This production is being presented under the auspices of the Actors' Equity Association Members' Project Code.
When Whitney and Max are “willingly compelled” into a clinical drug trial to eradicate their schizoid personality disorders -- and their shared ability to create vivid realms and alternate realities -- they risk losing their worlds to find one another.
An interview with Johnna Adams
What inspired you to write WORLD BUILDERS?
It is one of my few love story plays. I have only written one other love story, my play NURTURE, which is a very wacky, dark comedy about damaged people. I like to do unexpected things with the girl meets boy formula. I went on antidepressants in 2008, and worried that it would affect my creativity. I was lucky and the antidepressants I was on helped me write. I heard horror stories from other writers about medication that hurt their ability to write. And that seemed very tragic to me. Having to choose between feeling good and being a creator seemed like it could be a fascinating subject for a modern tragedy. And despite the somewhat optimistic ending, in many ways WORLD BUILDERS is a tragedy. It is one of the most painful plays I’ve ever written, even though it is laugh out loud funny in places. I wanted to give the audience some insight into what being a playwright or creator of works of art feels like. I wanted them to care as much about these ridiculous and painful worlds and the burdens of creating them as these characters do. And to have some serious reflection on whether choosing love over the worlds is really the right choice. I wanted the happy ending that everyone expects for these types of stories to be unsatisfying and maybe not the right ending.
A line through much of your work seems to be a love of storytelling – especially genre-based stories. How did you approach constructing the fantasy worlds of Whitney and Max?
I had in mind something I read in Gaston Bachelard’s THE POETICS OF SPACE. He talks about the different ways architecture can be poetic. Picture an ocean. The poetry and reverie that image inspires in you is expansive and vast. Humbling because the artistic idea is bigger than you and freeing because there is so much room in the concept of ocean. Now think of a miniature room in a dollhouse, or a tiny city built inside a walnut shell. The poetry of the small and confined space speaks to different parts of our imagination. It is charming or exciting to think of a huge amount contained in such a small space. The two different worlds are a collision of these two types of poetries. Whitney’s world is standing on a beach in front of an ocean and imagining vast Neptunian cities in the hidden and endless depths in front of you. Which is always the appeal of science fiction and space opera stories. Max’s world is the curious and energizing experience of looking into a small box and seeing a complex system represented in staggering detail. The worlds were designed to fascinate different parts of our minds. And to give the actors a range of possibilities in interpreting these worlds in their silent reveries about them.
WORLD BUILDERS is a fun, funny play that quite unapologetically explores issues surrounding schizoid personality disorder and the ethics of medical treatment. How do you dig in to such potent content while maintaining a sense of fantasy and play?
Our culture looks at mental illness as an unequivocally bad thing. A disorder that should be eradicated. That ignores the fact that most of our most celebrated artists struggle with mental illness. It can be a source of great beauty, inspiration, and wisdom. I really wanted this play to explore mental illness from that angle. To celebrate the possibilities and joy that can sometimes be found in the midst of the tragedy of serious mental illness. It can be a blessing as well as a curse. This play deals with that fact. And it tries to bring the audience along on some of the vivid, wonderful, and terrible gifts being crazy can give you.
Whitney’s world is particularly extravagant – a dystopian science-fiction extravaganza to rival any space opera. How thoroughly did you construct Whitney’s world before you began writing, or did Whitney's world surprise you?
Whitney’s world was a total surprise. I made it up on the spot every time I wrote about it, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at it. I do not have any back story or any more to it planned out than what is in the script. The cast of the Flux Theatre production last year in New York was deeply disappointed that I don’t have 10,000 pages of further world building or space ship console schematics lying around my apartment. The whole thing is structured around these three brothers getting revenge for their mother’s murder, and I realized during auditions for the play with Flux that I don’t even know if the brothers ultimately get revenge. I assume they do. But I’m not entirely sure they have enough skills as aquatic assassins. Whitney never tells us how it all ends. So, unless there is a sequel to the play one day, or a fan fiction site, I will never know what happens.
