I couldn’t be more excited to have J.T. Rogers’ Blood and Gifts on our stage right now to conclude TimeLine Theatre’s 16th season.
The road to bring this dynamic play to TimeLine started more than five years ago—before J.T. had even begun work on the script. Having read his play The Overwhelming, which is about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, TimeLine’s Company Members were blown away by the intelligence, depth and scope of his writing. His is a fresh, dramatic voice that is global in perspective, probing, and clearly fascinated with examining history in a way that provokes thought, emotion and discussion. We felt that we’d found a kindred spirit.
On the night I first met him in 2008, it became abundantly clear that his interests and theater sensibilities were so in sync with TimeLine’s mission that I told him, “even if it takes years, we’d love to find a project to work on with you.”
We’ve been in conversation ever since.
As our mutual admiration for one another’s work continued to grow, J.T. mentioned that he was starting to write a play about the CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan during the early 1980s. I said, “As soon as you’ve got a first draft, send it to me!” And he did.
So we’ve had the privilege of watching Blood and Gifts evolve over the last few years, cheering for the play’s deserved acclaim after its premiere at London’s National Theatre as well as its heralded run at New York’s Lincoln Center. And we’ve been grateful that through it all, J.T. kept talking with us about premiering the play in Chicago at TimeLine.
This summer we are proud to see that wish fulfilled.
While epic in scope—spanning 1981 through 1991—and ripe with historical and political context, Blood and Gifts, at its core, is an intensely human play. It zeroes in on the role of the individual—ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances who, decision after decision, shape history.
Even with a cast of 14, the striking thing about this play is how much of it is two-person scenes. It’s two guys in a room talking, contemplating decisions most of us cannot imagine. Navigating barriers of language, culture, history, religion and custom, theirs is a fragile dance of trust earned and trust lost. With the full knowledge that there are no good decisions, these men seek just to make the least bad one, all the while pondering the world they’ll leave for their children.
Under the ever-inspiring leadership of our Associate Artistic Director Nick Bowling and his stellar design team and cast, TimeLine’s production of Blood and Gifts has been crafted for our intimate space to bring you as close to the story as possible, immersing you in the tangled web of covert operations.
When you visit the theater, we invite you to be curious. And to see where that curiosity takes you! Explore your surroundings—perhaps in ways that you might normally feel too timid to try on the set of a play. Open drawers, read files, scour for facts and insight, and bravely enter the clandestine world of this play. The amount of research that J.T. conducted as he wrote this story is staggering, and we’ve tried to share as many resources with you as possible. All so you can dig deeper.
TimeLine’s production of Blood and Gifts owes a special debt to many, but to two men in particular. First to J.T., for sharing so much insight with the cast and production team and for being so enthusiastically involved. And second to Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, for his generosity and for sharing his expertise.
I thank you for continuing to travel with TimeLine to new places, as we explore eras, cultures and parts of the globe that we haven’t before. And I thank J.T. for his belief in our company through the years. We hope that you’ll hear more from him here in the future.
Blood and Gifts gives us much to dissect, discuss and debate, and we are so thrilled to give this play a platform for that conversation in Chicago. Please share your responses to the play and its themes in the comments below.
During rehearsals for Blood and Gifts, TimeLine Artistic Director PJ Powers (PJP) talked with playwright J.T. Rogers (JTR) about his genesis as a playwright, the extensive research that informed the writing of Blood and Gifts, and the lamentable lack of plays with a global perspective premiering on American stages. An edited version of this interview was included in the Blood and Gifts Backstory. This is the full version. Read on:
(PJP) You started in the theater as an actor. When did you shift to playwriting, and do you ever miss being on stage? Do you maybe want to come play Karl Lindner in A Raisin in the Sun at TimeLine this fall?
(JTR) Wait … I’m not already cast? I’m pulling the Blood and Gifts rights—now!
I started writing short plays when I was in acting school at the North Carolina School of the Arts. I’d write them; my friends and I would put them up; people would come.
Midway through my training I realized—in hindsight, with a blessed lack of angst—that I had made an internal shift whereby I now identified as a playwright first and foremost. Of course, I then became a better actor because I was no longer obsessing over my work.
But, no, I don’t really miss it. I’m fortunate enough to give enough speeches, teach enough classes, speak on enough panels, etc., that any lingering performing needs get satiated. And, years on, the idea of doing a long run in a play seems astoundingly foreign to me.
(PJP) You and TimeLine are kindred spirits, with our shared interest in exploring history. Have you always been a history buff?
