Panic and Anxiety in La Jolla

How new plays get made in America

Originally published in the San Diego Jewish Journal June 2016 issue

By Natalie Jacobs

There is a system of child slavery that still exists today in Haiti. Its victims are called restavek and on June 28 at the La Jolla Playhouse, a new play will premiere that imagines the stories of five of these children. Written by Jeff Augustin, a 2014 graduate of the UC San Diego MFA program in theater, “The Last Tiger in Haiti” takes place on one restavek child’s 18th birthday at the end of the weeks-long festival Kanaval, just before the devastating earthquake that ravaged the country in 2010. Joshua Kahan Brody, Augustin’s former classmate and longtime friend, directs the play.

“There’s a lot of twists and turns that I don’t like to reveal about the play,” says Brody, who has been collaborating with Augustin on it for nearly two years. “[But] the play’s about storytelling and it’s about how we tell our own stories, who gets to tell whose story. It’s about betrayal and the ties of love that bind us.”

He admits that it sounds a bit dark. And indeed, the Playhouse is billing “The Last Tiger in Haiti” as a “gripping drama.” But, Brody continues, “it’s a beautiful play about a culture that we don’t often see picked up in the United States.”

Augustin’s parents are from Haiti, and he didn’t know about the restavek system of child slavery until he read a feature story in the New York Times during graduate school.

“As I was reading it, I called my mom,” Augustin explains, “and she was like yeah, there’s this system that’s in place which is horrible, but it doesn’t seem like anyone’s paying attention to it.”

He started on the earliest draft of “Last Tiger” while in residence at Berkeley Rep’s Groundfloor, a new play workshop. Augustin wrote 12 pages there, after throwing out 45 pages of another play that also involved children telling stories about fraught childhoods. After the Groundfloor, he put “Last Tiger” away too, but not in the trashcan. Fast-forward to Augustin’s fellowship at the New York Theatre Workshop and the script was still on his mind.

“I wanted to pick up that play again because I was still thinking about that world and those kids,” Augustin says.

He prepared the first act for a table reading and brought Brody on as director.

“I thought of Josh immediately because of how theatrical [the play] is,” Augustin explains. “[Josh] has such a theatrical vocabulary to his directing.

“I think we have a really good working style together and a very comfortable relationship,” Augustin adds of Brody. “He gets my work, and my tempo, my rhythms, the stillness that I like in my work. And my little neurosis.”

It’s collaborative in the sense that the two friends have a short-hand, and Brody is there for Augustin to bounce ideas off of, but he doesn’t do any of the writing.

“Jeff’s language is beautiful and vital,” Brody says, “and it comes from the guts and the heart and it is both sort of muscular and poetic.”

The thing with new plays is, there’s a lot of fleshing-out of the script, and the actual story, that happens throughout the rehearsal process.

“It’s hard when you’re working on a new play and you don’t really know what it is yet,” Augustin says. “It’s definitely very important to have a director that you feel comfortable with bringing in horrible pages and throwing them out, or really someone you know is going to challenge you and ask all the right questions to help pull out the story.”

For his part, Brody has been reading memoirs from restavek survivors and re-reading the script with the pages in one hand a notepad in the other, jotting down ideas about the atmospheric or emotional tones of each scene, along with visual ideas as they come.

“It’s that great adage about boxing,” he says, “everyone’s got a plan till they get hit. I go in there with a really good plan.”

And then everything shifts.

“There is a ridiculous amount of preparation. I think people sort of have the idea that the directors come in and tell people where to stand.”

The rehearsal process, Brody says, is really about “layering meaning, or strip[ping] meaning away to get down to something that is essential.

… If I walk into the scene in love with you and I walk out of the scene hating you, how does that happen throughout the scene?”

The actors, director, writer and design team rehearse together for three to five weeks. The script, meanwhile, changes still.

“Part of what I love about writing is actually the puzzle of it,” Augustin says.

Going into rehearsals, Augustin knew there was one character he wanted to find more ways to “pepper in” to the story. He’s also been paying close attention to the rhythm, which, he says, can’t really be accounted for in the script until he sees people actually “moving through space” with his words.

“One of the great things about the way that we make new plays in America,” Brody says, “is that the writing is done in the sense that we have a draft that we will go into rehearsal with,” but then the writer is free to make changes once he sees how it actually looks in front of him, with actors, stages, costuming and audiences.

Writers always say nothing is ever finished, but returning to re-work a piece year after year takes a curious kind of devotion.

“A lot of it is panic, like, there is an audience,” Augustin says about his re-writing process. “A lot of it is working from a place of panic and anxiety. And I think a lot of it too is once you’re in the room with a group of actors … you don’t really understand it and its rhythms and what is necessary until people actually have to view it. … So it usually feels more natural to re-write in a rehearsal than it does doing a reading of the play … it feels more urgent.”

Directing “Last Tiger” marks a significant career progression for Brody, who was born in New Jersey but grew up in London and received his Bar Mitzvah at that country’s largest Reform synagogue. He completed undergraduate at Yale and has directed about 25 plays in and out of school, but the scale of the productions are larger this year. As a Princess Grace Award Winner for theater, he’s in residence at the La Jolla Playhouse, itself a well-known bastion for developing young theater talent. After its run at the Playhouse, “Last Tiger” will go on to perform at Berkeley Rep, which is co-producing the show.

“It was kind of a big leap,” he says. “Which is, by the way, terrifying. But also lovely. All these people at all these institutions have been nothing but supportive of me. It’s one of those things where someone has to get their first major league at-bat at some point.”

Jeff Augustin received his bachelor of arts from Boston College and has written seven full-length plays, including “The Last Tiger in Haiti.” For him, the premiere at La Jolla Playhouse also marks a career progression, along with a personal milestone.

“It’s great to come back to La Jolla where I did first call myself a writer, and the feeling like oh, I feel kind of full circle,” he says, reflecting on what this premiere means to him. “When I came here, I was this very green, aspiring playwright and now here I am, having this big professional production where I started. [I want] to make sure that I give them a good show, and not [have them] feel like I was a waste of time.”

Josh Brody also works with another UC San Diego MFA Theatre alum on a different project. He and Tom Dugdale co-founded the contemporary theater company THE TRIP in 2012. Each production is called a “Trip” and so far they’ve done nine. For those plays, Brody does the performing and producing while Dugdale usually takes on the directing, although Trip 7, “3 Plays in a Tattoo Shop” was directed by Brody.

“That one came up because of the interest I’ve had in tattooing,” he says.

As the name suggests, that production was done in a tattoo shop, Full Circle on 30thStreet in South Park. THE TRIP’s plays are site-specific partly because that’s cool and experimental, but also out of necessity.

“It’s very expensive to make a play in a theater,” Brody says. “It’s very expensive to rent theaters and to find space.”

Brody says he and Dugdale will begin writing the next TRIP production later this summer.

Jeff Augustin is currently living in New York working on two commissions and a “culinary immersive theater thing for other writers and a great chef.” He has been in San Diego for the rehearsals, where he will remain for the production of “The Last Tiger in Haiti.” Α

The world premiere of “The Last Tiger in Haiti” is June 28. The show runs through July 24 at the La Jolla Playhouse Mandell Weiss Forum. Tickets and information can be found at lajollaplayhouse.org.

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