BRIGHT SWORDS will be performed on November 11 at 9:00 p.m. as part of the United Solo Theatre Festival.
An Interview with Rick Creese

Indie Theater Now asked Rick Creese a few questions about this upcoming event.

What real person/event is the subject of this play, and why did you select this?

The subject of BRIGHT SWORDS is the African-American actor Ira Aldridge (1807-1867). He became an actor in New York with the African Theatre. In those days by simply performing Shakespeare black men were seen as subverting the idea of white supremacy, the key justification for slavery. So the African Theatre Company was shut down and Aldridge decided he would try his luck in England, where there was much less racial prejudice. He became the first black man to play Othello on a London stage! And he became very popular all over Great Britain. He inspired the movement to abolish slavery in the British Empire. Later, he moved on to the Europe where he was a major star, performing all over the continent. He came to represent oppressed peoples all over the continent—Jews, Poles, Hungarians, Russian serfs, and many others. I learned about Aldridge from Ryan Vincent Anderson, the star of this one-man show. I had written SOLEMN MOCKERIES, which won an award at the 2013 United Solo Theatre Festival and the play was published by Indie Theater Now. The Independent Shakespeare Company (ISC) was reprising the play in Los Angeles and Ryan happened to attend. I had seen him perform a number of times in ISC productions and I’d gotten to know him a bit. After the play, he mentioned that he would love to do a one-man show and I suggested if he found a good subject let me know. He came up with Ira Aldridge. I immediately saw that this was perfect material for us. Aldridge was probably the greatest black man most people have never heard of.

What’s the playwright’s obligation as a reporter of fact? How do you figure out what’s actually “true” (or can you even do that)? Can stretching/shaping the facts ever be justified?

There is a natural conflict between real life and the requirements of a play. Real life has no structure. A play with no structure will drive everyone crazy. I feel an obligation to avoid anachronism as much as possible, to be accurate about the times and places. But events must be shaped and stretched to make a watchable play. One solution I found for this story was to leave out the dates as much as possible. Especially difficult for anyone writing about Aldridge is the length of his career—over forty years! So it is absolutely necessary to focus the play on a limited number of important actions.

What kinds of research did you do in the creation of this play? What sources did you consult – books, movies, memoirs, websites, etc.?

This is my third one-person play about a real historical character and I have found that the most crucial thing is to have plenty of material to draw from. With Aldridge, we are incredibly lucky to have a recent, excellent biography, Ira Aldridge by Bernth Lindfors (2011). Actually, almost too lucky, because the biography runs three volumes and 736 pages. I also consulted Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian, by Herbert Marshall and Mildred Stock (1958 Ira) and Ira Aldridge by Sergei N. Durylin (1940). Online sources are incredibly unreliable and should be avoided if there are books on the subject. According to Lindfors there have been thirteen other plays written about Aldridge but I did not want to be influenced by any of them. I wanted my play to be new and original.

Did your feelings about this topic change as you created this play? If so, in what way? What did you learn about yourself in this process?

I have found that all characters lead me in directions I did not expect. Part of the process of creation is to work with the actor and the creator. Director Jeffrey Wienckowski is incredibly good at seeing connections between dangling elements of a play and in pointing out some of my most beautiful lines that simply must be cut. And he's like rain water on a flat roof: He finds every little hole in the story. Actor Ryan Vincent Anderson has an extraordinary ability to play characters of all different classes, races, nationalities, ages, and even sexes. Once I saw how good he was, I was able to push the play even further. I was especially impressed with what Ryan did with a scene from Aldridge’s life in which a slave dealer tries to buy him off a ship. (I learned that free blacks were sometimes kidnapped into slavery.) Ryan delivers the lines of this slave dealer with total understanding and sympathy. For a moment he identifies with, even becomes the vilest character in the whole play.

Is there a particular playwriting school/style/genre that you particularly subscribe to? If you had to describe the style of this play in just a few words, what would you say?

I have learned the most important things I know about playwriting from Shakespeare. Before Romanticism, all writers were drilled in rhetoric—in particular in a long list of rhetorical figures. This sound tedious, but I have studied Shakespeare’s use of figures and have discovered that good writers still use these patterns in structuring their dialogs. Movie dialogue, too, is quite structured. Another important technique I learned from Shakespeare is to make your writing as visual and concrete as possible. The example that first comes to my mind is the morning in ROMEO AND JULIET when they wake up together for the first time. I’ve read the source of the play and found a tedious passage about it was not morning it was night, oh, no it is morning after all and not night. Shakespeare translates that into the lark or the nightingale. A sample from my play: “His talent was a guttering candle, while yours was the bloody sun.” Finally, Shakespeare always feels sympathy for his characters, even the negative ones—Richard III, Iago, Malvolio. He could identify with anyone, Shylock the Jew or Othello the Moor. I think that is why he wrote such great women characters.

posted September 21, 2015
Rick Creese

Rick Creese