A Celebration of All Things Cultural, Artistic, and Entertaining in Madison
Jan 18, 2012
Picturing the Past
Almost immediately after a box of photos is unexpectedly found among Ernest Hemingway’s belongings, questions arise.
Who was the photographer? What was his connection to the famous writer? Who is the rightful owner of the photos now?
These are just a few of the intriguing questions brought to light as Forward Theater Company presents the world premier of A Thousand Words, a new play by Forward’s own Gwendolyn Rice. Juxtaposing the present day with the 1930s, stories unfold to pose the question: How much is a photograph truly worth?
Before the play opens January 19, Rice answered of few other questions— about her inspiration for the play, the processes of writing and casting it, and more.
I understand the play was inspired by a news story you read a few years back. Can you tell me about that?
The play A Thousand Words was conceived after I read a small article in the newspaper about the owner of a bar in Key West, Florida. He had stumbled upon a treasure trove of books, fishing gear and personal effects from one of the bar’s most famous patrons—Ernest Hemingway. Among these items was a collection of black and white photos taken by Walker Evans. This story fascinated me. Unfamiliar with the photographer or his work, I started researching Evans and studying his photos. I wondered what Evans and Hemingway’s relationship was like, how they met, what they talked about, how they might have influenced each other’s work. I was also desperate to figure out why this famous author had so many of Evans’s pictures, and why the items had been sealed away in a forgotten room for so long. I started imagining a story to fill in the blanks.
What was the first spark that made you think it would make for a great play?
As I did more research, I found out it was speculated that Walker Evans gave some pictures to Hemingway for safekeeping because he was afraid the Cuban government would seize them. (The pictures were for a book exposing the Cuban dictator’s corruption.) And as much as I wanted to know more about how the pictures fit in with the exchanges between the two artists, my next question was, “What happens to the pictures now?” I imagined lots of arguments about who got to keep them, including the bar owner, the people in the pictures, museums, researchers, collectors … the question of who owns art and how widely does it need to be shared really intrigued me.
The other thing that really piqued my interest was the revelation that Walker Evans wanted to be a writer before he discovered photography. In my experience those two forms don’t usually mix—you’re either a visual or a verbal person. The idea that someone who loved words so much found it easier to communicate with pictures—pictures that changed the face of photography—was one I had to write about.
It never even occurred to me to make this a short story, although I do write a lot of those as well. The characters were so complicated and interesting, I wanted actors to embody them, so they would literally be three dimensional to an audience.
What characters did you start with, and which came about as you developed the storyline?
With a bar in Cuba as my setting, I focused on the two obvious main characters in this drama: Walker Evans and Ernest Hemingway. I was an English major in college, and I had read a smattering of Hemingway short stories, along with The Old Man and the Sea and Farewell to Arms. But almost immediately I was stuck. I didn’t know anything about Cuba in the 1930s. And I didn’t know anything about Hemingway really—except that there were literature professors who had devoted their entire academic careers to analyzing this larger-than-life writer and his prose. And they were sure to tell me how I had gotten him wrong.
I tried to develop scenes involving a beautiful young Cuban girl who was the subject of the pictures, or possibly her father, who thought they were indecent and wanted them back. But I couldn’t really hear Hemingway’s voice in my head, and I wasn’t sure where the story was going.
A year or so later I tried again. I started with two curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art talking about the photos being discovered, and wanting to get their hands on them. From there it just flowed.
How much research did you do on Hemingway, Evans and others? What was that process like, and did you try to stay true to history or take artistic license with it?
I have to say, I don’t know how anyone wrote fiction without the internet. Wikipedia is a wonderful, wonderful thing.
When I was first learning about Walker Evans I read a lot of articles and websites online. I also found dozens of his pictures, both on museum websites and at the Library of Congress site. I read about the Farm Security Administration, Roy Stryker, other photographers of the 1930s time period, and lots of information about Kansas during the dustbowl. I even looked up the actual mission of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which is referenced in the play) and what controversial exhibits they had worked on recently.
