Interview with playwright Jeff Talbott

Interview with playwright Jeff Talbott

Jeff Talbott, a frequent guest actor and writer to PTC, is the playwright of The Messenger, which will enjoy its world premiere at PTC on Friday, January 14th. It is Talbott’s second world premiere here, following “i” in 2018.

Below, Talbott talks about the wild ride it has been from first developing The Messenger in PTC’s Play-By-Play workshops in 2020, and then because the content of the play seems to mirror what is currently happening in the world today. His brand-new play examines our relationships with the press, our community, and each other.

Talbott calls his play a “very, very loose adaptation” of Henrik Ibsen’s  An Enemy of the People. In The Messenger, Therese Stockman is a small-town doctor in Norway, in 1882, who has made a shocking discovery about the industry that gives her town its lifeblood. Her friend Kristine Hovstad, the editor of The Messenger (one of the two competing newspapers in town), is going to take the story and run with it, but at what cost?

The Messenger further examines the role of the press, and its obligation to, and its influence over, its community. Begun by Talbott years before Covid-19 embraced the country in 2020, The Messenger is almost unbelievably prophetic in its timeliness. Here’s what he has to say:

PTC: Were there any parts of this play that you revised due to current circumstances going on around the world?

Jeff Talbott: Here’s the crazy thing nobody will believe – nothing in this play has been changed since the workshop (which happened just as the pandemic was hitting) to reflect the world. The world has actually spent the last 22 months reflecting the play. It’s a very strange position to sit in as a writer, because I am definitely NOT a psychic. But this play has been, from the first page, a very wild ride.

 

PTC: How important are the Play-By-Play workshops in the development of a play like The Messenger?

JT: The Play-By-Play development process is the most exciting, comprehensive and helpful development process I have been lucky enough to be a part of in all my years as a writer. Karen and PTC have created a safe place for writers and directors to come and feel supported and protected as they explore their plays both from a writing standpoint and an audience standpoint. Having a full week to work and then three chances to share with an audience while still being encouraged to keep writing, keep changing and keep shooting for the stars should be the model EVERY theatre has for developing new work.

 

PTC: How do playwrights who are also actors, such as yourself, differ from playwrights who are not trained in acting?

JT: I can only speak for myself (obviously, since I’m, like . . . me) but I think the fact that I started as an actor gives me a perspective in writing plays that is kind of unique. I definitely approach dialogue with an insider’s view to how it might feel saying it, but more than that, I trust actors so, so much. I say ALL THE TIME that actors are the Magic Sauce. And that can sound cutesy, but I actually believe it. My job is to provide the map, but the actors are the explorers – they are all Indiana Jones out there, looking for the artifacts. Hopefully I’ve planted clues and signposts, but I rely on them to tell me when the path has become unclear, and my job is to get in there, clear out the brush that is covering the road, and help them get from the beginning to the end. And I sit in awe of the actors every day – not because I was one, but because they make me a better writer every. single. day.

 

PTC: Have you visited Norway? If so, is there anything about their culture that could possibly inspire other works of yours?

JT: So the short answer is no. But the long answer is much weirder. I’m adopted. So I have no knowledge of my heritage. (Stay with me.)  When I was in fifth grade I had to write a report on the one place I’d like to go, and my answer was Oslo, Norway. I do not know why. Norway was not a topic in our house. But I felt such a pull to know about Norway. Flash forward many years later to two years ago, and I finally, after a lot of nudging from my very curious husband, did a DNA test to see what my biological heritage is. And it came back something like 55% Sweden and 30% Norway – I’M SCANDINAVIAN. I have always loved Henrik Ibsen, but it turns out that is possibly because his work (and his homeland) is literally in my genes. Isn’t life weird?

 

PTC: Anything else you would like to add?

JT: Only that I have been coming to PTC and Salt Lake for 15 years, and it is a true artistic home for me. I do not take that lightly. Every time I’m invited back, either as a writer or an actor, I am very aware of what a lucky human I am. This place makes great art for a wonderful audience, and I am so fortunate to be an artist in both this theatre and this community. I don’t say that lightly. I take it as a challenge every time to do my best to bring something great to the people here, and I am humbled by the pursuit.