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Some Thoughts on Lungs, Duncan Macmillan
A few things happened last year. I turned 30, I got engaged, I got a mortgage, and I got a proper job (lecturing in Creative Writing at Kingston University). The baby conversation was next, and this is something that I was very conscious of at the time of writing. We have a cat now, who we occasionally refer to as either “baby practice” or “baby substitute.” Time will tell which she’ll ultimately be. She is asleep on my lap as I write this.
I’d been struggling for a long time to find a way to write about some of the bigger issues facing our species, unable to distill my research, concerns, and questions into a pinpoint, compelling dramatic metaphor. I’d also been working on a large-scale play for the Old Vic Theatre for about three years, a six-act epic called Transatlantic which begins in a wheat field in Norfolk on the eve of the US joining the Allied war effort and ends in the present day with the estranged family returning to the farm for a funeral. It’s an enormous project with lots of huge themes and a cast of about two hundred characters. I wanted to take a break from that and write a play that was direct, clear, fast, fun, and most importantly, stylistically more pared-back.
I wanted to write something for two really good actors where they could tell a story unmediated by props, scene changes, costume changes, mime, lighting or sound queues, just two bodies in space, letting the audience fill in the gaps. It seems appropriate somehow that the play is as “carbon-neutral” as possible. I also felt that the playfulness of the form would help to make some of the more troubling issues more palatable. I wanted the audience to feel as if they were eavesdropping on a very private conversation between two thoughtful, educated, middle-class people who are struggling to do the right thing. I wanted to write a play which was dramatically active but where the narrative isn’t compelled by unraveling a lie or a secret. For me, drama is about live decision making. There are no secrets, everything pours out of them, uncensored, impulsive, raw.
Although it’s not a true story, I’m sure writing Lungs was a way for me to articulate a number of anxieties I was subconsciously having about turning 30, considering parenthood and the state of the world. I wrote the first draft very quickly, I started first thing in the morning and by midnight I’d got to the end. I read it out with Effie (my wife-to-be) then we spent the rest of the night (and much of the time since) having a very intense conversation. The play was written very quickly and without any planning. The play felt bigger than I’d intended it to, going beyond just the central question of whether or not to become parents. Only when I heard it read back did I realise all the research I’d been doing, particularly to do with climate change, had made its way into the play.
Tips for a Healthier Planet
“There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.”
“and we could plant trees, entire forests, make something pure and and and oxygenating, so”
Read the Review
I loved Lungs when I first read it—I knew performing it would be an undertaking, but it’s the kind of play you want to hear out loud. There’s something that’s so complex and so true about the ways people communicate in this play—it’s smart and funny and quick. I just wanted to have this dialogue with another actor.
Rehearsing the play and performing the play feel very different—performing something that’s so intricately and wisely put together is really freeing and instinctual, and you can be flexible in performance, always finding new things. But rehearsing something that’s so specific can just be exhausting. In any rehearsal process there’s a moment when your understanding of the character outpaces the technical requirements of a role—getting all the words in, or understanding how one scene builds on another and leads you to the next place. So rehearsing a scene in the middle of the play is a lot harder than getting to that scene and playing in it, especially because it’s just one long conversation with all the colors and complexities of a real relationship.
Duncan’s given us a structure that can just feel effortless to perform, once you’ve got the text and you live inside its rhythms. It’s just got a flow that carries you with it, because you and the audience don’t have a chance to second guess it; you’re just on to the next thing.
I love working with a playwright in the room, and Duncan’s put a tremendous amount of trust in Ryan and me. It’s fantastic. It’s intimidating. It’s crazy. Lucky me.
I had a really visceral reaction to Lungs when I first read it—it made me really excited. A lot of the plays I read about people in relationships in their 30s let their characters off a little easy. This play felt like it was really, really honest about the difficulties and complexities of relationships. It hit on something more than what I usually see.
Rehearsing the play has been a lot like any other play I’ve done—I read the play over and over before rehearsals, I get into rehearsals and start figuring out your character, the ways he is and isn’t like me. But there are some differences, totally. One of the things that Duncan does in the play is just jump from one scene into another, which is tough as an actor—usually you have at least ten seconds as the lights change or there’s a music cue. So physically, we’re both thinking about the play a little different than we usually do.
And the language is…it’s real but it’s not the way that naturalistic dialogue is usually written. So it’s harder to memorize, because it’s just really exact. You also have to stay on top of the text, if that makes sense—you’re always about to talk, there’s no sitting back and listening to your scene partner. But once it’s all in your head, it’s also easier to remember in a way. It’s like second nature; once it’s inside your brain, it makes a lot of sense coming out. It’s a little like verse in that way—when you’re memorizing verse it’s hard, because it’s specific and unforgiving. But once you’ve got the language, it does a lot of the work for you.