(JTR) Yes. I’m only now realizing how much so as I watch my 10-year-old son become obsessed with history and mythology and legends—through his eyes re-remembering how much I loved these same subjects when I was ten.
(PJP) Michael Billington, the British theater critic for The Guardian called you “that rare creature: an American dramatist who writes about global issues.” I’m guessing that spending parts of your youth abroad played into this? Can you talk about your upbringing and how it prompted you to look and think beyond your homeland?
I like a little sex in my theatre.
During our Sunday Scholars Series for TimeLine’s production of Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West by Naomi Iizuka, Artistic Director PJ Powers joked that “sex never gets old.” Indeed.
One of the most interesting moments in that discussion came when one of our patrons asked why, when the West forced Japan to open its borders, there came this conception that the Japanese were more sexual. Our panelist, Dr. James Huffman, noted that while the Christian world judges sexuality in terms of morality, pre-Christian Japanese culture did not. He posited that the Japanese view sex and sexuality in terms of private vs. public behaviors rather than good vs. bad. In this context, sexuality, while assuredly private, is not measured on the same moral scale. It was the advent of Western Christian ideals that imposed taboos on certain sexual behaviors (homosexuality, for example) in Japan.
This cultural distinction captivated me. It challenged me to look at this play, which we at TimeLine have jokingly referred to as our “sexy play,” in an entirely different light.
The clash of (mis)perceptions about sexuality plays out across the lines of history. The 19th Century character Isabel Hewlett mistakenly assumes that the photographer Farsari’s Japanese servant girl is there to “please him in ways no proper woman would.” It’s an assumption we are recalled to later in the play when the modern-day character Hiro scowls, “Maybe she just got fed up with some white guy with an Asian fixation—because I’ll tell you something—that shit gets old.”
Sexual stereotype, exoticism and desire seep from the text of this play. At the first rehearsal the room pulsed with it; all of us collectively conjuring images of naked woman and men, illicit affairs and stolen trysts; all of us wondering, “how the hell is this going to play out on stage?
Chris Jones wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune a few weeks ago about why sex rarely works on stage. WBEZ hosted a panel discussion about the discomfort surrounding sex and nudity on stage. Sex and sexuality have always been at the epicenter of the theatre, whether it is their censure or presentation. If you don’t believe me, just ask my theatre friends with grandparents who still maintain that “all actors are prostitutes.” A few hundred years ago they might have been right.
Mr. Jones is absolutely right that sex on the stage is completely different from sex on camera. The presence of an audience, and the collective awareness of that audience, changes everything. There is no mystery in the sex one sees on stage, or at least, no romance. But sex is not always mysterious or romantic.
One audience member noted that none of the sex in this show felt very erotic. I agree with her. The sex in this play is not erotic, nor do I think it is meant to be. There are allusions to eroticism (though more often exoticism) and pleasure—but in telling only. The sex and nudity that is seen on stage in this production is, cleverly, of a different kind. It is a sexuality that is jarring, illicit, stolen. The viewer feels unsettled because these are acts that we are not meant to see. Stolen, still frames of someone’s private life. Once you capture the image, it becomes corrupted.
This alarmed me the first time I saw the play. However, the more I think about it, the more I understand that the erotic really does live more freely in private. Sexual actions performed on stage are immediately corrupted either by another character’s gaze or, more intriguing still, by us, the audience. We fill out the story of first the character, then the actor, and then their body, as we watch them move across the stage wondering, “What are they doing, with all of us watching?” We create a narrative as rife with assumptions, stereotype and sexual stigma as any of our characters from 19th Century Yokohama.
I think the truth is that we are ill at ease with being asked to look at sex or nudity in a realm that is neither romanticized nor obscene. I never thought about it this way until seeing Concerning Strange Devices and being forced to consider why the sexuality I was seeing felt so far from what I had imagined it would (even should) be. When I watch the scenes of nudity or sex I feel not desire, but a certain discomfort. Because these moments are not mine, they are private.
In a way, the theatre itself is a way of turning the private public. We expect to enter Gertrude’s bedchamber with Hamlet, to watch Blanche collapse into her own neurosis. And yet, so often we expect to do so at a safe distance without the slightest discomfort. How presumptuous of us, I think now. Imperialistic even.
I agree that sex may feel uncomfortable, even jarring, when it is played on stage. But as to whether or not it “works,” I supposed that would depend on what it is trying to do.
To a western audience, where the private is so constantly made public, and sexuality instantly charged as good or bad, what does it mean when these lines are blurred?
