Interview with playwright Barry Eitel!

Hello again, loyal readers! Below is an interview between playwright Barry Eitel and dramaturg Shawny Sena, discussing the adaptation process, medieval anachronisms, and X-Box. Enjoy!

Why The Second Shepherds’ Play?

I was first introduced to The Second Shepherds’ Play through theatre history courses at Loyola.  I usually have a tough time plodding through Medieval texts, as do most sane people, probably.  However, I found I myself actually laughing at this centuries-old religious comedy (which sounds like a major oxymoron).  What’s interesting, and what makes the Wakefield Master “the Master” (although current scholarship actually think the Cycle plays were authored by a bunch of different people…but whatever), is that Second Shepherds’ Play is a riff on scripture.  The story involves a bunch of people that are complete creations of the writer, with the nativity being more of a sideplot.  The shepherds and Mak also discuss social and economic inequality throughout the script, but in a very funny way and irreverent way.  Personally, I related this to the commercialization of Christmas (and The Peanuts’ Christmas Special, one of the best commentaries on Christmas in the past 50 years and a major inspiration for the adaptation).
Christmas is a weird time because, as a 22-year-old, the holiday is never as awesome as it was when I was 5.  Every December, I set out to recapture the magic, but after so many years of cookie-baking and ugly sweater parties, I think a chunk of that childlike wonder is gone forever.  While adapting this play, I sort of discovered what Christmas really means (if you excuse the corniness).  We easily get embroiled in the department-stores-and-dealing-with-family-headaches side of Christmas, but what’s important about Christmas, and all holidays in general, is that people come together and celebrate something.  Yeah, getting an X-Box is cool, but…actually, I’ve never gotten an X-Box.  Maybe I’ve just not received good enough gifts.

What was your adaptation process like?

This was my first time adapting anything, and one of my first ventures writing a play longer than several pages (it was started when I was a sophomore in college), and so I had no idea what I was doing.  The first draft was pretty much a straight adaptation of the original, just in modern language.  Every bit of dialogue matched, it was just said differently.  On re-reading it and consulting with some mentors, I decided to free myself of the original even more.  I made the Angel a narrator role, and added scenes.  Second Shepherds Play is basically halved into two plays—the shepherds deal with Mak and beat him up, an angel comes, and then the shepherds visit the baby Jesus.  Nowadays, we really want an arc in stories, and I really wanted Mak to be redeemed, so I added him throughout the story.

Once we got into readings and rehearsals, the script got cooking.  The cast really took to the characters, and added little improvs and ad libs.  A lot of those became part of the official script.  In a way, the production is a devised piece.  After this production, I’m chomping at the bit to tear into the text and add what we’ve discovered as a group.  That’ll take it further from the original, but it will also push the play to standing on its own.  Maybe it’ll make a new debut in a Christmas or two.  After Open Source takes over Broadway.

TSSP is an interesting piece because it blends a biblical narrative with medieval references and anachronisms. Did this concept play into out your adaptation?

First off, the whole nativity narrative is rife with logical issues.  Only two Gospels really mention the whole Christmas thing at all, and they disagree on the details.  The whole basis for Christmas comes from a few verses in Matthew.  Add on that the Census of Quirinius, which Matthew gives as the reason for Joseph leaving for Bethlehem, happened several years before Jesus was born.  The logistics of the story are a big grey area.
The Second Shepherds’ Play is set in Palestine, but the writers barely knew that area (maybe from a few Crusaders’ tale).  Instead, they made the story fir what their audience understood.  English winters are cold and snowy, so that’s where the Second Shepherds’ Play lives.  Historical accuracy was also of no concern—the shepherds often refer to saints’ names, Latin prayers, and other Christian terms before Christ is even born.
All of this was a major part of my adaptation, which reference the original Biblical text, the medieval play, and our modern world.  It was a lot of fun playing around with those three levels.

How does a play like The Shepherds’ Pageant fit into the Open Source Theater mission?

The Shepherds’ Pageant fits really well into our mission.  We like to take plays and other works that we can fiddle with and do fun, invigorating productions.  We’re more concerned with creating living, moving stories than ensuring that the corsets are period.

My adaptation really opens the script up, allowing for a really intimate, innovative production.  And we’ve been working with the cast to bring the story to life.  We’re hoping to work with audiences so that they can add their unique print to the script as well, through feedback and the blog.

What do you hope people will take from this production?

Ha, that they find out the ‘reason for the season.’  I hope their inspired, in some way, to really connect to other human beings.

BARRY EITEL (Angel/Playwright) is a recent graduate of Loyola University, appearing in As You Like ItGood Woman of Setzuan, and Guys and Dolls, along with directing Caryl Churchill’s Far Away.  As a writer, several of his plays enjoyed readings and productions at Loyola, along with appearing in Gorilla Tango The $500 Writer/Actor Thing, where he advanced to the semi-finals.  He, alongside Eileen Tull, is a founder of Open Source Theatre Project and serves as its artistic head.  OSTP’s first foray was a staged reading of his play, Run For Your Life, and he is leading the collective in planning much, much more for the future.  Merry Christmas!

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