Chicago playwright Brett Neveu never actually put on boxing gloves and stepped into the ring while he was crafting what would become his acclaimed two-character play, The Opponent, for Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre and now in New York City. Although he drew on research with fight-industry folk, he mostly dug into his own mind and heart.
“Pulling from my imagination and research on spaces was the majority of the work,” Neveu told me in the weeks leading up to the play’s Manhattan debut on July 31. “After that, I relied on the designers to help me quite a bit when building the world of the play. They really kicked ass in that regard.”
From Chicago, Neveu (pronounce it “nehv-you,” like the French for “nephew”) answered a slew of my questions about his play, his past and his process. That Q&A follows. (Also check out the feature that I wrote about Neveu and the play for TDF Stages, the online magazine of the Theatre Development Fund.)
The meat of The Opponent — which premiered at the 70-seat A Red Orchid Theatre in 2012, and now makes its New York City premiere through Sept. 7 at a 54-seat venue within 59E59 Theaters — is less about the act of boxing and sparring (though there is a great deal of that) and more about the gristly contours of a student-mentor relationship. It’s a punchy exploration of the mutual needs, personal and professional, of father and son figures.
The play, directed by Karen Kessler, is set in a grimy small-town gym where 20-year-old Donell (A Red Orchid ensemble member Kamal Angelo Bolden) is getting a last-minute training tune-up from his washed-up teacher, Tre (AROT ensemble member Guy Van Swearingen).
The Opponent got enthusiastic reviews in its Chicago world premiere. The play also had important development in Center Theatre Group’s Writers’ Workshop.
It’s the playwright’s seventh play for AROT. This New York bow — with the original cast and creative team intact — marks the start of a new initiative called A Red Orchid NYC, a collaborative partnership between A Red Orchid Theatre (Kirsten Fitzgerald, artistic director; Rebecca Easton, managing director) and Bisno Productions (Debbie Bisno, Roberta Pereira) “to introduce the Ensemble’s original new works to a national audience.”
You might have seen A Red Orchid’s earlier Off-Broadway transfers, both at the Barrow Street Theatre: Craig Wright’s Mistakes Were Made and Tracy Letts’ Bug. Actor Michael Shannon is among the company’s ensemble members.
The design team for The Opponent includes Joey Wade (set designer), Myron Elliott (costume designer), Mike Durst (lighting designer), Joe Court (sound designer) and Toni Kendrick (prop designer). The fight director is John Tovar and the boxing trainer is Al Ortiz. Kate DeVore is the dialect coach.
Opening night is Aug. 7. 59E59 Theaters is at 59 E. 59th Street. For tickets ($25) and more information, visit 59e59.org.
Here’s my chat with Brett Neveu.
I’m interested in the first wave of inspiration that a playwright gets for a new work. How did The Opponent first present itself? Did you see the setting? The characters? Is boxing a particular passion of yours?
Brett Neveu: I wanted to write about boxing for a long time and found the opportunity after I’d been asked to join Center Theatre Group’s playwriting workshop. During the initial discovery process of the workshop, Pier Carlo Talenti (the theatre’s literary manager) brought in experts for the writers to interview in relation to their proposed projects. Since I was interested in writing about less experienced or less backed fighters who find themselves being used to move up better or better backed fighters, Pier Carlo invited pro boxer and gym owner Justin Fortune to talk… Building on that initial interview, I continued doing further research and pulled from my own memories of watching “Friday Night Fights” with my dad back when I was a kid. The setting is mostly pulled from further research about small gyms as well as a visit to Justin’s gym back when I was working with CTG on the play.
What sort of research did you do to learn the lingo, the moves, the dance of boxing? Did you get into the ring? Were words like “oil drum,” “reps,” “cuts,” etc. part of your language already?
Brett Neveu: We had Chicago boxing trainer Al Ortiz come in during the initial run and he helped with the clarity of the lingo and the moves inside the ring. I never got inside the ring myself, but certainly took on the language as a challenge. I wanted to get it right as a fan and a ringside participant. During the current rehearsals we continue to adjust the lingo to make sure we get it right and will probably keep that up right into opening the show.