—adapted from interviews by Adrien-Alice Hansel
‘Lungs’: Breathing fresh new path at Studio Theatre
By Peter Marks, Published: October 3
Studio Theatre embarks on an exciting new path with “Lungs,” a bracingly dramatic walk through the thicket of couples communication that proves an auspicious start to the company’s ambitions as midwife to original plays.
The inaugural offering of the Studio Lab series, the world premiere of the two-character play by Duncan Macmillan, is at once beguilingly modest and rewardingly polished. Director Aaron Posner ably guides his actors, the outstanding Brooke Bloom and Ryan King, to charmingly recognizable portrayals of young people convulsed by the conflict between their boundless desires and the realities of an age in which dreams of big things — or dreams of any kind — seem a foolhardy affront to nature.
Macmillan, a London-based writer and director, intends these characters — identified as W (Bloom) and M (King) — as composites, enlightened emblems of an emergent generation that considers itself the first to seriously face the Earth’s extinction. (Cold War babies might reasonably dissent.) The play’s torrent of words is laced with allusions to a dying planet and the preoccupations of the sorts of conscientious citizens who keep obsessive track of their carbon footprints.
That’s part of the reason the play’s first utterance resounds throughout the 90 minutes that M and W share a bare stage, designed by Luciana Stecconi from a pile of thin wood panels. (No doubt they’re recyclable.) “A baby?” M suggests hopefully, unsurely, as W, dumbfounded, tries to process a half-question with both seismic and cosmic implications.
In all their hip, unmarried, consciously unconscious stylishness, M and W begin a halting, circuitous dialogue, rife with muddled thoughts, complaints, rants, digs and apologies, as they try to figure out what each really wants, separately and together. Their musings form a kind of word-cloud portrait of that contemporary romantic malady: ambivalence.
The relationship between W and M comes out of a cute-comedy convention stretching back to the likes of Corie and Paul, the married if temperamentally mismatched love birds of Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park.” The updating here has to do both with fast-forwarding past marriage — a child is the lasting proof of their commitment, it seems — and the peculiar weight of worldly concerns that might figure these days in family planning: Does one want to bring new life into a landscape under so much strain already?
Bloom’s PhD candidate W is a congenital worrywart who uses her hyper-awareness of impending ecological disaster as a cover for her real terror: that having a child confirms you’re a grownup. “If you really cared about the planet, you should kill yourself,” she declares, in one of her many manic dodges. It’s the more conciliatory and grounded of the pair, King’s M, who tries to force his partner to temper her neurotic, contrarian impulses and consider her real feelings about him and a future together.
At times, the ferocity with which Macmillan portrays W’s haranguing of M might make you wonder what he sees in her. But the appealing King is thoroughly convincing as the kind of guy attracted to someone with a lot more scary, hairpin turns of personality than he. And that desire for a challenging partner eventually unmasks the weaknesses in songwriter M, who will show that he cannot consistently live up to the image of the stand-up fellow that he cultivates.
Bloom’s turn as W is admirably flinty; Posner elicits from her a performance just this side of unlikable. The actress, however, wears W’s thin skin with such galvanizing flair that you hang on her every funny way of putting things. If at least once during “Lungs” some exchange between M and W doesn’t strike you as a snippet of one of your own conversations, then perhaps this wasn’t the evening for you.
Others will find this a smart and stimulating eavesdrop on the modern vocabulary of intimate negotiation. Studio is doing the city a favor, expanding its palette to include plays not previously produced elsewhere. The company had made a few tentative forays in this direction in years gone by, but “Lungs,” it seems, augurs a regular platform for new drama on 14th Street NW. If it’s all of the caliber of “Lungs,” then by all means, bring it on.
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Cast | Artistic Team
Brooke Bloom (W);joins The Studio Theatre for the first time. Recent theatre credits include Completeness at South Coast Repertory Theatre and Becky Shaw at the Wilma, for which she won a Barrymore Award. Other theatre credits include Hamlet at South Coast Rep and A Feminine Ending at Portland Center Stage. Recent film credits are He’s Just Not That Into You, Gabi on the Roof in July, Ceremony, The Normals, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Ms. Bloom has also appeared in several television pilots for NBC and Fox, has had recent guest appearances on Law and Order, In Plain Sight, and The Good Wife, and had a recurring role on CSI: Miami. She is a member of The Antaeus Company in Los Angeles, CA.
