Split into three parts, each written by a different playwright, Holly’s Dead Soldiers was one of the highlights of last year’s Fringe Festival. Two of the playwrights are back this year with shows of their own: Chris Davis returns with Anna K., a hilarious reinterpretation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Douglas Williams is back as part of the writing team for Safe Space, a darkly funny play about environmental science students and their live-action role-playing global warming game. In this special Phindie feature, Doug interviews Chris about his new work and his recent trip to Scotland for the world-famous Edinburgh Fringe. (Read Doug’s interview by Chris!)
Douglas Williams: So you’ve been in Edinburgh performing your one-man show Drunk Lion for past five weeks. Are you having Quig’s withdrawals?
Chris Davis: Oh I am still there, in spirit.
DW: What’s it been like writing and rehearsing a show for the Philly Fringe while working around the Edinburgh Fringe?
CD: It’s been great, with the Philly Fringe project I’m working with a group of people I really like, and with this Drunk Lion in Edinburgh thing I’m doing a solo-show, so the experiences are very different. It’s also nice to feel like a playwright again with Anna K. Scheduling wise it is a little daunting but it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you have focused, dedicated people working with you.
DW: It seems like both of our shows this year have elements we borrowed from Holly’s Dead Soldiers. What ideas did you lift from our show last year?
CD: Definitely a lot, particularly the modernizing of Breakfast at Tiffany’s for Holly’s Dead Soldiers, we put it in Philadelphia 2014 in a row home, and I am doing the same exact thing with Anna K. That convention helps to define the world of the play. Also some of the rules like not using any of the actual text, for the most part I use in Anna K, and approaching Anna Karenina without extreme literary seriousness. Most importantly, having fun with the story, and making it resonate in today’s world.
DW: Last year we adapted a 90-page novella by an American author that was written 55 years ago. This year you’re adapting a 150-year-old pillar of Russian literature. Why adapt Anna Karenina and how has it been different than Breakfast at Tiffany’s?
CD: It has not been all that different. Even in Holly’s we had to leave out a lot of great parts of the book. Same thing with Anna K, I think ultimately you should be able to tell any story within 60 minutes, and with both of these books I think that is possible. It definitely took longer to read Anna Karenina, but the book is so good it didn’t matter. One of my favorite things was finding little moments in the book that you often forget about as a reader, just little gems, and putting them in the adaptation, it makes them much more significant. In a 1,500-page book you forget a lot of what you read, but when you distill it to 60 minutes every word becomes important.
DW: Most people know you for you solo work, what does a Chris Davis play with a cast of five look like?
CD: Anna K uses the same structure I use with all my solo-plays. I write a script, and for the most part we adhere to the script, however all the actors are encouraged to try new moments as they come along, and to change lines if in the moment it makes sense. Then we go back and decide whether those changes worked, and we keep what does, and throw away what doesn’t. A lot of the script is cut in the rehearsal process itself, and rewritten. In the end Anna K is produced by the work of the whole ensemble. It’s exciting. The cast we have includes a number of people I have worked with before, and each person fits their role very, very well. The performers are all great actors and make strong decisions. They each bring something unique to their roles, a lot of intangibles, I love watching them interpret their parts.
DW: Real talk: is there going to be beer at your show?
CD: I hadn’t thought about it, but now that you ask, yes there will be beer. And vodka.
ANNA K. runs September 12-21, 2014, as part of FringeArt’s 2014 Philadelphia Fringe Festival; fringearts.com/event/anna-k.