I recently ran into Elizabeth Croydon, an accomplished Washington, D.C. anchored, Hollywood-recognized, comedienne, actor, and theater/movie producer at the Capitol Fringe Festival promoting her friend and playwright Ian Leahy's play Waiting for Orson.
What immediately caught my attention is that the Orson referred to in Waiting for Orson is the same Orson that "Mork from Ork" would talk to at the end of every episode on the sitcom Mork and Mindy (1978-1982). I used to love that show! "Nanoo! Nanoo!"
Getting my hands on Elizabeth's press packet, I decided to shoot a few questions over to Ian and get a better understanding of his work in this production:
Please tell us what Waiting for Orson is about, in your own words.
Waiting for Orson is about a guy waiting in New York's Penn Station for a visit from an extraterrestrial that he truly believes will show up and bring a great musical gift. The show uses witty dialogue, innovative staging, sultry music, and gummy octopi to explore whether he is mentally ill or consciously awakening as he deals with the frazzled bonds of family, friends, and potential true love while pushing frontiers of his own mind to try and discover the nature of reality.
What began the process of creating this show?
The strange thing about this play is that it emerged from real events I was experiencing. Thankfully, others were experiencing them with me so I knew I wasn't necessarily losing my mind but I was wondering where my life went off the tracks. The trained scientist in me wanted to prove or disprove the simple premise of whether some supernatural being could show up at all, much less in a crowded train station, while the artist in me couldn't deny my curiosity about a promised theatrical gift. Wandering aimlessly through a downpour in Times Square when I had all but given up, this play suddenly emerged in my mind almost fully formed -- the dialogue, every scene change, lighting cue. I spent the next two days locked in my hotel writing the first draft.
How long did this work take to develop?
We put on a production the following year where I lived at the time in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I like to think of it as the rough draft. It was very well received by the audiences and the experience was critical to get a sense of what worked and didn't, but it didn't feel complete so we shelved it for a while.
This past Christmas, one of the people involved in that first production, Becky Heldt, and I met up for tea when we were back in metro Detroit. We talked about doing a fringe festival and Becky had a strong concept for where the script could go.
So, along with dramaturge and lead actor Christopher Scott Leith, we reworked the script to punctuate its core themes and really make it a tight, emotionally-escalating experience that, in its initial public performances at Northern Michigan University's Forest Roberts Theater a few weeks ago, seemed to pay off. Audiences called it amazing, fabulous, and mesmerizing.
This play appears to addresses mental health issues from an interesting perspective, which will undoubtedly raise a lot of questions. Have you or someone you know suffered from mental health afflictions?
We were all honored when people dealing with mental health issues on a daily basis, whether professionally or caring for others personally, said the show captures the internal experience for the mentally ill incredibly well. I came at the themes of this show from the side of consciousness / spirituality, not mental illness. It was only afterward that I realized that the very situations I was experiencing parallel many of the symptoms of mental illness. I really started to worry about myself but, with others experiencing much of it with me, I became increasingly confident in my own mental stability and skeptical of blanket assumptions.
The core question raised in Waiting for Orson is where that line is between engaging in some valid aspect of reality beyond our material cognizance and experiencing true mental illness. Many will say they are one and the same but I encounter people all the time who lower their voice and say, "I've never told anyone this before, but... " before telling me about some incredible, unexplained experience. Dogmatic belief in a purely material universe has crept in to the point that deeper questions are not being asked often enough by researchers, which can potentially lead to misdiagnosis.
In your writings, there are actual rivers and trees giving you information -- When did you begin to draw inspiration from nature?
I was always far more interested in urban development than nature. Growing up in metro Detroit, I witnessed firsthand the impacts of our development patterns in some of its rawest forms. On one side, I watched our anchor city collapse into near ruins. I was in college before I realized not every city celebrated Devil's Night by burning hundreds of homes. On the other side, the one that doesn't get as much attention, I watched the forests and farms on the rural fringe get consumed by subdivision after subdivision of large homes and strip malls. From a pure design perspective, this just seemed like an incredibly inefficient way to structure a built landscape.
At first I thought the problem was simply one of buildings and transportation and policies, but eventually realized the built landscape and policies are simply a reflection of our collective psychological state. That's when I started looking within the mind for the source of why we don't seem able to build a civilization that actually works. This inquiry kept forcing me, against my will, to working with trees. I couldn't shake the feeling that trees held the answer to my questions about society. Eventually, I found that answer when I was ready for it.
You also seem to write about Native American traditions. Where do you draw your spiritual inspirations from?
I stripped myself of all assumptions and opened myself to whatever's out there. I didn't seek any of it. Native American influences came at me. Eastern traditions came to other people I knew. I don't belong to those traditions so there's no need to co-opt them. In the 1960s, it was probably necessary for western youth to seek wisdom in other cultures because they had no choice but to drop out entirely. My sense is that more recent generations don't need that escape. We can engage the systems we have and turn within ourselves, our culture, and our traditions to find the wisdom we need. I don't think it was coincidence, when I could have moved anywhere in the world, that I was drawn back to the middle of the United States. There's a lot of wisdom we've overlooked there.
Music is a theme that weaves throughout your work, and you refer to a musical harmonizing that will bring about world peace and cooperation. Please speak a bit on the importance of music in your own life and what studies you have referenced in this idea of a great "Harmony."
One of the biggest changes we made to the script from the first draft to the current version was adding that music through-line. We always had the jazzy vocals but it was a theatrical opportunity rather than musical that was promised in the real life version of events. That seemed like a cheap gimmick in the context of the play so we replaced theater with music, allowing the script to integrate ideas of a universal harmony.
In college, I took a class about the history of math, which was fascinating in itself but for one of my reports I studied crop circles (yeah, not surprising) and discovered that the leading hypothesis had nothing to do with aliens like pop culture suggests but rather vibrations from the earth that form these geometric patterns and burn the crops from the inside. I discovered that people have been able to levitate massive boulders by creating the right musical harmonies and took a weekend wilderness survival course at Cornell in which the instructor tried to teach us how to communicate with plants like he does and how he literally heard music from the sky when he would make a major decision in life. I was wracked with hypothermia from my shoddy lean-to construction but that's stuff that doesn't make it into the textbooks. Since then, geometric harmonies have integrated with my work in strange ways. I do think there's a mathematical gateway there we haven't fully explored.
You are actually flying in a cast and director from Michigan -- tell us a bit about these people.
Actually, the cast used performances in June to raise enough money to rent a van and drive to DC for three weeks. One of the unexpected surprises when I moved near Lake Superior was just how much theater talent is in that area. Multiple people described this cast's performances in this show as incredible.
Christopher Scott Leith, whose father is also in the show and brought his many years of psychology teaching, walks the line so well of a man on the cusp of either insanity or enlightenment. Sherry Bollero plays Rachel, his skeptical ex-girlfriend who is the emotional foundation around which all the insanity can ensue. She holds the show together brilliantly, providing the voice of both doubt and empathy.
Erin Renee Morgan does a beautiful job playing several distinct characters, from a sultry jazz vocalist to a neo-shaman and fortune teller. She's a talented, multi-faceted actress and just a captivating delight to watch perform. While Waiting for Orson deals with big ideas, it also basks in the joy of simple pleasures in life that require no questioning. Pat Wagner really anchors this part of the show as Tristan's old college friend.
Waiting for Orson will be at the Capital Fringe Festival, July 12-27, 2013
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