Merrimack Repertory Theatre Blog



Artistic Director Charles Towers

From Charles Towers, director of Four Places:

I am always pleased to be able to introduce a new writer to MRT’s audience. Joel Drake Johnson is a Chicago playwright but, like all good writers, his characters transcend location and are recognizable to us all. I think that’s what drew me to this play the first time I read it: I knew these people, I knew their struggles, I laughed at their familiarity and I felt comforted knowing I was not alone. I also felt that in a time when so many Americans allow themselves to believe so many boldfaced lies, that “denial” was a theme worth exploring. Johnson, along with many other American playwrights including Williams, Miller and Albee, uses the family as a place to find and describe human frailties, even as he offers human understanding.

During the month I was in the rehearsal hall directing Four Places, I found myself thinking, as I often do, about the work we create and its purpose. One day, I had the good fortune to catch the wonderful American novelist Russell Banks speaking about the art of writing, which I would like to share with you:

“What any writer hopes will happen, any writer who is a serious writer, is that the work will go on altering human consciousness into the future.

You know, human beings, we’re a strange species. We are unique almost, but mainly insofar as we have to learn over and over and over again what it is to be human. We have to be taught what it is to be human. Other species know exactly what it is to be a dog or a cat or even a chimpanzee. But we’re not driven by instincts to that degree; to be ourselves.

What any great writer does is show us, remind us, teach us, what it is to be human; the worst of it to be human, and the best of it to be human. We need, we require, that work in order to be true to our own species.”

I am humbled by Banks’ insight, but inspired too. As a director, I am a receiver of art before I am a maker of art. I am a learner, not a teacher. When I read a play like Four Places, I get excited because I want to share with others what the play does to me. I want to make the words sing. Rehearsing a play teaches me even more. Hearing it with MRT’s audience enriches me yet again, for I hear it with new ears.

It’s a high bar that Banks sets for writers, indeed for any artist. Very few of us are “great.” But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive. And every so often it is good to be reminded that the work we do matters. We require art “to learn over and over again what it is to be human.”

I thought the following quote by Martha Lavey, Artistic Director of Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company, more than captures what I have felt working on this play:

“Joel Johnson is a playwright. He brings people onto the stage who have no way of telling their stories except by being themselves. And then he clears a space for them to talk and behave in a way that is entirely natural, deeply idiosyncratic, and heartbreakingly revealing. And funny. And sad. And human. Joel’s generosity toward what is broken in the human heart is his gold. Giving that brokenness its eloquence is his gift.”

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2 Comments so far
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Nearly the first word from an actor in “Four Places” was an ugly expletive. This was followed by more of the same throughout. Though the piece was well-done and enjoyable it would have been just as good with milder language. English is a dynamic and expressive tongue but it is undergoing assault and change from stage and film with the liberal insertion of profanity. And most assuredly, these will enter every day usage as a result. Perhaps it would not be too great an invasion of the author’s prerogatives for Mr. Towers to edit out such inflictions…

Comment by Byron D. Roseman, MD

That is an issue to take up with the playwright, not the director. Scripts are subject to copyright laws, and sometimes removing or changing even a single word can violate it. Also, plays such as this are supposed to be windows into extreme moments of people’s lives. Extreme moments call for extreme language.

Comment by g24

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