Was the play written specifically with A Red Orchid and its ensemble in mind? Did you know early that Guy and Kamal were going to be doing it, and did you write for their qualities or voices, or were you devoted first and only to the characters and your voice?
Brett Neveu: The character of “Tre” was specifically written with fellow ensemble member Guy Van Swearingen in mind. We found Kamal through the initial A Red Orchid reading of the play, where he knocked it out the park. I knew right then that I wanted him in the ensemble and lobbied hard for his inclusion. Coupled with his ability, his presence and his perfect fit with our group, he was a shoe-in.
Why or how is The Opponent a fit for A Red Orchid and its aesthetic?
Brett Neveu: The Opponent is my seventh production with A Red Orchid, so I knew what stuff fit well in the space. And I knew that the goals of the play — father/son relationship, subtext heavy work, damage from violence — matched the sensibility of the company and that my intentions would be embraced and protected from the beginning. It’s why working with this theatre family continues to be my favorite place to work.
What does being an “ensemble” member of A Red Orchid Theatre mean? Do you meet regularly?
Brett Neveu: Ensemble at A Red Orchid means participating in the company in the best way you see fit. That can mean acting, writing, giving notes during previews, cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming the lobby, getting a drink after a show, directing, designing, etc. It also means signing on to making sure we continue to make high quality, engaging theatre for as long as we can. And yeah — we do meet regularly.
Did you write The Opponent with the help of the fight director and your director, or were they two separate processes?
Brett Neveu: I wrote the play with help from the excellent feedback from my fellow playwrights and dramaturgs in the CTG workshop and then was lucky enough to participate in a weeklong workshop and staged reading with actors Donal Logue and Dulé Hill at CTG. During that workshop, we didn’t work with fight directors but did work with director David Fofi and then later with our director and [AROT] ensemble member, Karen Kessler, as well as the always amazing fight director John Tovar.
I love plays with contrasts — black and white, young and old, the ascendant and the fallen, innocent and wise, father and son, insider and outsider, rich and poor. Did you know early on that this would be a two-character play (a format that would help to sharply express contrasts), or were there different versions of it? Was it a larger cast in an earlier version?
Brett Neveu: Nope. Always a two-person play. I really wanted the focus to be on training and the two-person dynamic. I also hadn’t written a two-person play and wanted to see what that was all about. I found out it was damn hard but really dug its back-and-forth and challenge to the actors to keep the ball in the air.
There’s a strong father-son thing happening in The Opponent. Did that emerge over time, or did you know going in that it would be a major element?
Brett Neveu: The father-son thing was there from the start. As I mentioned, the initial inspiration came from watching fights on TV with my dad, so I wanted that “this-is-something-we-do- together” quality to be a strong element to the script.
Are parents and children part of your other plays?
Brett Neveu: Always. I don’t think I have a play that isn’t, in some way, about the family dynamic. That probably grows from my linking theatre to family and vice versa. It’s also something we can all relate to, the mixed passions and emotional baggage of family. Most of my plays are about what happens when violence pushes its way into the situation and how power dynamics and protectiveness smack into what the characters want from each other.
The idea of keeping your head in the game looms large in The Opponent. Did someone tell you to keep your head in the game, to “push what bullshit you got” out of the process? Do you tell that to you own playwriting students?
Brett Neveu: That probably comes from my recent five-year stint in Los Angeles vying [for] and developing writing gigs. I had to be my own coach, making sure I kept my head in the game and pushed my bullshit away while trying not to lose sight of my artistic goals in the process. Now that I’m back in Chicago and teaching at Northwestern, I’m not sure who won the Hollywood fight, but I have to say I feel more like the beat-up journeyman than the guy who worked well in the system.
Do you methodically map out your plays, or do you let your characters talk and take you places? Were there specific guideposts in this play that you knew you would have going in?
Brett Neveu: I always structure them out and in the case of this play, I’d given the page numbers certain rounds. I think it was every five pages of each act was a new round up to ten rounds and I wanted the fight to be pretty even (at least until the end). Those were the guideposts I used and I think that’s what gives it the true-to-life quality that the actors really connected with.
