Nicolas Kent to Helm A WALK IN THE WOODS at Northern Stage, 3/17-4/3
Nicolas Kent, the award-winning artistic director of London's acclaimed Tricycle Theatre, directs a new version of A Walk in the Woods, Lee Blessing's Pulitzer-nominated play about nuclear negotiations, at Northern Stage in White River Junction, VT. For the first time, with the playwright's input, the play will feature a woman portraying the American negotiator.Kent has just been nominated for a 2010 Olivier Award-the British equivalent of the Tony-for his production of The Great Game, an eight-hour trilogy about Afghanistan's history. The Great Game begins a major U.S. tour in September 2010. His theater has previously won Olivier Awards for Bloody Sunday (Outstanding Achievement) and Kat and the Kings (Best Musical and Best Actor, awarded to the entire ensemble cast).The Olivier Awards will be presented Sunday, March 21, during the first weekend of A Walk in the Woods.A Walk in the Woods will be performed from March 17 - April 3, 2010 at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. (except for the Opening Night show, Fri., March 19 at 7:00 p.m.) and Sundays at 5:00 p.m., with 2:00 p.m. matinees on Thurs., March 25 and Sat., April 3. For tickets and information, call 802-296-7000. Tickets are also available through the Northern Stage Web site, www.northernstage.org. "This is a remarkable combination of circumstances in the theater world," says Northern Stage Artistic Director Brooke Ciardelli. "Nicolas Kent rarely directs outside of his own theater. We're hosting a London director with an international reputation for tackling political work while working with the playwright on a major adaptation of a Pulitzer-nominated work. A lot of pieces had to fall in place to make this happen."Ciardelli has long admired Kent's role as a leader in creating new work, especially his politically-charged Tribunal Plays, based on real-life testimony, including Guantanamo - "Honor Bound to Defend Freedom," based on interviews with families of Guantanamo detainees. This play was the first to be performed for both houses of Parliament, and a reading was held on Capitol Hill for U.S. legislators. Ciardelli developed a working relationship with Kent over the last several years during trips to London, and she knew he was the perfect choice to direct A Walk in the Woods, which is set in the 1980s but has taken on new relevance as the nuclear intentions of Iran and North Korea-as well as terrorist groups-have dominated the news. The play, based on real events, dramatizes a stand-off between U.S. and Soviet negotiators as they battle for supremacy. Filled with tension and humor, the play shows how the relationship between the two experts evolves as they stroll in the gardens of Geneva, away from the glare of the negotiating table. Will this escape lead to a true breakthrough or just more posturing?This production goes up as President Barack Obama prepares to unveil his long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review in the shadow of continuing nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea. This document outlines the new administration's overall strategy regarding nuclear weaponry and may include some startling changes in nuclear policy."A Walk in the Woods, set in the midst of the Cold War, is particularly topical at the moment," Kent says. "For the first time this millennium, a U.S. President has emphasised nuclear disarmament as a keystone policy for his administration. "Last year in a speech in Prague," Kent continues, "President Obama said: ‘Today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly -- perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, "Yes, we can."' Kent concludes, "As America engages with Medvedev's Russia, perhaps we can learn from the lessons of the past and the frustrating and often difficult negotiations in the Brezhnev - Reagan era."Playwright Lee Blessing fully supports the gender change in the Northern Stage production. "I'm delighted for the opportunity to see A Walk in the Woods produced by Northern Stage in this new and ground-breaking way," Blessing said. "I feel fortunate to work with one of London's most-honored artistic directors in Nicolas Kent. Among other advantages, it allows Northern Stage to bring a British perspective to the international issues raised by this play."I'm also excited to see a woman cast in the role of the American negotiator. Since my play was first produced on Broadway, women have made more and more inroads into what have been exclusively male domains-the presidential candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008 being only one example. Casting a woman in this play gives it a highly contemporary, even forward-looking orientation. I'm very eager to see the effects of this." Mr. Kent joins Northern Stage on a rare sabbatical from his own theater company, Tricycle Theatre, which has gained international renown for creating politically-charged new works based on recent history, including the controversial British sale of arms to Iraq, "Bloody Sunday" and Guantanamo imprisonments. The company's Broadway productions include Kat and the Kings and the current Thirty-Nine Steps. Kent said, "I am delighted to be directing A Walk in the Woods at Northern Stage. I have heard an enormous amount about Northern Stage in London, and from a distance I have much admired their courageous, innovative programming and high artistic standards."With the cooperation of the play's author, I have decided, whilst still setting the play in the 1980s, to give a nod to contemporary politics by making the American arms negotiator a woman. As the last two Secretaries of State have both been women, this would seem to give it a deeper resonance for today's audiences."A Walk in the Woods, based on real-life events from 1983, follows negotiators for Ronald Reagan and Yuri Andropov as they escape from the pressure cooker of arms reduction discussions in Geneva for an informal walk in the Botanical Gardens. How can they achieve a breakthrough to spur the stalemated talks? Can they establish trust in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion? As they disappear into the natural beauty of the Gardens, the fate of the world hangs in the balance. About the Director
Nicolas Kent has been the Artistic Director of the Tricycle Theatre in London since 1984. Under his guidance, the groundbreaking theater company has altered the landscape of British theater. The Tricycle has pioneered "verbatim" work with its tribunal plays, which use court transcripts and testimonials to probe events such as the Northern Ireland "Bloody Sunday" incident in 1972 (the Olivier Award-winning Bloody Sunday), the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Guantanamo hearings. The theater has earned a reputation for presenting work which reflects the cultural diversity of its Kilburn neighborhood in London - in particular plays by Irish, African-Caribbean, Jewish and Asian writers. The Tricycle has also presented the British premieres of at least six Broadway successes, including four of August Wilson's plays, John Patrick Shanley's Doubt and the current Broadway hit The Thirty-Nine Steps. In 2006, Kent was the recipient of an Evening Standard Theatre Award - Special Award for "Pioneering Political Theatre" for his work. The company has also won "Time Out" awards for its productions of Half the Picture and The Colour of Justice. His upcoming series of seven commissioned new plays by seven authors about Afghanistan will tour the U.S. in 2010.
