ATLANTA: Playwright Steve Yockey has a cult-like following among audiences in his hometown here, but his audience is about the expand far beyond its borders. His play Blackberry Winter, a National New Play Network rolling world premiere, has a record number of 7 productions slated around the country this season—the largest in NNPN’s history. Yockey is also one of the first playwrights to have two plays on the NNPN lineup at once, as his play The Thrush & the Woodpecker was recently added.
Actor’s Express, a longtime champion of Yockey’s work, is the first on the bandwagon to present both rolling world premieres in repertory: The Thrush & the Woodpecker runs Nov. 6–22, and Blackberry Winter Oct. 31–Nov. 15 in a coproduction with Atlanta’s Out of Hand Theater. (Kitchen Dog Theater in Dallas will pair them in the spring).
“Actor’s Express did a workshop of Thrush & the Woodpecker—at the time it was a South Coast Repertory commission and wasn’t available for production,” says Freddie Ashley, artistic director of Actor’s Express. In the meantime, Actor’s Express mounted Yockey’s Wolves and Pluto. Yockey’s long history with and affinity for Actor’s Express began in 2001, when he worked there as an intern.
Yockey first developed Blackberry Winter with Out of Hand, where he is the playwright-in-residence. The play was inspired by Carolyn Cook, the actress playing the lead role, and her personal experiences dealing with her mother’s Alzheimer’s. Yockey and the company worked closely with Emory Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and other Alzheimers researchers in Atlanta to develop the play. But Out of Hand artistic director Ariel Fristoe, who’s directing the play, is quick to note that while the play is “about Alzheimer’s disease, it is in some ways much more redemptive, full of hope, and about love and life winning out over fear and death.” Such an upbeat tone, she adds, is “not really the way a Steve Yockey play [usually] goes.”
Ashley noted the difference, too. When he saw a workshop of Blackberry Winter at Out of Hand, he says he was “excited by how different it was from [Yockey’s] other plays, and just how moving it was. I wondered if our audience, who are accustomed to a certain kind of work of Steve’s, would be surprised to encounter this very gentle, warm play.”
Then Ashley began to think about pairing Blackberry Winter with a play more in line with Yockey’s usual repertoire, The Thrush & the Woodpecker. “I hadn’t mentioned the idea to anyone; I was letting it roll around in my head. Then I got a phone call from Steve one night and he said, ‘Okay, I have this crazy idea that you are probably going to hate: Why don’t you do Blackberry Winter in rep with The Thrush & the Woodpecker?’ And I said, ‘You’re kidding!'”
In The Thrush & the Woodpecker, a mother tries to repair her relationship with her son, abruptly returned from college after vandalizing property. The reunion is thwarted when an unexpected visitor arrives, rustling up a dark family secret. Melissa Foulger, who has directed every Yockey play at Actor’s Express and many of his plays at various theatres in Atlanta, is at the helm.
“He and I have a long history and a long vocabulary of working together,” says Foulger. “I love the theatrical moments that happen in his shows. He starts out so realistic, and then suddenly it goes somewhere completely different—and that is really exciting to work on.”
The two plays have one thing in common, apart from their author.
“They are both stories of loss, but they are different stories of loss,” says Foulger. Fristoe adds that despite their differences, they are still both “recognizably Steve Yockey plays” in their “really fast, biting, fun” dialogue and their use of magical realism. “Impossible things happen when you are not expecting in really wonderful ways—ways that would never work in film but work incredibly well onstage.”
Likewise, Actor’s Express has worked to weave together common threads from each play to create a world in which they can live together side by side. Both productions share the same design team, including animated shadow puppetry by artist Marisa Ginger Tontaveetong. In Blackberry Winter, an origin myth about the creation of Alzheimer’s disease is told through an egret and a mole, whose theories are played out in color animation on a screen. For The Thrush & the Woodpecker, the title bird takes flight in a simple black-and-white animation throughout the play. The sound design and original music compositions for both shows were tackled by Haddon Kime.
In a gesture toward the future of both plays, the creative team at Actor’s Express and Out of Hand Theater have made their compositions and animation work available to the NNPN theatres across the country who will next produce Yockey’s plays. Indeed, NNPN has set up monthly conference calls and an online network for the theatres to express discoveries and share their stumbling blocks during the rehearsal process.
“NNPN is very cool in that way,” raves Fristoe. The organization also sent Fristoe to see the first of the rolling world-premiere productions of Blackberry Winter, which was at Salt Lake Acting Company (running through Oct. 25).
“It was an amazing experience for me to just walk into that theatre and see so clearly laid out before me a set for a show that my company had developed in a production that I knew nothing about and had no part in,” says Fristoe.
And with that, the Year of Yockey has officially begun.