"Light from the Pleiades" Interview with playwright

"Light from the Pleiades" by Brian Leahy Doyle was performed by English Theatre Düsseldorf as a play reading online on 26.03.2021 in aid of World Theater Day.

"'Light from the Pleiades' is the uncommon love story of Deirdre and Mooney, which occurs during three different time periods in their lives, beginning when they are 17 and 23 in Madison, Wisconsin. Their relationship is emotionally intense and physically passionate, but comes to an end when Mooney leaves for graduate school. The action jumps forward 10 years when Mooney visits Deirdre, now diagnosed as a schizophrenic, in Green Bay. Deirdre tells Mooney that he had gotten her pregnant and that she had had an abortion. The action then jumps forward 15 years: Mooney has become a successful writer, with a personal life in flux, when he is contacted by Anna, Deirdre’s daughter and possibly his child. Deirdre has died, but her ghost speaks to Mooney, encouraging him to undergo a DNA test and to discover a greater sense of purpose in his life. "

Brian very kindly allowed us to interview him a few days after, sharing his motivations behind the play, where his love for writing plays started, and what other plays he has in the pipeline... read all and more below! Thank you Brian for sharing with us!

- You’re a director, why playwriting?

I’ve always been interested in writing. My undergraduate degree is in English, and I’ve always been interested in telling stories. In fact, I got my start as a director directing New Vaudeville plays that were created via improvisations with a group of people – “devised theatre” pieces, although we didn’t call it that then. And as a director, I also have worked as a dramaturge with a number of playwrights in developing original plays.

But, to the question, I started writing plays and song lyrics when my friend Michael Dilthey asked me seven years ago to collaborate on a musical based on Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession. At the time, I was working a full-time job and a part-time job and teaching three college classes. So I didn’t really have the time or energy to take on any directing projects. Directing is a very time-intensive process. But I found that I could write during my free moments, like when I was riding the train into Manhattan to my day job. Sometimes I’d sneak away to the restroom at work when an idea struck me!

I found that I enjoyed writing plays. Also, because I am in the process of searching for a full-time college theatre teaching job, writing plays was my way of maintaining an ongoing “theatre career.” It’s been my way of keeping myself in the game!

- What inspired you to write the play?

I had finished writing and co-producing a staged reading of my second full-length play, which is called The Chancers! I really enjoyed working with the director who directed this reading, and so I started to adapt a series of scenes that I had originally written as my attempt at writing a screenplay. This later became the first section of the play that features just Deirdre and Mooney. As I began to write the play, I realized that I was writing a love story.

- In the play there are several references to Mooney about his feelings about writing. How intimate a process do you find playwriting to be? How is directing your own work different from directing someone else’s play?

Obviously whenever I write a play, I am drawing upon my own life experiences and upon my memories and recollections of people whom I know or have known. So, yes, it’s an intimate process, and I’m very conscientious about being true to the experience while also being protective about the people I’m writing about.

One of the realities of directing my own work is that I don’t need to ask permission from the playwright to change or edit a line that doesn’t work! I also find that when a line doesn’t work it’s usually because it’s not a good line, not because the actor doesn’t understand the line or how to deliver it. And I tend to be less merciful about changing a line of dialogue I’ve written than I might be if I were directing another writer’s play. If I were directing another’s play, I might keep trying to get the line reading right with the actor.

- If this play were to be published, how much control would you have over how other directors would interpret your work?

I really don’t know! I suppose that would depend upon the contracts I’d sign with a licensing company as to how much latitude a director might have. Because I have a background as a director, though, I really try to make my plays “director-proof,” particularly I had a really unpleasant experience with the young director who staged my first full-length play, Greetings from Fitzwalkerstan. This director essentially ignored all of my entreaties to discuss the play, even though I repeatedly emphasized in my emails that I wasn’t trying to direct the play – and couldn’t anyway because I was in New York and the play was being produced at a theater in Madison, Wisconsin. Because he refused to communicate, I had to threaten to pull the play from production! Since that experience, however, I always strive to have a conversation with any director staging one of my plays before rehearsals begin so we can discuss the play. I want to make sure that the director has the chance to ask me any questions about the play. Let him or her know that if there’s a problem with some aspect of the play that I’m open to changing a line or editing a long speech, etc. Very rarely do I attend rehearsals.

