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Destruction and Rebirth in Coney Island

Date: Jul 17, 2018

How Superstorm Sandy changed the trajectory of Fire in Dreamland


Playwright Rinne Groff is obsessed with the obsessed, whether it's an inventor's struggle to perfect an early version of television (The Ruby Sunrise), an author's fixation on the story of Anne Frank (Compulsion) or an aspiring filmmaker's quest to make a movie about a historic catastrophe in Coney Island in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. That last one is the subject of Groff's latest play, Fire in Dreamland, currently running at the Public Theater. It's a time-traveling meditation on the cycle of destruction and rebirth seen through the eyes of local do-gooder Kate (Obie winner Rebecca Naomi Jones), who tries to help a Dutchman named Jaap (Enver Gjokaj) complete his passion project about an iconic amusement park that went up in flames.

Groff initially learned of the 1911 Dreamland fire in Rem Koolhaas's 40-year-old tome Delirious New York, an iconic work of historical fiction about the Big Apple. The chapter "Coney Island: The Technology of the Fantastic" includes a section on the Dreamland disaster, which decimated the attraction and killed many of the animals in its boardwalk menagerie. News coverage at the time spotlighted the demise of a lion known as Black Prince, who escaped his enclosure mane aflame, climbed one of the rides, was shot by police and ultimately felled by a fireman's ax. Koolhaas' ruminations on the tragedy sparked Groff's initial drafts of the play.

Then, in the middle of the work's development, Superstorm Sandy hit Coney Island hard. "At first I had this totally solipsistic and ridiculous reaction that the storm had ruined my play," recalls Groff, who considered setting the script aside. "Then I thought, Jaap wouldn't have that reaction. Jaap only understands everything in terms of how it affects his ability to get something done."


So Groff incorporated the tempest into the plot, with Jaap arriving in Coney Island right after Sandy to take advantage of the way it cleared the beach of modern-day trash and tourists. He cares nothing about the flooded buildings or displaced residents. All he wants to do is recreate the image that haunts him: Black Prince afire, racing through the neighborhood.

But he can't do it alone. That's where Kate comes in. After they meet-cute on the beach, she catches his enthusiasm for the project, in part because she's so dissatisfied with her own life. This is how Jaap's obsession sparks Kate's journey of self-discovery.

"Fire in Dreamland is about Kate finding her passion, about her coming to understand who she is and what she needs to be in the world," explains Groff. "I'm always interested in the structures around the visionary, as we don't see them all the time. I'm interested in how we frame narratives and who is empowered to tell any particular story. In Fire in Dreamland I let Kate tell the story. She gets to talk and talk and talk. And it's through the talking that she really finds herself. Speaking up is a transformative act."

Just as Fire in Dreamland has a roundabout way of becoming Kate's tale, Groff took an indirect route to playwriting, starting off as a performer with the avant-garde theatre collective Elevator Repair Service before expanding her focus. Kate likewise expands her horizons through her involvement with Jaap, as she reimagines her life post-Sandy.

"When I let Superstorm Sandy into the play, it helped me to understand what people do in the face of devastation," says Groff. "Whenever Kate says in the 2013 of the play, 'the moment is too desperate, you guys, there's too much at stake,' I hear that present tense, 2018, right now. You have to keep going."

To read about a student's experience at Fire in Dreamland, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Fire in Dreamland. Go here to browse our current offers.

Follow Martha Wade Steketee at @MSteketee. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Kyle Beltran and Rebecca Naomi Jones in Fire in Dreamland. Photos by Joan Marcus.