In what way was The Opponent a departure for you, writing-wise, if at all?
Brett Neveu: It being a two-character play was one, the other being the amount of physical action that’s necessary for production. Throughout the play, the guys are either training or fighting, so this amount of incorporating the words with the movement was something I didn’t know we could pull off. Seems to be working, though.
I perceived a strong sense of dramatic “gray” in your play, which always had me intrigued about characters’ motives and feelings: “How good are Tre’s techniques?” “Is he trying to correct past mistakes and push Donell to glory or is he simply two-bit?” “Is it possible there was the rage of failure inside Tre, prompting him to wear down Donell before his biggest fight?” “Was Donell his own worst enemy for thinking about wealth?” “Was Donell exactly what Tre was 25 years ago?” I am guessing “gray” interests you more than firm black and white answers.
Brett Neveu: You bet it does, and always has. That gray area is what draws me to subject matter and is what keeps me moving the writing forward. It’s also a big part of the aesthetic of what A Red Orchid does: the ability to engage an audience in the conversation happening on stage. My goal is to keep the audience guessing who to root for, just like they might do with family. I also have ideas about what I think about certain subjects, but hell — I know I’m not ever fully informed and have my own bias. It’s better to create characters that believe they are right, no matter what, until they might discover his or her point might be wrong or corrupted.
The play is about both men, and the title might have multiple meanings. Is it OK with you that different theatregoers may walk away and argue over who the play “belongs to” or what the title means?
Brett Neveu: That’s certainly the goal and what fighting is all about. In sports, you never know what might happen and that’s the reason we watch. We might believe we know who has the upper hand but then somebody does something unexpected and we suddenly are seeing chance in action.
The play speaks strongly to focus and discipline and craft: doing something not for the glory, money, acclaim, but because it’s done right. Excellence becomes its own reward, although one hopes that excellence will surface and be rewarded in the larger world — if the game isn’t fixed. Seems universal: easily applied to business, politics, show business. I am onto something? Was this specifically on your mind?
Brett Neveu: You nailed it. Once, after watching the show with a writer friend of mine, she turned to me and said, “That’s about what we do!” I think the play’s themes strike hard along a bunch of different topics, not just boxing. We all have certain goals and the journey toward reaching them (or falling short of reaching them) is always wrapped in the unknown.
You populate the play with many names of unseen characters: Chad-o, Ty Jems, Pete Nemecheck, Jas Dennis, Derek Sutton, Nick Duhon, Paul Cittren — past, future and present opponents, gym owners, managers and others. Repeated use of names seems vital to this world. Names serve as a kind of currency, it’s a world of marquee values. What importance does the use of “names” have in your play?
Brett Neveu: Just that: currency. They also help ground the world in an environment where names you happen to know are a huge part of how far you can go up. The right person seeing you at the right time can make a career. With managers, trainers and promoters, all it takes is the odd meeting to get things started. Donell, in a moment of frustration, describes it as “nothing but making men shake hands.” It’s certainly more than that, as Tre lets him know right away. In truth, it’s nearly everything.
I do love the name of the venue, Rock and Anvil Boxing Gym: suggesting two equally hard masses, yet one might be chipped away at. Is the name based on something?
Brett Neveu: I wanted an image that let people decide who might be the anvil and who was the rock. Plus I thought it sounded strong and awkward enough to be a name that Tre came up with on his own.
Is there a reason you set the play in Louisiana?
Brett Neveu: The location brings it back to my dad once more. He grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana and I’ve set a couple of other plays there or near there. I visited the town a number of times when I was a kid, and Cajuns, like my dad, love to talk about their home state. I got an earful of the place as a kid (still do) and it has a mysterious rough-and-tumble quality to me. I also wanted to give the voices a unique quality, and Cajun and Creole dialogue choices were something I wanted to use to color the whole thing. Lastly, there’s the poverty inherent to the world of the play and certainly there are pockets (big and small) of it all over America, but Louisiana poor can be something quite isolated and cut damn deep.
