“Ah, look at all the lonely people,” a line from Lennon and McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby,” was on my mind when I read Stephen Kaplan’s quirky, sadness-tinged, four-actor comedy Tracy Jones. The new play — getting three 2022-23 productions (on four stages) in a National New Play Network “rolling world premiere” in upstate New York, Michigan and Florida — centers on an isolated title character who is throwing a party and inviting only women who share her name.
Is this a story about making connection in a lonely world?
“That was definitely the impulse for this play,” Stephen Kaplan told me. “An earlier title for the play could’ve been Eleanor Rigby, which, to me, is the saddest song in the world. I wanted to explore the loneliness and isolation that we all experience at some point in our lives and heighten it with these characters. They are all dealing with their own versions of what this means. I think we often look at these ideas as being solved by simply going out and meeting other people which is much easier said than done.”
Like some of Kaplan’s other plays, the language and situation are heightened, flirting with the absurd. I previously interviewed Kaplan when his highly theatrical play-with-marionettes, A Real Boy, which also challenges the idea of pure realism, was presented Off-Broadway.
A separate second staging of Tracy Jones runs at Williamston Theatre in Michigan May 19-June 19, 2022, before moving in a co-production arrangement to Michigan’s Tipping Point Theatre June 30-July 22, 2022. A third rolling premiere production plays Island City Stage in Wilton Manors, FL, in 2023.
Here’s how Tracy Jones is billed by Williamston Theatre in central Michigan, where artistic director Tony Caselli will direct: “Tracy Jones has rented out the back ‘party room’ of Jones Street Bar and Grill: The Place for Wings and Things, a typical chain restaurant. Tracy Jones is throwing a party to which she’s invited every woman in the world who is also named Tracy Jones. Tracy Jones has been sitting for over an hour alone, nursing her Diet Coke, waiting for any other Tracy Joneses to show up, and help alleviate Tracy Jones’ epic loneliness. A touching story of individual connection in an increasingly busy world, and the perfect return to theatrical connection after the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic.”
Tell me who we encounter in the play — there’s more than one title character.
Stephen Kaplan: The first person we encounter on stage is Tracy Jones, a middle-aged woman who is throwing a party in the back party room of the Jones Street Bar and Grill: The Place for Wings and Things. She’s invited all of the female Tracy Joneses of the world to the party. The play starts an hour into the party and no one else is there except for the 16-year-old Party-Host-With-The-Most that Jones Street Bar and Grill: The Place for Wings and Things has provided. As the play goes on, two other Tracys do arrive — but I don’t want to give away too much about them!
I’m always interested in the first glimmer of an idea for a play. What did you “see” first very early on in the process? A character? A place? An idea?
Stephen Kaplan: I wrote the first 10 pages of the play when I had just graduated college but then didn’t know where I was going with it so put it away until about four years ago when I thought maybe I had a handle on what it was I wanted to say with it. I always knew that it was called Tracy Jones and had a sense of who our main Tracy was — someone desperate to find connection and who resorted to throwing this party as a means to do that. It was originally set in her apartment but when I started it up again, I knew I wanted her to push the stakes and rent out a public space.
Did you find that ideas or themes in the play shifted as you wrote?
Stephen Kaplan: The core themes of the play stayed constant throughout but became even more resonant after the last two years that we’ve all gone through. The pandemic has really brought into focus how great the need for human connection and interaction is. However, with the exception of one line in the play addressing the idea of the pandemic (by referencing Zoom), the rest of the play addressed these concerns in its first draft. My husband, who has known the script since its first draft, turned to me after opening night and commented on how he loved all of things I added in regard to connection after COVID. I reminded him that it was actually all always there but suddenly just has a whole new resonance because of what we’ve gone through!
Do you map things out, plot-wise, or let your characters take you to surprising places that inform or even generate themes as you go along?
Stephen Kaplan: Each of my plays evolves differently. I usually have an end point in mind whether it’s a final image or feeling, and I start working with that in mind, but I love being surprised as I write. I do believe in the idea that my characters will guide me and I’ve learned to trust that a lot more over the years. I know that they’ll sometimes get me into dead ends and wrong turns, but I can also usually sense that as I’m working and am able to get back on track to where things feel “right.” With this play, I knew that the two guests that do come would have different reasons for coming, but I actually didn’t know what those reasons were until I started writing and when I learned their reasons, I was extremely relieved and satisfied because they did indeed have reasons (!) and the reasons felt like they fit into the larger ideas I wanted to explore.
The language and behavior of characters is heightened, flirting with the absurd. There is a particularly caffeinated restaurant employee, for example, who might have jumped out of a Durang play. Is that typical of your plays?
Stephen Kaplan: John Guare and Christopher Durang are two of my playwriting idols. I grew up with their work and it’s what made me think about playwriting: “Oh, I want to do this. This is how I see the world.” I don’t purposely go into anything I write thinking, “This is going to be absurd,” because it’s actually not that absurd to me! When you think about it, our world is absurd. Things happen that make us go, “Why the heck is that going on?,” and I feel like that’s what I try to capture in my work. I will admit to certainly heightening and theatricalizing things like having marionette puppets have a human child in my play A Real Boy but even in my play Exquisite Potential, which is about parents that think their three-year-old son is the Messiah, it may seem like an absurd situation, but what parent hasn’t wanted great things for their kids and maybe even expected it as well?
What playwrights from the past or present do you admire/follow/love?
