by Matthew Reddin
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s upcoming production of the holiday comedy CHRISTMAS IN BABYLON isn’t just a world premiere. It’s also a reunion for the creative partnership of MCT artistic director C. Michael Wright and James DeVita, a Spring Green-based writer, actor and director.
For more than 25 years, Michael and Jim have been friends and colleagues in the Wisconsin theatre community, dating all the way back to the 90s, when Michael directed WAITING FOR VERN, a one-man show starring Jim that was the playwright’s first produced work for the stage. Michael returns to the director’s chair again for BABYLON, and both artists are excited to work together once again on this project more than four years in the making.
As the duo prepared for their first day of rehearsals, I sat down to chat with them about their history together, and what audiences can expect from this world premiere production. This interview has been edited and condensed.
|CHRISTMAS IN BABYLON playwright|
MCT: Can you tell me a little bit about how you met, and how you ended up working on WAITING FOR VERN together?
Michael Wright: I can’t remember how we met. Can you?
James DeVita: I had heard that this actor from New York had come to town. I saw you and I remember saying “Who is that guy?” I don’t know how we got to be friends after that.
M: I think it was bonding during MOOT – a production we did at Milwaukee Rep in ’92. We already knew each other, but the two of us shared a dressing room at the Rep. That’s where we really bonded.
J: It’s funny because – I had been a closet writer for years, since I think sixth grade, and I’d never showed anybody anything I’d ever written. But I had been working on a one-person show quietly by myself. I knew Michael was a director too, and I trusted his aesthetic as an actor and as a person.
I was scared, ‘cause the first time you show somebody something you write – even new plays like BABYLON, it’s still tough. And Michael took a look at WAITING FOR VERN and he just tore it apart. We met in a little bar and he started giving me notes, and he had all these red marks on the script.
M: Because I loved it! I saw the potential.
J: It actually made me feel really good. You were the first person that actually – you thought there was merit in it, therefore it deserves criticism. It gave me a lot of confidence.
And here we are, 26 years later. And since then, I’ve written three novels and 16 plays and it all started in a dressing room.
MCT: Can you tell me a little about the play itself?
J: It was called WAITING FOR VERN, and not only did he help me develop it, but then directed me in it, and we formed a little theatre company for a very short-lived time, as young actors in town do. Collision Theatre Ensemble. Which is a great name.
M: We did it at a theatre festival at the Todd Wehr for one night only, and then it was really well-received so we kept working on it. Then we formed the company and this was our inaugural production. I stage managed it both times because we were so low-budget.
J: I toured it to Oshkosh, Mount Pleasant – it’s the sort of play you can just do with a stage and a chair.
M: He was waiting for Vern, but Vern never showed up.
J: That’s the conceit. I’m waiting for the other actor to do a two-person show, and he never shows up.
M: We did two productions. WAITING FOR VERN and then we did THE LONELY PLANET by Steven Dietz, that I was in and John Kishline directed. There was another play that you were working on...
J: AFTER HOURS.
M: We did a reading of that in the Stiemke, I remember. So that was our short-lived two years as a theatre company.
MCT: Talk a little about your history with MCT, before you met Michael.
J: I cut my teeth at the Chamber Theatre. My first show out of school was with the Shaw Festival. I got to work with these great actors – Bill Leech and Dewey McDonald and Ruth Schudson. I graduated in ’87 and Monty put me to work right out of school. I got to do three or four shows a year [with MCT] sometimes.
M: It’s so funny, because here I am at Chamber now, but we never crossed paths back then.
J: Not at Chamber, no.
|C. Michael Wright directed Jim Ridge (above)|
in James DeVita's DICKENS IN AMERICA
in 2006. They reunited for a production at
American Players Theatre in 2013.
MCT: When was the next time you crossed paths?
M: DICKENS IN AMERICA was the big one. DICKENS IN AMERICA started with – remember, we did it for one night only at American Players Theatre? It was a benefit. And Jim Ridge was still on book, because it was only one night. It was the big theatre outdoors. And it rained. He kept hiding underneath the bridge trying to keep the pages dry.
That was kind of an experiment that blossomed from there. It was so well-received that I decided to mount it in my second season at MCT (in 2006) – the first one where I chose the plays.
Then, years later, we ended up doing it again at APT, in the Touchstone. We kept working on it then too; it was a whole different version.
MCT: What was that experience like – to revisit a play again after years of growing as a writer and director?
