The Velocity of Autumn is about to open at Arena Stage on September 6th, starring Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella. Playwright Eric Coble talked to me about the journey of the play from its inception to two productions in Idaho and Ohio, and how it came to Arena Stage.
Joel: How did this production of The Velocity of Autumn at Arena Stage come about? What’s the show about, and how can audiences in 2013 relate to its themes?
Eric: The play is about an 80-year-old woman, Alexandra, whose children have decided it’s time for her to live in a nursing home. She disagrees. Violently. So she barricades herself in her home, putting Molotov cocktails at every door and window, threatening to blow the whole place sky-high if anyone disturbs her. Into this room climbs her youngest son, Chris, who has been gone for 20 years. The emotional fireworks start blasting. People who have seen this show say with startling frequency, “That’s my mother,” “That’s my grandmother,” “That’s just how I feel.” People seem to be interested in exploring the opinions of a strong independent woman at the end of her life, and what it means to age in this country. The play was optioned for a New York production by Larry Kaye (American Idiot and Trip to Bountiful), and he brought it to Molly Smith to possibly direct. Now it’s coming to Arena and I couldn’t be happier.
When did you write The Velocity of Autumn, and how long did it take you to write it? Are you still making changes?
I wrote the play several years ago, though the idea for it came earlier. The seed of Alexandra’s plight and her son’s response to it stayed planted in my head for a few years, until I could ignore the clamoring no longer, then I wrote it over about a month. It’s gone through several rewrites since then, and I’m still doing small surgical revisions even as we speak.
What does the title mean? What other titles were considered, and why did you select this one?
The title refers to the increasing speed one feels as the end as approaching. Time slipping away. There were several other titles considered along the way, but the first (and only to my mind) was The Velocity of Autumn.
How much of the show is autobiographical and did you base these characters on family members and/or friends? How much of yourself is in these two characters?
There are absolutely parts of this play based on conversations and situations in my own life. My neighbor Lottie was an inspiration for the piece, my own mother as well, many older women I’ve known. Some of the stories within the play are absolutely true stories, some are completely imagined. Won’t say which. I personally relate to both characters — Alexandra’s desire to be left alone and live her life as she sees fit, and Chris’ need to make this situation alright, even as he longs to be free of all of it.
The Velocity of Autumn is the third play in the “Alexandra Plays,” trilogy. The other two plays are A Girl’s Guide to Coffee and Stranded on Earth. Without giving away too much about The Velocity of Autumn’s plot, what should we know about Alexandra’s life from the first time we meet her in A Girl’s Guide through Stranded… up until The Velocity of Autumn begins?
The three plays are independent of each other, though they share themes and ideas. I view them as a triptych: three plays about one woman, if she lived three lives simultaneously in 2013 — one where she’s in her 20’s, one where she’s in her 40’s and one where she’s 80. It’s the same TYPE of woman (strong, smart, artistic, independent), but at three very different points in her life. They don’t all share the same experiences, and each play stands alone. Though I like to think the plays share conversations and echoes with each other.
I am a huge fan of Estelle Parsons and have met her several times and have interviewed her twice. Why was Estelle the perfect actress to play Alexandra in The Velocity of Autumn? Did you write the show with Estelle in mind? What are you seeing in rehearsals that has surprised you or impressed you about Estelle’s performance?
Early on I imagined Estelle in the role. I considered it a pleasant fantasy that would never come true. She is bringing what I expected to the role, which is an air of the unexpected. She is such an instinctual actor, digging for the truth in every moment, pushing herself, her partner, the script to see how deep we can all go. And then turning that exploration into an amazing spontaneous life.
And I am also a fan of Stephen Spinella’s work, so why is he also the perfect actor to play the role of Chris? What are you seeing in rehearsals that has surprised you or impressed you with Stephen’s performance?
Stephen is another fearless, very smart actor — another searcher for every kernel of truth from which to grow his performance. He and Estelle play off each other so beautifully, frighteningly, hilariously, honestly. It’s an honor to watch them work.
The play had its world premiere at Boise Contemporary Theater in Idaho in 2011 and then was produced at the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood, Ohio in 2012. What was the audience reaction to the play, and what did you enjoy the most about these two productions? What did you learn from those productions that has lead you to make changes and/ or improvements in the script? How is this production different than the Boise and Lakewood productions?
Audiences have loved this play. It seems to be speaking to them on various levels, and it has sold out wherever it has run. All three productions (now including Arena) will feature slightly different versions of the script as I continue to learn about it. Most of the changes have to do with the nature of the outside threat to Chris and Alexandra and how they respond. Saying more would give too much away.
There was talk of a Broadway run. Is this still in the works?
Absolutely. We’re waiting on the right theatre to open up for us to move into. The show will be ready to go whenever the universe opens that door.
You know I was going to ask this: I attended an wrote about several readings of a musical called The Tapioca Miracle, which you co-wrote the book and lyrics with one of your Producers of The Velocity of Autumn – Larry Kaye. What is happening with The Tapioca Miracle? Will we see another workshop soon?
That delightful show is still in the works — a gorgeous demo CD was just produced, and it’s being shopped around to regional theatres as the next step in its life. I fully expect that musical to find its legs and run out into the world sometime soon.
How has your work evolved as a playwright and what themes do you tend to gravitate to in your work?
Hard to say from the inside. I’m still playing with form and stories. I try to challenge myself with each piece — Velocity for instance, came from my wondering if I could create a two-person script that takes place over 80 minutes with no scene breaks or time-shifts, or any stage trickery. Just two people talking. Could I make that interesting? Coherent? I’ll leave it to audiences to decide. I find myself circling back to several themes — trying to connect in an increasingly isolated world. The desire to run free vs. the desire to put down roots and be civilized. People being willing to go to astonishing lengths to get what they want in the world.
What do you want audiences to take with them when they leave Arena Stage after seeing The Velocity of Autumn?
I hope it raises questions about how we live our lives as they near an end, about how society deals with that, about how we treat each other. I hope people will view their own relationships with their parents or their children a little differently. And I hope they’ve had a good time. I know the actors, Molly and I will all have done so.
The Velocity of Autumn plays from September 6 – October 20, 2013 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.
Eric Coble’s website.
The Tapioca Miracle website.
An Interview with Playwright Eric Coble on His Play ‘The Velocity of Autumn’ at Arena Stage by Joel Markowitz.
Review of The Velocity of Summer by Nicole Cusick on DCMetroTheaterArts.
Review of The Velocity of Autumn by John Stoltenberg on DCMetroTheaterArts.
A Mother and a Son Look at ‘The Velocity of Autumn’ by Ellouise Schoettler.