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No Commoner Tale: Interview with the Playwright, Dramaturg, and Director

In a couple of weeks, Classics on the Rocks will be presenting the first staged reading of a new verse play. To give you some insight into this, I sat down (on the floor, in a corner of Shetler Studios, with a floor-shaking opera singer just behind the paper-thin wall) with playwright Quinn Rol, director Will Downes, and dramaturg Gina Stevensen.

No Commoner Tale will be presented in a staged reading on Friday March 8 at 7pm at Shetler Studios PH1. Tickets may be purchased in advance here.

What has been the story behind this play? What has its evolution been like?

Quinn Rol (playwright): For a little less than a year, I was working on this play called “Helen.” That play started just after the events of our current play end. I finished a full four acts of what was going to be a five-act play and realized, “Crap, the interesting stuff is right before this starts!” So that entire first play was scrapped. I stole some of my favorite phrases and choice couplets for the next iteration, but for the most part, the original draft was tossed in the trash. I just hoped it would inform the next version of the play. Now, it’s been two years.

Were there any major shifts since that initial re-start?

Quinn: The second big shift came after our first and only reading [prior to this one]. The most cogent feedback I got was that the women characters sucked, that they were not humans, that they were not developed enough yet.

Will Downes (director): That’s wild, since the women [in the version we are presenting] are so fleshed out, and so complete!

Quinn: Well, yeah, because they have to be!

EDITOR'S NOTE: He doesn’t mean this in a flippant, it’s-gotta-be-PC kind of way. Quinn actively interrogates his own perspective.

Gina Stevensen (dramaturg): The major questions we had to ask were about Helen – who is Helen? How does she behave? She was the central figure and yet the most obscure in the play a year ago.

This is a new verse play – it’s written in meter, instead of what we would think of as “contemporary English.” What made you choose to write this in verse?

Quinn: This play started out as a single, short monologue of Helen’s. Without giving too much away, her saying the words that she was saying in modern vernacular was devastating. It didn’t seem possible to have enough distance from it to be able to fully enter it. Shakespeare – he would always set his plays in far-off lands or long-ago times, which I’ve always felt has given the audience more access in some strange way.

Gina: There has to be some distance to be able to look at this story today. In order to indict yourself, you have to not realize that you’re indicting yourself.

Will: Which, as Quinn said, is exactly what Shakespeare did. He might be writing about Caesar, but he’s actually talking about returning from the Irish rebellions.

There is some general murmuring about “The power of allegory!”

Quinn, had you worked a lot with Shakespearean text in the past?

Quinn: Until I was 22 I was pretty in the dark about Shakespeare. I’d read as much as any high school student, but it was easy to fall into that belief that he was overrated and hard to read. Then, I took a high level English class in college that made me write an essay a week about a different Shakespeare play, and it forced me – clawing tooth and nail! – to learn how to appreciate his writing. This got reinforced in grad school. I started writing this play right around the time I graduated with my masters, and I’d say I was at the top of my game with Shakespeare at that point.

Gina, you are the dramaturg for this play. Could you speak to what your role has been?

Gina: Well, we’d have to start with defining what a dramaturg even is. I feel like my job as a dramaturg, and especially with this play, is reflecting back what each version of the play seems to be saying (from a more objective place outside the brain of the playwright). What is the spine holding these pieces together?

In terms of the process – Quinn and I spent a lot of time, probably a year, talking about the play before he even let me read anything.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Gina and Quinn are engaged. To one another.

Gina: We were talking about the characters, about the specific journeys of certain characters, about what the play is trying to say. Then finally I got to read drafts, take a lot of notes, and figure out how this written-down version compared to what we had talked about. Once something’s on paper, it’s not exactly the same, so I was trying to help Quinn find and re-define the spine of it.

Quinn: You're a play chiropractor!

EDITOR'S NOTE: Henceforth, “dramaturg” shall be defined as “play chiropractor.”

Quinn: Earlier, when I said that people had told me the women sucked [in earlier drafts]…Gina was the one who told me that. She showed me who sucked and how they sucked, pointing out that Helen had no objectives, and Amara had no reason to love Flawp.

Will, as a director, how has this compared with working with Shakespeare?

Will: It's a lot like working with Shakespeare! [No Commoner Tale] is so in tune with Shakespeare’s writing. It’s not a fan fiction that kind of follows meter, kind of goes with the phrasing. It actually uses meter and larger techniques and framing in the way that Shakespeare did.

Engaging with this play right now has extra meaning. In the #metoo era – what I’ve learned is that people want their stories told, want their narratives represented, without any judgement. At Classics on the Rocks, our philosophy [with Shakespeare] has always been, “Tell these stories, let the audience have their opinions, get it out there in its rawest form.”

Do you think that you/Classics on the Rocks would be interested in working with more new verse plays?

Will: Verse is kinda my jam! So for me personally I will always say yes to being involved with new verse work. Verse has stayed so relevant as a writing form because it follows the rhythm of the heart; that's why Shakespeare's plays are so wonderful and are able to get right to the heart and emotion of a situation, and why they have remained relevant. That's what attracted me to No Commoner Tale, it was at a molecular level very much Shakespeare. So we will keep our options open,and if the stars align the way they did for this, I would certainly be interested in exploring it.

Gina: I'd like to add that there’s something so special about working on a new play with a director and company who are very used to working on plays that are finished and set. There’s so much to be gained for the writer by treating this like it’s a published play, and really seeing what works and what doesn’t. Companies that only do new plays have a very different approach.

If you were going to write a note in the program to No Commoner Tale audience members, what would you say?

Quinn: I just want the audience to be warmed up by a stand-up comic for 5 minutes. I want them to get riled up and ready to laugh.

Will: From a director’s standpoint…what it boils down to for me is: you’re about to witness the birth of a play. We are helping give birth to this story that Quinn has developed.

Gina: The audience should know how important they are to this process, and I’d want to give a very generous thank you to them for entering this space with us. There are not many new verse playwrights, so your truthful response to this play is going to help more than anything. Laugh, cry, fall asleep – whatever you actually want to do during this play!

EDITOR'S NOTE: If you do fall asleep, please try to pay attention to exactly where it got boring, and let us know during the talk-back at the end. March 8, 7pm, Shetler Studios PH1. Tickets can be found here, and we highly encourage reserving them in advance.

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