The Proteus Project: Writing Stories for Children by Alexi Sargeant

Thanks to support from The Sheen Center, Turn to Flesh Productions was able to introduce a new part of the play development process: The Proteus Project.  A step between Monthly MUSE - a place to workshop individual scenes - and our Annual Staged Reading Series, The Proteus Project gives our playwrights the chance to hear their project in full at a music stand reading for a small, private audience.

Thus far, the Proteus Project readings have all gone on to further, exciting development.  TTF playwright, Duncan Pflaster's Cockeye(D), an updated take on The Bacchae in the light of Kevin Spacey and #MeToo, has played at TOSOS, Chris Rivera's Our Own Odyssey, a look at a gay Latinex youth's journey to find home, won awards at FUERZAFest, while Artistic Director Emily C. A. Snyder's The Merry Widows of Windsor, a feminist sequel to Shakespeare's Merry Wives, will receive a fully staged reading at The Sheen Center in on Sunday, June 24th.

Up next for the Proteus Project is TTF playwright and member of Monthly MUSE open workshop, Natalie Sack's Invasive Species.

And today we bring you an exciting interview with TTF board member, Alexi Sargeant, whose Proteus Project: Writing Stories For Children, Or How To Give Birth To Gods goes up Thursday, May 24 at the Sheen Center.  Alexi took the time to answer a few questions about the play, their experience as part of our Proteus Project this year, and a few questions straight from our Turn to Flesh Community. (Questions from our community denoted with an *)

What inspired you to create Writing Stories for Children?
I wrote this play in a class at Yale taught by Sarah Ruhl. The focus of the class was “Ovidian Drama,” that is, stories driven less by Aristotelian plot structure than by dreamlike metamorphoses. We read plays like Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale and Elizabeth Egloff’s The Swan and debated to what extent they were Ovidian. Then Sarah gave us a list of ingredients with which to write a play: A nonhuman character, a song, a magical object, and an unexpected transformation. I threw in some of my own pet obsessions about fantasy fandom and childbearing, and the result was Writing Stories for Children.
Are the gods in your show inspired by any particular pantheon?*
Not an existing classical pantheon. I wanted to create my own set of deities. I thought about what forces would be most interesting to personify, and a little about which would have the most interesting conflicts in a modern setting. That’s how we got gods of tradition, progress, and regret. Three other gods are very classic tropes. The Lady is Death herself, Tarth is a war god, and Sonus a goddess of song (with a flavor of overflowing natural fecundity). But I twisted those tropes a bit. Tarth, for instance, has expanded his patronage to include the non-military war of economic competition. Sonus is in a strange half-awake state and speaks in gnomic snatches. Her relationship with Kestrel, god of progress, who put her into this sleep as part of project of perfecting her, echoes the way technological progress relates to nature itself and even human nature.
Many people fear death.  What's your take on her/it?*
Asking the heavy questions! There’s no getting around that death is scary. As a Christian, I have a hope that transcends death. But it still shapes my life, often through tragic losses. In the play, death is The Lady, and she is portrayed fairly sympathetically. She’s someone bound by her nature to take people from this world, but approaches this without malice. She has a compassionate interest in the living and kicks off the plot of the play by seeking out the quintessentially living experience of motherhood. I think it’s fairly healthy to be able to view death this way. We have to be able to see death as both an enemy (thanks to Christ, a defeated enemy) but also as a natural part of living in a fallen world. That way we can, God willing, embrace and transcend death rather than deny it.
Have you read and were you influenced by C. S. Lewis' essay "On Three Ways of Writing for Children?”*
I have read it, and your question prompted me to read it again. What a lovely essay. Lewis, as always, puts things so well. His argument that the best literature for children is that which the author himself or herself enjoys is very sound.

This essay was not at the front of my mind when I was writing my play, but it could well have subconsciously influenced me. There is a bit where Lewis touches on the concept of longing for another world that he elsewhere calls Joy:  
[The child reading fairy stories] does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. This is a special kind of longing.
In her first scene, my play's heroine, Christine, has a speech that also touches on the longing for other worlds.  I wasn't thinking of Lewis when I wrote it, but it's easy to draw a connection.

You're Catholic, but you're writing about a polytheistic world.  How does this milieu help you to explore your worldview?
The gods in this play are, explicitly, created beings, thought up by a fantasy author named Glenn Braddock before somehow working their way into our world. Their eternity and omniscience are highly conditional. This makes them quite different from the God I believe in. But it does help me think about what kinds of stories we tell about ourselves, and what things we make the gods of those stories. I picked gods like a god of progress and a goddess of regret because I think it’s not unusual for people to set those concepts up as idols in their lives, or for societies to worship them on a larger scale. 
Childbearing is a crucial theme in this play.  What are some things about birth and life and death you resonate with?
When I wrote this play I was an unmarried undergraduate. Now I am married, and my wife and I have experienced the loss of miscarriages. The themes of the play remain what they were. It’s definitely a work concerned with the preciousness and precarity of the unborn. The stakes have simply become more personal as I have grown up.
Your protagonist, Christine, is dealing with mental health issues.  How does this theme resonate in your work?
Many colleges end up terribly mistreating students who try to get mental healthcare. My own school, Yale, was no exception. Christine’s experience in my play reflects some of my anger at such injustices. It’s a crying shame that schools treat this entirely in terms of liability, hurrying to kick students off campus when those students are going through a rough time. Universities should do more to prioritize students’ wellbeing, instead of treating students like ticking time-bombs that need to be shipped away from school fast.
What's something that's surprised you about this process? 
My play has some extremely technically-challenging stage directions, including calling for a wolf made of light. I wondered if folks would be scared away from the prospect of a full production because of those directions. But every time people read the play, they’re pretty excited by the stage directions and immediately start brainstorming how you could actually pull them off without breaking the bank. So perhaps I will get to see a fully-staged Writing Stories for Children someday, wolf made of light and all!
How did having your Proteus Project reading with TTF help?  What did you learn?
Ask me again after the reading! I’m excited to learn what the audience likes in this play, and hear any question they have about the story, characters, and world.
So how can people see the show?  Plug away!
Join us this Thursday at 8:30 for a free reading of the play at the Sheen Center! I’m extremely pleased with the cast of actors reading the show, including Turn to Flesh favorites like Abby Wilde, Isabel Kruse, Amanda Roberts, Andrew Barrett, and Stephen Lyons, as well as folks I know from Yale like Iason Togias and Rachel Goldstein. Plus, my lovely wife Leah is reading those maybe-impossible-but-certainly-evocative stage directions. I look forward to getting to share the play with an audience there. Come one, come all!


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