Back in time with Beowulf
Where: Livestreamed from the Sylvia Center
WHEN: 7:30pm March 19-20 and 26-27, April 2-3
Cost: Suggested donation is $5-$15
Wednesday, March 17, 2021
Rosalind Reynolds would be perfectly justified at holding a grudge against the universe for blighting the world with a pandemic that closed down most performing arts venues right around the time she was set to begin her stint as iDiOM Theater’s Playwright in Residence. But during a recent interview about her newest play, Unsung—which focuses on the dragon-slaying Beowulf before he became a mythical hero—it became clear that simply wasn’t the case.
Cascadia Weekly: What do you see as the main difference between the short plays you wrote as a kid and the ones you’ve penned as an adult?
Rosalind Reynolds: I’d say my current work has a deeper engagement with the tender pathos of the human condition, and fewer flying ponies.
CW: You’ve expanded your talents to include writing full-length productions. What additional skills have you needed to acquire along the way?
RR: I’ve been writing all my life, but learning to adapt my writing style to the stage has been a whole new venture. I took some playwriting classes from Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao, artistic director at the iDiOM Theater, to learn the fundamentals. Now that I’m Playwright in Residence, Glenn has been helping me edit my scripts, which has been like a master class in playwriting. I’m used to writing long fiction, so learning how to say more with less has probably been the trickiest lesson for me.
CW: As the PIR, you’ve contributed works that make iconic people and characters from the long-distant past come alive. Does having a PhD in medieval history come in handy when you’re pondering these story ideas?
RR: When does a PhD in medieval history not come in handy? I’ve always been drawn to stories from the past, and what they can teach us about who we are and where we come from. The story of Beowulf, for example, can feel distant and alien, until we realize how much the ideals of patriarchal warrior culture are still floating around in our collective psyche. If we want things to be different in the future, we first need to come to terms with our past and present.
CW: How has your playwriting process changed during the pandemic? What about associated creative collaborations?
RR: Well, my writing process involves shutting myself up in a room with a laptop, a cat, and a donut, so the pandemic hasn’t affected that much. And even though we’re meeting over Zoom or in masks, I still get to collaborate with a group of fantastic humans to make art. It’s a sweet gig.
If anything, the pandemic has heightened the urgency of what we’re doing. In hard times, people need art more than ever to process and give meaning to what they’re going through. My previous play, Julian the Humble, was born out of the pandemic experience, and I think that’s the reason it resonated with audiences as strongly as it did.
CW: Do you feel cheated because you’re not presently able to see your shows being performed in front of live audiences?
RR: We all miss live audiences, and look forward to having them back. But the livestream shows have worked better than I ever imagined. Thanks to masterful directing and camera work, they’re a pretty good theatrical experience in their own right. Plus, they give us the opportunity to reach a wider audience. We’ve been getting viewers from across the country and even the world, and not all of them are my relatives. If anyone has been avoiding tuning in to the livestreams because theater over Zoom doesn’t sound like fun, I’d encourage folks to give it a try.
CW: Your next play being livestreamed from the Sylvia Center’s Lucas Hicks Theater is described as “an imagined prequel to Beowulf.” How else would you describe it?
RR: The great hero Beowulf is about to face his final battle when his life flashes before his eyes. Or at least, a certain key period in his youth, back when it was still possible to imagine a different life. Transported back in memory, he sees the person he’s become through the eyes of the child he once was.
CW: In the play, Beowulf is seen as a kid struggling to grow up in a world that doesn’t yet value his strengths. Is he just a touchy teen, or is his struggle real?
RR: Well, he does get teased a lot. And his father is a famous warrior with PTSD and a drinking problem. And he’s about to get torn away from everything he loves and pulled into an unending cycle of violence and revenge, knowing that his eventual death will mean the obliteration of his tribe. So yeah, typical teen stuff.
CW: When you’re writing about characters people feel they already know, what are ways to differentiate them?
RR: Even if we think we know these characters, we don’t know them as three-dimensional human beings. Taking figures from the past or from legend and fleshing them out into something human and relatable is my favorite part of the process. I want the audience to forget that they’re watching an iconic figure, and instead come to believe that this character is a real person that they might bump into on the street and go have a beer with. If they see themselves in the character, all the better. Obviously a lot of this is on the actors, but it begins with the script.
CW: I noticed there’s a Jesse Reynolds in the cast playing the young Beowulf. Any relation?
RR: Yes. My son has been acting with the iDiOM for several years now. He’s actually the one who got me into theater, not the other way around. This experience of getting to work together on a project has been really fun for at least one of us.
CW: After Unsung, what other productions and projects are coming up for you?
RR: I’ve got a couple new scripts in the works. One is a quirky adaptation of Tristan and Isolde. The other is a slightly darker piece about Lord Byron. I feel sure I can work a flying pony into that one.
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