Playwright-In-Residence Madeleine George Interviews Cyrano Co-Playwrights Jason O’Connell and Brenda Withers
Why Cyrano? What is it about this story that makes it such a perennial favorite over time, do you think?
BW: It’s such an expansive story—at the center is a heartbreaking love triangle, but I find the peripheral battles just as captivating. It’s rare that a piece truly contains “something for everyone,” but I’d say Cyrano manages it. Poetry, passion, piety, pride—and that’s just the p’s.
JOC: It also feels like a universal cautionary tale about self-perception and the premium we place on physical beauty. I’ve said this before, but I feel there’s a strain of adolescent fantasy that runs through the play. Those warring self-images that fill all our teenage daydreams—simultaneous visions of exceptionalism and worthlessness—are so heartbreakingly encapsulated in the character of Cyrano. He knows he’s the greatest yet fears he’s the least. As uniquely accomplished and distinguished as the character is, he is also, to my mind, very much Everyman.
And why now? Was it just Jason’s hunger to play the juicy title role (!) that made you want to open this piece up, or is there something about this timeless story that’s timelier than we might guess?
JOC: The truth is that—while this is indeed a role I’ve always wanted to play!—the idea for us to collaborate on our own adaptation was pretty much dropped in our laps! Just over two years ago, Kathleen Anderson Culebro, the Artistic Director of Amphibian Stage in Fort Worth, TX, reached out to me about directing a small-cast version of Cyrano for her theater. I was very excited by the prospect, but the scripts we knew of which had been built for smaller casts didn’t really speak to us. Kathleen suggested that I write a brand-new adaptation, which—while an intriguing idea—felt like a verrrrrry tall order (especially considering that we were only four months away from the first rehearsal). It was then that she suggested I write it with Brenda Withers. The amazing thing is that Kathleen had no idea that Brenda had actually been one of my dearest friends for the last 18 years! It felt like a sign, and so—despite the seeming impossibility of the task—Brenda and I decided to take the leap. It all began with Kathleen, though. The idea of taking on the role for Two River and HVSF came along after John Dias and Davis McCallum saw that first production down in Texas.
Do you think of Cyrano as a romantic comedy in the traditional sense? Or is it more than just a romantic comedy?
JOC: To be sure, Cyrano has all the hallmarks of a traditional romantic comedy (or, more accurately, it has all the hallmarks of about 75% of a traditional romantic comedy), but it goes to different, more complicated places. Mainly, this is because, despite the dramatic liberties Rostand takes in his storytelling, Cyrano de Bergerac was an actual man and his life took turns that don’t line up with the classic Hugh Grant/Meg Ryan rom-com structure. (Side note: How did those two not make a movie together?) That said, it is understandable that one would think of Cyrano in those terms—not only because the plot zigs where one imagines it might zag, but because our most famous modern-day cultural touchstone for
the story is probably Steve Martin’s 1987 film, Roxanne, which is structured as a traditional (and quite delightful) romantic comedy. It was certainly my first exposure to the story and it remains a great favorite.
BW: As a person who has watched Bringing Up Baby about one million times, I’m probably a bad candidate for identifying what could be “more” than a romantic comedy. Honestly, I think it’s such a potent genre, because, as with Cyrano, a romantic entanglement opens the characters’ hearts and allows them to approach other big ideas with vulnerability—class, war, corruption, community. In everything from Much Ado About Nothing to Born Yesterday to You’ve Got Mail, the light touch makes heavy issues palatable, and reaches audiences in ways they don’t see coming.
How have you kept Rostand close in your adaptation, and how have you let him go?
JOC: I like the way you phrase the question—it makes it feel like a dance. And, as they say to kids at a middle school prom, you always want to “leave a little room for the holy spirit.” Adaptation, for my money, requires a delicate balance between honor and irreverence. Respecting the heart and soul of the original, while bringing something new to the party. I think Brenda and I are both a little like Cyrano, which helps—we’re romantics with a shared love of poetry and language, and mischievous clowns who like to upend the status quo whenever we can.
BW: I think what we lost in rhyming couplets, we made up for in pluck and passion. Because we were crafting contemporary version, we knew some aspects of Rostand’s original (which, to start with, was in French) had to break apart, but we made a real point to keep an eye on preserving the author’s intent. There’s no missing his penchant for lyricism, his flair for the dramatic, his wry sense of humor. We aimed to stick the spirit of the text more than the letter, to adapt his magic, not replace it. I hope the adventure inherent in his original shines through in our homage.
Can you talk about what it has meant to distill the ensemble of this potentially sprawling cast down to five people? What secret superpowers are unleashed within the story through this act of streamlining?
BW: Early on Jason suggested we embrace the egalitarian angle of the piece—Rostand gives almost everyone in the play an appreciation of or penchant for poetry. Art and beauty makes all the characters in this play tick, suggesting the same blood running through the veins of peasants, princes, etc. I think assigning multiple roles to every actor highlights that sense of shared experience—the artist is the baker is the soldier is the nun. It was a surprise to catch that connection the first time I saw the piece on its feet, and I’m happy to feel it deepens the message of kinship.
JOC: The piece at its core speaks to the idea that we all contain multitudes, so why not embrace that concept fully? There’s a delight in seeing friends and enemies inhabiting the same body and swapping personas in the blink of an eye. As our version of LeBret proclaims early on: “A man can be more than one thing… We all have secret selves.”
This isn’t the first time this version of Cyrano will be performed. Is the production evolving from its previous iterations? Will you miss performing under the stars?
JOC: Performing out under the HVSF tent is always magical. However, I’ve been involved with several HVSF productions that have moved indoors after their Hudson Valley runs, and
I’ve always found that the shows gain new and exciting layers as a result of being transferred. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that there are fewer wild cards to contend with (thunderstorms, heatwaves, errant skunks/snapping turtles/wild turkeys, etc.), but the audience’s focus seems to sharpen in a really interesting way.
BW: Thanks to some lessons we’ve learned in performance, and some terrific feedback from collaborators, we are continuing to develop parts of the script. The shift from an outdoor atmosphere to a more traditional theater set-up at Two River requires a little tailoring and we’re also working towards balancing entertainment and enrichment. We’re so lucky to have a creative team in place that’s responsive and game for improvement.
JOC: The brilliant Meredith McDonough (who has directed the play both at HVSF and Two River) has illuminated and elevated our play in ways I could never have imagined. The same is true of our designers’ visions and our cast’s interpretations… it all has an evolutionary effect.
You’ve both been founding members of theater companies, and have worked with some of the same artistic collaborators over and over. How have long-term relationships with fellow artists informed the work you do as writers and actors?
BW: I think an ensemble of artists that really understand each other usually digs much farther much faster—the aesthetic shorthand and shared history let you hit the ground running, especially with new works. The economics of our industry is tempting theaters to embrace shorter and shorter rehearsal periods. Repeat collaborations are a great way to combat that trend.
JOC: I’ve found that collaborating with kindred spirits deepens my own understanding of myself as an artist. As an actor, when you feel confident and secure in a rehearsal room, you can go to places you never thought possible. As a writer, it’s a joy to put language in the mouths of performers you love—voices you can hear clearly in your head, actors you can depend on. That said, it’s also important to be able to work with (or at least be open to working with) anyone. Actors need to feel free to experiment in every room. Plays need to be sturdy enough to withstand many interpretations. And directors need to be able to communicate their vision to as many collaborators as possible.