About the Playwright
Lee Blessing was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on October 4, 1949. He wrote his first play while he was still in high school, prompted by his desire to avoid a 30-page writing assignment on a topic that held little interest for him. After graduation, he attended the University of Minnesota for two years and then transferred to Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in English, with an emphasis on poetry. Blessing then headed back to the Midwest to attend the University of Iowa from 1974 to 1979. He obtained a Master of Fine Arts in English in his first years; then, while working on his MFA in speech and theater, he taught playwriting. He went on to teach playwriting at the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis from 1986 to 1988.
--President Barack Obama, April 5, 2009, Prague"In late 1985, I decided to take a new direction in my playwriting," Lee Blessing said to The New York Times. "Previously, I had been writing plays on family relationships, including War of the Roses and Eleemosynary. I decided to try a political play. I really wasn't into writing about a historical event but rather about a personal encounter. The walk fascinated me because it was one of the few times when diplomats took the initiative and tried a plan of their own." The play first appeared in the summer of 1986 at the Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference as a staged reading titled Peace Talks - A Walk in the Woods. From there, it went to Yale Repertory Theatre (with Joseph Sommer and Kenneth Welsh in the cast) and La Jolla Playhouse in 1987. Throughout the pre-New York process, Blessing made a few changes, but not many. His main concern was making some of the grander speeches sound more spontaneous, and he updated it with new information. The Broadway production started previews at the Booth Theatre on Feb. 10, 1988, with the opening on Feb. 28, starring Sam Waterston as the American and Robert Prosky as his Soviet counterpart. This production ran for 158 performances. At the time, Mikhail Gorbachev had taken the reins of the Soviet Union. '"I like to think that A Walk in the Woods is a little more optimistic than the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting," the playwright said at the time. "But I hope they do well."Prosky and Waterston reprised their roles for a PBS American Playhouse broadcast. The London production (1988-89) featured Sir Alec Guinness (in his final stage role) as Botvinnik and Edward Hermann as Honeyman. The play was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award and an Olivier Award (the British equivalent of the Tony).
This production of A Walk in the Woods is timely for two reasons. First, the American negotiator is portrayed by a woman, a decision made by Director Nicolas Kent in consultation with the playwright. A woman in such a high-profile role is much more common today-think Madeleine Albright, Condoleeza Rice, Hillary Rodham Clinton-but would have been unlikely in 1982. Second, at this writing, President Barack Obama is finalizing his "Nuclear Posture Review," a quadrennial reassessment of the U.S. position on nuclear arms negotiations and policies. The document, due last December, has reportedly been delayed by internal disagreements. The result could be a decision to dramatically reduce the U.S. stockpiles of nuclear weapons, which may be the next step toward the nuclear-free world Obama so boldly envisioned.About Northern Stage
Although the play is based on real events in 1982, Blessing changed the names to allow himself some dramatic freedom to conflate time periods and to fictionalize some specifics. "Honeyman" was the name of one of Blessing's college friends, and Botvinnik was "borrowed" from a Russian chess champion. The real "walk in the woods"-in reality, there was only one, versus four in the play-involved Paul Nitze and Yuri Kvitsinsky, who spoke English-and occasionally German-during their off-site conversation.
Northern Stage now stands as one of the most prestigious and fastest-growing regional theaters in New England. Founding Artistic Director Brooke Ciardelli brought the company to the Briggs Opera House in 1997; since then, Northern Stage has offered over 85 productions, including World Premieres such as The Shrew Tamer, Ovid: Tales of Myth & Magic and A Christmas Carol: The Musical. Other highlights include a staged reading of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Patrick Stewart and Lisa Harrow and a reading of Resurrection Blues, with the playwright, Pulitzer Prize winner Arthur Miller, in attendance. The company has twice been honored with Moss Hart Awards for Excellence in Theater for Best Professional Production from the New England Theatre Conference, for productions of To Kill A Mockingbird (1999) and Les Misérables (2008), as well as an Addison Award for The Shrew Tamer (2004).Community support has enabled the company to sell over 35,000 tickets in downtown White River Junction in the last year to enjoy entertaining and thought-provoking professional theater and theater education here at the crossroads of northern New England. They have also reached out to offer residencies and workshops at over a dozen area schools; initiated "Project Playwright," a literacy program for fifth and sixth graders; and launched NS Touring, which sends top productions to theaters throughout the world and brings international talents to the U.S.