Ryan King (M) is making his Studio Theatre debut. His Off Broadway appearances include The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow and He’s Come to Take the Children Home at the Atlantic Theater Company, Mountains in the Bering at The Ensemble Studio Theatre, Defiance at Manhattan Theatre Club, Deathbed at McGinn-Cazale Theatre, Rescue Me: A Postmodern Classic with Snacks at The Ohio Theater and Eurydice at Second Stage. His other New York credits include performances at HERE, BE Company, 59 East 59th, and the Lark Play Development Center. Regionally, he has appeared in Dying City at Hartford Stage, Master Class at the Paper Mill Playhouse, and 33 Variations at La Jolla Playhouse. Other work includes appearances at Yale Repertory Theater, New York Stage and Film, Voice and Vision, and six summers at the O’Neill Theater Conference. His television and film work includes Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Guiding Light, and Black Sea. Mr. King holds an MFA from the Yale School of Drama.
Aaron Posner (Director) is a director and playwright whose work has been seen at major regional theatres across the country, including Actors Theatre of Louisville, The Alliance Theatre, American Players Theatre, Arizona Theatre Company, California Shakespeare Theatre, Children’s Theatre Company, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, Portland Center Stage, Seattle Repertory Theatre, and many others. In DC, he has worked extensively at the Folger Theatre (11 productions), as well as at Woolly Mammoth, Round House Theatre, Theater J/Arena Stage, Signature Theatre, and The Theatre Alliance. He is a founding artistic director of Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company, where he has directed over 40 productions. His adaptations of Chaim Potok’s novels The Chosen and My Name Is Asher Lev have been produced at more than 30 regional theatres and internationally. Other adaptations include a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s A Murder, A Mystery & A Marriage; Sometimes A Great Notion by Ken Kesey, Who Am I This Time? by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., “What Ho, Jeeves” by P.G. Wodehouse, Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons, and Third & Indiana by Steve Lopez. He has received Barrymore Awards as a director and playwright, and Helen Hayes Awards for Outstanding Direction for Two Gentlemen of Verona and Measure For Measure, both at the Folger Theatre. Mr. Posner is an Eisenhower Fellow, is originally from Eugene, Oregon, and currently resides in Maryland with his wife, actress Erin Weaver, and, very soon, his child, as yet unnamed.
Luciana Stecconi (Set Design) previous designs for The Studio Theatre include The History of Kisses, Tynan, In the Red and Brown Water, The Year of Magical Thinking, Stoop Stories, Amnesia Curiosa (created and performed by rainpan43), and Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, and Lypsinka: The Passion of the Crawford. For The Studio 2ndStage, she has designed Mojo, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, 60 Miles to Silver Lake, That Face, A Beautiful View, All That I Will Ever Be, and Crestfall. Regionally, she has designed Something You Did and Zero Hour at Theater J, and Scenes from an Execution and The Two Orphans at Brandeis Theatre Company, and Charlotte’s Web at Adventure Theatre. Ms. Stecconi received the 2010 Mayor’s Art Award for Outstanding Emerging Artist and the 2006 Ira Gershwin Prize. She holds an MFA in Theatre Arts: Design from Brandeis University.
Colin K. Bills (Light Design) returns to The Studio Theatre, where he designed lights for Circle Mirror Transformation, The Year of Magical Thinking, Stoop Stories, and Radio Golf. For The Studio 2ndStage, he designed for POP!, That Face, Autobahn, The Death of Meyerhold, Tommy, Terrorism, Four, and Bat Boy. Mr. Bills is the Resident Lighting Designer at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, where his many designs include Oedipus el Rey, The Vibrator Play, Gruesome Playground Injuries, Clybourne Park, Full Circle, Eclipsed, Stunning, The Unmentionables, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, and The Clean House. In DC, he has also designed at Everyman Theatre, Forum Theatre, Imagination Stage, The Kennedy Center, Metro Stage, Olney Theatre Center, Round House Theatre, Signature Theatre, Synetic Theatre, Theatre for the First Amendment, Theater J, and the Washington Revels. His designs have been seen regionally at The Berkshire Theater Festival, Baltimore Center Stage, the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, Intiman Theatre, Portland Center Stage, and The Williamstown Theatre Festival. Mr. Bills has received three Helen Hayes Awards and is a 2009 recipient of the Princess Grace Award. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College.
James Bigbee Garver (Sound Design) creates sonic inventions, soundscapes, and music for live performance, film, and interactive media. In Washington DC, he has designed and composed for Synetic, Scena, and Solas Nua theaters, and at Georgetown University’s Performing Arts Center. Mr. Garner was the Assistant Sound Designer for The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom at The Studio Theatre. He has worked in numerous venues in New York City, including Performance Space 122, The 92nd Street Y, Joyce SoHo, Japan Society, The World Financial Center, The American Museum of Natural History, and Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center on Long Island. His Off Broadway credits include shows at Lincoln Center and Theater Row. In 2006 he created the Tiny Dance Film Series with choreographer Peter Kyle, which has been on view throughout the US, Europe, and South China.