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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The 'Spy Play'

Playwright Walt McGough

I’ve always loved genre stories. Westerns, comic books, spy novels, speculative fiction...the pulpier the better. Much of that love comes from the escapist itch that they scratched for awkward-pre-teen Walt, but even now as a (slightly) less awkward adult, I still find myself drawn to genres, and the surprising way that new stories can live within them. A genre, after all, is just a container: a structure of shared themes or story beats within which a whole host of ideas and events and characters can operate. Working within a genre is often like handing your audience an old, comfy coat, which they can put on to protect themselves a bit as they venture into the wild unknowns of your story. It can help them feel secure. Which, of course, makes it all the easier to surprise them.

With that in mind, a few years back I decided on a whim that I was going to write a play in every one of the genres that I’d loved growing up. I’d have the Comic Book Play, the Western Play, the Space Exploration Play. The Farm is the Spy Play, and also one of the only ones to materialize thus far. Maybe the rest never will. Maybe doing something so defined is impossible for me, because as I worked on The Farm, it got harder and harder to keep it segregated into Spy World. Other genres and elements kept creeping in. Some film noir here, some crime procedural there; every time I turned around another genre was bleeding in through the edges.  I felt like those people in the old Reese’s Cup commercials: “You got Ghost Story in my Spy Play! No, you got Spy Play in my Ghost Story!” I decided to go with it, though, and just see what happened in the end. What I got was surprising, unexpected, and, much like Reese’s Cups themselves, ultimately delicious.
Another great discovery was the larger story of the piece, beyond the Spy Play framework. The main characters, Finn and Parker, were talking about espionage, yes, and all the delightful stagecraft and excitement that comes with it, but as their conversation developed, they also started talking about larger ideas: the ability to move on from past crimes, the guilt that can come from uncertainty, and even the validity of a secret organization within a democratic society. More than just an exercise in loving Spy Stuff, the play became an examination of what that Stuff actually is, and the consequences that can come from embracing it. With the help of David Gammons and all of the actors and designers, it became a play not just of a genre, but about a genre, and some of the very real consequences the CIA has had on the world. Discovering all that was like finding a loose thread in the comfy coat of the genre, and by pulling on it here and there, we managed to fray the seams quite a bit and let some bigger ideas penetrate. The results have been fantastic. You’ll still get a spy story when you come to The Farm, but thanks to the many many people involved, you’ll be getting a whole lot more, too.

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