That said, I consciously eschewed biography by compressing timelines, rearranging events, and inventing characters to serve the dramatic arc of the play. Far from a documentary, the play was more of a “what if” story: What if Walker Evans had been sent to Kansas in the late 1930s with a nervous young writer named Shirley Hughes? What if there was a dispute about the ownership of the Evans photos found in the present, between the bar owner, a curator from a world-famous museum and a woman who claimed to be a long-lost Evans relative? What if someone stood up for rural quilters, outsider artists who were about to be discovered and exploited?
In a video on Forward’s website, artistic director Jen Uphoff Gray mentions that A Thousand Words raises questions about the role of the arts and artists in difficult times. Is that something you were conscious of as you wrote the play?
I thought about it in an academic way when I wrote the play (in 2007). I’ve always admired the work of the New Deal programs, whether it was the CCC planting trees or the Federal Theatre Project creating “The Living Newspaper” or the pictures of Evans and Dorothea Lange. I also have a great appreciation for the folk musicians of the 1960s who spoke out against segregation, racism and the war in Vietnam.
Now I think about it in a much more practical way, given what’s happened both locally and nationally in the past year. There was a lot of creativity employed during the protests of Governor Walker’s policies at the capitol last winter. It demonstrated that art is a powerful medium for making an argument—much more affecting and thought-provoking than yelling.
What was your greatest challenging in creating this play, and what do you consider a highlight?
The greatest challenge and the biggest highlight for me has been returning to the script and writing some new scenes. It’s been five years since I wrote the first draft, and it’s gone through A LOT of iterations since then. With every reading and workshop, with every cast there have been new things to discover and new questions to answer. I was surprised and pleased that when I decided I wanted to work on the end of the play, the main characters were right there and willing to talk to me.
How did you go about casting the play?
Jennifer Uphoff Gray (Forward’s artistic director) and Michael Wright (Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s artistic director) worked together to cast the play, since it’s a collaboration between the two companies. Some parts were very easy to match with actors, some were more challenging. I read opposite quite a few actors for the role of Brian, both in Madison and Milwaukee, which was great fun for me! (We didn’t tell them I was the playwright. That would have been too nerve-wracking!)
Fortunately for us, my first choice for the role of Walker Evans was available and interested in the role, even though he’d moved away from Madison. Josh Aaron McCabe got his MFA in acting from UW–Madison and he was part of the first reading we did as part of Wisconsin Wrights in 2008. After he performed the role, I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it. We had cast Carrie Coon in the role of Shirley, but she’s since gone on to great acclaim in Chicago, on Broadway, in Hollywood … so we offered the part to the enormously talented Molly Rhode and, again, I can’t imagine anyone else doing the role. She’s extraordinary.
And how did Sarah Day come to be part of A Thousand Words?
Sarah is part of Forward Theater’s advisory company of artists, so she read the play when it was initially being considered for this season. At that time she expressed her enthusiasm for the script. Months later Jen asked Sarah if she would be interested in playing a part, and (as I understand it) she accepted immediately. The role of Sally Quinn was initially written for a young woman right out of graduate school, but having Sarah in the part actually makes the character much more complex. I couldn’t be happier that she’s part of this production. She’s asked a lot of questions about her character and she’s forced me to think harder about the way the play fits together. I’ve learned a lot more about the play, and about how an actor prepares, just watching her in rehearsal. It’s been a real privilege.
What are you most looking forward to in presenting this play to Madison?
If Forward’s previous productions are any indication, Madison audiences like to tell us what they think. They like to discuss what they’ve seen, and ask questions, and give their honest critique during talkbacks after every show. And although it’s a little daunting, I’m looking forward to hearing what people think—talking about the subjects raised in the play and how the production affected them. I’ll be on hand after every show, and so will Jen, the director.
What do you hope to share with audiences through your play?
Lots of things! I’m excited by the idea that people will go home after seeing the play and look up Walker Evans’s photographs on the Library of Congress website. I hope they will go to the library and check out books about the quilts of Gee’s Bend, or better yet go see them when they come to a museum nearby. I hope they think about how words and pictures can be used to manipulate messages (particularly as we go into the election season) and conversely, how they can be used to change the world.
A Thousand Words runs January 19–February 5 at Overture Center. For more information, visit forwardtheater.com.
Photo of Sarah Day by Zane Williams. Photo of Gwen Rice by Nick Berard.