In medieval times, mapmakers marked uncharted territories with ominous mythological creatures — a sort of "Keep Out" sign, warning trade ships of the dangerous unknowns.
Similarly, as Brooklyn-based playwright Jenny Connell sat down with her playwriting professors at the University of Texas in 2009 to discuss her next projects, she told them, “You know those old maps that say ‘There Be Dragons?’ I think I need to go to that place.”
Upon finishing the MFA playwriting program at UT, Connell set out on her own uncertain adventure, moving to New York for a full time job that would challenge her to keep up in her personal writing. The Dragon Play, whose world premiere production opens Thursday, March 22 at the Blue Theatre, was born out of that step into the unknown.
The Dragon Play jumps between two times and places: Northern Minnesota, where an unexpected visitor intrudes upon a peaceful married life, and hot Central Texas, where a boy finds an actual dragon. “I was a huge fairytale kid,” Connell explains.
The Dragon Play looks at a primary question in [playwright Jenny Connell's] life at the time: “What do you give up to settle down, and what do you gain?”
Moreover, Connell reveals that she met her now fiancée around the time she began writing the play; The Dragon Play looks at a primary question in her life at the time: “What do you give up to settle down, and what do you gain?”
The play is very personal for Connell, who more often describes herself as a cerebral writer. She calls The Dragon Play her "most weirdly ‘grab my own heart out of my chest and look at it’” work to date. "The play surfaced at a silent retreat," she says. “I wrote the first draft in three days.”
In a similar way, the show is also a leap for Shrewd Productions' Artistic Director Shannon Grounds, who, after years of acting and producing, is trying her hand at her first solo directing effort with The Dragon Play. “I’m terrified and full of awe with this show,” she says. "[Connell's] genius lies in communicating human relationships in ways we don’t usually see."
Grounds was looking for scripts by female playwrights at the time Connell finished hers for a series of staged readings. When Connell sent her the play, Grounds was immediately taken with it. An earlier draft was presented in a staged reading by Shrewd Productions, and Connell has continued to collaborate with Grounds throughout the production process, Skyping in to rehearsals and hearing feedback from the cast and director. “I’m so glad it’s getting a life in Austin,” said Connell. “I still consider myself a local.”
A strong cast and production team have been assembled by Grounds to bring the play to life at the Blue. A set by Trouble Puppet Artistic Director Connor Hopkins and lighting by Patrick Anthony aim to emulate the Minnesota and Texas landscapes and are augmented by original music from T. Lynn Mikeska. The small cast includes Breaking String’s Liz Fisher, Rommel Sulit (who also appeared in the Shrewds’ last production, Big Love), Joseph Garlock, Amelia Turner and Xander Slay-Tamkin.
As for Connell, who is expecting to attend a performance in person on closing weekend, she’s busy writing and crossing the country from New York to Los Angeles. More recently, she has written The Scientific Method, a comedy about a female cancer researcher who, according to the playwright, examines “the subterranean forms sexism can take in the workplace.”
And of course, L.A. means television and film projects: Connell is currently working on a romantic comedy set in Austin. It features a blogger and a musician, set against the chaotic backdrop of SXSW. Naturally.
Even if venturing into new, uncharted waters, it's comforting for all brave travelers to keep a little bit of home close at hand.
The Dragon Play, presented by Shrewd Productions, opens Thursday, March 22, and runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., closing April 14. All tickets are $15.