Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
How dozens of writers came together to create The Mysteries
When invited to pitch a new project to The Flea Theater following his epic staging of These Seven Sicknesses---a five-hour, 40-actor adaptation of Sophocles' seven surviving tragedies---director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar suggested something modest: Nothing less than "the entire history of the salvation of mankind," he says.
Flea artistic director Jim Simpson and producing director Carol Ostrow had been considering another marathon event, perhaps around the subject of Christmas, to once again showcase the Bats, their youthful resident acting company. Iskandar picked up on their Biblical cue and suggested refracting the Old and New Testaments through the lenses of an eclectic group of living playwrights.
"I got a green light within 45 minutes," he says. "I thought it was the maddest thing I've ever dared."
Clocking in at nearly six hours and featuring 54 performers and 48 playwrights, the resulting project---The Mysteries, running through May 25 on The Flea's mainstage---borrows from the so-called "mystery plays" phenomenon of the Middle Ages, when Bible stories were performed in vernacular style from open-air wagons in towns across Europe.
Iskandar and his primary partner on the project, dramaturg Jill Rafson, drew from the York Cycle of 47 playlets, the most complete surviving texts of the mystery form, to create an organizing template for their show. But even though the York Cycle, created in 15th-century England, narrows the 66-book Christian Bible to a digestible structure, Iskandar and Rafson were still flirting with dramaturgical chaos as they prepped the project.
"It's a little bit like herding cats, just trying to keep in contact with this many playwrights," Rafson says. "Our schedule is so incredibly complicated that I have to be their main source of communication. Every time we did a big run-through, I sent notes to 50 playwrights, individually."
And that's just the tip of the collaborative iceberg. According to Iskandar, recent rehearsal reports went out to 161 people.
"You have to be organized, but you also have to surrender," he says. "You can't fret that somebody didn't get a draft in that afternoon, in time for rehearsal. You find something else to do. If you started fretting like that, I think you would feel the anxiety of trying to birth 50 babies simultaneously and making sure that they all try to make sense together."
The initial outreach to the playwriting community was wide. Rafson explains, "We wanted a range of experience levels, so we have everyone from Pulitzer finalists [like Madeleine George, David Henry Hwang, and Craig Lucas] down to emerging playwrights [like Marc Acito, Meghan Kennedy, and Sevan Greene]. We wanted people who came in from different points of view. We went with different ages, genders, sexual preferences, races, everything you could imagine, just to try to get as many different perspectives on these stories as we possibly could."
Once the playwrights were chosen, discussions began about who would be assigned which chapters (or "episodes," as they are called here). "I had written summaries of every single episode in the Cycle, and we asked them what they were most interested in writing," says Rafson. "We had dozens of conversations. There were a couple of very popular plays: I think everyone wanted to write Noah."
The mandate for script length was one to ten minutes. Writers were also encouraged to go off the beaten path, to "take a look at the characters who stand just to the side of history," according to Rafson. "So we ended up with things like the guards who have to carry out the orders for the Slaughter of the Innocents. You don't want to just focus on your main characters for that many hours."
Iskandar adds, "The perspective through which the story is being told doesn't need to be the traditional one. The most extreme example is the Moses play, in which Moses barely appears. He's simply the baby in the bundle. The entire thing is the decision of Pharaoh's daughter, whether or not she's going to take this baby home. It's a dynamic evening for women."
The three-act production, which journeys from Adam and Eve to Judgment Day---with a dinner break and a dessert pause along the way---also toys with form. Playwright Jenny Schwartz, for example, wanted to write something mood-driven.
"We gave her the Road to Calvary," Rafson says, "because you can really do anything you want with it. She wrote this really beautiful, short, poetic piece that is so true to her style, completely fits the temper of the evening, and gave us a great close to the second act, as it turns out."
Kenneth Jones is a theatre journalist and dramatist who writes at ByKennethJones.com and elsewhere
Photo by Hunter Canning