Dramaturg Ben Smith sat down with THE DEVILS director, David Kennedy, to ask about his passion for the play and his process of engaging with it.
BEN SMITH: As this is your fourth time directing on the Studio Theatre Mainstage, what inspired you to choose John Whiting’s THE DEVILS? As a director, what interests or excites you most about this play?
DAVID KENNEDY: It’s one of those mostly forgotten plays for which I’ve long had a fondness. My undergraduate advisor, Robert Merritt, introduced me to the work of John Whiting with a different play, Saint’s Day, and after reading that I looked for other works of his. The great thing about THE DEVILS for a student project is that it’s a true ensemble piece with a lot of great parts to go around and some amazing design challenges. And, of course, the play is still relevant, given that oppression, intolerance, conformism, and collective hysteria never seem to be in short supply in most societies.
SMITH: While there have been adaptations of THE DEVILS in various mediums, including an opera and film, how does the stage production differ? How did you approach bringing this play to life and what were some of the challenges?
KENNEDY: The stage adaptation is more reliant on verbal imagery, while the opera finds the demonic in music and Ken Russell’s film adaptation in its lurid visuals. Because the play was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Whiting, whether consciously or not, wrote in homage to Elizabethan and Jacobean drama with its emphasis on language and rhetoric. That’s one of the biggest challenges in bringing this world to life. It was also a real workout for the student designers. Given that their efforts had to encompass some 48 scenes and dozens of characters, we were trying to achieve something almost cinematic on stage. We needed to be able to transition from location to location quickly. That led to the idea of the mostly empty space defined by light, with bodies as the main compositional gesture and clothes as the thing that bears the weight of defining the world. We all came to an agreement about that pretty early in the process. It’s also a real challenge for the actors to find the size and extremity that the play demands of them.
SMITH: What role did dramaturgy play in your process?
KENNEDY: A huge role. I always work with a dramaturg because I need those conversations to challenge me and open up my thinking about a text. It’s an essential collaboration. There was also an enormous amount of reading and research required to simply understand the time and the specific history that Whiting is writing about. We spent weeks painstakingly going through the text line by line, with a single page of dialogue sometimes taking more than an hour to parse, simply trying to figure it out on the level of dramatic action. Then the notes I receive in response to staged scenes, acts, or the whole play serve to remind me of what’s missing and where I need to go next.
SMITH: THE DEVILS is the capstone production for many of the fourth-year BFA acting students, what has it been like to unpack this play with them and how have they enhanced your own understanding of the material?
KENNEDY: The acting students have been fierce in their commitment to telling this story and totally unafraid to make big choices and take risks. That has been key to the collaboration. This material would be extremely difficult for even the most seasoned actors, so you have to imagine what a height it is for students to scale. But they came into the rehearsal hall every day prepared to do the work, open to being challenged, and ready to embrace the intensity of the roles they had been assigned.