by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
The timing of The Originalist could not be more relevant to what’s happening in our country. This summer, the Supreme Court will rule on the issue of gay marriage once and for all. Arguments for cases in four states (Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee) will be heard in April, with a final decision in June. The question at hand: whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, or whether individual states have the right to ban the unions.
Since United States v. Windsor—the central case in Resident Playwright John Strand’s play—struck down section three of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), 36 states and D.C. now allow same-sex marriage. Polls show that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage. In his State of the Union Address earlier this year, President Obama referred to the issue as “a story of freedom” and a civil right.
Before rehearsals began, I had a chance to interview John and Artistic Director Molly Smith about the inspiration behind this world premiere play, the polarizing figure that is Antonin Scalia and the constitutional debate of Originalism.
How did you become a playwright?
JS: I studied classics—Greek, Latin, ancient languages—so my first introduction to the theater was the Greek classics and Latin. I was interested in adaptations of those. The first thing I did was actually in Paris, which I threw together myself. I taught at the time for New York University, who had a program in Paris. It was a student-led production but I did the music. It was not a sophisticated production, but it was a lot of fun. I came back to the States after spending 10 years in Paris and I came to Washington, DC. I knew nothing about Washington at all but I got in touch with Howard Shalwitz at Woolly Mammoth and I said “I have this play,” and he was interested in it, so we did a public reading. At the end of the reading this guy stood up — the play had something to do with science — so this guy was a scientist and he stood up and he said “That is the worst piece of shit I have ever heard. That’s an insult to everyone in science!” He just sort of tore it apart and I’m sitting there going “Okay.” I talked to Howard afterwards and he said “Well that reading was terrible but I love the play so we’ll do it anyways.” And he produced it.
How does a play start for you—is it usually plot or character? Once you have that kernel, how do you get going? What's your process?
JS: I do a lot of sketching at weird places like on trains or when I’m stuck in traffic or in the middle of the night. I see it first. I can see a scene — I’m visualizing something and I know just how I want that piece to work. Now that might be a really small piece to a much larger jigsaw, but when I know I can see it, it’s not an idea anymore. It’s a vision or an image and I can begin to build out from there. Until I really see a scene in my mind I don’t get going on it. But once that first visual starts, then the writing comes after that.
What was the inspiration for The Originalist and what is your vision for the show?
JS: Antonin Scalia is really what interested me the most because he’s such a controversial figure, and such a lightning rod, and such a divisive personality. That’s irresistible for a playwright to have a character like that, because our reactions to this character say a lot about us as people. I did a lot of research on him and began to understand who he was and what he has accomplished. Aside from his rulings, what’s important is who he is as a character. Can we present him onstage in a way that is really intriguing for an audience? I think we can. And the second part of the inspiration was that my good friend, one of the people I most admire in theater, is Edward Gero, and Ed actually does resemble Anthony Scalia—handsomer and younger I always tell him. I thought “if I can just interest Ed in this.” So that’s where it began and that’s what I brought to Molly one day.
MS: John came into my office and began sketching this in and the hair on the back of my neck stood up because it’s Antonin Scalia and I thought “What a great character to create a play about.” Whether it’s something like Camp David or some of the other projects we’re looking at, our audiences get very, very excited about political stories. They’re partly in this city because they love politics. What I was amazed about in John’s play is his ability to be able to write about the man who is gregarious, funny, charming, idiosyncratic, strategic, playful, and kind of a bastard at times. There’s nothing easy about Scalia. There’s nothing easy about his brain—this very complicated, quite rigid brain—and I love the idea that there is a young law clerk from one side of the fence and another young law clerk from the other side.
We’re doing it in a very deep thrust, which means that we’ll be seating on three sides of the audience which is perfect for the Kogod Cradle. We haven’t used that configuration yet so it’ll break the mold in that way. I was interested in having the action between so that audiences could see each other because I think this is very much a community story.
JS: Scalia is a showman and a performer; that’s the key to his personality. Another metaphor that we use in the play is boxing, because he is a real fighter. He’s very aggressive in his arguing and he’s known for that in the Court. Cat, the character that is opposing him in this, is just as tough as he is, but in a different way. So part of their relationship is that almost pugilistic confrontation that they have. Verbally.
What have you discovered along the way in your research that is attracting you to Scalia as a dramatic character?
JS: I took the opportunity to do quite a bit of research on his thinking. There’s a lot of material available on Scalia. All of his opinions in the Supreme Court are archived. You can access all of them and they’re all intriguing. I read a lot of biographical information about him and a lot of his personal statements. The key thing for me was his concept of Originalism, which is where the title of the play comes from. In its simplest form, Originalism is the idea that the Constitution, as it was written and framed by our Founding Fathers, is meant to be strictly interpreted; not to be departed from. It’s the original text in the original meaning. Now the problem that comes up is how do we know what they meant 230 years ago? An Originalist will side step that question and say, “If you are objective and careful and know your history, you can know what the framers of the Constitution meant and were thinking.” There’s some debate, but in Scalia’s mind it does work. It’s the opposite side of “Hey wait a minute. That document was done two centuries ago. The Constitution is a living document, it has to change with our times.” That’s the basis for some of the intellectual argument in the play.
MS: I also love that John, who is rigorous in his research, has really pulled out some of the important court cases that end up being dynamically pushed back and forth between Cat and Scalia, in the style of a good boxing match.
What was the inspiration behind Cat?
JS: She’s a composite of people I know and have met over time. I wanted someone strong enough on the opposite side of the issues to go toe-to-toe with Scalia. I wanted to set it up that she’s overmatched at the start—she’s a recent graduate, he has almost a half a century of experience—so it looks like a complete David and Goliath mismatch.
What challenges or discoveries did you have writing somebody who exists as opposed to creating a fictional character?
JS: There’s a lot of material, so from that point of view there was a lot of stone to sculpt. There were times I had to be very careful. Because he exists as a person, my fictional character can’t wander too far away from the reality of who he is. I can’t be wildly inventive and create a whole part of him that isn’t there. My task as a playwright here is to create that fictional moment onstage. I’m using him as material as I use other moments or other material in the crafting of the play.
What has the evolution of the script and the characters been like—how have they developed?
JS: Originally I had an act break and then Molly and I chatted, and Molly’s feeling was “Let’s make it a single moment on stage. Make it a one act and keep the attention and the focus and the energy and the power; don’t break it up with an intermission.” She’s absolutely right. Now it’s a continuous play all the way through; there’s a power that happens. You don’t relinquish the energy of the production by getting up and going out and chatting. What we really love to do is invite people in some manner after the play to continue to discuss what has happened.
MS: John is such a smart playwright. Our audiences that love to chew on material, and the audiences that want to go for the emotional storytelling, are both going to be satisfied. It’s exciting to have those two elements operating at the same time.
Now a question I’m asking all our artists this season. Without giving it too much thought, what is your favorite word?
MS: The first word that comes into my mind is “impact.” The second word that came to mind was a swear word!
JS: My favorite word right now is not a single word but it’s a phrase—stare decisis, meaning to stand upon the decisions that have come before. All current lawyers, all current judges, go back to what their peers and ancestors have ruled upon. Theoretically law is built on a foundation over time and it becomes larger and larger with more decisions, so you go back and trust the decisions of your predecessors. There’s an optimism around the idea of stare decisis and I think it’s often really misplaced because what happens if the ruling was bad to begin with? I can think of a couple recent ones. Do you build on that or do you knock it down?
(Photo: Playwright John Strand, Artistic Director Molly Smith and cast member Edward Gero at the Meet & Greet for The Originalist at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater February 3, 2015.)