- How married am I to stage directions? Can a director ignore stage directions, and create his or her own creative world? Where does a director’s creativity end? When is a director rewriting the play? Or saying something other than the playwright intended? As a director turned playwright, have your perspectives changed as to how to approach a piece? Has your perspective on playwriting changed?

How married am I to stage directions? It depends upon the stage direction. I try to use stage directions sparingly and to incorporate them into the plot or narrative of the play so that it’s clear to everyone that the action is integral to the play’s narrative or a character’s motivation. I really prefer it when a director at least tries to follow the stage directions. I put them in a play for a reason.

Can a director ignore stage directions and create his or her own world? Well, yes, but sometimes doing so compromises the writer’s original intent. As a director myself, I approach directing an original or a new play with the idea in my mind that I am serving the playwright. I try to create my interpretation of the world of the play by honoring the writer’s intention.

When is a director rewriting a play or saying something other than the playwright intended? From my experience, most directors are concerned with pleasing the playwright. If there’s a disagreement with my intent as a playwright it’s usually over a small matter. For example, I wrote the libretto to an opera, The Weeping Woman, based on the relationship between Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar, a Surrealist artist in her own right who in the 1930s and 1940s was Picasso’s “official mistress.” At the same time, Picasso and Dora were lovers, he was also in an affair with another woman, Marie-Thérèse, a younger woman who was the mother of one of his children. In real life and in the opera, Dora and Marie-Thérèse were bitter rivals for Picasso’s attention and affection, and they absolutely hated each other! The director did a really fine job directing the opera, except for the conclusion of one scene where he staged the two woman holding hands as they exited the stage after a duet. Had I attended the rehearsals, I would have insisted – politely, of course – that their holding hands be changed. Besides, the exit would have been a more powerful statement if each of them had stormed off the stage!

In terms of my perspective on playwriting, I’m probably more concerned of protecting my work from actors or directors who make choices or decisions like the one I just mentioned.

- What kind of a process was writing the play?

I write in dribs and drabs! I’ll often write the first third or half of a play and reach some sort of creative impasse. Then I’ll write a scene that feels like it could be the final scene of the play, and I’ll go back to where I left off and see how I can reach that concluding scene. Which might necessitate my going back to the beginning of the play and working forward to the end of the play, perhaps changing or adding a phrase or a line to support the play’s developing narrative arc.

- What kind of feedback has influenced the shape of the play as we heard it read tonight?

From the very first cold reading with a group of actors in July 2019, one constructive piece of feedback I received was to develop further the character of Anna. People wanted to know more about her. So I fleshed out her character, while maintaining a certain enigmatic quality that Anna has. Also, another piece of feedback had to do with the length of some of Deirdre’s monologues or speeches – that they were too long or too wordy! I probably could still do some more trimming and tweaking with the speeches!

- Do you think of using the text in any other way? Netflix? TV? A film?

I think that Light from the Pleiades has a filmic quality, and I could see it becoming a film. That would probably require editing or deleting some of Deirdre’s speeches, perhaps even restructuring the scenes featuring Deirdre and Mooney from early in the play and incorporating them into the later action as flashbacks. I’d probably want to collaborate with someone with a background as a screenwriter on the screenplay. But as of now, I’m hoping, once we’re free of this pandemic, that the play can see a live production in a theater. I’d like to be able to flesh out how to stage the play, as I suspect doing so would involve more rewriting.

- What’s your next play?

I’m currently working on two projects.

One project is Girl in the Air, the libretto to a musical that is “inspired” by The Bhagavad Gita. I’m collaborating with composer Michael Dilthey. The libretto is to be sung or expressed in recitative, like Rent or Hamilton. It’s a bit challenging because The Bhagavad Gita really doesn’t have a definitive plot or narrative – it’s a series of conversations between two characters, Krishna and Arjuna. That’s why I say it’s “inspired,” and the libretto is influenced by the themes contained within the discussions.

The second project, Dead End Kids, involves my taking a long one act I wrote that was featured in KNOW Theatre’s 2020 Playwrights Festival and expanding or extending the story, picking up where the one-act version concluded. I’m hoping to persuade Michael to collaborate with me in developing a musical comedy, once I finish the libretto to Girl in the Air and he finishes setting the libretto to music.

Those two writing projects should keep me busy for a while! Rehearsing with the cast from ETD’s reading of Light from the Pleiades has also whetted my appetite to doing more directing! We’ll see what the future holds!