Casey Llewellyn sits with me at a small café table during tech. We’ve had just come from margaritas at Lupe’s around the corner. Llewellyn, a recent graduate of Brown’s MFA program, is a writer, director, and performer. For her experimental performance Come in. Be with me. Don’t touch me., she lived in a black-box theater for two weeks, sharing work and writings she had made each day in nightly showings and keeping a journal of her process. At the moment, she is gearing up for her epic, irreverent, and intimate reckoning with Our Town. O, Earth is much more than a response to Our Town. The title alone suggests its expansive view on human nature.
How do we live on earth? In ourselves … and together. Even when sometimes it feels unlivable. And for some, it is. Emily and George leave their previous lives in Our Town. My question is, if there was no room in Our Town for them, what can be here for me? It seems like everyone is waking up in our new town under the same, but different, sky.
—from O, Earth
Susan Soon He Stanton (Rail): The way you are responding to Our Town is very unique. Were you ever in a production? Please tell me you were Emily.
Casey Llewellyn: No, I’ve ever been in it. The project came about because I wrote another play set in a small New England town: The Body which is the Town. After I wrote it, I realized it was in relationship to Our Town. I talked to The Foundry, and they commissioned me to respond to Our Town. I spent years reading the play. I’m interested in Wilder’s image of America. I feel very separate from that. I relate to a lot of what he was up to, wanting to show big communities and the ecosystem of life.
Rail: Our Town is such a classic piece of Americana in both good and bad ways. I think it requires a response. And the one you’ve given is very thoughtful and complex. Can you tell me more about your response to the original source material?
Llewellyn: I wanted to make a community that was diverse in a way that the town in Our Town wasn’t. What is an “Our” that includes people who don’t have very similar experiences? There’s a marriage in the center of Our Town, and marriage has been a center of discourse in gay and queer politics in recent years. The funding for gay marriage has been a drain on funding for other GLBTQI issues such as youth homelessness and employment protections for trans people. Trans and gender non-conforming people were integral in the fight for gay rights, but their role has been downplayed and issues that affect them have not been prioritized. There’s been a separation of these movements. Trans people have gotten left behind, while gay people have seen many societal advances since Stonewall.
In this moment, there are more trans narratives in the mainstream than there used to be. But a lot of them are coming into the world without the trans people being involved with the project or directly benefitting them.
Rail: O, Earth includes an array of characters from LGBT culture. Historical figures like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera share the stage with Ellen Degeneres and Portia de Rossi. Tell me more about the world of this play.
Llewellyn: The word “icon” has been helpful in the development process and in understanding how to render all of these characters who are all so different and yet larger than life. O, Earth deals with a lot of different current issues around the queer community and gay/queer/trans politics and the interaction between these different communities.
Rail: The play is very imaginative and funny, but it also takes a serious look at LGBT culture and politics of the present moment. Was it difficult to strike that balance?
Llewellyn: Art and politics both have to do with our lived existence every day. Theater is for everything. It’s for thinking and being open to ideas, and also for enjoying yourself and being wowed. I was struggling with how to represent the political ideas in the play. I’m trying to understand the cultural work this play can do and how it can be pushed and help create space for people where there wasn’t before. And I like laughing out loud when I’m watching theater, so I tried to be funny.
Rail: There’s been controversy from other productions with cis performers for trans roles. I’ve heard that much of your cast is predominantly queer or trans. Can you speak more about that and about creating roles for these performers?
Llewellyn: There are three trans characters, and they are played by three great trans actors. I thought a lot about the impact the characterizations would have on trans people living today (which is very real, given the violence that trans people—especially trans women of color—face), and on our understanding of gay, queer, and trans history. I talked to a lot of people and got feedback from trans people that I know and people that knew Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Queer and trans stories are super hot right now in the cultural imagination. But what is the concrete impact, especially on trans peoples’ lives, of this increased visibility? It doesn’t necessarily equate to justice or power or the ability to live one’s life free from violence. It’s hard to move forward towards justice when the people who are most affected aren’t the people driving the stories that are getting resources. So I hope that theaters produce a lot more plays by trans writers with trans characters played by trans actors. And I hope that cis writers writing or considering writing trans characters think about how they can be accountable to trans people and how resources from their project can flow to trans people. We really thought about who we were inviting into the room to create this work on all levels—creative team, actors, designers, consultants on the script—and chose to work with a lot of queer and trans people because the people in the room are responsible for the story that gets told. We wanted to work with people who connected with the play on a deep level and who could bring knowledge to their roles that straight or cis actors would not. Our rehearsal room has been amazing. The cast is truly a gift. Throughout this process, I’ve been working to live up to the brilliance I saw and heard in our various rehearsal rooms.
