The 2015 NewTACTics Festival of New Plays, a reading series presented by Off-Broadway’s TACT/The Actors Company Theatre, kicks off June 3-4 with Jeff Talbott’s The Gravedigger’s Lullaby. Jenn Thompson directs the latest play by the author of The Submission.
“I have always had a fascination with gravediggers,” Talbott said in program notes. “There was a time when there was a guy who, with his bare hands, was in charge of helping your loved one into their final home. And that is fascinating to me. So I did some research… What I hope I’ve found was that some conversations that we think are completely ours today are the same things we’ve been talking about as human beings for as long as we’ve been talking.”
The playwright fielded a handful of my questions (below) on a break from the 29-hour rehearsal.
The presentation of the new play marks the third time a Talbott title has appeared in NewTACTics, after A Public Education (2014) and All the Stars in the Midnight Sky (2013). A Public Education was a finalist for the 2015 Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference and also had a developmental workshop at Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City.
Talbott and director Thompson (TACT’s Abundance) are TACT members, as are reading cast members Jeremy Beck, Jeffrey C. Hawkins and Ted Koch. The four-actor drama also features guest artist Lisa Velten Smith. Seth Andrew Bridges and Kyra Bromberg read stage directions. Ernie Fimbres is the stage manager.
Here’s how TACT bills The Gravedigger’s Lullaby: “Baylen [played by Ted Koch] is a gravedigger, a working-class man trying to keep food on the table in a world where other people make the rules. There’s a baby who can’t sleep at home, and plenty of holes to be dug. But a chance encounter with a rich young man may bring the hope of a different life. What will Baylen do? The Gravedigger’s Lullaby is a bold and gripping new contemporary drama about a time that has passed. And how little things have changed.”
The free readings in the 2015 NewTACTics series in June take place at 7 PM in the TACT Studio at 900 Broadway Suite 905. A 6:30 PM wine reception precedes the event. Reservations are required. Seating is general admission. A moderated talkback with the playwright follows. Email newTACTics@tactnyc.org or reserve online.
Jeff Talbott graduated with honors from the Yale School of Drama and is a member of TACT. His play The Submission was the inaugural recipient of the Laurents/Hatcher Award in 2011 and was produced Off-Broadway by MCC Theater; it also received the Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Award for New American Play in 2012 and has since been produced all over the country. It’s published by Samuel French. His plays A Public Education and All the Stars in the Midnight Sky were in NewTACTics in 2014 and 2013, respectively. He lives in New York City and writes musicals with composer Will Van Dyke. They have completed one musical (Imagine Harry) and are currently working on their second (Wintersong). They will be releasing an EP of their songs called A View of the River this fall.
Here’s my chat with Jeff Talbott.
Can you share the very first inkling you had for The Gravedigger’s Lullaby? What prompted it, and what did you “see” first — characters? A landscape? A conflict?
Jeff Talbott: The very first thing that came to me was an image: a rich man and a poor man sitting side by side, feet dangling, looking out, eating apples. I had been toying with writing something about the wealth gap, but had no desire (and have no desire) to write something overtly political, so any notes I had taken seemed like starting points for plays that had either been seen or that I did not want to see. Then, one day, that image came to me, and I knew it was a departure point for something. I didn’t know what. But I followed that image — and every day writing the play I return to it.
How is this play different than the world of, say, The Submission or the two other plays that have been read at NewTACTics, All the Stars in the Midnight Sky and A Public Education?
Jeff Talbott: Although I think this play is recognizable as a piece of writing from me because I shape dialogue in a fairly particular way (the way I encourage overlap, my sentence structure, etc.), this play has presented some very distinct challenges for me. It is not contemporary, yet I tried to create a way for these people to talk that would bridge a gap between the past and the present. It’s a contemporary play that is not set in the here-and-now. So I had to work very hard to get each sentence just right (and continue to do that in rehearsal). Whereas in plays like The Submission or A Public Education the dialogue can spill out of the characters, here I had to be very careful about when I let that happen. It has required a terrific kind of discipline for me, and it has certainly been influential on everything I’ve worked on since the first draft of this was finished. I’m building a body of work, and I definitely can look at each play and see how that body is growing and changing.
Your central character is a gravedigger. There are some important gravedigging references in theatre literature, from Antigone to Hamlet to A Skull in Connemara. Was this tradition part of your thinking?
Jeff Talbott: I guess. Although it wasn’t on my mind that much. I did read the gravedigger scene from Hamlet exactly once before I started working on this, and there is one particular character trait I carried over for my gravedigger. I haven’t read that scene in several years now (because I didn’t want to have it take over my process), but I was struck in reading it how strong that guy’s connection to his belief in God was, and that certainly became a touchstone for my gravedigger. It manifests in a very particular way in my play, but it was an influence. Other than that, this guy is very distinctly his own man — and he has told me every step of the way when I am stopping him from being just that.
There is a timeless quality to your setting. It’s “yesterday” before or after the advent of electricity. Why this period? What is the world of your play?
Jeff Talbott: I wanted to write something that was open to a wide-reaching kind of interpretation. I thought it would be an interesting challenge that could have fun dividends if I wrote something blank in terms of setting because if it got done a lot, every time I saw it or heard about it, each production would have the possibility of being very, very different from what had come before (at least in setting). The other big reason for that, though, is my central guy works a job that just doesn’t exist anymore. Not in the same way. There isn’t a guy with a shovel waiting to dig a hole for your loved one but there was a time when that guy definitely existed. A time when that job was a very important and final one. And I wanted to be true to my guy and make sure the world he lived in was the right one.
There is a Beckettian sensibility to the play — repeated rituals, difficult times, hard work. Is Samuel Beckett an influence?
Jeff Talbott: Not consciously. I recognize that the play certainly stands on the shoulders of writers I love but I think every play does (as does every playwright). I love Beckett. And if I were designing this set I would certainly put a tree somewhere. But I don’t know if a writer can ever truly see the influences in his/her own writing — and I wouldn’t want to. I write what I write, and hopefully, I carry the history of the theatre I have loved around with me.
The new play takes place in a particularly bleak landscape, with people living hardscrabble lives. What part do you think “hope” plays in your new work, and in your work in general? Do you think of these characters’ lives beyond the final curtain?
Jeff Talbott: Hope is key to me. My plays tend to work hard to break their central characters, but only so that they can build themselves back after the play is over. In this particular case, my goal in the final moments was to give not just a glimmer but a gentle and palpable glow of hope to the characters (and the audience). I do think of the next day at the end of all of my plays, but it’s up to the characters (and, again, the audience) to decide what that day might look like.
TACT’s artistic director is Scott Alan Evans. Lauren Miller is producer of NewTACTics. Learn more about TACT.