Murder in Texas
Playwright Johnna Adams discusses the origins of her psychodrama Cockfighters.
Adams grew up in Texas and began her career in Chicago, where she went to college and studied acting. Her desire to write eventually brought her to Orange County, California, and she has been penning plays ever since. In a way, Cockfighters brings Adams full circle, as it was inspired by her family's Texas history. The play began life as three separate one-acts that were later combined and premiered by the Hunger Artists Theater Ensemble in Orange County. A cold submission to NYC's Oberon Theater Ensemble led to a reading and now to the current production, which is running in repertory with John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men at the Jan Hus Playhouse.
Shortly before Cockfighters opened, Adams took a break from sightseeing to sit down with TheaterMania and talk about her adventures in playwriting.
THEATERMANIA: Have you seen any rehearsals for the play yet?
JOHNNA ADAMS: I saw one rehearsal. It's a great cast. I was really impressed.
TM: Did you give notes?
JA: No, not really. I kinda tried, but the playwright's notes weren't high on anybody's agenda! They were like "That's nice, thanks for coming out. What sights have you seen?"
TM: So, you started out as an actor?
JA: Yeah, I got my B.F.A. in acting at DePaul University -- the theater school there, which is a conservatory. Like boot camp.
TM: Are you a writer who acts, or an actor who writes?
JA: I used to be an actor who was writing plays; then I started noticing that none of my plays had characters for me! I wasn't really writing material for myself to perform. The first few plays I did, I cast myself anyway. But the first time I sat out and let real actors do it, it was such a better experience that I've never willingly done my own material since then. So I've really had quite a reversal in the last few years. I'm a playwright who acts occasionally, when compelled.
TM: Tell me about Cockfighters.
JA: It's three one-acts with chronological jumps; two of them happen on the same night, and one of them is a flashback to the night of the murder. The origin was hearing my dad's stories, growing up. My dad and his brothers used to raise game cocks and fight them over the border in New Mexico; it's still legal there, I think. My dad's oldest brother would raise the cocks and they would train them. I got to interview my dad and one of his brothers over Christmas once. My aunt still hasn't forgiven me; she and her husband wouldn't come and see the play because they were still mad about the Christmas Eve dinner that I ruined by asking "And then what happened at the cock fights?" every five minutes. There were these bloody stories about terrible things they'd seen at the fights and how it was all set up. I'd always wanted to write a play about that.
TM: Was your father still involved in cock fighting when you were growing up?
JA: I never saw it. They were just tall tales of his boyhood in West Texas in the '40s and '50s. His legends of drunken sprees and brawls are almost the size of Daniel Boone and Paul Bunyan legends, as far as I'm concerned. They seem so remote and so impossible nowadays. They were pretty much hellraisers, a family of five boys; they drank like crazy, got into lots of fights, and did a lot of weird things. For me to write about that is, I think, a celebration of family history. It isn't great history, but I still want to remember it because most of my family doesn't want to remember it. I like to keep it alive.
TM: What's the genre of the play?
JA: It's kind of like a Greek tragedy with cinematic cuts in the action; there are a lot of abrupt transitions without blackouts, if you can imagine that. All three of the plays -- the flashback and the two that are happening on the same evening -- share the stage as if it were one story. We transition quickly between what's going on to show some of the parallels in the family's behavior. You're also learning why the murder happened and how it happened while you're seeing the aftermath.
TM: Do you tend to write in one particular style?
JA: I don't. Every time I sit down to write a play, it comes out completely different. My latest is about the utopian religious movement of the Oneida community -- a historical epic about this really funky, sexually odd commune that existed from the 1840s through the Civil War era. It's going to have a workshop production in November by The Company of Angels. I've got a play that's wildly comedic, about West Texas hicks, called The Miracle of Mary Mack's Baby. I also have one that would fit in on the Lifetime Movie Channel; it's the play that the prison did.
TM: How did that come about?
JA: The director of the prison program was looking on the web for original plays. She found my play In the Absence of Angels, and I really think she just liked the title! At the time, it was for four women and one man, but I rewrote it for them with seven women. There was a significant amount of rewriting and, in the course of that, I improved it. It became about hope, about healing from unhealable wounds, and that was very resonant for them. That was the only time I think I've ever been involved in something I would call "necessary theater." By doing the theater program, a lot of these women find that they're humanized to the rest of the inmate population and to the guards; for a brief period, they're seen as something other than their crime. I tell all my playwright friends, "You gotta write for the prison," but a lot of people just can't write to specifications. It's got to be all women, you can't have any sex, you can't have any guns and violence. A lot of people can't write that way -- and I find it hard, too.
TM: It seems that most younger writers tend toward the darker stuff.
JA: I'm trying to pull myself out of the abyss. Cockfighters is a very dark play, but I can see a light in the distance. There's this kind of angst thing that I guess you go through in your 20s. I'm writing a another dark one right now for Rude Gorilla, pretty much in the vein of Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane, and seeing where that takes me. I usually have a thread of religion somewhere in my plays; in Cockfighters, there are hymns sung and one religious character, and this new one -- The Sacred Geometry of S&M Porn -- has a kid who is inventing his own religion based on porn magazines.
TM: Did you really do one of your plays, Nude on the Beach, at an actual nudist colony?
JA: Yes, that's a one-act I wrote with Martin E. Williams for our writers group. It was about a couple having trouble with their marriage, so their very progressive preacher has told them to go to a nudist beach, take off their clothes, reintroduce themselves to each other, and their marriage will be healed. It's a "to strip or not to strip" kind of comedy. I had it listed on a web site and we were contacted by the editors of the Naturist Society magazine. They wanted to do a story about naturism and theater, and then they said, "What would be really good is if you produced it at our annual Western retreat. If you bring the actors to perform for us, we'll put you on the agenda." They have a lot of weird activities at this naturist retreat. There's a Scrabble tournament -- why you need to be naked for that, I don't know. There's naked country line dancing, which I didn't participate in but watched; that's indelibly etched on my brain! Anyway, I took a director and two actors to the retreat and we performed our one-act for about 60 naked people out on their lawn. I have pictures. [She takes out photos]
TM: Yes, I would love to see those.
JA: You can't really see many naked people -- they frown on pictures. That's us in sarongs. We had a talk-back with the audience, for which I doffed the sarong. The producer is with a naturist group in Seattle and is going to get us a slot at the Seattle Fringe Festival, so I had my writers group write plays for the naturists. The guy said, "I'll make sure we have at least 10 [naked] naturists in the audience for each performance." And he says he'll have all the ushers naked. That'll be really cool!