BWW Interview: Playwright Joel Stone and THE CALLING at NJ Rep January 4 to February 4

BWW Interview:  Playwright Joel Stone and THE CALLING at NJ Rep January 4 to February 4

New Jersey Repertory Company (NJ Rep) opens its 2018 season of new plays with the world premiere of The Calling directed by Evan Bergman and starring Ames Adamson and Jared Michael Delaney. Joel Stone's thought-provoking and delightfully quick-witted thriller was commissioned by Stage Exchange (Stage X), a partnership formed between NJPAC and the New Jersey Theatre Alliance to develop cutting-edge works by notable New Jersey playwrights.

In The Calling, Father Dan is preparing to lock up after Mrs. Callahan's funeral. Having dispatched his parishioner's soul to its eternal reward and her mourners to their next stops, his work is done for the day. Or so he assumes, unaware that an epic and life-changing test of his faith and convictions lies ahead and, in fact, lies asleep at that moment in one of the pews. Carl is an ICU nurse who cared for the deceased during her final days. He's burned out and desperately searching for something: answers, relief, absolution? Maybe even revenge on a God that would choose to be so cruel. The front-row seat on suffering that comes with Carl's job has put him at odds with Father Dan's more transcendent views on the subject. Each deeply devoted to his calling, a comfortable man of the cloth and a troubled man of medicine take on life's biggest questions in a heart-pounding, mind-bending battle of wits that arrives at a shocking conclusion.

Broadwayworld.com had the pleasure of interviewing Joel Stone about his career and The Calling.

Joel Stone is the Literary Manager for New Jersey Repertory Company. He was formerly the artistic director of Off-Off Broadway's The Theatre Asylum. On May 17, 1998, his play Horrors of Doctor Moreau (published by Samuel French, Inc.) became the first script-in-hand reading to debut at New Jersey Repertory Company. The following year, his short play The Age of Miracles premiered at NJ Rep and went on to be a finalist at the Samuel French Short Play Festival. Also in 1999, NJ Rep presented "Written in Stone", an evening of Joel's short plays, including The Speck of Dust in Bugsy's Eye (featuring the late Kim Hunter). In 2001, he co-produced "One Night With You", a collection of six short plays about Elvis, created exclusively by NJ Rep playwrights. From 2000-2002, he was the Theatre Education Coordinator for the New York City Board/Department of Education. He has written and directed for all four NJ Rep Theatre Brut Festivals, including Prairie Dogs (2004), Abilene (2004), Trouble on the PATH (2005), Seven4Seven (2006), and The Purgatory of Charlie Hustle (2008). In 2012, Joel directed the acclaimed MainStage production of Gino DiIorio's Release Point. In 2014, Joel was the Director/Mentor of the award-winning NJ Rep Young Playwrights Project, "Shelter From The Storm", in which local high school students wrote short plays about Hurricane Sandy. For the past three years, he has been an adjunct professor of playwriting at Monmouth University and recently taught the initial playwriting class for New Jersey Repertory Company's West End Arts Center. Currently, he is the literary manager for NJ Rep. The Calling is his first full-length play in decades.

Tell us a little about your early interest in literature.

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950's, it seemed that the world revolved around sports. Football, baseball, basketball-it didn't matter-nonstop sports blared from our TV on the weekends. I was a bit of a loner and took solace in drawing and reading. I enjoyed hanging out at the neighborhood library and loved the smell of books. I was fascinated by non-fiction books about movies and UFO's and really liked being transported to new worlds via the works of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Edgar Allen Poe. In my early teens, I wrote plays, short stories, and 'screenplays' for 8mm movies that I made with my friends.

Do you have any go-to authors or playwrights that you like to read?

The older I get, the more I appreciate the nuances of playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. Their command of language and ideas can be breathtaking. But, to be truly honest, I most enjoy reading new translations of Greek tragedies, especially the plays of Sophocles. And re-visiting the works of Shakespeare isn't so shabby either. Call me old fashioned!

We'd love to know a little about your education.

I went through the New York City school system, like so many others. (Decades later, I became the Theatre Education coordinator for the New York City Board/Department of Education, evaluating arts education programs throughout the five boroughs.) It was at Meyer Levin Junior High School that I first met and befriended the future artistic director of New Jersey Repertory Company--Suzanne Barabas! We've been friends ever since. I went to Brooklyn College and got involved with its excellent theater department. I acted, directed, wrote plays. In 1970, one of the plays I directed, Arrabal's Picnic on the Battlefield, represented our school at the Yale Drama Festival. For the first time in my school career, I really felt like I belonged.

How does teaching complement your work as a playwright?

My role as an adjunct professor at Monmouth University has been very fulfilling these past four years. Each semester, a new set of students show up-a bit scared and very unsure of themselves. They've rarely seen much live theater and most have never considered writing a play. But by the time the 14-week semester is over, they are accomplished playwrights and critics. For me as a playwright, it's fascinating to view the development process through their eyes. It gives me a fresh perspective. And, during the writing of The Calling, I suspect that the adjunct professor in me was subtly guiding my efforts.

What inspired The Calling?

The Calling was a commissioned work from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, in partnership with New Jersey Repertory Company and the New Jersey Theater Alliance. One of the entry requirements was that the play be based or inspired by a New Jersey subject. I started researching and discovered a news item about a troubled male nurse. It inspired me to write a totally fictionalized version. During the writing process, I discovered several similar news stories that took place in the U.S. and Canada. Many drafts later, I can safely say that The Calling spins its own unique tale.

What would you like audiences to know about the show?

I'd like audiences to know that The Calling is a two-character play that takes place in a small church in an old part of town. A priest discovers a stranger sleeping among the pews, long after a funeral service he presided over. Why is the man there? What does he want? What happened in the past that links them? Probably, the less said, the better. The play is a battle of wits and wills between a man of faith and a man of medicine. It is both surprisingly funny and edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, with some unexpected twists and turns. We've got an exceptionally talented cast and crew and it's been exciting to watch the play develop and come to life during rehearsals.

What do you want our readers to know about NJ Rep and it's mission?

In its 20-year history, New Jersey Repertory Company's mission has been to exclusively produce new plays and, in the process, nurture emerging playwrights. It has presented countless world premieres and is a core member of the National New Play Network, a nationwide organization consisting of theaters committed to presenting new works. I have been NJ Rep's literary manager for the past three years, receiving and reviewing hundreds of play submissions. I help to choose plays for our script-in-hand reading series, some of which eventually get chosen for main-stage productions. With its new West End Arts Center, NJ Rep has broadened its scope and is serving the community with classes, art exhibits, and various special events.

Anything else, absolutely anything you want our readers to know.

I directed the first script-in-hand reading at NJ Rep on May 17, 1998-a reworked, revised version of my play Horrors of Doctor Moreau. The Calling is my first full-length play in 44 years. In all that time, I'd been relatively content to write and direct short plays. Gabe and Suzanne Barabas had been trying to get me to write a new full-length play for decades. With The Calling, I've finally achieved that milestone. And now that the genie is out of the bottle, I'm planning on writing several more.

The Calling runs January 4 through February 4, 2018. Previews are Thursday and Friday, January 4th and 5th at 8pm, and Saturday, January 6 at 3pm. Opening night with reception is Saturday, January 6 at 8pm. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm; and Sundays at 2pm, through February 4, 2018. Tickets are $46 (opening night, $60; premium seating +$5). Annual subscriptions are $225 per person, and include unlimited attendance of all shows and staged readings. Reservations by phone: 732-229-3166 or online at http://www.njrep.org/.

Photo Credit: Suzanne Barabas

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