What inspired you to write this play?
I read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in college and, even then, wanted to write a play based on the poem. The poem’s meter, rhythm, and musical richness of its language seemed inherently right for the stage. The problem is that the narrative structure is not particularly dramatic so, with Albatross, I tried to invent a structure that is both “true” to the poem and, at the same time, provides a dramatic arc. This points out one of the central challenges of adaptation: how to be true to the source text and create a play that works on stage.
Many of my other plays are based on stories of immigrants. The Kite Runner (adapted from the novel by Khaled Hosseini) focuses on immigration to California from Afghanistan; Tortilla Curtain, adapted from the novel by TC Boyle, explores emigration from Mexico. Albatross is unusual for me in that it does not represent any specific immigrant experience or community. Instead, it engages the broad contours of immigration in a symbolic and poetic way – leaving home, unable to return … and then trying to recreate a sense of home in a new world.
The Mariner is something of a refugee, forced to wander the earth for eternity telling and re-telling his story. He never fully inhabits one place, but is caught betwixt and between multiple spaces at once. When he is at sea, his heart is on land, at home with his son. He travels across borders and centuries, but never fully belongs to any one geographic location or era. He speaks multiple languages, but his own native tongue, as he puts it, comes from “somewhere between Bristol Channel and the Irish Sea.”
I came to Matt with an idea to do a one-man show, rich with imagery, character, and intellectual rigor. He told me he always wanted to do a one-man show based on “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” I went back and read it, and saw how powerful the images are and how profound is its message. I immediately said “Let’s do it.”
Albatross uses Coleridge’s poem as a jumping off point. It’s really a completely new piece that focuses on what happened before the poem really gets going. Our play shows us who the Mariner is, how he got there, what he’s looking for. It’s exciting, scary, funny, rough and profound.
How relevant is the Mariner in today’s world?
Very relevant. At its core, this play is about the delicate interrelations between people and the natural world. Almost none of us live in isolation. Nearly everything we do matters. The simple act of going out for a drink, as the Mariner does in the play, sparks a whole sequence of events that otherwise would not have happened. In the logic of the play, our actions, even the seemingly most innocuous ones, can have intense implications for people around us, as well as the natural world. The play asks that we be keenly present and cultivate an awareness of how nearly everything we do affects other people. This idea, that all our fates are interconnected, provides something of a balance to an era of environmental degradation, increasing income disparity, and radical individuality.
I agree completely with Matt. The character and experiences of the Mariner are extremely relevant to our experience. Think of it: Our character has been wandering the earth for 300 years so he’s living in the world of our audience today, but brings to it this incredible perspective. A fundamental theme of the story is how our little thoughtless actions have consequences, ripples that affect the people around us, all living things, and the earth itself, which the play sees as having a divine spirit. Albatross takes on incredibly timely issues like climate change, the cruelty of humans to each other and to life on this planet, and our need to be mindful of the effect we are having.
What are some of the challenges you face when you adapt a well-known work?
First, I have to say I love adapting “well-known” works. As a writer, I relish the challenge of how to take the essence of a text and translate it to the stage. People have read the book, story, or poem. Part of the pleasure of watching an adaptation is matching the work on stage with the work as we remember it in our minds. Ultimately, I suppose, adaptation of well-known texts is a way of engaging in a public endeavor through the private activity of writing. It is a particularly social form of writing, a way of engaging directly with an audience through a shared text, which I find exhilarating.
Matt and I both know that people can bring a lot of their own expectations to a play that is adapted from a well-known work. With Albatoss, some people will come and listen for their favorite lines of the poem. In fact, we use only a small portion of the original poem in the script. We were concerned about striking a balance between the story we want to tell, and being true to Coleridge. It’s been extremely gratifying to have people tell us how excited they are to discover this completely new, modern and original work.
Can you tell us about the process of collaborating on Albatross?
This has been one of the most rewarding collaborations I’ve worked on. The process was amazing. I would send drafts of the play to Ben, and he would comment on them, and do some re-writes and additions, and send them back to me. I would make additional changes, send those sections to him, and he would add his changes and send them back to me. It was great. Every step of the way. It’s also great having a co-writer in rehearsal because he can make changes based on the rhythms that feel right to him. As a writer, it is a real luxury to write for a particular actor from day one.
Matthew is a dream to work with – such a good collaborator. We spent about five months doing research on the period, the play and Coleridge. Then Matt wrote the opening, which defined the character, and sent it to me. I loved it. We knew we were on the right track. Next he wrote out the overall arc of the story. I wrote smaller set pieces – the bottle cap speech, the frostbite section, the scientific description of the albatross – and then we shared the editing and shaping of the flow. I’ve loved sailing and the sea all my life so I helped make sure the nautical bits were accurate. We struggled a bit with the beginning and the ending but we came together on every decision.
What would you like to tell Artistic Directors about Albatross?
It’s a perfect example of the amazing power of good storytelling. I’ve never had audiences react with such enthusiasm, emotion and downright wonder to a show. It’s exciting, funny, shocking, moving, and ultimately uplifting. It’s got everything.
This is a great show! Audiences and critics love it!