Stephen Kaplan: Durang was probably my earliest influence. My very first play, And Jack Came Tumbling After, is very much based on the DNA of all the Durang I saw and read. And Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves is my favorite play of all time, as it so beautifully mixes comedy and tragedy. I remember seeing the PBS broadcast of the Broadway revival in the 1980s and being so blown away by it. And definitely David Lindsay-Abaire and Lisa Kron and Paula Vogel along with Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill and Tony Kushner and Jose Rivera and Adrienne Kennedy — each of them is so bold and specific in the worlds they create and reading and watching their plays I’m swept away and very happily lost for the time I get to spend with them.
How did the rolling world premiere productions of Tracy Jones come about? Will you see/be part of rehearsals for all three productions?
Stephen Kaplan: The beautiful thing about a rolling world premiere is that it’s meant to be three completely separate productions — new casts, directors, designers… It gives me the opportunity to see how the play works in very different productions and really get a chance to see what’s working and not working.
Williamston Theatre was the first to sign on. It’s actually pretty funny but completely indicative of the axiom “there is no one way these things happen.” The parent of one of my students ran into Tony Caselli (the AD at Williamston) while she was visiting Michigan and she mentioned that her daughter’s teacher was a playwright and would he take a look at my work. Tony very graciously did and he liked the play and scheduled it into their upcoming season. They’re a National New Play Network theatre and we discussed that it’d be great to have it be a Rolling World Premiere, but they’re not the easiest things to maneuver. You need to have three NNPN theaters agree to produce the same play within a specific time frame — and with theaters already backlogged from canceled previous seasons, I was hopeful but not optimistic. But CenterStage theatre looked at the play and wanted to do it as well, which brought me to two theaters. I then connected with a friend who was connected to Island City Stage and he agreed to pass the play along and, again, very thankfully, they liked it as well and became the final piece of the puzzle.
CenterStage was the first to open and I’ve been very involved with rehearsals. I spent a couple weekends in Rochester in person at the beginning and middle of the process and Zoomed into all of the other rehearsals. I’ve made cuts and revisions and additions and had an incredible director in Lindsay Warren Baker, who not only welcomed but wanted me to be as involved as I could be. But this is also part of the reason all of these theaters are part of NNPN — they champion new work and strive to support the writer in every way possible. And Ralph Meranto at CenterStage ensured that the entire process was as accommodating and supportive as it could possibly be for me.
I imagine I’ll be a little less involved with Williamston’s production, though will still Zoom into a few rehearsals and will also go out to Michigan for their preview weekend, too. Island City is the last of the roll and I hope that the play will be pretty darn solid by that point, but I’ll also be down there to see the production and will implement into that rehearsal process anything learned from the previous two.
I will forever be grateful for Williamston and CenterStage because they agreed to do the play regardless of whether it was going to be a rolling world premiere or not — that was such a boost of confidence and support I will never forget.
What’s the benefit of three stagings for you as a playwright? Will you revise along the way, or is the play frozen?
Stephen Kaplan: It’s the best preview and development process ever! I fully intend to revise along the way as necessary. Especially because the play is a comedy, I’m always on the search for making sure the laughs land and the jokes are the best they can be. Having real-live audiences in three very different geographic areas serves as an amazing litmus test to make sure the play works in as many environments as it can. The three theatres are also very different size and setup wise which is very exciting, as well. Additionally, the casts are all going to look and sound very different — all tremendous opportunities for me to learn and make the play as strong as it can be.
The play has only four characters, which is nicely affordable for theaters to produce in the future. Is cast size on your mind when you are first thinking of plays? Would you like to write a 15-actor play?
Stephen Kaplan: While I definitely consider producibility when I’m writing, I also try to keep the cast-size true to whatever story I’m trying to tell. This play is specifically a small cast in a single set because of the themes I was exploring with it. I do actually have a few plays that I have in my mind that are larger casts, including a new play I wrote called Rosaline Wrecked It All — that has 20 characters, kind of perfect for a school production.
What’s coming up for you?
Stephen Kaplan: I’m very excited because another play of mine, Branwell (and the other Brontës): an autobiography edited by Charlotte Brontë, opened at The Loft Ensemble in Los Angeles. Having two separate plays of mine running simultaneously on both coasts is a playwright’s dream of mine!
And finally, a very new play of mine, Un Hombre: A Golem Story was just selected for development residency with the NJ PlayLab and will also have a development reading with Skeleton Rep in their Salon Series.
What else would you like to share?
Stephen Kaplan: I just want to thank you for the tremendous work you do in promoting new plays and playwrights. In addition to being such a phenomenal writer yourself, you are also such a cheerleader for the work of others and I want to make sure you know how appreciated it is.
Stephen Kaplan’s 2022 productions include a NNPN Rolling World Premiere of Tracy Jones (Winner: Chameleon Theatre; Finalist: B Street New Comedies Festival, ScreenCraft Stage Play Contest, Trustus Playwrights Festival) and Branwell (and other Brontës): An Autobiography Edited by Charlotte Brontë at Loft Ensemble (Semi-Finalist: O’Neill). Other plays have been produced Off-Broadway at 59E59 and regionally around the country. He is a 2021 Individual Artist Fellowship winner in playwriting from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and his plays have also been finalists for Seven Devils and the Woodward/Newman Award and semi-finalists for PlayPenn and FutureFest and been published by Dramatists Play Service. He earned his BFA from NYU – Playwrights Horizons Theatre School and his MFA from Point Park University. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild and serves as Northeastern Regional Representative on the DG National Council. Visit www.bystephenkaplan.com.