Behind the Scenes at PARISH DUNKELD: A Q&A with the Creatives

Coming November 6 is the PIP* production of PARISH DUNKELD, written by Mark Lowenstern and directed by Kathleen Brant.  The story takes place In 1793 rural Scotland where a small parish believes it is safe from the revolutions shaking the world.  But when a well-intentioned man of reason arrives, bringing violent upheaval, the people of Parish Dunkeld must fight their way back from the brink. 

Lowenstern and Brant are the creative team for this PIP* – A Play in Process that is a low-budget, short-run production of a play being developed by the WorkShop Theater Company creative ensemble.  The program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department Of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

Here are a few questions we asked them to find out more about their process with this play.  Feel free to comment and ask more questions!

WS: Mark, what was the inspiration for this piece?

ML: It was mostly inspired by my favorite class, and my least favorite class, from college.  My favorite class was on constitutional theory, taught by Will Harris, which explored the question of how do you make good government in a democracy.  My least favorite class was a sociology class taught by rock star professor Philip Rieff, about how civilization has been going down hill since the Renaissance, since we stopped forming societies exclusively based on scripture and the fear of divine retribution.  I hated Rieff and he hated me.   So my best class and my worst class were kind of at war with each other. And then, a year or two after I graduated, my girlfriend at the time made me a mix-tape with a song on it called “The Parish of Dunkeld.”  I listened to the song, and pretty quickly decided that what happened in the song could make an excellent play, and that play could be an arena for me to bring this battle to life.

WS: Kathleen, what attracted you to it?

KB: What attracted me to this play was the epic idea, which translates to our own time.  The play is a reflection in Scotland, 1793 of what is happening in Paris, during the French Revolution.  It is a struggle for reason in a time of dominance by religion and the rich.  The 12 characters battle their own demons while fighting for the soul of their Parish.  I knew the first time I read it, that I wanted to work with Mark to make flesh this story.

WS: Mark, how’d you know Kathleen was the one to direct?

ML: Kathleen directed a Sunday@6 reading of Parish Dunkeld and she just did an amazing job.  This is a challenging play to direct.  It can be kind of intimidating with all the layered characters, and all the dark and dramatic moments and all the big ideas swirling around.  But Kathleen was not intimidated.  She rolled up her sleeves and just got stuff done in a way that was decisive yet also insightful.  She asked tough questions and assembled a great team behind her to develop the play in readings, not once, but over and over again. It was impossible not to have a huge amount of respect for that.

WS: How long have you been collaborating together on the piece?

ML: We did the Sunday@6 reading roughly 4 years ago, and then we set the play aside for a couple of years.  And then off-and-on for the past two years we have been developing it at The Actors Studio Playwrights-Directors Workshop.  Last year we had the 3-Day at the Workshop and got great feedback from Scott Sickles, among others. Just two months ago it was presented at the Actors Studio annual play reading festival, where jt received enthusiastic feedback.  And now here we are. 

WS: What was the biggest challenge?

ML: It’s just a very big, meaty play on a huge canvass.  I think the biggest challenge was making sure that, in the scope of it, the clarity wasn’t lost.

WS: How do you think the piece changed due to the collaborative process?

ML: Kathleen was instrumental in helping tackle that biggest challenge I just wrote about, both in terms of actually directing the script, and also by the questions she asked and the suggestions she made which helped me to clarify the arc of the script.

WS: Without a spoiler alert, what was the biggest surprise?

ML: If you mean what is the biggest surprise in the play, I would say the old order changes at the end of the first act, rather dramatically, and no one is left untouched by that. If you mean what was the biggest surprise for me in the developmental process,  it is how loyal our actors were, how much time and effort they gave, how deeply they thought about their characters and the how helpful their questions were.  They helped shape this play too. 

WS: What do you want people to take away from having seen PARISH DUNKELD?

ML: I want them to experience how much the health of their communities is in their own hands.  And how that business is sometimes a messy business, but it is nevertheless a vitally important one.  We are the reason Harris is right and Rieff is wrong.  All we have to do is remember that.

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