For me the realization clicked that Iizuka and director Lisa Portes might not be using sex to arouse or seduce their audience, but something altogether more exciting—provoking them with it. To a western audience, where the private is so constantly made public, and sexuality instantly charged as good or bad, what does it mean when these lines are blurred? What happens when the sex you are seeing feels private, but the action itself unapologetic? When we become implicated in the sexual objectification of a body on stage, the light is turned sharply inward to our own sexual stereotypes, shames and desires. And I commend Iizuka and Portes for their willingness to cast that light on their audiences.
Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West closes on Sunday, April 14, 2013.
One of the joys of seeing live theater is feeling certain ideas reverberate with your own experiences. I have not been to Japan, and yet on seeing Naomi Iizuka’s Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West, I immediately thought of my vintage tinted photos of Yellowstone National Park.
The play is about many things, not just the complexity of interactions between East and West, but about our attempts to capture and possess things in a photograph—as though we can stave off our own temporality by keeping an image of something as it was or as we would like it to have been.
I think most people have possessiveness about the place they grew up, no matter how complicated their relationship with that place becomes.
I grew up in southern Idaho, and we spent some time every summer in Yellowstone National Park—so much time that my sisters and I experienced a possessive familiarity and a nascent contempt for all the tourists who inundated our favorite trails every summer. Yellowstone possesses everything that makes it the famous tourist spot it remains: astonishing natural beauty, impressive and often dangerous wildlife, and geothermal features that create deep turquoise pools, explosive geysers, bright orange bacterial mats and trees that have turned into stone. It is no wonder that the American Indians who first lived around and knew the Yellowstone region thought it was a sacred place.
In that typical egotism of childhood, which does not know the irony of feeling possessive about a national park, my sisters and I felt this was our place and all these other people who wanted to see this natural wonder were just getting in and out of cars automatically, failing to appreciate what this place meant to us. This prompted in my sisters and me some unusual behavior. One summer, we started a game in which we would stand together and point—to see how many cars we could get to pull over to look for nothing. It was an advanced form of “made you look,” played with unwitting tourists eager for the next photo opportunity.
Once, when we had all started learning French, I remember my sisters and me spending a day in the park speaking only French to each other until we could get American tourists around us to comment on the adorable little French girls.
These games reflected that profound sense of ownership which allowed us to neglect the beauty around us for the sake of games involving tourists who we were certain couldn’t possibly share our sense of connection to this place, tourists who were unlikely to ever know that we were mocking them. The word reflected it all—they were on a tour, but we lived there, we understood this place.
When I moved to Chicago and left the beauty that had surrounded me for 22 years of my life, I found myself anxious and nostalgic about leaving the West.
Before my departure my parents bought me a couple of vintage framed photographs of Yellowstone taken by Frank J. Haynes. He was the official photographer of the Northern Pacific Railroad, who was hired to take photos to advertise to the first tourists who would come by rail and carriage to Yellowstone. The first photographs were black and white. Later they were hand tinted to try and reflect the unique natural beauty of the park. The sky or the turquoise pools are rendered faint and wistful by the pale blue watercolor painted on them.
These are not images of the Yellowstone as I know it: bright pools, high mountain sun, the scents of pine and sulfur, and fine, powdery dust on my boots. These are nostalgic images of a place I loved and lost. They also have the accrued memories of countless tourists who visited this amazing place once and bought a photograph home to put on the wall, which some child or grandchild got rid of and I picked up second hand in an antique shop or on eBay.
My collection of Haynes photographs grew. The framed ones are all above my couch in a sort of shrine to Yellowstone, but I also have boxes of postcards and books filled with these images. My childhood sense of ownership had morphed into a collector’s passion for ephemera. The word itself is key—ephemeral. Photographs are an attempt to capture a moment that has passed, a beautiful place that is no longer present, that is not mine and never can be mine. They are the vehicles of nostalgia.
I have gone back to visit Yellowstone several times and I have taken my camera with me. It was a revelation to have a good camera and be able to capture images as I saw them. I look at those photos with some regularity, but I have never blown them up and put them on the walls. I leave my vintage photos of Yellowstone on the wall because they represent it as it is to me, a beautiful, magical place, tinged by memory and longing and nostalgia. They are the images of my feeling about the place rather than the place itself. Still when someone mentions home I am as likely to think of Yellowstone as I am any other place I’ve lived.
TimeLine’s current production of Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West explores the role of photography in our experience of life, especially in relation to other cultures and through time. So we invited our patrons to share with us not only the photos they take while attending the show, but also photography that made a significant impact on them in terms of their experience of life.
For more information and to get involved by sharing your own perspective, please visit our resources page, found within the Concerning Strange Devices section of TimeLine’s website.
