Henrik Ibsen’s classic 1882 play An Enemy of the People, about civic responsibility, greed, mob mentality and public health, gets a fresh spin in Jeff Talbott’s new drama The Messenger, to be developed in Pioneer Theatre Company’s Play-By-Play New Play Reading Series in March 2020. Wes Grantom will direct the staged reading in Salt Lake City. Talbott says the new play takes cues from the source material, but veers onto its own path to address concerns about the media’s players and power.
Here’s how PTC bills The Messenger: “Set in Norway in 1882, main character Therese Stockman is a small-town doctor and single mother who has made a shocking discovery about the industry that gives her town its lifeblood. Her friend, news editor Kristine Hovstad, is going to take the story and run with it, but at what cost? Using Henrik Ibsen’s classic An Enemy of the People as a departure point, this brand-new play examines our relationships with the press, the community, each other, and where to draw the line when deciding the right move to make.”
Jeff Talbott told me, “On a ground-floor level, The Messenger looks like Ibsen’s play. We’re in Norway. It’s 1882. There’s a doctor. The town’s major tourist attraction, the mineral baths, seems to be contaminated. And the doctor has to save the town. But one floor up, everything changes. My play has less than half the number of characters. Where An Enemy of the People is five acts, mine is one intermissionless play in four chapters. And two of the central characters, including the doctor, are no longer men. The Messenger is about two women succeeding by pushing against a male-dominated society and that society’s expectations of them.”
He added, “The climate and environmental issues in An Enemy of the People definitely are the springboard in The Messenger, but my play is more interested in finding out how those issues — or any issue, be it religion, politics, whatever — become weaponized when used and misused by the press. At a time when we see the press being questioned on a daily basis, I wanted to write a play to look at how we question the media that delivers information to us, and the people who are deciding how that information is being both disseminated and used. This is a play about the press. It’s also a play about how we listen to each other. And how we don’t. It’s hopefully a call to action for all of us to try much harder.”
So, who or what, exactly, is “The Messenger” of the title?
Talbott explained, “Who exactly is The Messenger is one of the essential questions of the play. There’s a newspaper in town called The Messenger, and most of the central characters in the play, at one time or another, believe they are a messenger for the people. But who’s right? Is anybody? And if you think you’re the messenger, can you ever really be the messenger? That question is central to everything that happens in the play.”
Two of the three titles of the 2020 Pioneer Theatre Company Play-By-Play series — the seventh season of the program — were announced by PTC artistic director Karen Azenberg on Nov. 27. In addition to Talbott’s play, getting a public reading March 13-14, 2020, the series will host The Anatomy of Love by Ted Malawer Feb. 7-8, 2020. A third title will be announced for April 17-18, 2020. Casting will be announced later.
Talbott’s previous Play-By-Play reading of i in 2017 resulted in its world premiere at PTC in 2018. (You can download it at newplayexcange.org.) His play A Public Education was also previously heard in Play-By-Play.
I asked Talbott about his relationship with the work of groundbreaking Norwegian dramatist Ibsen (1828-1906).
Talbott said, “I love Henrik Ibsen. He’s my favorite playwright. I feel like he taught me everything I know about plays. He was one of the great moralists of world theatre, and he coupled that with a master storyteller’s instincts for how to embed messages and ideas in crackling tales about humans at crossroads. I first got to know his work as an undergraduate in theater history, but once I had read one of his plays, I started devouring all of them. Over the years, I have returned to them time and time again. I have always wanted to adapt his work, but am now zero for two in that department. I was thinking of adapting his wonderful soul-bruiser of a play Little Eyolf, but went down my own path to write a play called i that ended up having nothing to do with Henrik. And now, with The Messenger, I have once again sat down to adapt an Ibsen play only to write my own. Like a good little thief, I stole from him and then, like a good little student, I looked for clues in his writing and expanded them to suit my own ends. At least this time, part of the trick is making my play look like his play to start out with, only to have it all very quickly become something very different. So, I ended up saying The Messenger was a conversation with An Enemy of the People — it’s a chance for me as a writer to talk across the centuries with another playwright I admire through the language I know best: the language of playwriting itself.”
