BWW Interview: Joel Vig of ADOPTION ROULETTE at Desert Ensemble Theater
Desert Ensemble Theatre Company's (DETC's) ninth season continues with the world premiere production of ADOPTION ROULETTE, by Elizabeth Fuller and Joel Vig. Shawn Abramowitz directs a three-person cast headed by Yo Younger. Adina Lawson and Fergus Loughnane each play multiple roles.
ADOPTION ROULETTE is a true tale based on Fuller's experiences when she and her husband adopted a little girl from Russia in the early 2000s. The two soon found themselves trapped in a story that has all the elements of a Hitchcock thriller. The play takes the audience on a ride through the streets of Moscow and into the hinterlands of Siberia as the couple tries to realize their dream.
A 2017 award winner for non-fiction writing, Joel Vig has worked for over thirty years for The Theatre Guild as a writer, director, and actor. He has written four plays about Truman Capote that have been presented around the United States. In 2019, he performed the world premiere of his most recent, TRUMAN TALKS NELLE Harper Lee, in the Monroeville, Alabama courtroom that served as the model for the one in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. His play, LOUIS BRAILLE--THE WORLD AT YOUR FINGERTIPS, has toured nationally.
Mr. Vig and Ms. Fuller have also co-written THE INTERRUPTED JOURNEY, a play based on her late first husband's best seller, which tells the true story of Betty and Barney Hill. The Hills reported being abducted by space aliens and taken on board a UFO in New Hampshire in 1961.
Broadway World interviewed Mr. Vig by e-mail. We have shortened the interview and lightly edited it.
Broadway World: How did you get involved in writing ADOPTION ROULETTE?
Joel Vig: About a decade ago, I was working with Elizabeth Fuller on a theatre project in Connecticut. Liz is an amazing woman who has written ten published books. Her late first husband was an extremely successful writer named John G. Fuller. We somehow got onto stories from our travels from around the world and I told her about the first time I went to Russia. She said to me, "Sometime I will tell you about my time in Russia." I said, "Why not right now?" She thought for a moment and then said, "I'll tell you this, if you promise not to tell anyone." I promised and she began telling me a story that had me laughing and crying and at times was as terrifying as any story I could think of.
When she was finished about one hour later, I said, "Liz...why have you not written this story? This is one of the most unforgettable stories I have ever heard in my life." Liz told me that I was only about the third person she had ever told this to and that she was so traumatized by what had happened that she never spoke of it. For the next several years, I would bring up that story and even sat down with Liz from time to time and we would make outlines and story boards. Each time, Liz would get cold feet and tell me that she still was not ready to go public with what happened. Finally, about three years ago, the shit hit the fan about the secret Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump, Jr. and various Russian agents and oligarchs and spies and they claimed that all they were discussing was Russian adoption. I called Liz and said, "This is a sign from on high. Never again will the words 'Russian adoption' be on the news every day in every news cycle. It's now or never."
Liz said she would tell her story if I would write it with her and we began in earnest to create the play. Our first reading at the Theatre Artists Workshop in Connecticut had a release go out to the members that a new play would be read with the understanding that no one would know ahead of time the name or subject matter of the play and that anyone who attended would be agreeing to not discuss the play with anyone.
Liz was still frankly terrified by having her story told. The reaction that night was so powerful that Liz told me she was still afraid but now knew that this was the right time and the right thing to do. Every reading we have had people tell us of other family members or loved ones or friends who have had similar experiences. We really feel that this play can draw back the curtain and give others the courage to tell their stories.
BWW: How much of ADOPTION ROULETTE is fictional?
JV: The story is all true and what Liz and her husband lived through. A few names have been changed ("to protect the guilty," as Liz said) and some details have actually been softened from what went on.
BWW: What genre would best describe the play?
JV: I would definitely call it a drama. As with any good drama, there are many places where comedic moments happen. It also could be called a thriller as it keeps the audience on the edge of their seats.
BWW: What made you want to write something so different from the previous shows in which you've acted?
JV: I guess I would be best known for HAIRSPRAY and RUTHLESS, both of which have a sort of goofy camp quality. But for over thirty years I worked with The Theatre Guild and did regional work on plays and musicals that were comedies and dramas. I had the chance to work with many of the greatest legends in American theatre like Helen Hayes and Colleen Dewhurst and Edward Albee and Horton Foote and John Guare and what I learned was that it is the story that counts. What drew me to this was one of the most powerful stories I have ever heard.
BWW: What kind of research did you do?
JV: The research was really sitting and talking with Liz and her husband. It was almost like a strange kind of therapy. Clearly, they had blocked certain things that had been particularly troubling and painful. As I asked them to relive the experiences, there was almost a cathartic reaction from both of them. I think finally telling the story lifted a burden that each of them had carried for years.
BWW: How has the play changed since its final, pre-production reading at "Scratch Night," on October 8, 2018, in New York, at the Theater for the New City?
JV: That reading was the seventh reading of the play and the first time we had gone from two actors to three. In earlier readings Liz played herself and I was all of the voices of people she remembered throughout the story. For the reading at the Theater for The New City in New York City, we split the voices into male and female and Sachi Parker (Shirley MacLaine's wonderfully talented daughter) played the female voices. That is pretty much the version that is being done here in Palm Springs. The director, Shawn Abramowitz, has asked for some very minor changes that will make the piece work in this production but the play itself has pretty much remained the same as it was for the Scratch Night at the Theater for The New City.
ADOPTION ROULETTE will run through February 9th, on Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m., and on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $28 each, plus tax. Call 760-565-2476 for tickets or more information, or consult the web site, www.detctheatre.org. Performances take place at the Pearl McManus Theatre, in the Palm Springs Woman's Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, (two blocks south of Palm Canyon Blvd.), in Palm Springs, California.
The rest of DETC's 2019-20 season consists of:
HOW TO SURVIVE AN APOCALYPSE (Mar. 13-22), by Jordan Fuller, follows four successful millennials through a darkly comic test of wilderness survival skills.
MAN & WIFE (Apr 17-26), by Emma Goldman-Sherman, offers the journey of a couple from ornaments on their own wedding cake, just prior to the 2016 election, through 25 years of bipartisan marriage (Apr 17-26).