February 17, 2018

Q&A with John J King, Boston Public Library’s first Playwright-in-Residence

In June, the Boston Public Library announced its first Playwright-in-Residence, John J. King. While other BPL residencies are selected in-house, said Michael Colford, director of library services, “For the Playwright-in-Residence pilot we decided to work with a small theater company in Boston to do the vetting and selection for us.” Fresh Ink Theatre is the perfect partner,” said Colford, because in addition to its focus on original works, Fresh Ink provides public readings, workshops, and other public interaction throughout the production process. In July, Library Journal spoke with King about being Playwright-in-Residence and his play, Martha’s (b)Rainstorm.

LJ: What was the process like?

John J. King: Jessie Baxter (literary director at Fresh Ink Theatre and dramaturg on this project) reached out to me in February. They were looking for a play set in Boston and a project that would utilize the library’s resources. I’d been thinking of working with a “choose your own adventure,” audience-influenced narrative for a long time but hadn’t landed on the right story and world. Climate change is a huge issue for me personally, so as I was thinking about this proposal and looking at the library’s maps, it all culminated: do something in Boston where the audience is making choices for the characters in a climate change play.

What inspired the structure of the play?

One of my first influential theatrical experiences was a Neofuturists show called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. It’s a performance of 30 two-minute plays where the audience chooses what comes next. In that setup, there is no narrative, and for a long time I thought, “What if you did that and focused on a single character?” When I started thinking about this project and the idea of climate change, it felt thematically connected: a contemporary audience making choices for the future.

The basic plot of Martha’s (b)Rainstorm is that though sea levels have risen, New England is stuck in a years-long drought and Martha, the main character, wants to make it rain. What else is going on in the play?

I want to focus on how we’re actively living, enjoying our lives, and doing the best we can amidst the change. The main character is a young black woman, probably a teacher, because having as [diverse] representation as we can with a limited number of bodies (seven to eight players) on the stage is important to me.

There will be many species represented as well. A recurrent theme in [my] conversations with scientists is trying to find narratives that don’t just represent the human experience but represent the fauna, sea life, avians—the experience of every single creature and life form affected by climate change. There’ll be something like 64 characters—a lot of costume changes!

Is this something that younger audiences can participate in?

It’s certainly going to be PG-13! I want the play to be as accessible to as many people as possible, to start conversations, to get many people involved in this process—the younger we can start the better. One of the pieces I’m working on is a scene of Martha on her commute, and I’m considering doing it as a puppet show. Imagine a five-minute show of Martha’s two-hour ride home, featuring 15 more feet of water, the MBTA [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority] adapting to accommodate that—extra buses, possibly a ferry, just to get to Dorchester [a few miles south]—going under water, up above, getting dried off by giant turbines. Pretty fantastical!

Where are you in the writing process?

We’re going to try to have some public event by the end of summer—possibly a couple of scenes from the play and a conversation with a scientist. In the fall/winter, we’ll do readings of scenes and parts of the play with public workshops; rewrites happen in the spring, then a full staged reading in spring 2018.

What do you feel you’ll get from the library, and what do you feel you’ll give back?

I’ve already gotten innumerable things from working with the library. Just being in a public space, where people are coming and going, feels very essential for me. I’m hoping to go to different branches—particularly in neighborhoods that are going to be impacted [by climate change/rising waters]—and set up shop and write there for a day to get as much of the city as possible into my aura while I’m working on this project.

Also, the research librarians have been hugely helpful. I’ll say, “Hey, I have a gut instinct about local, Native myth. Can you help me track down folktales from the Wampanoags?” They say, “Yes, here are three links.”

The exhibition in the Map Center right now is amazing and serendipitous. Jessie and I were particularly inspired by the maps of Boston as it changed over time and the section on winds. I’m really into the idea of forces of nature being anthropomorphized, which the exhibition shows in several historical documents, maps, and quotes from literature.

And this is just the first six weeks!

I hope that the events, conversations, and performances will bring in people who might not make a habit of coming to the library, and give a new value to people who come here regularly. I want this play to be a fire around which people can gather to share stories and ideas, because it’s a future that we’re all going to be impacted by. The more voices we can get into the conversation, the more informed those voices can be, the better the city will be.

Are you thinking of bringing programs out to branches as well?

I’m working with Michael Colford to plan visits to branch ESL Conversation Groups, particularly in neighborhoods likely to be impacted by rising water (East Boston, Brighton, South Boston, Dudley). I’m interested in hearing from participants about climate change and its impact on their lives, but also about what it’s like to live/work in a city made for the English-speaking, and what it’s like to be the primary English speaker of one’s family.

What other big questions have come up in writing the play?

The look and the design of a future world is huge, not only what would it really be but how do you translate that on the stage? Costuming is important, particularly because I’m interested in multiple species. There’s a good chance that there’ll be a Noah’s Ark–type situation with an open mic night for multiple species: a dolphin doing a song, and a monologue by the New England Aquarium’s Myrtle the Turtle. How do you costume that, what does it sound like? Are they speaking human English, how are they communicating?

I’m also interested in figuring out how climate change effects may improve or worsen the [configurations of] Boston’s communities. Boston is a pretty segregated city in terms of class and race—if neighborhoods are divided by water, does that get worse? What do we do to avoid that? Something that really terrifies me is that if you look at where water is [expected to rise], a lot of these places that will be immediately affected are either very wealthy—like the Seaport District (the “Inundation District,” as scientists call it)—or very poor communities (Chelsea and East Boston are two most at-risk). I don’t doubt for a second that the city and the businesses in the Seaport won’t let that district flood. If you block off that district and use resources to protect it, you’re not giving resources somewhere else and you might be pushing the water somewhere else. How will we, on a moment-to-moment and year-to-year basis over the next 50 years, make those kinds of decisions? What is that going to end up looking like? In the play, I’m hopeful; I want to show a way in which those different communities come together and work with each other to find solutions.

How do you see creative residency programs as part of the mission of a library?

Libraries are a protectorate of our culture, in the sense that they house great works and serve as a place for the public to access them. I think a residency program lets a library not just house the historical record, but serve as an active communicator of what’s happening right now. In the same way that I think it’s essential for theaters, art museums, galleries to find and nurture contemporary voices, I think it’s a great fit for the library too. If you think of all the names that are etched into the façade of the McKim building, I think that what the BPL is trying to do with these programs is say “OK, those are the names that we’re a home to now. We’re finding a way to be a home for the names that will be on the library a hundred years from now, or 500 years from now.”

What’s been the most fun so far?

Field trips! The mayor has informal teams devising plans to fight climate impacts; a friend of mine is a marine biologist at UMass, and he and some of his colleagues are on the team that’s envisioning what a sea wall to protect against rising water and storm surges for the next hundred years could look like. It’s a fantastical question, but those are things they’re investigating to find effective solutions. I told my friend about my project and he invited me on a harbor tour. Being on a boat in the middle of the harbor with the 12 people who are trying to figure out what a sea wall could look like was amazing!

It’s been a delight to talk to people who are actively on the front lines—like Dr. Brian Helmuth, head of Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, MA, and a couple of his students. They’re so excited and supportive, it’s been thrilling. Many of them have said they realize that data isn’t making the case anymore. How do we translate all of this into stories, into real-life impacts, into urgency that people can grasp so we can galvanize them? I think scientists see this project as a way to do that and they’re excited to share what they can.

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