Staging History with Deborah Breevort

Deborah Brevoort. Photo courtesy of the artist.

An award-winning dramatist and theatrical writing professor at Columbia University and NYU, Deborah Brevoort has mentored numerous young artists and reached audiences around the world with her inspiring storytelling.

Brevoort has 30 years of experience in bringing new plays, operas, and musicals to the stage. This past year, she found an “artistic home” at Florida Studio Theatre as a member of FST’s Playwright Collective, a brain trust of some of today’s top theatre writers, specifically selected to develop new work for FST’s stages.

We sat down with Brevoort to talk about her involvement with the Collective and her latest play-in-progress: The Drolls.

You are one of the newest members of FST’s Playwright Collective. What are you most looking forward to accomplishing through this artistic network?

I’ve been working as a playwright for 30 years and have never really had an artistic home. I am so delighted to have a place where I can work with other artists without having to hustle for a place at the table. Theatre is built on relationships, and it’s wonderful to find fellow artists who feel the same way. I also love that I can ask for a reading of a new piece – and get it! I love that there are folks who will actually read what I write! 

It’s hard for many of us today to imagine a time when theatre, itself, was outlawed. But your new play-in-progress, The Drolls, which you are currently developing with FST, tackles that very subject. Tell us about it.

“The Wits,” one of the the few surviving drolls from 17th century England. Credit: British Library.

The Drolls is a comedy set in London in 1659, when the Puritans held power and outlawed all forms of entertainment, including theatre. They even razed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to the ground.

With no other way to support themselves, a group of unemployed “outlaw” actors began performing forbidden comedy routines known as “drolls” in the back alleys of London. These routines were notoriously bawdy and known for their “low” humor, and they borrowed scenes from plays written by William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and others.

Now, during this time, Shakespeare was almost lost – he was long dead and few remembered him – so this play is also about the rediscovery of Shakespeare because of the drolls.

What are some of the nuances and challenges of writing a play based on actual historical events?

There is not a lot of historical information about the drolls. There are a few scripts that survive – their performances were improvisational. In fact, Robert Cox, a character in my play, is the only named droll performer who made it into the history books.

So, the challenge is finding a way to be true to the essence of the material, but not be shackled to some notion of “historical accuracy.” Plays are not like documentaries. Sometimes to capture the heart and truth of a story, you have to rearrange the “facts.”

Did you encounter any breakthroughs or surprises while developing The Drolls?

Writing is nothing but breakthroughs and surprises. Writing is how we explore something we don’t know. If you’re just writing what you know, you and the audience are in for a very dull journey. When I sit down to write, I have some ideas and some characters. That’s all. I am always setting out in the dark.

Photo of Japanese singer in the Astor Court for Muraski’s Moon, for which Brevoort wrote the libretto. Credit: Stephanie Berger.

You write plays, opera librettos, and books for musicals. How do you adapt your writing process for each?

The wonderful thing about working in different forms is that there is a lot of cross-pollination. For example, writing lyrics has made the spoken language in my plays more poetic. Now that I’m writing for opera, my musicals have become bigger in scale and scope. Likewise, my operas have become more accessible. The more forms you can write in, the more you can do. Each form is enriched by all the others.

What other projects are you looking forward to creating through FST’s Playwright Collective?

Once I get The Drolls on its feet, I have several other projects I am eager to write. One is a musical for young adults based on a book by one of my childhood friends, called The Art of Being Remy, about a young girl with an artistic spark. The other – a comedy about death and loss – currently titled Divorcing Gordon

Deborah Brevoort is an award-winning author of plays, musicals, and opera librettos. She is best known for The Women of Lockerbie, which has had hundreds of productions around the world. Her latest play, My Lord, What a Night, will be produced at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC and Orlando Shakespeare Theater in early 2021.