By Jean Hanff Korelitz
New York, NY, USA
We don’t get to choose when inspiration strikes, but we can choose to rise to the challenge if and when it does – or not. The idea comes, sometimes as a sliver of its future self, sometimes fully-formed, like a tiny Athena pounding away at its own
in your head, and you can think: “Well, that sounds way too hard,” and
let it go. Or you can think: “Well, that’s going to be very hard to pull
off. I’d better get to work.” But however you respond, it’s a fact that good
ideas are rare, and if you let them go you’ll not only fail as an artist,
you’ll have no one to blame but yourself when you do.
|Jean Hanff Korelitz|
Does that sound harsh? I suppose it does, but I’ve been a working artist (in my case, a novelist) for thirty years, and this is something I’ve learned: If you’re lucky enough to have a good – and I mean a really good idea, get up off your behind and do right by it. Every one of us has a few great ideas we failed. They haunt us, and with good reason.
I had a great idea a little over two years ago, and for once it wasn’t about a novel I needed to write. I was with my teenaged son in an upstairs room in a Beaux-Arts mansion in New York City, listening to a man perform “A Christmas Carol” in the persona of Charles Dickens, and somewhere around the Ghost of Christmas Present my mind started to wander. The mansion belonged to The American Irish Historical Society (AIHS), a cultural organization devoted to Irish and Irish American arts and culture, and I knew it well. (I have been married to an Irish poet, Paul Muldoon, for a very long time.) You know what would be cool? I found myself thinking. Somebody ought to dramatize James Joyce’s “The Dead” here at AIHS. As an immersive play, with the audience as guests at the party.
That “somebody” wasn’t supposed to be me. My involvement with the theater had always been to buy a ticket and enjoy the show. But from the very first instant I understood how good an idea it was to stage James Joyce’s complex and haunting tale, set in a 1904 Dublin home, in the gorgeous AIHS mansion, with period music and period food. I thought the least I could do was pass it on to Chris Cahill, AIHS’s executive director. Then, in due course, I would buy a ticket and go see the show!
It didn’t work out that way.
“Great idea,” said Chris when we met to discuss it. “You develop it and bring it back to me and we’ll do it.”
So then I had to become a theater producer. I had to! Because, you know, it was that good an idea, and somebody had to bring it to fruition. So I partnered with my sister, Nina Korelitz Matza (who unlike me really did want to produce theater), to create Dot Dot Productions, LLC, and with my husband, to adapt the script, and ultimately with
the superb (and brave!) Irish Repertory Theatre under the direction of Ciaran O’Reilly (who would also direct our play) and Charlotte Moore. As for the Joycean meal we would serve to cast an audience alike, it would be interpreted and created by my friend Liz Neumark of the wonderful Great Performances catering. And exactly two years after that Christmas Carol performance, our production, THE DEAD, 1904, premiered at the American Irish Historical Society and ran for 50 sold out performances, with a cast of twelve led by four-time Tony winner Boyd Gaines and the great theater and television actress Kate Burton (TV’s Scandal).
|Paul Muldoon & Ciaran O'Reilly|
Looking back, there were any number of reasons why it wouldn’t work (and one great reason why it would, and did, which I’ll get to in a minute). My sister and I were first timers without a single producing credit (though she has served on the boards of two great theater companies and wasn’t quite as much a neophyte as myself). The play would have a tiny audience of 42 per night, and the tickets (which included dinner, wine and spirits) were not inexpensive – from $300 general admission to the two at $1000 per performance, which seated the ticket holders at the actors’ table, placing them actually inside the dinner scene. Immersive theater, in addition, has come to attract a younger audience than the James Joyce-fan-premium-ticket-purchasing demographic we were addressing; would these audience members really be willing to leave their safe seating in the orchestra and, essentially, come up on stage to interact with the actors? The three-way partnership between the theater company (which had never done immersive theater), the American Irish Historical Society (which had never done immersive theater), and Dot Dot Productions (which had never done anything), was also slightly terrifying, but the financial risk settled squarely on my sister and myself. It kept me up at night, for months.
But then again, there was that other thing: the one great reason. And that was the idea, itself. We were going to invite audience members into the turn of the century home of
the Morkan sisters for their annual Feast of the Epiphany party on
January 6th, 1904, enfolding them in one of the greatest stories ever
written. They would watch the conversations and arguments, eat and drink with
the characters, hear the music of that time and place. They would listen to
Gabriel Conroy (Boyd Gaines) give his after dinner speech, hear the Irish tenor
Bartell D’Arcy (Karl Scully of The Irish Tenors) perform the haunting lament
“The Lass of Aughrim”, and follow Gabriel and Gretta (Kate Burton) upstairs to
their bedroom to witness the secret at the very heart of their marriage come
painfully into the light. The idea: it really was that good, and it made up for
Within days of the first preview, the entire run was sold out. (We offered a pair of $19.04 tickets per night via a lottery run by the wonderful ticket purchasing app “TodayTix”).
A half dozen entire performances were purchased by hosts who filled the house with their friends and family, making beautiful holiday parties or celebrations of birthdays and anniversaries (for these we added post-performance receptions with the cast and brief talks by Paul Muldoon and director Ciaran O’Reilly). We had Joyce scholars, immersive theater fans, historical foodies (Great Performances interpreted the menu from the food descriptions in the novella, and created a glorious historically appropriate holiday meal), movie stars, and any number of people who told me, as they descended the mansion’s sweeping staircase at the end of the evening with tears in their eyes, that “The Dead” was their favorite story, and that actually inhabiting it for an evening had been something beyond their imagination. We finished up the run with a special Feast of the Epiphany performance, honoring the
very date on
which the story is set, and then we packed up the antique glasses, silverware
and dishes, disassembled the set, collected the costumes and departed The
American Irish Historical Society, leaving it more or less as we’d found it. We
were…exhausted. And thrilled. And exhausted.
So what’s next for Dot Dot Productions and THE DEAD, 1904? First and foremost, we hope to do it all again this coming autumn, reviving the play and the partnership with The Irish Repertory Theatre, The American Irish Historical Society and Great Performances.* Then, too, we expect to make our script available for productions in other parts of the country and the world.** And Dot Dot Productions is additionally developing several new projects, some as immersive productions, others traditionally staged. I don’t know where the next good idea might come from, but I’ve learned as much from the success of THE DEAD, 1904 as from the ideas I failed and left behind: if you’re lucky enough to get a really great idea, don’t leave it lying there. It wants to live.
Audio credit: The Lass of Aughrim (Performed by Tenor Ciaran Sheehan)
Jean Hanff Korelitz is the co-producer and co-adaptor of THE DEAD, 1904. She is the author of six novels, including Admission and You Should Have Known. Her most recent novel, The Devil and Webster, was published by Hachette in March 2017.
*If you would like to be kept informed about our revival of THE DEAD, 1904 and ticket availability, please join the mailing list.
**If you are interested in producing THE DEAD, 1904 outside of New York City, please contact Dot Dot Productions.