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Bringing Coney Island to the Stage Inside Blue Coyote's ambitious play


By HILARY BETTIS

Editor's note: This feature launches a new series on TDF Stages in which playwrights interview fellow theatre artists about their work. The hope is that the artists will discover a connection and enjoy a uniquely insightful conversation. I could not be happier with the first result of this experiment: Hilary Bettis' insightful conversation with the team behind the play CONEY, which is now at the New Ohio.

However, a play about Coney Island takes on new significance in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which damaged so much of the area. Hilary filed her story before the storm, so in the aftermath, TDF Stages reached out to playwright David Johnston about his thoughts on the production in the wake of what happened.

He replied, "The devastation at Coney Island is heartbreaking. It's a place I've  loved for years. It's one of my favorite places in the world.  I don't even know how to process what's happened to it.  I wrote this play about this world fading away.  What seems to be happening is much more quick and terrible." He added, however, that the team wanted the show to continue, saying, "Theatre people tell stories. It's what we do. We can't stop telling them because of a storm."

What follows is the original version of Hilary's story. --- Mark Blankenship

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When you think about Coney Island what comes to mind? Maybe it's the smell of hot dogs or salt water, the Cyclone or the Wonder Wheel, or the boardwalk on a hot summer night.

For David Johnston and Gary Shrader, Coney Island is a universe on the edge of asphalt and ocean that represents American democracy at its purest. It is a melting pot where rich and poor alike can bring their families for entertainment and escape. It is a place brimming with American nostalgia.

Those ideas were the impetus behind Blue Coyote's production of CONEY, written by David Johnston (Busted Jesus Comix, Conversations on Russian Literature) and directed by long-time friend and collaborator, Gary Shrader (Effie Jean in Tahiti, Nance O'Neil). I recently sat down with David and Gary at a little café in Tribeca after a successful day of rehearsals.

Hilary Bettis: You guys have a long history together. Nine productions! That playwright/director relationship is fragile, like a marriage. What's the secret to making that work?

David Johnston: Ha! That's easy. I'm selfish. When I find someone good, I grab on and don't let go. Really, it's about mutual trust and respect. We listen to each other and can bounce ideas off each other without any egos.

HB: What sparked the idea to write CONEY?

DJ: I've always loved Coney Island. I love the train ride there through all the different neighborhoods. I love the history. I even go down there in the winter when the place is covered in snow. I guess this play started out as a few scenes here and there that all happen to be set in Coney Island, so I figured I should make it a play. But it's really a love letter, a tribute to America's original playground.

HB: CONEY is a departure from your other plays. Can you talk about that?

DJ: I tend to write very tight, structured plays, but I wanted to write a lot of characters and see what could come of it. It ended up being a very messy, sprawling play where people bump into one another as they go about their lives. But it did need some sort of structure, so I kept it in a fourteen-hour period. I stole it from Robert Altman.

HB: Do you bounce ideas off Gary when you're in the early stages of writing?

DJ:  No. I like to hold on very tightly to those early pages until I know what it is I'm writing. But Gary is always one of the first people I show when it's ready.

HB: Gary, when I think about Coney Island, the first thing that comes to mind, besides my ex-boyfriend dragging me to play Shoot the Freak, is how busy and visually visceral that world is. As a director, how do you capture that on a stage without over-powering the story or characters?

Gary Shrader: My job was not to recreate Coney Island on a stage---you might as well go there instead of going to a play. It's about finding one or two gestures that give us a new perspective on this world, and really, unite the lives of these people. The play is ultimately about these people and their perspectives. I very much wanted the play to feel claustrophobic---in a good way---and carnivalesque. I wanted to find iconic symbols that evoke nostalgia for the audience, and trust the audience's imagination to fill in the blanks.

HB: You both have acting backgrounds. How does that inform your work?

DJ: I want to write roles that give actors something to sink their teeth into. As an actor, I worked on so many scripts that rang untrue, and I know writers that don't like actors. I mean, what is the point of collaboration if you don't like to collaborate?

HB: You might as well write a novel.

DJ: Exactly!

HB: What about you, Gary?

GS: I trust my actors because I know what they are going through on that stage, the vulnerability and courage it takes to give a good performance. I try to guide that and stay out of their way.

HB: With a cast of twelve, twenty-two scenes, and twelve locations <i>CONEY</i> is a play the theatre world might deem "unproducible". And yet here you are.

DJ: My philosophy is, "Write what you want to write." I'm mean, even small plays are practically impossible to get produced, so what's the point of thinking like that? Starting a play thinking "what is producible" usually leads to a poorly written play.

GS: At Blue Coyote, we produce plays that excite us. We don't approach plays from the perspective of 'producibility.' We approach plays from the perspective of content. Is this a story we have to tell? Then we find a way to tell it.

HB: So how did you do it? Specifically, how did you mount such a big play with a big cast in a recession?

GS: Blue Coyote had a little money in the bank from past shows and grants. We had a successful indiegogo campaign, got other funding from a DCA grant, and small donations from private donors. We try to be really thrifty, try to be careful to work within a budget, so that we're not producing beyond our means; we've always operated in the black. Jackie Christy at Access Theater has been really generous, and we were able to rehearse there for free. But I think so much of mounting a play is about relationships. Everyone in this business knows how difficult it is, which also means there are so many talented people willing to give a lot if you're willing to give a lot in return.

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Hilary Bettis is a playwright and screenwriter. Her awards, residencies, and commissions include the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center (Alligator), the James McLure Fellowship/New River Dramatists, the Sloan/EST Commission (Dakota Atoll), the John N. Wall Fellowship/Sewanee Writer's Conference, a Blackburn nomination (Mexico), and a Cherry Jones and Abingdon Theatre Company grant.