Similarly, given Max’s imagined world, when did you know that you would take his character on such a perilous journey?
Max’s storyline evolved as I was writing. I knew that the only way he could experience love was through the characters in his imagined world. And since it was such a bleak world, his experience of love was necessarily tragic and heartbreaking. I knew from the start of the play, as soon as he agreed to share his world, that he was headed for a staggeringly emotional confession about it. And that his emotions around it would be complex and challenging. He really stepped up in scene three for me and shared a lot. Not every character I’ve written has been willing to be so vulnerable. I have a special place in my heart for him. He still might be a serial killer though. I’m not sure he isn’t.
How does WORLD BUILDERS fit into your body of work?
Most of what I write about ends up being about grief and struggling with loss. And this play isn’t an exception. The characters are grieving entire lost worlds. I also write a lot about strangers meeting for the first time and having very intimate journeys together (GIDION’S KNOT, SANS MERCI, NURTURE, RATTLERS). I don’t know why that is, but if you put the first scenes of my most successful plays together, they are almost always two strangers in the awkward moments of introducing themselves who ultimately change each other’s lives. This is also a deeply personal play. I’ve struggled with the issues these characters face. I’ve been in the same trenches of space station combat and serial killer bunker warfare. In my mind. And gone through all the personal cost of it in the real world. And found a lot of wonder and humor and horror in it.
As a theatremaker, who are some of your creative influences?
I tend to really like playwrights I know. So Mac Rogers and Gus Schulenburg whom I have worked with in New York are huge influences. Getting to see someone’s process a bit in addition to their work is very inspiring and influential to me. Crystal Skillman, E.M. Lewis, Jamie Brandli, Callie Kimball, have all been huge influences. Early on before I knew many playwrights my teachers, Dean Corrin and Leon Martell were great influences. And in grad school, Tina Howe was so inspirational and enthusiastic. I definitely write in some ways just for her.
The Pipeline production of your play will run in repertory with Mac Rogers’ GOD OF OBSIDIAN. Any thoughts about sharing the Nashville stage with another Friend of Flux?
I mentioned him above as a big influence, so it is amazing, flattering, and humbling to be in rep with him. He saw both an early reading and the NY production of WORLD BUILDERS and said very nice things about it, which was awesome. If Gus Schulenburg couldn’t have done Max in New York, we were going to try to persuade Mac to do it because he is a fantastic actor in addition to being a writer. He would have been amazing. Mac’s writing is so rich and imaginative and rewarding to watch. Your audience is really in for a treat with GOD OF OBSIDIAN. He is a master world builder. A gorgeous story teller. An epic and enthralling writer. So, great pick for your season. Audiences need to see his work. Run to buy a ticket, folks!
What are you working on now? Do you have anything you’d like to promote?
I am in the middle of writing an all-female play that I think of as my version of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. That was Mamet’s workplace play about ruthless time share salesmen, of course. This play, iAFTER, is about a ruthless all-female sales staff for a phone app company. The company takes the Facebook pages of the dead and obituaries and creates avatars from this info of the newly departed, then puts the avatars into their own online version of an afterlife called the iAFTER. Which kind of functions like THE SIMS 4. The sales staff exploits the grieving relatives to get them to buy upgrade packages with better furniture, clothes, and experiences for the avatars of the dead. It’s sort of an absurdist comedy. I’m trying to write a series of all-female plays with stair-stepping cast sizes, just as a challenge. GIDION’S KNOT is two women. SANS MERCI is three women. I have an unproduced play LINGUA IGNOTA, which is four women. iAFTER will be five women. SKINLESS was seven women. I need a six woman show and then will keep writing until I hit totally unproduceable, epic cast sizes and run out of ideas. I also intend to write some plays with men in and around the stair-step challenge, don’t worry.