Rail: You’ve done a lot of work as a director and a performer. Was it hard passing this play onto someone else to direct?
Llewellyn: Dustin Wills is amazing. We’ve been through a lot on this process, and he’s really helped with the structure of this play. It took time to build trust, especially politically, because I feel very conscious of the importance of these stories to my community, and I wanted to be careful with how they came through in the production. But that’s why I’m chilling with you during tech right now, because I trust him a lot. I’ve learned to let go and let other people do their work. I have no idea how to direct this play—I have a lot of feelings about this play, but not about how to direct it.
I’m excited to learn from this production. There are so many ideas that I don’t understand about the play, and I think that an audience will be really clarifying. The production is a big risk for a lot of us. I don’t know. I feel like this whole world feels so new to me. I’ve been working on this play for a really long time, and the ending, we just made it yesterday!
Rail: And that process is the beauty of making theater. You didn’t write a novel, you wrote a play to be interpreted with others.
Llewellyn: I’ve been thinking about the relationship between this alone writer and the process of making theater. We make these things that aren’t ever done. You want it to be finished at a certain point. It doesn’t feel like it ends. Some writers say it takes a couple of productions to finish a play. But it’s such a huge play, it might never get another production.
Rail: In the play, Thornton Wilder digs a giant hole on stage and there are ghosts and a whale. What was your rehearsal/design process like, translating those ideas?
Llewellyn: It’s surreal to see your imagination become a physicalized thing. I think I was imagining a real whale when I wrote it into the play. Real and shiny and wet. We might cut it. I see all of these impossible things. This whole process has been a great learning experience because I’m learning about why playwrights write the way they do. I feel like I don’t totally identify as a playwright. Nothing I’ve written has ever been done without me. But I realize, this script can exist, and other people can do it. Bodies are physically performing these actions and saying these words. It is surreal and extraordinary, and I never get over it. Suddenly there’s a prop list and all of this minutia for this thing you dreamed up. I find that really inspiring. I feel so grateful for whatever this is. I had lieder hosen as a prop, and they went out and looked for it. Every little thing does matter, these little things add up. I guess I’m just a theater person, that’s all. I find it really beautiful.
Rail: Something that strikes me in your writing and in your performance art is your relationship with theatricality and intimacy.
Llewellyn: I think those are the things I care about. Maybe they are one thing. Theater is intimacy. I’m obsessed with the audience. I’m obsessed with being in a room together, and being in a group in a room together with whatever a play or a theater experience is—or a work of art that is physicalized. It’s connected to everything to me. This art is something that can only be experienced when we breathe all the same air in the same room. The relationship with the audience is what makes theatricality. If you are in an audience, you want something to happen to you. I don’t want to watch someone else’s story. I’m obsessed with where the audience is in the story and what their experience is. I don’t just want to tell a story and have other people witness it. I’m trying to create work that will allow people go through an experience together.
O, Earth, written by Casey Llewellyn, directed by Dustin Wills, and produced by The Foundry Theatre, runs January 23 – February 20, 2016 at HERE Arts Center in Manhattan.
Performed by: Jess Barbagallo, Kristen Sieh, Emily Davis, Moe Angelos, Julienne “Mizz June” Brown, Cecilia Gentili, Ato Blankson-Wood, Tommy Heleringer, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, and Martin Moran. Designers: Adam Rigg, Barbara Samuels, Montana Blanco, Janie Bullard, and Raphael Mishler.
ContributorSusan Soon He Stanton
Susan Soon He Stanton is a member of the Public Theatre's Emerging Writers Group, MaYi Playwrights Lab, and TerraNova's Groundbreakers. She was the inaugural recipient of the Van Lier Playwriting Fellowship at the Lark and received a feature film development grant from the Sloan Foundation. From Honolulu, Susan lives in New York City.