Associate Artistic Director David Stallings and playwright John Patrick Bray discuss Bray’s upcoming production, Friendly’s Fire, at the 14Y Theater. Bray discusses growing up in a small town and how this shaped his perspective on veterans and war, the personal process of writing the soldier’s perspective, and his passion for infusing magic in his storytelling.
Much of Friendly’s Fire tackles the journey of a war veteran (Guy Friendly) addressing his experiences and losses through a fever dream of sorts. What exactly is he suffering from/through? How would you describe his journey?
Guy’s journey is not too different than the journey of many people in the service who return to a system that shuts them out. A few of my friends who were in the service in the 90s and early 2000s are now woefully underemployed. You can also find stories online (a simple search will provide countless examples) of men who came home from active duty and have had a terrible time adjusting. Many end up engaging in violence, mostly against themselves. We offer very little to those who gave their all and it’s terrible. Guy Friendly begins his journey as a complete shut-in. We don’t know much about his story early on, but once he is compelled to begin his quest (at the bequest of the queen bee in his hive), we slowly come to understand his trauma and why he pushes people away. Lucky for him, he has a sidekick on his adventure, a true friend that adds humor and light to his world (even if not truly appreciated by Friendly).
Friendly’s Fire received its 2017 world Premiere at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia after being the 2015 winner of their Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights. What did you learn about the play with your production there? Has it changed since? Is this its New York debut?
Oh, man. Writing the play was a journey. I sent it to the Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights as a sort of “Hail Mary” after it was rejected by several theatres—one of which rejected the play with a short, written response stating I did not have a nuanced view of war. I’m not sure what that rejection meant because Friendly’s Fire is, at its heart, an anti-war play; the challenge is that it is both anti-war and pro-veteran. I’ve come to that point too—pro-veteran, anti-war, because I grew up in a small town rural community, where many folks joined the military right out of high school because, frankly, the options were limited. Some were deeply committed to the notion of serving, and others really saw no other way to move forward with their lives.
Nick Piper, the literary manager at Barter Theatre, believed in the play and advocated on its behalf, which is how it ended up in the Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights. When I saw the reading at Barter in 2015, I was floored. There was a kind of lightbulb that turned on in my head—“I’m not crazy! This actually works!” It was an incredible experience. Rick Rose, Barter’s Producing Artistic Director, went on to direct the play for its 2017 World Premiere, and we continued its development through rehearsal. Most of the rewrites were cosmetic, a few lines here and there. After the production I tailored it a little more because I felt there were a few moments that needed clarity, or moments that required a little more set-up.
The production at the 14Y Theater is indeed the play’s NYC debut, and I could not be happier with the team Rising Sun Performance Company assembled. I’ve worked with Akia, RSPC Founding Artistic Director, a lot over the past fifteen years, and Akia has been a great friend, advocate, and artistic partner. This is my first time working with Director, Anna Hogan, and she has been wonderful to work with, too— Anna has a rich imagination, a lot of heart, and a lot of patience. I just saw images of the set and I am so dang excited! Janet Bentley composed music for the play (and to be clear, this is not a musical), and I love what I’m hearing. It’ll be a much different production than Barter’s, as it should be. I love what Barter Theatre did with the play and I love what Rising Sun Performance Company is doing with the play. I think the director and their team should be free to explore different motifs and themes, and be given the liberty to find different ways to present the world of story to the audience.
Next year it will be produced as part of the University of Georgia’s theatre season, directed by UGA Theatre and Film Studies Department Head, David Saltz, who experiments a lot with dramatic media—motion capture technology, video walls; and of course, our artist-in-residence Zeeb Zob is a robot, and though I’m not sure if he will appear in the play, I don’t see why he couldn’t! I think this play might be getting a little traction. I mean, it’s not every day you see a play with a singing and dancing Polar Bear.
You have had several productions here in New York and across the country. Can you tell us, is there a difference in audiences across the country and their reactions to your work?
The short answer is — it depends on the play and the audience. What surprised me at first was how much love Friendly’s Fire received from the good people of Abingdon, VA. It is a little wacky. One of the board members, in his veteran cap, turned to me and said, “Don’t you get it? You told the story of a solider.” Abingdon has a large veterans’ community and a bunch of the audience members were hungry for this story to be told, moments of absurdity and all.
My full length plays aren’t produced as much as my ten-minute plays and one-acts. The shorter plays tend to be a bit more based in Realism, they’re soulful, maybe with some element of magic. Those are the plays that appeal to me the most—where folks beaten up by life attempt to overcome insurmountable obstacles, using humor and magic. In the shorter works, the magic is a bit more “reality” based. Not as many bears or antagonists made out of bear-traps (that might be a spoiler). I try to send out plays to theatre communities who want to be in conversation with the story. I hope NYC folk are willing to join this conversation.
May 3 – May 19
The award-winning Rising Sun Performance Company presents the New York Premiere of an homage to Western movies and He-Man action figures—Friendly’s Fire, an explorations of the lengths a man will go to to preserve his friend’s sanity, and to remember his brother, who died in service of this country.