Marti Lyons & Calamity West sit down with Chicago Literati to discuss their epic new play, The Peacock

Marti Lyons & Calamity West sit down with Chicago Literati to discuss their epic new play, The Peacock
(Image courtesy of Calamity West and Marti Lyons)

Penned by powerhouse playwright, Calamity West and directed by the incomparable Marti Lyons, Jackalope Theater Company‘s astounding new drama The Peacock will undoubtedly leave a mark on theater history–and not just in Chicago. Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune calls the protagonist at the heart of the story, “…compelling and unusual…” and, “Ware and West’s joint creation really imprints itself on your insides”. Fellow ChicagoNow blogger, Katy Walsh of The Fourth Walsh says the production is, “very impressive….West’s dialogue is an intriguing cerebral tickler”. If that doesn’t sell you, watch the incredible trailer.

Taking place in December 1946, The Peacock tells the story of Nan, “a one-legged wunderkind who is forced by her peers to re-examine her violent fiction as a result of the recent suicide of their classmate Eleanor.” Nan is the only woman in a fiction writing workshop at an American university consisting solely of World War II veterans and aristocratic sons. This production simmers with foreboding drama that digs deep and doesn’t let go.

I was lucky enough to interview both Marti Lyons and Calamity West. Their answers both fascinated and inspired me. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Interview after the jump.


Was there a particular historical event that inspired you to write The Peacock?

W: I read Brad Gooch’s biography on Flannery O’Connor this past February and it just melted into me. Gooch’s collections detailing O’Connor’s stint at The University of Iowa in the early 1940’s are what ultimately drew me to the page so full heartedly. O’Connor was one of the very few women in the program – and the majority of her male counterparts were studying at The University on the GI Bill. Her fiction was dark, violent, stoic, and beautifully American. Which were tones that hadn’t really been explored at the time – at least not by many women. Because of this, a large portion of her writing peers had strong reactions towards her fiction, believing it to be (as one student recalled in Gooch’s biography) “too gratuitous.”

Even that: “too” followed by “gratuitous” – ah! That just kills me! As if there is an appropriate amount of gratuitousness that is allotted to an author in her fiction and O’Connor ignored it. I just love that. And her diligence was staggering, you know? She never faltered. She knew what she wanted to write and she did it. She knew what she was good at and she wasn’t going to let anyone tell her otherwise. She was bold. She became a fire. And the aftermath of that fire has left us with some of the best American literature known to date. So, yeah: those sections of O’Connor’s unrelenting social experiences bleeding their way into her creative genesis is really what started the wheels grinding for me and brought the overwrought characters of The Peacock to come screaming at my door until I paid attention to them.

What is the message you hope to convey with this production?

W: The Message of The Hustler Spirit.

What play made you want to become a playwright?

W: The Iceman Cometh.

I was sixteen…? Or seventeen…? when I read it for the first time. I’d never read anything like it. It was literature! It was theatre! It was sexy! It was cruel! It was hefty! It made me think! It was a test! And O’Neill made me believe that I could pass that test if I remained just as active a reader as he was a writer. It was the first play I read that made me believe, “There are no limitations. Trust your audience. You can make your writing as complicated as you want to. You just have to work really, really hard at it and accept that it will more than likely take decades to perfect.”

What was the first play you ever wrote?

W: I wrote my first full-length when I was eighteen.
It’s called Escaping Joe.
And it is, without any doubt, the worst play ever written.

 What made you want to become a director?

L: I saw Thomas Ostermeier’s production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted at the Barbican in 2006. I had read that play and thought it was horrific and sophomoric – not unlike reviewer Michael Billington’s first take on the piece. Yet, Thomas Ostermeier’s production was so gorgeous, precise and unrelenting that the piece transformed before my eyes. His clarity of vision and the specificity of each of the performances uncovered deeper themes in the piece. In Ostermeier’s hands the piece was not a parade of brutality for provocations sake, rather the production pointed to a moment in the script, one that my undiscerning eye had overlooked completely, when, despite the brutality, one character brings another character a glass of water. Ostermeier’s Blasted was still incredibly political and violent, but it also elucidated a hopefulness in the work – the idea that basic human kindness somehow survives the worst barbarism. I realized after the show that I had not been qualified to read Kane’s play – that Ostermeier had the gift to seek and find the truest resonances of incredibly complex texts. He had the ability to illuminate profound meaning through isolating the simplest stage direction. As these realizations flooded over me in the lobby after the show I discovered, “I want to do that.”