Johnna Adams (Playwright) received a Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association Citation in 2013 for her play GIDION'S KNOT. She is the 2011 recipient of the Princess Grace Award and a 2012 Finalist for the Susan Smith Black-burn Award. She has mingled with an all-inmate cast at the Mitchellville Theatre Project at the Iowa Women’s Correctional Institution (IN THE ABSENCE OF ANGELS, 2006) and participated in a fully nude talkback in front of a nude audience at the Naturist Society’s Western Naturist Gathering at the Lupin Naturist Club (NUDE ON THE BEACH, 2002). Other plays include SKINLESS, THE ANGUISHER, HRIPSIME, HUED MOLL, THE ANGEL EATERS TRILOGY (ANGEL EATERS, RATTLERS, AND 8 LITTLE ANTICHRISTS), SANS MERCI, COCKFIGHERS, THE SACRED GEOMETRY OF S&M PORN, and LICKSPITTLES, BUTTONHOLERS AND DAMNED PERNICIOUS GO-BETWEENS. She is a past Reva Shiner Award winner, winner of the OC Weekly’s Best Original Play award (twice), finalist for the Princess Grace Award, finalist for the Christopher Brian Wolk Award, finalist for the National Art’s Club’s Playwrights First Prize, finalist for the William Saroyan Prize and New York Innovative Theatre Award nominee.
Johnna’s plays ANGEL EATERS, RATTLERS, 8 LITTLE ANTICHRISTS, SANS MERCI, COCKFIGHERS, and THE SACRED GEOMETRY OF S&M PORN are published by Original Works Publishing (). Johnna’s plays have been read or produced by The Alliance Theatre Lab, The New Group, Flux Theatre Ensemble, The Astoria Performing Arts Center , Peculiar Works Productions,, Impetuous Theater, Bloomington Playwrights Project, Bootleg Theatre, Unknown Theater, The Blank Theatre, Wordspace, Write Act Repertory, Rude Guerilla Theater Company, the Hunger Artists Theatre Ensemble, Company of Angels, Moving Arts, The Bug Theater, the Women’s Theater Company of LA, O Henry Birthday Club Society, STAGEStheater, The Curtis Theater, The Contemporary American Theatre Festival, Hunter College, DePaul University, Chapman College, Irvine Valley College, Fullerton College and the Chicago Dramatists Workshop. Johnna received a BFA in Acting from the DePaul University Theatre School with an MFA in Playwriting from Hunter College, where she studied with Tina Howe and with Mark Bly.
Andrew Johnson (Max) is honored to be a part of Pipeline-Collective’s 2018 season. He has worked predominantly with the Nashville Shakespeare Festival, including roles in ANTONY & CLEOPATRA (Mecenas), THE WINTER'S TALE (Archidamus), ROMEO AND JULIET (Paris), and the 2016 summer production of MACBETH as the title role. He has also worked with the Nashville Repertory Theater in their 2015 production of ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (Tragedian). He wants to thank his incredible family and friends for their love and support, and the Quest Company podcast for allowing him to build wonderfully fantastic worlds and for the gift of play. Romans 12:21.
Miranda Pepin (Whitney) is excited to be making her Pipeline-Collective debut! Recent credits include the title role in ORLANDO and Stepdaughter in SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR at Vanderbilt University Theatre; THE WINTER'S TALE and ANTONY & CLEOPATRA at Nashville Shakespeare Festival. She is a recent graduate of Vanderbilt University, where she received a BA in Physics.
David Ian Lee (Director) has worked in New York for companies including Pearl Theatre Company, Manhattan Theatre Source, Boomerang, Gideon, and Flux Ensemble; for regional theatres including Actors Theatre of Louisville, Milwaukee Rep., Arizona Rep., Tennessee Rep.; and classical companies including New York Classical Theatre, Arkansas Shakespeare, Illinois Shakespeare, Sedona Shakespeare, Utah Shakespeare, and Nashville Shakespeare. He is an internationally produced playwright, with recent productions of his work in Canada, South Africa, Scotland, and Greece. David received his MFA in Directing from Illinois State University. Favorite credit: his son, Beckett Harrison Lee. For more information, please visit www.davidianlee.com.