Writer Kenneth Vest lost his son, Jesse, to a heroin overdose nearly six years ago. He's been working on a play related to the situation for nearly as long. The play, titled Inside Job, has been workshopped in Wilmington and Washington, DC and is onstage at the Cape Fear Playhouse through January 21.
Listen to Ken and Steve Vernon, the Artistic Director of Big Dawg Productions and director of this premier. See our extended conversation below.
Inside Job is onstage at the Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street Thursdays, Fridays, & Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00pm through January 21. Tickets are available online, by telephone, and at the door.
Gina: Steve how did you and Ken come together? How did you find out about this play?
Steve: Ken actually approached me almost a year ago and asked me to take a look at it with the idea that we would do a staged reading here at Big Dawg, which was kind of a preamble to doing a full-fledged production.
Ken: I remember in our first meeting-or maybe our second, after we'd been making some progress- Steve asked, "Do you want to direct it yourself?" And I said no. I had just been through an experience as an actor with a playwright who had directed the play and I didn't want to see that repeated under any circumstances. All joking aside, what I see now that Steve has done, it was the best decision I made about this play. I was, like any playwright, wedded to the script. I was looking at it in more realistic terms. I would have had beds, desks, you know, bars, bar stools. I would have had a lot of things that just don't matter. What Steve created breaks through time and space. And that underlies one of the principal themes: that heroin overdose can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere.
Steve: Right. And you know it's interesting, I always enjoy talking to playwrights when something is getting mounted and just suggesting to them that they go back and look at their earliest versions of a script versus what is actually produced, just so they can it see like the evolution of a story. I just think it's fascinating for a playwright to be able to think about what they started with and what they ended up with and realizing how much of an evolution can occur with one idea and one script.
Gina: What is the main thing you want people to see? What are people going to see and what is it about?
Ken: To raise awareness. I think people hearing this, many people will say, "What do you mean? It's all over the place." Yes, it's all over the place, but I don't think it's penetrated to a visceral, realistic level that people need to understand it can happen to them. I think far too many people say, that's not going to happen to them. It's going to happen to somebody else, but not my family, not my community. And that's just wrong. Just briefly on the play itself- I've been working on it six years now. I don't even know how many drafts there are. I've lost count. I just give them a name that I'm going to remember and hope I can get back to it. But my wife, my darling wife, saw something when we had reached the phase of the readings that I did not. I had it ending in Wyoming up in the Big Horn Mountains on New Year’s Eve. It was supposed to be dramatic and she said "You had some other idea in your head that embodies that, but that's not your play." She was right. I mean, that's what we learned in the readings. What we've learned that had to be changed. And it's been a process making cuts, making edits, but doing rewrites as well under Steve's direction.
Steve: You know, I read a book years ago and it's called Remove the Walrus, I believe. It was written by a comedy writer and he talked about how to figure out what to leave in and what to leave out of a written text. He relayed the story of a man who saw an Alaskan gentleman carving a walrus tusk and carving this beautiful walrus figurine out of it and he asked him, "How did you do that?" And the man said, "You just take away everything that isn't the Walrus."
And it's true. Figuring out what your story is and then going ahead and populating it with whatever needs to populate it and then going back and saying, "Okay, this isn't part of the story, this isn't part of the story, this isn't part of the story,” and putting those to the side to figure out what story you write next they might be a part of. But there is that aspect of removing what isn't part of the story. And quite often for writers, they don't get a chance to really see that, but when they get a chance to see actors speaking the lines that they've wrote and telling the story of what they've written, that's when writers really have an opportunity to see, "OK this needs to stay, this needs to be put aside," or what have you. And it's unfortunate that a lot of playwrights don't get a chance to workshop their scripts. Yeah, you have staged readings and things like that, but it's really in a rehearsal process where things start gelling.
Ken: I'm often asked, “Is this an autobiography? Is that your life?” I mean, it is in honor of my son, Jesse, who died of a heroin overdose. But it's not autobiographical nor is it a documentary. It's a story. I believe theater is one of the purest forms of communications. And that's what I endeavor to do. I think Steve would agree that the characters I originally wrote are pretty much the same. I don't believe they've changed and that was because the best advice I've ever gotten as a playwright is to- before you write a word of dialogue- to create biographies of the characters. All the characters. And there are even some who say do a demographic and a social analysis, too. You know, what are their parents like? You do a thorough job of creating these characters as human beings in their own right. That enabled me to hold them apart from my personal family's experience. Drawing from that, but not making it directly.
Steve: Excellent advice for playwrights, I think. I've actually never heard of a playwright describe that before. Good on you for listening to whoever gave you that advice because that's excellent advice.
Gina: Can you talk a little bit about what it's like to watch rehearsals.
Ken: I wish I had been here more, but that's another story. It's been hard but amazingly powerful. There's a couple of scenes. I worried all along about the scene of the overdose. I wrote one or two of the first drafts and showed it to a friend. I had left the overdose out and he said "You can't do that. You have to include it." And I went, "You're right." So I've always wondered what that was going to be like. I wanted it to be real, I didn't want it to be cartoonish or maudlin. I wanted it to be real. And what Steve has created is beautiful. It's heartbreaking but you'll believe it. And it's a completely different way of looking at it. I haven't seen a lot of overdoses on the stage or film but I have seen some and it's a completely- it's getting into the mind and the heart of Wyatt, the son, as he dies. It's heartbreaking but just beautiful. Something to be really admired.
Gina: What’s it been like workshopping your script?
