Smiles has fond memories of sitting with his brother, and listening to The Goon Show in the 1970s. "It was so surreal and wild," he says. "They were attacking the pomposity and hypocrisy of British society -- just the sort of thing for kids who were a little dubious about England, it's former Empire, and it's repressive class system."
The play draws from historical facts -- including Milligan's nervous breakdown during the run of the show -- while also creating original material in the style of the Goons. "It's quite hard to try and get a balance between being respectful to the Goons legend and expressing your own ideas," says the playwright. "Act One deals with Milligan being assailed by creatures from his id: Morris Dancers, leprechauns, mad Dr. Strangelove scientists. Act Two deals with Milligan re-creating a Goon Show in his head to destroy all the characters and free himself of the pressure of writing the show."
Smiles has made a few small changes for the American version of the play, eliminating some of the more obscure British references. But fans of the radio program will be pleased to note that the play incorporates several of the Goon Show characters. Says Smiles: "Hopefully, it comes over as someone who was a huge fan of the show doing his own version of it."
While the work is based on facts, the pair invented the character of Thomas Kramer, who ends up confronting Mann directly about both her photographs and motives. "It was really important for us to derail the traditional docudrama format," says Smith. "One of the advantages is we are able to explore issues that are much broader than what appear to be the questions raised in her works."
Kepley and Smith, who previously collaborated on another documentary theater project Boots on the Ground, include other important historic incidents where nudity or perceived sensuality was an issue in the play, diving into realms as diverse as the Vietnam War and the fashion world. Each performance is accompanied by a post-show talkback session after each performance. "This is ironic coming from us, but the Boots talkbacks were much more interesting than the play and we have high hopes for the Private ones," says Smith. "There really aren't places where a diverse group of people can come together and have a half an hour to discuss things they are concerned about."
Zak says he's drawn to Nick's blog because, "You really get a great portrait of him growing up." But is that portrait completely authentic? "The only thing we really have is Nick's word," Zak admits. "Are they really real? That's half the fun of the blog." Still, Zak and his actors -- there are four of them, all portraying the character of Nick -- have been in contact with the "real" Nick for this production. Of their first online encounter with him, Zak recalls, "We were horrified. One of the actors wrote to him and the e-mail came back with both his first and last names. The actor didn't want to know, because now suddenly Nick's a real person."
From that correspondence, Zak learned some things that conflicted with his initial impression of Nick. Still, he says the question is not so much about authenticity, but the subjectivity of language. "We all have different images based on our age and experience," he says. "Language can lead us and make us see stuff in different ways."