Gwen Rice, playwright.

Gwen Rice, playwright of A Thousand Words. Photo by Nick Berard.

The Library as Incubator Project is pleased to welcome Gwen Rice, playwright and Communications Director for Forward Theater Company in Madison, Wisconsin. The world premiere of her new play, A Thousand Words, opened recently in Madison to excellent reviews and sold-out crowds.

In A Thousand Words, photographer Walker Evans accepts a government job documenting the lives of dustbowl farmers in 1930s Kansas. He also takes on a partner: a reluctant writer named Shirley Hughes who will supply the narrative to accompany his images. Eighty years later, some of Evans’s photos are discovered in the personal effects of another writer: Ernest Hemingway. The art world is ecstatic, and so is a young woman in Kansas who claims to have a special connection to the pictures. As the stories unfold, both in the 1930s and the present day, one question remains: What’s a picture worth?

We were thrilled when Gwen agreed to answer some questions about her research process and the process of producing a work that is so rooted in history – real and imagined. – Laura

There is a lot happening in this play – a lot of issues are raised. What drew you to the ideas of documentation, preservation, ownership, history, etc.?

First I have to confess that my first jobs were in public history – I’ve always been a museum geek. I was a costumed tour guide for the Milton House Museum when I was in high school, and in college/grad school I worked at Old World Wisconsin as a costumed historical interpreter for 6 summers. I love the stories behind the artifacts, I love uncovering lost narratives, and I think it’s important to preserve the everyday history of the past – not just the wars and tales of exploration. One of my good friends got his PhD in history and did all of his primary research in the western-most counties of Kansas, and the stories he told me also informed the play.

Can you walk us through a little bit of your process as far as preparing and writing the script? What kind of research did you do, where did you do it, did you find anything unexpected or surprising?

The play A Thousand Words was conceived after I read a small article in the newspaper about the owner of a bar in Key West, Florida. He had stumbled upon a treasure trove of books, fishing gear, and personal effects from one of the bar’s most famous patrons – Ernest Hemingway. Among these items were a collection of black and white photos taken by Walker Evans. This story fascinated me. Unfamiliar with the photographer or his work, I started researching Evans and studying his photos. I wondered what Evans and Hemingway’s relationship was like, how they met, what they talked about, how they might have influenced each other’s work. I was also desperate to figure out why this famous author had so many of Evans’s pictures, and why the items had been sealed away in a forgotten room for so long. I started imagining a story to fill in the blanks.
Molly Rhode (Shirley Hughes) Josh Aaron McCabe (Walker Evans)

Molly Rhode as Shirley Hughes and Josh Aaron McCabe as Walker Evans. Photo by Nick Berard.

Josh Aaron McCabe and Molly Rhode

Josh Aaron McCabe and Molly Rhode. Photo by Nick Berard.

As I did more research (primarily online), I found out it was speculated that Walker Evans gave some pictures to Hemingway for safekeeping because he was afraid the Cuban government would seize them. (The pictures were for a book exposing the Cuban dictator’s corruption.) And as much as I wanted to know more about how the pictures fit in with the exchanges between the two artists, my next question was, “What happens to the pictures now?” I imagined lots of arguments about who got to keep them, including the bar owner, the people in the pictures, museums, researchers, collectors. . . the question of who owns art and how widely does it need to be shared really intrigued me.

Almost everything I found out about Walker Evans was surprising. His father was a marketing copywriter who abandoned the family. Walker lived in Paris for a year and hung out with every important writer and artist of the period. He may have been gay. He was married twice. He was the first photographer to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He was described as both charismatic and difficult to work with.

The other thing that really piqued my interest was the revelation that Walker Evans wanted to be a writer before he discovered photography. In my experience those two forms don’t usually mix – you’re either a visual or a verbal person. The idea that someone who loved words so much found it easier to communicate with pictures – pictures that changed the face of photography – was one I had to write about.

I have to say, I don’t know how anyone wrote fiction without the internet. Wikipedia is a wonderful, wonderful thing. When I was first learning about the world of the play, I read a lot of articles and websites online. I also found dozens of his pictures, both on museum websites and at the library of congress site. I read about the Farm Security Administration, Roy Stryker, other photographers of the 1930s, and lots of information about Kansas during the Dustbowl. I even looked up the actual mission of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which is referenced in the play) and what controversial exhibits they had worked on recently.

In figuring out the minutiae, I searched for the names of gas stations in western Kansas in 1937, the correct names for the subway lines in New York in the ’30s, popular brands of Cuban cigars from that era, and (at the request of one of my actresses) if anyone in New York was really named Sally. (The answer is yes.)

Can you walk us through some of the research that went into the actual production of the play? Again, the kind of research that went on – and how it helped the play evolve from the page to stage.

The costume, lighting, sound, props, and set designers all did a great deal of research in their approaches to the play.

The 1930s costumes were inspired by period photographs and clothing patterns. The lighting design incorporated actual photos of the view from a window at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and historic photos of Dustbowl Kansas. The sound designer spent days at the library checking out recordings from the 1930s, listening to hundreds of songs to choose just the right ones for the transitions. The props designer had to research the cameras of the 1930s, as well as advertising signs from the era. The director also did TONS of research on Walker Evans and the FSA before we began rehearsal.

All of this attention to detail makes the play “true-er.” It’s easy to gloss over little things, like what kind of recipes women in 1930s Kansas would have been preparing, but when you get it right it make the rest of the story resonate more deeply I think.

Can you offer any advice/suggestions for other playwrights who are embarking on research projects for a new work? Places to start, ways to stay organized, etc.?

A playwright friend of mine said “write until you need to do research, and then research until you can start writing again.” It’s always good to get background information on both historic and contemporary stories so you can feel more confident in what your characters are doing and saying. I had to research how to blow up a bridge once, for a play I was working on. I had to find a glossary of 1960s slang for another one. It’s all good stuff.

I think the trick with research for fiction is to get the details right of a period, or a profession, or a place, and then letting your imagination fill in the rest. The first time I wrote a play about a real person, it was Amelia Earhart. My playwriting teacher intentionally cautioned me from reading too much – she didn’t want a biography or a history report. She wanted a good story.

In A Thousand Words I consciously eschewed biography by compressing timelines, rearranging events, and inventing characters to serve the dramatic arc of the play. Far from a documentary, the play was more of a “what if” story: What if Walker Evans had been sent to Kansas in the late 1930s with a nervous young writer named Shirley Hughes? What if there was a dispute about the ownership of the Evans photos found in the present, between the bar owner, a curator from a world famous museum, and a woman who claimed to be a long-lost Evans relative? What if someone stood up for rural quilters, outsider artists who were about to be discovered and exploited?

Sarah Day as Sally Quinn and Georgina McKee as Andrea Munroe.

Sarah Day as Sally Quinn and Georgina McKee as Andrea Munroe. Photo by Nick Berard.

A Thousand Words by Gwen Rice closed in Madison on February 5th. The show runs as part of the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre‘s season, February 16 – March 11 in Studio Theatre.

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