What challenges did you face with the production? How did you overcome them? 

L: The prosthetic was certainly a challenge. I cannot give enough credit to Samantha Jones for crafting this brilliant device – it is a masterpiece. Credit is also due to AJ Ware, our absolutely heroic actress, and Ryan Bourque, our fight choreographer and movement coach.

W: The biggest challenge was attempting to take a genre that’s not only (typically) reserved for men and make it female orientated – but take a genre that’s without ANY doubt over played and try to make it something fresh.

Fortunately, I had the tremendous guidance and intelligence of both Marti Lyons (director) and Bobby Kennedy (dramaturg) with me every step of the way.

These two were always keeping me in check. Especially when I wanted to shy away from the impulsive (and therefore, true) themes circulating their way throughout the script.

I honestly could never have written this play without them.


Who or what inspires you? 


L: I am very inspired by Slavoj Zizek and Flannery O’Connor and have been for some time. I think both are/were revolutionary thinkers. Through their writing, both demonstrate a connectivity between social and individual circumstance that inspires new understandings of the world and one’s place within it. They ignite a fire in me – so does Calamity West.

 What is your favorite word and why? 

W:  Fuck. Because it’s emotionally and vernacularly fluid. I also like the way it feels in my mouth.

 Would you two work together again? 

L: I aspire to work with Calamity for as long as we both shall live, and longer.

W: If I were to ONLY work with Marti Lyons from here on out I’d be one happy, happy girl.

 What were you most proud of in regards to the production? 

L: The collaborators on this process were a dream team. Between Jackalope, the designers, the acting ensemble – brilliantly led by Artistic Director AJ Ware and Managing Director Nate Silver – it was such a vibrant and joyful collaboration.

W: Audience reaction. This play is making people feel something. Whether it is joy, relief, horror, empathy, rage or arousal. It’s getting people to expose themselves—be it consciously or not. It’s really fulfilling to experience.

L: One of my favorite parts of this process was working over months and months in rehearsal rooms, living rooms, bars and coffee shops with Calamity and with our positively invaluable dramaturg, Bobby Kennedy. After many early and inspiring conversations with AJ Ware and Calamity – I had a feeling that Bobby might be a good fit for the project. Not only was he the right fit, he was indispensable. It is a rare and beautiful thing to form an empowering trifecta of playwright, dramaturg and director– I am incredibly proud of our collaboration and continued to be inspired by their artistry and humanity.


Was it hard finding the proper actors to fill the roles? 

L: AJ Ware and Jackalope are brilliant producers who thought to commission Calamity to write for their ensemble – so that is where the conversation started. Over time and with the formation of the ensemble for this piece, Calamity continued to respond and develop in dialogue with our fabulous group of actor/artists.

W: I wrote the play with a couple of actors in mind (i.e. the astounding AJ Ware and the incomparable Andrew Burden Swanson). And we had such great team together before the play even began rehearsals that finding the right voices to take on the other roles of the play was pretty darn easy. That being said, the talent of this cast is not something that can be overlooked. The time, support, dedication, and sacrifice they’ve given to this play is colossal. I owe them the world.

How do you feel about the crew? 

L: We have an incredible team that make the complex backstage and preshow run so smoothly – Allison Raynes and Mikayla Pasquale are our uncompromisingly fierce stage management team.

W: They’re the best! They’re unconditionally supportive and the production absolutely could not have been executed the way it has been without their extreme professionalism, focus, and skill.

 What are you looking forward to the most during the show’s run?

L: I love seeing and discussing the show with different audiences. Also, our ensemble is supremely talented so I look forward to continuing to see their work over the course of the run. They’re not hard on the eyes either…

W: Continuing to piss off old, white men.


The Peacock runs now through December 14th, 2013, every Thursday through Sunday at 7:30pm at City Lit Theater (1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., Chicago, Illinois), tickets are $10/$15. For more information on this production, click here

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