Steve: First off, I always enjoy the opportunity to workshop new plays. So often when you're directing shows, it's an established script that's been in existence for X amount of years or what have you and you're just trying to reinterpret material. But having the opportunity to interpret material for the first time and in this medium is very exciting because it creates this collaborative spirit between the actors and the playwright. As a director I get to play a role in that as well. But to me, it's really exciting being able to see the actors develop that relationship with the material for the playwright's benefit and vice versa for the playwright to be able to see the actors and go, "Wow, now I understand what this person is bringing to my story, so how can I recraft a line that fits the actor, not just the character?” And there's just a lot more collaboration and it's a lot more exciting for everybody, I think. Even with the technical aspects with Scott Davis who has designed our set and lights. Being able to create something that's new along with the playwright, along with a director, along with the actors in it. So everybody's got perhaps bigger stakes in the final product come opening night. I always enjoy collaborative ventures. I just think they bring more to the table.
Ken: One of the interesting things about workshops- we did two in DC, in part to put one of the readings on video for marketing purposes but two different readings up there. A lot of our friends came to see it and one of the only comments from a couple of people was in the original version, why it appears in a dream sequence in the final scene of the second act and that's when he's gone. And these two or three people saw it and said, "That's such a powerful scene. Why did you leave him out of the rest? I want to see more of him." I don't remember if I told Steve that or not.
Steve: I think when I talked to you about some scenes that I wanted to craft bringing Wyatt back and placing him throughout the show, you told me that you had been trying to figure out a way to do that because you had gotten that note from some folks in the past. It was after we had the staged reading back in August and we were talking about possibilities for the production when we thought, he needs to be in throughout the show.
Ken: I didn't resent the comment or reject it. I think I was too locked into the script, I couldn't step back far enough to see how that would be done. And when I see how it's played out in rehearsal and is going to be part of the performance itself, I just am so much more glad that I didn't decide to direct this thing. Because it's a very personal thing and you take ownership of it and it's hard to let go. Maybe not so much for me- I like to think I'm a collaborative person- but that's just a good example of me. If we were giving a lecture, this would just be a good example of why a playwright should think long and hard before they direct their own material.
Steve: And I agree with that. I've known playwrights that do direct their own material and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. But it's tough to get that distance from the script like you alluded to. To be able to sit back and look at it through directors eyes instead of the eyes of the person who wrote the material because it's hard to separate yourself from playwright and director. And I think it benefits most plays to have two separate sets of eyes at least.
Ken: What people are going to see is the story that hasn't changed and if anything, it's been strengthened. We've cut a few scenes and cut some dialogue. And there are some very specific moments that Steve has taken and there's just the simplest thing that never would have occurred to me. There's a speech that Abbie gives to Will, the parents of Wyatt, the night of the funeral and it's about Wyatt's birth and that scene was kind of hard to write. I thought it worked well and it could have been delivered as it was, Abbie trying to get Will to remember with her a better time. But Steve has constructed this moment of- I don't want to say fantasy- but this moment of unreality and has Abbie delivering the speech to Wyatt. "I remember when you were born." Never would have occurred to me. And it's just beautiful when you see it performed on stage.
Steve: And that's one of the advantages of getting another set of eyes in there because like you said earlier as well, so often when we write a story we do think literally, we don't think about an outside the box approach to things. And if we're used to being very literal in our writing or very literal in our directing, having somebody that comes from a slightly different point of view can really add a lot of texture to something. I think it can work in both directions.
Ken: I'm really excited about the approach here in terms of the set and the lighting. It really could be anywhere, anytime, anybody. And that's one of the main themes of the play. One of the things I wanted to express. But it also underscores the concept that heroin addiction is not a moral failure, it is not a criminal intent. It's a disease. It's a mental disorder that needs to be treated. And I think that comes across in the scenes with Abbie's friend Nadene. It comes across in other scenes with Will and Abbie. That's part of what I like to stress whenever we do this. We can't arrest our way out of this problem. We can't make new laws. It’s treatment. I'm not going to veer into politics here, but the current environment which looks at cutting back in certain federal programs that provide the treatment we need that is already backlogged in many places around the country, I just think that that issue needs to be spread far and wide and to the extent that this play can do that, I hope to do it in the future.
Steve: For the longest time in our culture, addiction was considered a moral failure. As if only people from a certain socioeconomic status became addicted. We allowed that lie to exist so long that we didn't pay attention when other groups started getting addicted. They'd been getting addicted all along, but because they didn't come from the bad part of town or they didn't fit a certain ethnic stereotype, I hate to say. It wasn't until little white kids started having addiction issues and white adults that people were like, "Oh wait, maybe we should do something about this." We were perfectly fine letting certain people suffer, but now that we can't keep our eyes closed to the fact that it's got nothing to do with skin color, it's got nothing to do with how much money somebody makes, it's got nothing to do with a level of education. You have PhDs that are hooked on meth and you have people of lower economic status that have no drug issues at all. But we frame this narrative like, if you're on public assistance you must be on drugs so we're going to drug test you. Meanwhile, the guys that ran the banking system into the ground, nobody was testing them for drug abuse or what have you. So that's my soapbox.
Ken: I would just add that one of the most uninformed comments I've ever heard from a federal official is, "Good people don't smoke marijuana." Just sort of as a postscript to what Steve just said, it permeates everywhere and it dates back to policies that failed in the past and that we're trying again that are bound to fail. I hope we wake up to that soon.