M: It was fun.
J: I’ve always felt like... We don’t work together for a long time, but then when we do it’s like old friends from home. There’s no getting re-acquainted, we just dig right in again. I’ve always felt comfortable with Michael as my “editor-director-developer.”
M: You’ve always been so good about taking criticism. You’re one of the few people I know who relishes feedback.
J: Yeah, I kind of need it. My best work blossoms when I have really good feedback.
M: The one wonderful thing I remember about doing DICKENS IN AMERICA the third time, back at APT, was that Jim Ridge and I did a lot of sitting around and talking about who we are now, because we were really comfortable with the piece itself. And then I would write to Jim (DeVita) saying “What if we added, or elaborated on Dickens’ thoughts at that age – feeling like he’s at the end of his career?” Because the stakes are higher, suddenly. And that was kind of fun. To keep going “Who are we now? What’s changed for us?”
J: It’s funny: I find the things I’m writing now are changing, because of where I am now in my life. I’m revisiting my youth, I’m trying to find things from my past.
That’s fuel for every kind of writer and artist: the youth that you left behind if you left to go somewhere else. The life I left behind to do the life I have now has always fascinated me. It’s not a judgment. They’re just very different.
MCT: CHRISTMAS IN BABYLON is set in Long Island, where you grew up. Can you tell me a little bit about that show, and how you came to write it?
M: This is by far the funniest thing you’ve written, I think. Don’t you?
J: Yeah, definitely. I mean, there’s always been humor in the other stuff, but as I started working on it, I definitely decided “I’m going to write a comedy.”
Part of it is – I read tons of plays and see tons of plays, and there’s not a lot of comedies being written. And understandably so. The world is on fire, and I am not negating that at all.
But I miss comedies. I miss laughing. And without being dismissive of anything in the world – how can we laugh at some of this stuff again?
|James DeVita (back left) and C. Michael|
Wright (back right) with the cast of
CHRISTMAS IN BABYLON.
MCT: How did you and Michael decide to collaborate on this production? I know you presented the play at Forward Theater Company in a different form first.
J: Yeah, I started working on the play in Milwaukee when I was doing AN ILIAD here with Milwaukee Rep, and then I submitted it to Forward Theater’s new play development series, with the title BABYLON. We had a reading for about 200 people and it was really nice.
It was quite different in the beginning – very, very different. I wasn’t even sure, to be honest with you, if anyone else was going to find this funny. Because I consider it kind of New York humor. But it was such a relief to hear laughter.
Two of the women were quite underdeveloped in that draft. I worked a lot to develop Denise a little bit more, and Kathleen changed a lot too. And then I submitted it to Michael, and he said he was interested in it for MCT’s Montgomery Davis Play Development Series [in 2017].
M: We worked on it for a good year before that too.
J: Yeah, we kept on going back and forth. I changed quite a bit; lots of cuts. Even with the actors in the room, there was a lot we learned.
And that reading went very well. We got a lot of good feedback, a lot of laughter. I did a revision after that – not as major, which was nice – and then here we are, walking into rehearsal.
MCT: What are you most excited about, as the rehearsal process begins?
J: I’m really interested to see what the cast does with it. I trust actors implicitly. They’re really smart, and actors invariably find things I don’t know are in the play right now. There’s stuff you unconsciously put in the play, but they’ll mine it.
M: We feel pretty confident that what we’ve got is solid. I’m excited about putting it on its feet and giving it physical life. Clothes and music and...
J: Yeah, for me it’s exciting when you start to see something actually move and then it gets off the page.
M: The thing I love about the piece in particular is that it’s funny, but it also deals with a lot of issues we deal with today. Like forgiveness, and acceptance. And the fact that we’re all part of a larger family. You had really started to write a play about the class distinction – once Kathleen leaves, she really wants to be of an upper eschelon. But it ultimately becomes much more about – we are all pretty much the same.
J: Yeah, what you start out writing doesn’t always turn out that way in the end. In this play, Terry’s being challenged to think differently. And he resists it for a long time, or dismisses it, or makes fun of it, or this and that.
I think the world today is being challenged to think differently about everything. And it’s a lot for some people. It gets overwhelming. But if you can allow yourself to think differently about something, you might be able to accept it.
It’d be a great world if we could all figure out how to do that. Myself included.
CHRISTMAS IN BABYLON runs Nov. 21 to Dec. 23 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. For tickets, call 414.291.7800 or visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com.