James Still, Indiana Repertory Theatre’s playwright-in-residence, has worked on Miranda for the last three years. When he started he had no idea that it would eventually be part of a trilogy (including The House that Jack Built, Miranda and Appoggiatura, which will run next year), or that the content would be so political. The story follows a CIA operative in the Middle East.
NUVO spoke with James the week before opening night, which kicked off this week.
Emily Taylor: When did you first start writing Miranda?
James Still: Fingertips to keyboard? May, 2014 while I was a Writer-in-Residence at the New Harmony Project. But I often go through a long dreaming process with a play before I feel like I have the courage and endurance to disappear inside the play’s secret world. It’s rare these days for new play in the American theater to happen quickly in terms of production because of the obsession with development, which means I also have to feel confident that I’m engaged with the play as a love story — not just a crush, not something that will somehow diminish in intensity in terms of how I’m focused and thrilled by it. I always want to be a little frightened of the play, I want to keep going back to that challenge… For me, it’s a mad mixture of craft and mystery, of being very practical and yet not quite of this Earth.
Bits of pieces of Miranda have accumulated over many years — much of it happening in my travels around the world, moments when I’ve felt especially vulnerable or on the outside looking in, moment when a stranger showed kindness — or suspicion.
Emily: What was the story behind it? Where did the character come from?
James: There are a couple of ways to answer that. On one level, the play is the third play in a trilogy of plays about an American family’s personal relationship to 9/11 and how that ripples forward 10-15 years. I didn’t set out to write a trilogy, had no idea I would write a trilogy, didn’t know when I started the first play that Miranda was waiting for me in the future. It’s important, very important that your readers know you don’t have to know the other two plays to have a full experience with Miranda. Once I knew I was writing a trilogy, I also (begrudgingly) accepted the reality that the three plays would ever be performed by one theater in rep or consecutive productions so the challenge and task was to write each play as stand-alone plays that were a complete and beautiful experience on their own. The IRT will be the first theater to produce all three plays: The House that Jack Built (2012); Miranda (2017); and Appoggiatura (2018).
Back to where the character came from: Miranda is an off-stage character in both of the other plays, she’s the youngest daughter in the family. I knew that she had had her own personal response to losing her brother in 9/11 — and that she had joined the military, quickly recruited by CIA, and has spent her adult life trying to avenge her brother’s death, to give his death meaning. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, that’s just a kind of explanation — rich, complex characters like Miranda aren’t so easily described. Your question is interesting: where did she come from? Again, for me as a writer, a character like Miranda is a force of nature — she really didn’t give me a choice, I HAD to write about her. And in order to do that I had to follow her into dark and unknown territory — both emotionally and geographically. Which leads me to your next question…
Emily: What made you decide to set it in the Middle East?
James: Because of Miranda’s desire to make meaning out of her brother’s death, I knew she would be in the Middle East, that that would be the place where she is pursuit of meaning. But while it’s true the play is set in the Middle East, it’s also set in the connections and relationships between the characters, the people in Miranda’s life in this moment in time. It would be a completely different play if it were set in Russia or China or Northern Africa. The play is mostly set in Aden, Yemen. While Miranda finds herself there as a result of a kind of demotion, Yemen also happens to be where bin Laden’s father was from — so in a twist of fate Miranda is again brushing up against the ambiguous grief she feels about her brother.
I should also add that I made a conscious decision to set the play in Yemen initially because Yemen had not been in the news. I assumed I’d be setting the play in the present moment — whenever it might be produced. But things escalated so quickly and Yemen changed so much as a result of being the setting for a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran (with participation by the U.S. and others), that I realized several months ago that I would have to freeze the play in 2014-15. Once I committed to that, it was a huge relief because it’s impossible to chase the headlines in a part of the world where there are daily tragedies.
Emily: What drew you to build a story around the CIA?
James: Have you ever known someone and felt like something didn’t quite add up, someone who made you wonder about who they really were? I’ve known a couple people like that and one story I told myself is that they must be CIA. It’s such a powerful and secretive world, maybe impossible to really understand. For Miranda, I was drawn to the types of people that might commit to that kind of life. I did a lot of research (which is true of all my plays) and that took the form of reading, listening to interviews, reading declassified information that has CIA fingerprints on it, and eventually getting to spend time with a retired CIA operative who was generous with her time and patient with my endless questions. She had been CIA for 31 years (stationed in Asia) and our rule was that I could ask anything I wanted knowing [but] that there are some things she can’t talk about. One of the most obvious things about CIA (though less celebrated by mainstream entertainment that explores CIA) is that the “I” stands for intelligence. But the job seems incredibly nuanced and practical at the same time. There are rules to follow but there’s also an operative’s sixth-sense or gut-feeling which is part of what makes the operative good at the job.
