Currently playing off-Broadway at the Living Theatre, Jordan Seavey’s new play Children at Play provides audiences with an opportunity to observe the blurring of the line between adolescence and adulthood.
The play, written six years ago, is finally being produced by CollaborationTown, the company Seavey cofounded with six of his classmates at Boston University. I sat down with Seavey in the lobby of the Public Theater, where he’s part of the Emerging Writers Group, several weeks prior to its opening to discuss his thoughts on the play and the winding road that led to its production.
Tell us a little about the play.
Well, it’s called Children at Play, and it’s a new play of mine except that it’s actually not. I wrote it six years ago. It’s received some development since then, but, though I like the play and I’m confident in the fact that we’re doing the play, I would not write this play now. It’s kind of funny to be sitting in rehearsals and listening to it, because it comes from a slightly younger me. And it’s subtitled “a tragic farce.” I would consider it a very dark comedy. It’s basically a coming of age story. It is actually quite – for my work – autobiographical. It’s based on a lot of my friends and relationships during my junior high and high school years. It follows five friends as they go through seven years together. They meet at age eleven and are about eighteen when the play ends, so they leave their childhoods behind and enter a pretty rough adolescence.
You bring up Chernobyl throughout. I wonder how you came about the idea to interweave the events of Chernobyl with these characters’ stories.
I tend to mix true events and historical events into my writing. My mother was a New York City public school teacher and had a kid in her class who referred to herself as a Chernobyl baby, because she had been born really close to where the disaster took place and had come to America shortly thereafter but of course suffered all sorts of health problems nonetheless, and my mom kind of off-handedly mentioned that to me one day, and I thought that was a really striking image.
First of all the phrase “Chernobyl baby” – the juxtaposition of those two words. What one associates with “Chernobyl” and what one associates with “baby” are so drastically different. And the idea that adults can fuck up the world so badly and their children so badly seemed like an interesting analogy to me.
You have two adult characters, and those are the ones that fuck everything up. I’m assuming this was a calculated choice.
The adults in the world of this play, for the most part, alienate the children. I feel like I have a complicated emotional relationship with the concept of children, being a gay man and an only child and maybe in some ways a bit of a perpetual child myself. I don’t know that at this point in my life I imagine myself having children. The children that I will be around in the future – children of friends and things like that – I hope to not condescend to them. I hope to be a really good uncle figure and make my time in children’s lives fun and unfrightening. I don’t know – I guess I found a lot of the adults in my childhood a little more frightening. I think I felt like the power they wielded was intimidating and overpowering. The power was overpowering. I’d rather be a perpetual manchild than a big, mean adult.
In the play, there are several choric passages, and the influences of Caryl Churchill’s blend of realism and absurdism seems to seap in at times. What were your influences in writing the play?
I do love Caryl Churchill. I don’t know that I would relate her directly to this play, but she influences my brain all the time. I was probably still a little more in Chris Durang world when I wrote this play. I wrote it right out of college, and I feel like the humor in the play was pretty influenced by Christopher Durang. I now feel, if you know the show Strangers with Candy, I feel like a lot of the humor is really similar to that. There are a couple of jokes in the play that are almost lifted from the show word for word but I had never seen it; it’s kind of funny. I’m a really big Albee fan, and I wrote it while in residence at his barn, but I don’t feel like it feels particularly like an Albee play in any way. But he’s another of those kind of Caryl Churchill writers who are always lurking around me, but to be honest the five main characters are so directly influenced by people I knew that a lot of it just kind of sprung out of my interpretation of who they were and what those relationships amongst us were like at the time.
Where did the title come from? Did you title it before you wrote it?
I don’t know when it first came into my brain. The director [Scott Ebersold] said to me, “What I love is that it’s called Children at Play and it’s so very clearly a play.” It’s very theatrical; it acknowledges that we’re in a theatre all the time. The characters are always playing; they’re always at play, even when the game is turning dark. At the beginning they define the word play, so I was aware of something.