Learn more about The Messenger director Wes Grantom, who recently directed A Comedy of Tenors, The Lion in Winter and The Lifespan of a Fact for Pioneer.
Play-By-Play has nurtured the development of 21 plays, giving opportunities to 93 actors and directors, leading to seven world premieres, either at PTC or elsewhere.
Kenneth Jones’ Alabama Story (Play-By-Play 2014) was the first reading to get a premiere full production, on Pioneer’s mainstage in 2015. By fall 2020, it will have been produced in 34 cities around the country. Ask for a perusal copy here.
Play-by-Play readings are professionally produced readings, providing developmental rehearsal periods for three new plays each season. The playwright works alongside a professional director and cast for a week-long residency, culminating in three public readings of each play available to theatergoers at a very modest cost. Artistic director Azenberg said in a statement, “This is how tomorrow’s classics are created and we are thrilled to be such a critical part of the process of creating new work.”
Ellen Simon’s Ass was read in Play-By-Play in 2018-19 and will get its world premiere by Pioneer in 2020.
Ted Malawer’s The Anatomy of Love, according to PTC, “explores the lives of Danny and Laura, a modern couple consisting of a working mother and stay-at-home father. Their comfortable existence comes to a dead, frightening stop when their seven-year-old daughter’s teacher, Ms. Spencer, suggests that their child is most likely transgender. What follows is a fierce and sometimes hostile battle with Danny and Ms. Spencer advocating acceptance and pre-emptive reassignment and Laura adamantly refusing either action. This highly relevant issue is the battleground for an emotional and heartbreaking story of fierce love and dreaded loss.”
The Anatomy of Love reading will be held in Dumke Auditorium at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA); The Messenger and the April reading will take place at the Babcock Theatre, in the lower level of Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre.
For ticket information, visit the PTC website.
Ted Malawer (Playwright, The Anatomy of Love) is a recent graduate of the Juilliard Playwriting Program. He has received Lincoln Center’s Lecomte du Nouy Prize and The Kennedy Center’s Blanche and Irving Laurie Award, and his theatrical work has been developed and commissioned by T Magazine/The New York Times, The Public, NYTW, Atlantic Theater Company, MCC, and others. TV writer-producer credits include shows for Netflix, Hulu, Showtime, NBC, Freeform and Disney+, where he developed an original pilot. Malawer has also written several novels, including the “Mystic City” series for Penguin Random House. A former opera singer, Malawer is a Presidential Scholar in the Arts, a graduate of The Juilliard School-Columbia University Exchange Program, and received his master’s from Fordham University. He is currently adapting the novel “Red, White & Royal Blue” into a film for Amazon, and writing an original musical with Kate Nash and Andy Blankenbuehler.
Talbott’s play i was developed in Pioneer Theatre Company’s Play-By-Play Series and subsequently produced by PTC in 2018. His play A Public Education was also seen in Play-by-Play and was a finalist for the 2015 O’Neill Playwrights Conference. His play The Submission was the inaugural recipient of the Laurents/Hatcher Award and was produced off-Broadway by MCC Theater; it went on to receive the Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Award for New American Play and was published and licensed by Samuel French. Other produced works: The Gravedigger’s Lullaby (Off-Broadway – TACT/Theatre Row; published and licensed by Dramatic Publishing) and Civics and Humanities for Non-Majors (2018 O’Neill Finalist; commissioned and produced by Montclair State University). Other plays: Joseph Cook (2019 O’Neill Finalist), Three Rules for the Dragon (2017 O’Neill Finalist, workshops – Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Colt Coeur and Premiere Stages), How to Build a City (workshops – TACT, Route 66), Elliot and All the Stars in the Midnight Sky. He writes musicals with composer Will Van Dyke; as a musical theatre writing team, they were finalists for the 2019 Fred Ebb Award. Talbott graduated with honors from the Yale School of Drama. He is repped by Ben Izzo of Abrams Artists Agency.
Sponsors for Pioneer Theatre Company‘s Play-by-Play include Salt Lake County Zoo, Arts and Park Fund, The Bireley Endowment, Susan Stoddard Heiner and Blake T. Heiner, and Lee and Audrey Hollaar. Chris Massimine is managing director of Pioneer Theatre Company.