BWW Interview: Playwright, Jeremiah Miller of GUILTY PARTIES OF NEW ORLEANS at Theater Of The Seventh Sister
Jeremiah Miller wrote The To-and-fro, another play featured in TSS's 2016-2017 season. He was one of the co-writers of Patriot Acts, which premiered in the NYC Fringe Festival, and he composed a short play for the People's Shakespeare Project, America Will. In addition to NBC's "Law & Order," he has had major roles in new plays by such acclaimed writers as Charles Busch, A.R. Gurney, and Charles L. Mee, and he has performed at such venues as Lincoln Center, Playwrights Horizons, Manhattan Theatre Club, the Denver Center, and the People's Shakespeare Project here in Lancaster.
BW: Give your most intriguing elevator speech on the plot of "Guilty Parties of New Orleans".
JM: "Guilty Parties" tells the true story of Jim Garrison, the only man to ever bring a trial in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The play examines the suspicion toward "the establishment" that began to take root in this country at that time, and which is alive and well more than 50 years later. It also touches on deeper struggles of American and human life, such as the public vs. the private, faith vs. superstition, and the meaning of truth.
BW: How did you first get interested in JFK conspiracy theories and the work of Jim Garrison?
JM: Like most students of the Kennedy assassination who were born after the event, I was turned onto it by Oliver Stone's JFK. I remember Kevin Costner's hypnotic courtroom narration of the Zapruder film: "Back and to the left...Back and to the left..." It didn't become an obsession for me until about a decade ago when I was watching a Peter Jennings television special, which called every one of my assumptions about the case into question.
BW: Many of the real-life characters in "Guilty Parties" also appear in the Oliver Stone movie "JFK". How are the two stories different, and which one is closer to the actual events of the Garrison trial?
JM: Although Stone used the Jim Garrison trial as his centerpiece, JFK is an entertaining and artful laundry list of the many suspicious stories surrounding the assassination that fan the flames of conspiracy theory. My play is not about the assassination, and does not make an argument for or against conspiracy. Instead it zeroes in on Jim Garrison's prosecution of Clay Shaw for his alleged involvement in the assassination. Since this is my focus, I am confident that my depictions of the colorful characters involved in the investigation are more accurate than Stone's. I also take the question of Shaw's guilt or innocence much more seriously than Stone, who has stated that it doesn't matter to him whether Shaw, whose reputation he and Garrison have destroyed, was actually guilty or not. What mattered to Stone was dismantling the credibility of the Warren Report.
BW: How do the themes of this show align with current events like unsubstantiated accusations of wiretapping, alleged secret cameras in microwave ovens, and the daily onslaught of "fake news"?
JM: Having worked on this play for ten years, it wasn't until about a year or two ago that I felt it became relevant due to what I was seeing in the news. The 2016 Presidential Election really began with a conspiracy theory suggesting that a birth certificate and birth announcement in a Honolulu newspaper were fake. Among much other unusual behavior throughout the campaign was the accusation that another contender was linked to...what else?...The Kennedy Assassination. On both the Republican and the Democrat side, we saw a widespread rejection of the political party establishments. Garrison had also risen to power without the backing of either party. I began to see that there are many who view government as an alien entity within which they have no voice, and that conspiracy theory may serve the same function that superstition has historically, offering people an easily attainable sense of control over their destinies.
BW: Community theaters often stick with what is tried and true in order to maximize ticket sales. Why should audience members go see shows that are unfamiliar and unproven rather than the 200th revival of Fiddler on the Roof?
JM: This question actually gets to the subject of why I chose Jim Garrison as my protagonist. The good thing about exposing ourselves to what is unfamiliar and what "rocks the boat" as Jim Garrison did is that it wakes us up from our dogmatic slumber. Regardless of the merit or lack thereof behind the brazen argument of a politician or of a play, we must not shut our ears off to it, because it forces us to test our assumptions. We are free to reject certain things but, if we are offended by them, it may say more about us than it does about the material we are taking in. It may mean that we have not examined the question thoroughly enough to be standing on a firm foundation. This is what education should be all about: exposing ourselves to what is unfamiliar and causes us to struggle a bit, so that we can develop a set of beliefs we feel confident about. It's not that community theatres don't showcase edgy work-it's just that most of them need to be told what is brilliant by others before they will produce what New York audiences celebrated on their own discernment. You can't really blame them, since they need to sell tickets to keep their doors open. Lancaster City is lucky to have a couple of smaller companies whose very mission is to produce fresh work, and Theater of the Seventh Sister is one of them.
BW: What are the advantages of doing this show as a staged reading, and what should the audience expect?
JM: Any chance a playwright has to hear their work read aloud, whether it's a public or private reading, is immensely important to the development of a play. A local dramatist named Lydia Brubaker was kind enough to invite me to her group, the Lancaster Dramatists' Platform, where, for the first time, a group of actors sat around a table to read it aloud. For the April 28 reading, actors will still have scripts in their hands, but Theater of the Seventh Sister and director Josh Dorsheimer will be adding a few trappings: some minor staging, sound, lighting, and most importantly, an audience. This type of workshop has been particularly helpful in the case of "Guilty Parties." The great challenge has been to convert a long piecing-together of court transcripts, police memorandums and anecdotes into a living, breathing human story. Reactions from audience and cast members will help me to determine how successful I have been at this endeavor. The biggest advantage, in my view, is that we are telling a thought-provoking story.
Guilty Parties of New Orleans will be performed on Friday, April 28, 2017 at 7:30PM
at The Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster.
Tickets and more information can be found via the link below