Today, we’d like to share with you three submissions from patrons that caught our eye and sparked our imagination:
Think back. Way back to a time that now seems almost incomprehensible— nearly the last millennium.
Can you recall when you didn’t have a camera at your fingertips, seemingly at all times, handily embedded in your cell phone?
Remember when you couldn’t—with just a couple of taps—snap a picture and immediately circulate it to the world for perusal?
And do you also remember when you couldn’t—with just a click or two more—alter and manipulate that same photo just prior to broadcasting it worldwide, creating an image exactly as you’d like it to be seen?
Seems like a lifetime ago that this wasn’t the norm. It’s a brave new world now of 24/7 voyeurism. And it’s not only image sharing, but also image crafting.
Can we trust that anything we see is real? Are things ever truly as they appear?
These questions—and oh, so many more—are deliciously teased out in Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West, Naomi Iizuka’s sexy puzzle-of-a-play that we are thrilled to introduce to Chicago in only its second production. It had its world premiere in 2010 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where our literary manager Ben Thiem saw it.
Born in Japan, Naomi spent much of her life traveling the world prior to putting down roots in her current home of California. Her exposure to different lands and cultures lies at the heart of much of her body of work as a playwright. She often examines the relationship between America and the Far East, be it Vietnam, Cambodia, or, in the case of Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West, Japan.
Crafted as a triptych, this play traverses Yokohama, Tokyo and the United States, transporting you from present day back to the 1880s when a strange new device—the camera —opened up worlds of discovery and intrigue for Americans curious about the exotic Far East.
Naomi’s writing has a mystery, intrigue, yearning and sensuality that is both beguiling and entrancing.
Naomi’s writing has a mystery, intrigue, yearning and sensuality that is both beguiling and entrancing. And her bold theatricality will keep you guessing, piecing things together and speculating about what is real, what is imagined and what is fabricated.
Her exploration of the unknown was quite alluring to TimeLine’s Company Members when we read this play. We too are continually trying to stretch beyond what we’ve known and tackled before, always trying to take you with us to new places.
For this journey we’re delighted to welcome director Lisa Portes, one of Naomi’s closest collaborators, to TimeLine for the first time. Friends since graduate school, Naomi and Lisa have worked together on numerous projects, and their partnership has been seen on stages ranging from the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis to the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and beyond. Now they open another thrilling new chapter in TimeLine’s intimate space, bringing you up close to the play’s language, imagery and sensuality.
The triptych begins in 1884 with Americans on a quest abroad in Yokohama, seeking insight into an exotic other-world. Just as they were curious to learn about that distant culture, we explore history with a similar desire for understanding. How did people dress? What were their lifestyles, their politics, their romances?
Yet this search for clarity often is clouded by the lens through which we peer. Whether we’re looking into history or merely to another part of the globe, our perspective is shaped by what is presented for us—stories, photographs and tableaux that have been chosen, shared and passed on, carefully crafted to depict a seemingly accurate snapshot of a time and place.
But do we know better now, armed with our own crafty new strange devices built into app-filled smartphones? Is there really such a thing as a pure snapshot of a moment in time? Or is the world of manipulation and selective sharing the new norm—one that we all are lured into playing?
We’re eager to tackle these and other timely questions in discussion with you during the run of Concerning Strange Devices. We also invite you to join in the photographic odyssey that Naomi ignites. While taking photos is prohibited during the performance and inside the theater, more mysteries and images await you in the lobby, and we hope you’ll peruse, participate and maybe even tinker with photography of your own.
We also hope you’ll join in a larger conversation about imagery and
the play on Twitter (you can follow TimeLine at @TimeLineTheatre or me at @pj_powers), in our photostream on Flickr and here on our Behind the ‘Line blog.
Check our website for up-to-date information about ways to interact with us and each other about Concerning Strange Devices!
We invite you along on this exciting venture. Here’s to an alluring and illuminating trip!
Over the past 11 weeks of Wasteland, we’ve watched as audiences step into the theater and are immediately drawn into the world of the play before one word of the script is uttered. The lights and haze, the sound of insects and wildlife, and most strikingly, an unsettling and realistic scenic design transport them underground somewhere in the Vietnam jungle. Often at the end of the show, people stop to inspect the set—peering up into the hole, touching the rocks and dirt, discussing among themselves theories about how it was built.
So as the show draws to a close (the final performance is this Sunday, December 30, 2012!), we thought we’d share some images that technical director Caleb Charles McAndrew took during the set build—a small window behind the scenes. With congrats to Caleb as well as scenic designer Kevin Depinet, lighting designer Jesse Klug, scenic painter Meg Grgurich and production manager John Kearns, enjoy!