Dismantling “The Butcher” by Gwydion Suilebhan

When the workshop of a new play goes well, it resembles a sort of dismantling. By the end of a long day, the script looks a bit like a car after a few hours in a chop shop: a bare chassis surrounded by disassembled metal components. And the playwright—the mechanic—sits in the center of all of them, wondering which parts ought to be scrapped and which ones reassembled into a new vehicle.

That’s where I’m sitting right now, having spent a long day yesterday taking a set of wrenches and acetylene torches to my play THE BUTCHER… with the able assistance of a terrific director, Cody Nickell, and a powerfully smart company of actors: Fajer Al-Kaisi, Claire Brownell, Gamze Ceylan, Zolan Henderson, and Kate Eastwood Norris. The neatly-printed script that the kind folks at the Gulfshore Playhouse handed me when I arrived for the workshop is dripping with so much red ink you would think this was a first draft. We did, I think, outstanding work.

Part of what made the day so successful for me was the combination of new and familiar faces arrayed around the room. Gamze, for example, has actually been connected to the play for a while, having worked on it over several months earlier this year at The Theatre Project in New York. Cody and Kate are both actors whose work I have come to admire deeply, and Cody has actually appeared in a short film I wrote for Centerstage in Baltimore. At the same time, Fajer, Claire, and Zolan have infused the room with new energy and new questions, which is essential for a serious re-examination of a piece of work that’s been long in development.

The fact is, I’ve been working on THE BUTCHER for about seven years now. (Off and on.) It’s a complicated story, and it’s demanding incredible nuance for both me and the actors who’ve worked on it. The characters I’m engaged with are people who appear all too infrequently on our stages—an evangelical couple and an Iranian American family, in particular—and I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself to ensure that they get represented fairly and roundly, rather than as caricatures. (If art is going to serve as a mirror for society, then it really ought to work for all of us, don’t you think?) That means I need to continually question my assumptions, examine and re-examine every line of dialogue, and listen very carefully when my creative partners issue challenges about the authenticity of my work. Difficult stuff.

But rewarding, too. In working on this play yesterday, I sat around the table with earnest, thoughtful questioners willing to explore the great human questions with me: matters of faith, belief, doubt, sanity and insanity, violence and fear, family and marriage. How often do we get to discuss those things in an environment that’s welcoming and open, rather than abrasive and combative? This, for me, is the beauty of theater: both the creation of it, which we’re engaged in now, and the performance of it. Theater invites conversation and connection. It helps us empathize, encounter new ideas, and look both into and beyond ourselves at the same time. And I sincerely hope that anyone who comes to hear the reading of THE BUTCHER this weekend will take us up on the offer to do just that.

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