Where did you grow up, and what exposure did you have to theatre?
Brett Neveu: I grew up in the middle of Iowa in a small town called Newton. Very little exposure to theatre, so I had to seek it out. Luckily my folks took my sister and I up to Minneapolis to see a few shows at The Guthrie Theater and The Chanhassan Dinner Theatre, as well as a few shows at the surrounding universities. In fact, I recently came across a ticket stub from a production of Three Sisters at Iowa State University, a show that had such an impact on me that I still remember my breath catching as I watched.
What influence has Chicago storefront theatre — gritty, spare, ensemble-oriented work — had on your work, both in the past and in The Opponent? Are there specific Chicago plays or playwrights from the past 20 years that influenced you?
Brett Neveu: It’s been a huge and vital influence on my work. When I was in high school, I started hearing about Steppenwolf Theatre and had seen on public television their production of True West. I remember thinking, “They make that kind of theatre someplace? Get me to that!” From that moment on, I’ve tried to capture that punky, fighting weirdness in my work, pushing to make it hit me as much as I hoped it can hit the audience. Sam Shepard is the initial man to blame; one of the reasons (beside his locations and dialogue) is because he references the state of Iowa in his play Buried Child and it was amazing to me that he gave it a shout-out. David Mamet also was a big influence, but Harold Pinter is my biggest go-to guy. His work spoke to me from its silences, the non-sounds I recognized from my own growing up. I also wanted to work with a ton of folks in Chicago, and luckily over the past 20 years I’ve had the opportunity to do just that.
What playwrights influence you?
Brett Neveu: Other than the ones I mention above, there’s also Chekhov and my longtime friend Rebecca Gilman.
Theater C at 59E59 Theaters venue will seat an audience of 54 people. How important is intimacy to the play? Or was that simply a necessity of the original production and its space? Can the play work in a 300-seat house?
Brett Neveu: Intimacy is a big factor, given the close proximity of fight training. We wanted to maintain our usual you-are-there aesthetic, something that makes our actors special in their detail work and their striving toward closing the gap between audience and performer. This also makes them quite skilled film actors, too. Not sure if it could work in a 300-seat house. My answer is: maybe?
What’s coming up for you? Can you share a little about your next project?
Brett Neveu: I’m continuing the workshop process of a new musical with composer and lyricist Josh Schmidt and director David Cromer at Atlantic Theater Company; I’m working on a new play with director Kimberly Senior that I’m hearing at The New Group; and I’m working with TimeLine Theatre Company, Northlight Theatre and A Red Orchid Theatre Company (of course) in Chicago on a few new plays. I’m also heading toward production on a new film, hopefully filming this December.
Brett Neveu’s upcoming and recent theatre productions include Red Bud with Signal Ensemble (Chicago) and Detective Partner Hero Villain with SkyPilot Theatre Company (Los Angeles) and Strawdog Theatre Company (Chicago). Past work includes productions with The Royal Court Theatre and The Royal Shakespeare Company in London; The Goodman Theatre, Writers Theatre, The House Theatre, The Inconvenience, The Side Project, TimeLine Theatre Company, A Red Orchid Theatre and American Theatre Company in Chicago. A Sundance Institute Ucross Fellow, Neveu is also a recipient of the Marquee Award from Chicago Dramatists, the Ofner Prize for New Work, the Emerging Artist Award from The League of Chicago Theatres, an After Dark Award for Outstanding Musical (Old Town) and has developed plays with companies including Atlantic Theater Company and The New Group in New York and The Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre and Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago. He is a resident-alum of Chicago Dramatists, a proud ensemble member of A Red Orchid Theatre and an alumni member of the Center Theatre Group’s Writers’ Workshop in Los Angeles. Neveu has been commissioned by The Royal Court Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, The Goodman Theatre, TimeLine Theatre Company, Writers’ Theatre, Strawdog Theatre, Northlight Theatre and has several of his plays published through Broadway Play Publishing, Dramatic Publishing and Nick Hern Publishing. He has taught writing at DePaul University, Second City Training Center and currently teaches at Northwestern University.