Important to note: it’s not like I keep a list of jobs or settings that I hope to explore in my plays. The CIA and Yemen aren’t scribbled on a piece of paper and sitting in a file folder marked “IDEAS” — the story and the character brought me to both the CIA and Yemen. But once I understood that about Miranda, then I had to take responsibility for understanding that world as deeply and instinctively as I could imagine.
Emily: Do you find this piece political in light of the recent travel ban? Do you think the audience will?
James: Sure. There are many, many things that happen in the play that will feel eerie. I haven’t added a single word or phrase or event to the play in the last year to make it feel more relevant. On one hand the play is relevant because it’s about people who are living difficult lives in a difficult place and not always sure who they can trust. It’s one of the things I find especially seductive about the play, the ways it keeps us guessing, the ways it challenges our biases and altruism, our politics and our sense of personal responsibility. There’s a line in the play about friendship being a liability, that friendship is best as a means to an end. But it’s not always clear who’s using who, who’s playing who…
So it isn’t just the travel ban — it’s all of the ways that Yemen has become a kind of vortex of political violence. It’s the poorest country in the Middle East — but geographically it straddles many conflicts and therefore a kind of a strategic flash pot. Another resource for me was a woman who is from Aden, Yemen — she’s in the U.S. doing her Masters in International Relations with the intention of returning home to Yemen because she wants to be in her country, to work in her country. We Skyped a couple months ago and I asked her what she missed about Yemen and she said, “Peace. I miss the peace.” It wasn’t the answer I expected because she had heard my question in a very personal way. Heartbreaking.
Emily: What is your favorite part of the script? What was the hardest part to write through?
James: No favorite parts that I would ever tell anyone!
I will share that I feel honored to get to write the play, that it’s been an intense experience living with the play.
The hardest parts to write have probably been where characters are in the most potential danger, not knowing what might happen to them. I’ve also been deeply aware of the loneliness all of these characters feel — it’s a profound loneliness that has nothing to do with romantic love. But in a play like Miranda, I have to say that one of the hardest things is not really knowing what happens to all of these characters after the play ends. With all of my plays I often wonder what’s become of a character outside of their lives lived in my play. This is especially true for the characters in Miranda. I’m still having dreams about them.
Emily: How do you feel this has pushed you as a playwright?
James: For some reason I’m thinking about a line from Miranda — something Miranda’s boss tells her at one point: “If all else fails, lie truthfully.” There’s an uneasy beauty about that idea and how it lives in my play. But there’s something true about it when it comes to writing. In a way, you’re lying so brilliantly that it becomes true. Sometimes it feels like I’m aggressively willing my plays to come to life, to reveal themselves to me. Miranda pushed me in particular ways — CIA and the Middle East were new territories for me. It’s also a play structured like a thriller — the story tumbles forward, back and forward in time, double-speak and subtext, characters not always being exactly what they seem at first. But the hardest stuff is always living inside the emotional lives of the characters. Hard because it’s relentless and demanding and mysterious and… lonely.
Emily: Why do you feel like the IRT is the best setting for this?
James: Aren’t you excited about the IRT doing Miranda? I’m thrilled about it because it’s not the kind of play we do every year, and it’s probably not the kind of play that IRT audiences would expect from me. That sounds like a perfect confluence of place and people where something truly surprising and absorbing can happen. This is my 19th season as the IRT’s Playwright in Residence. We couldn’t have done this play in my earlier years (and I couldn’t have written it), everything leads to now. Right now. And right now is the perfect time to see my play beautifully produced at a theater that has nurtured and supported my work. The IRT audiences have nurtured and supported my work too — we are in this long, deep conversation that covers many kinds of stories, travels different moments in time, celebrates characters who speak different languages and come from different corners of the world, plays meant to ask questions and more questions. Every play is an experiment, every performance of a play is an experiment, theater isn’t embarrassed about being ambitious, it can’t help but be flawed, and many many times I’ve sat in the dark with an audience, holding our breath, watching something unfold in front of us that can only happen here, now, right now. So here we go… I’m a little scared and mostly excited to share Miranda and the IRT is the place where I CAN feel scared and excited, a place where I know conversations are going to happen about my play.