I generally have a title first, or as I’m thinking up what the play is and what it will contain, the title kind of comes out of that. Although, I’m working on one play that’s really immense and has no title, and that’s scary. But I think I had the title more or less first thing. I find it hard to write with no title. That’s probably why I’m struggling with that untitled play at the moment.
So you’re one of the Emerging Writers at the Public Theater. How would you say that has influenced your writing? Has it influenced this play?
This is pretty separate. I feel like my time at the Public and my general growing up as a playwright has helped me look at some parts that were overwritten and enabled me to kill babies and trim. My time at the Public hasn’t shifted the way I write or look at the literal how of my writing, but it’s shifted my perspective on big non-profit theatres in New York City, because being here exposes you to how they run. Artistically speaking, in terms of actual playwriting – the thing about this writer’s group is that it doesn’t teach you how to write differently, per se, it just gives you a forum in which to bring in writing and to get feedback. It’s taught me a lot about giving feedback to other playwrights, because I’ve never felt very confident in that. That’s not really my strong point, but I feel more comfortable doing it now. I don’t know that it’s directly affected my writing. It’s let me get more writing done, it’s giving me wonderful deadlines, and it’s given me a wonderful base of support, both in the form of other emerging writers and the women who run it who are so intrisically involved in running this theatre.
Are you happy with how rehearsals are going?
Rehearsals are going really well. It’s being directed by Scott Ebersold, and we have a really great design team, and we have a really great cast that I’m really excited about. I’m really in love with the cast. Because, you know, the five kids are just such a little misfit gang. The characters are written that way, but we also cast it that way.
The actors are interesting and unusual. I feel like the five of them have a neat little chemistry of oddness that really works with the play. And we also have a really great guy playing Martin, Jr. and Maximillian, who are these two gay characters who are dating and played by one person, and he’s really funny. The two adult actors who play multiple adult roles [Jay Potter and Jennifer Dorr White] are really, really funny and smart and also two of the nicest people in the world. We’ve just lucked out. Yeah, they’re both great. They both do a lot of the videos for The Onion. They both have recurring roles. They’re great.
The play’s so episodic, so it has to move really quickly, and there’s no way to do this play and let the audience think after a scene. The idea is just to keep it going, and the set design accommodates that well. It’s largely going to be a very bare space with some pieces of moveable furniture that’s kind of influenced by an institution that’s somewhere in between a school and a Chernobyl detox center.
You also co-founded and co-artistic-direct the theatre company CollaborationTown, which is presenting Children at Play.
Did and do. I wound up in a program at Boston University. I would up in a major within the theatre program called theatre studies that was really about ensemble-based theatre-making and collaborative work, and so I met a group of people in school who I collaborated really well with. It’s not really the most interesting story, so we knew by our junior year that we wanted to start a theatre company and then we did. A play of mine got into the Fringe Festival here in New York right out of school, right after I had written this. I wrote this and went into rehearsals for that, so that gave us the perfect excuse to all move to the city together.
Sounds like a merry band of theatre practitioners.
We are a motley crew. For quite a while we had seven founding members, and we were co-artistic-directors. We are now down to three, because people have moved onto other things in their lives. All of them have ongoing relationships with CollaborationTown. Some of them are out of New York right now, so they’re not actively running the company. But when we were seven we were very insular and very ensemble-based with our own ensemble, and what is happening now with the company is that we’re opening up a bit more. Sometimes we work by making entirely ensemble-created plays, and we’ve also done plays by individual members of the company, so we have some flexibility in our continually changing mission statement. We’re working in a much more traditional way with this, but it’s good. Both ways of working are good and both have challenges. What I like about this right now is that it’s opening up the company to a lot of new people in a way that we haven’t done in a while. So far this experience has been really, really positive.
I think the cast is quite enthusiastic about it, and I’m honored and in love with them for being there and telling this story with me. It had development two years ago at the Lark Development Center, which is an amazing place, but a week’s worth of development is really different from a production. And this is one of those plays that a lot of people I know have read and a lot of people have really strong reactions to – mostly positive if not occasionally disturbed on some level – but a lot of people profess this weird, deep fascination and love for it.
Children at Play runs off-Broadway at the Living Theatre until 21 November.