Nearly 30 years ago, the Phoenix Theatre welcomed its first audiences to its flagship production: a science-fiction trilogy, WARP I, II and III. The more things change, the more they stay the same: The Phoenix is once again presenting a sci-fi themed trilogy, Pete McElligott's With A Bang, With A Whimper and With A Smile. The first installment played the Phoenix last year, and With A Whimper makes its world premiere Thursday.
"I kind of like that sense of symmetry with it," said Bryan Fonseca, Phoenix's artistic director, "After 30 years, we'll do something that's very similar and yet groundbreaking, all for the same reasons we stumbled upon WARP."
After Fonseca heard a reading of With A Bang at the Horizon Theatre in Atlanta, he approached McElligott, 27, about producing both that play and its two companion pieces over three seasons.
At the time, McElligott had yet to put pen to paper on the others. Fonseca describes the decision to throw such support behind a virtually unknown playwright "scary, pretty scary."
"But sometimes it's fun to work real fresh," Fonseca added. "There's no over-planning at this pace. Actually, we didn't get this one [With a Whimper] until like three weeks ago."
The cast and playwright assembled for a first read of the play only a few weeks before rehearsals began. McElligot, speaking after the reading, said he was initially hesitant to agree to the project as proposed by Fonseca.
"The fact that Bryan was expressing interest in the other two filled me with great anxiety, but a good feeling of anxiety," McElligott said.
Those fears were assuaged when the Phoenix's production of With A Bang last year was a critical and audience success. At its heart, McElligott's sci-fi trilogy is about coming to terms with the end - the end of life, the end of the world, the end of existence.
"With A Bang is about: What do you save?" McElligott said. "With A Whimper is: How do you leave behind what you leave behind? And With A Smile is: How do you hold onto what you save?"
McElligott is working under tight deadlines to finish the final two pieces. Because of that, he's had to learn to give up control earlier than normal.
"They've been much more trusting of me than I ever would have been of myself," says McElligott of the Phoenix. "I was kind of anticipating that they would be more mothering. And I don't mean mothering in terms of nurturing but in terms of smothering. But they were very generous, really allowing me to have time."
After this reading, McElligott will leave the process entirely to Phoenix leadership. When he returns during tech week, he'll see for the first time what the Phoenix - and, specifically, Brian Fonseca, directing the production, and a team of talented actors - did with his baby.
"When you're in a room where there are other people," says McElligott, "who were either just as good or better than you, it makes you better. The experience of working here feels like an insanely bettering experience. Every single time that I get something from Bryan or something from the actors, it makes me a better writer."
Topping the list of McElligott's influences is Kurt Vonnegut.
"The first thing I did when I got here today was go to [his] library," says McElligott. "His work, I fell in love with. Which is going to sound like I'm pandering because this is Indiana, which is awful. But his work is just earnest nonsense." Other touchstones include Billy Connolly, Martin McDonagh, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Ren and Stimpy, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
A sense of humor is very present in both With A Bang and With A Whimper, but other ideas in the play come from a more serious place.
"I've known I wanted to be a father since I was like ten," says McElligott. "These plays started as a generational thing; parents to children. It feels like you're inheriting something that not only your parents didn't have, but that they don't really understand. You're inheriting a completely new world. [I took] that to a really literal place, in terms of the bits of advice we get from the past. But who's to say what I'll pass on to my kids, and how that will be interpreted or influence them."
McElligott said the play is "pretty close to there" after the reading, though he's always prepared to nip and tuck.
"[I was] listening for things that were still in there because I think they're funny, but that don't necessarily progress the action. With A Bang had a lot of those moments. As a writing teacher once said, 'You have to be willing to kill your children if you're gonna really write a play,'" says McElligott, who adds with a chuckle, "I was, basically, looking for children to kill."
When all is said and done in his apocalyptic saga, McElligott hopes audience will take away a more nuanced view of the end times - both on a personal and world-historical level.
"My hope is that at the end of the whole thing," says McElligott, "is the person is left with the transition from 'What am I going to do with my life; I have to make something of my life,' to 'I have to make something of my death.'"
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