue. And the dialogue is only an attempt to capture what is underneath. I think of dialogue as a net thrown over an animal. And the animal is the feelings and the whole experience. Natalie’s approach to theatre is to give us the whole thing.
Liz: I wanted to expand on the idea of your characters. A lot of them are people in American History who feel like their stories need to be retold. Where do you find your inspiration?
Lanie: I don’t really know. I have written many, many plays and and about half of them are based on historical people and incidents and, I guess in most cases, American. I can’t really say ‘I’m going to write a play about this.’ I’ll say, ‘maybe I can write a play about this,’ and I start into it and then realize I can.’ I was offered a commission to write a play about Robert Mapplethorpe, possibly because we were both gay. Well, I still am gay [laughs]. But, he was. But I couldn’t go there. I couldn’t enter into his psyche.
Maybe I’ve used this analogy before, but for me it’s like the 88 keys on a keyboard. All possibilities for the human being exist. So in writing a play about certain characters, one gravitates to their part on the keyboard. I try to leave my own sense of self. And possibly, too, those plays act for me as a mask, so I’m not dealing directly with my own history or my own family situation. I go into what is common to all of us in dealing with historical people, because they too were human beings. I feel it’s just finding what I can connect with. There are certain people I can’t connect with in history. I can lose myself in certain things than I can in others.
Liz: What about you, Natalie, where does your inspiration come from?
Natalie: When I read a script, I start to get visions about it. Initially it starts with the world versus the staging – that’s the last thing that comes. Sometimes I’ll have certain visions of memories or vignettes that could exist. Or I just start to see it come alive on stage in some way. The colors, the sounds, and all of that starts to come and I have to jot it down while I’m reading. It starts to build from there. Usually there’s an element that’s drawn with my work, and I can go from there. The world, whether it’s supernatural or dealing with time – I try to find that. I connect with characters in terms of finding their humanity and their story, but I do find the world needs to be very solid before we can explore more.
Lanie: You enter a script in a sort of three or four dimensional kind of way, I think. And I know that time is very important to you and playing with time, and how time is shortened or lengthened by the sense of character.
Natalie: Yeah, yeah. [nods] I think the idea of that is very fascinating. It’s very interesting. It’s the challenge of “how does one accomplish that? How does one enter that?” And it feels very natural for me to enter those kinds of worlds versus something that’s hyperreal. Or extreme slice of life. I think that would be hard for me, versus something that’s surreal or something that plays with time.
LANIE ROBERTSON (Playwright) is the recipient of the Outer Critics Circle Award, The Kleban Award, the Berrilla Kerr Playwriting Award, and two NEA Fellowships. In 2014 LADY DAY AT EMERSON Bar & GRILL, his play about Billie Holiday, was produced on Broadway and received two Tony Awards. That production, starring Audra McDonald, is scheduled for production on London’s West End in the summer of 2017. Several of his plays have been produced in New York City and throughout the U.S. In addition several have had first-class productions in Australia, Canada, England, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Poland, and Scotland. His published plays include THE INSANITY OF MARY GIRARD, BACK COUNTY CRIMES, LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR & GRILL, NASTY LITTLE SECRETS, and WOMAN BEFORE A GLASS. Later this year an Italian version of WOMAN BEFORE A GLASS will tour several cities in Italy. Recently he completed a first novel, THE STODDARD FAMILY PICNIC. Mr. Robertson lives in New York City and is a member of the Dramatist Guild; The Writers Guild of America, East; Actors Studio; and Societe des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatique.
Natalie Villamonte Zito (Director) is a New York City-based theatre artist, who founded The Wandering Theater Company in 2012. This is Natalie’s fourth year at the Capital Fringe Festival, past productions include The Afflicted, Anouilh’s Antigone, The Insanity of Mary Girard. Natalie’s 2014 production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone won TheaterMania’s Capital Fringe Audience Award in the Dance/Physical Theatre Category. Villamonte Zito is a graduate of Marymount Manhattan College. The Wandering Theatre Company’s prior productions with Capital Fringe have been featured in The Washington City Paper, DC Theatre Scene, DC Metro Theater Arts, The Washington Post, and Channel News 8. She is originally from Arlington, VA and currently resides in New York City.
The Trial of Mrs. Surratt
July 8 — July 23, 2016
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002
Show details and tickets