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Joey Frangieh on Boston Marathon Bombing Documentary Play 'Finish Line'

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Mar 17, 2017

It was a day no one in Boston -- and no one following the Boston Marathon -- could forget: On April 15, 2013, a pair of brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, detonated two homemade explosive devices near the event's finish line. The subsequent investigation and pursuit of the terrorists prompted a city-wide shut down a few days later, after the elder brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was killed in a confrontation with police and the younger brother, Dzhokhar escaped. In the end, Dzhokhar was captured, stood trial of federal charges, and was sentenced to death. He is currently on death row in a Colorado facility.

Much public attention has focused on the Tsarnaev brothers and the efforts of law enforcement to capture them before they could wreak further harm. But for Joey Frangieh, the founder and artistic director for Boston Theater Company, a more compelling story was to be found with the people the bombing affected -- those who were killed and injured, those who stepped up to help them, the Boston community as a whole. It's from their own words that Frangieh and co-creator Lisa Rafferty put together the documentary play "Finish Line," continuing now through March 26 at the Shubert Theater.

Last year, as the play was being worshipped in a short run of performances, EDGE spoke with cast member Devon Scalisi. Recently, with the play's official world premiere coming, EDGE chatted with Frangieh. Full disclosure: This correspondent is a member of the Boston Theater Critics Association, an organization with which Frangieh and Rafferty have worked in the past.

EDGE: Obviously, the Marathon bombings four years ago affected people here in Boston, and people across the world. What inspired you to respond by creating a play?

Joey Frangieh: A week or two afterwards, I read an article that had some first-hand accounts from people who were there. It was really powerful. A couple of weeks later, maybe a month later, I went back to look for the article again. I searched and I searched, and it was impossible to find. I was overloaded with articles on the terrorists. What took me back was not necessarily all the coverage, but how interested I was in them and how long I spent reading about it. I started to think, 'Obviously it was a terrible, terrible event -- but how many heroes came out of that day?' And I thought, 'Clearly, fear and terror interest us, but what if we were to use our art form as a way to celebrate the good and showcase the heroes? And to see, if we were to go down a path that would focus on the positive side, what we would learn and what would come of something like that?'

That was the moment I started to think about how I could use my art form to answer those questions. I had started Boston Theater Company, non-profit, about a year before this moment. I thought, 'Well, if we're going to go down this path, it needs to be documentary [in form]' -- I didn't want to create anything or fictionalize anything, I wanted real stories from real people, and I really wanted to do it with a non-profit and the Boch Center has agreed with Boston Theater Company's vision and we've decided to give three dollars from every ticket to the Martin Richard Foundation, which we're really excited about.

EDGE: How did you go about identifying and reaching out to the people you interviewed for this project?

Joey Frangieh: The Boston Theater Company staff all got on board; my co-creator Lisa Rafferty came on board, and we started to reach out to anyone we knew that was affected by it. We were very honest and up-front that we were creating a piece of art that wasn't going to focus on the terrorists or the trial. There was a snowball effect -- literally we'd say to one person, 'Hey, do you know anybody who we should talk to?' and one thing led to another, led to another. We often found that a lot of people would be, like, 'Oh, my friend was there.' We'd say, 'Can we interview your friend?' They'd be, like, 'Uhhh... I don't know.' So we'd say, 'Why don't you interview your friend? We'll give you a list of questions. You can audio record [the interview] and send it back to us.'

That was really interesting because it not only allowed us to get really intimate interviews, but it started to build up this community of people who helped make this show. Really, we're at the point where we have a huge community, a massive collaboration of people who helped work on this show. This is by no means 'my' show. This was really a team, from the very, very beginning, who came together to create this piece.

EDGE: Has everyone who's helped with this massive collaboration been doing so on a volunteer basis?

Joey Frangieh: Yes and no. Our interviewees and transcribers were volunteers. But we paid our artists for their work in all the workshops. But Boston Theater Company is tiny so the pay is small. We're working with people who are really passionate about this project.

We broke the creation of the play into three phases. We had our interview phase, then we had our transcription phase, then we went into our development phase, where we workshopped the play and previewed the play.

EDGE: Were you personally guiding and shaping that process of development?

Joey Frangieh: It has been a collaboration. Bridget Kathleen O'Leary is an incredible dramaturg and she's really helped shaped the script. My entire staff at Boston Theater Company has put their entire heart and soul into it. It's really been a big team effort.

EDGE: How many interviewees would you say you had altogether?

Joey Frangieh: We had 94 interviewees; we had 35 interviewers; and then we had 22 transcribers. We worked with 109 artist to help develop the piece throughout the last two and a half years, and we had about 128 philanthropist donors who helped Boston Theater Company for the past two and a half years, before we partnered with the Boch Center. By the time we open, more than 500 people will have come together to create this one story. It's really a community creating a show about a community.

EDGE: That's kind of heart warming, you know?

Joey Frangieh: I feel very lucky to have such a community that's come together. It's a lot of local Boston artists and that's always been a goal. That's one of the reasons I started Boston Theater Company -- I feel so passionately about the Boston arts and theater community. It's such an incredible community with so much talent and so much heart. All of the designers are Boston based, 10 out of 12 actors are Boston based. The themes -- love being more powerful than hate; resiliency; bravery -- are universal, but it definitely is a Boston show being told by Boston artists.

EDGE: What went into the process of shaping the hundred of hours of interviews you recorded, and finding a narrative line to build the play around?

Joey Frangieh: We worked very hard to not pre-plan the plot. We really let the people's stories shape the plot. That was the most complicated part of the whole process; it took us over two years, and we did seven workshops to try out different things. All we're really doing is creating a platform for these real people's stories to be told. We quickly realized that, you know, we didn't need to do much other than just put their stories out there. It was a long process and obviously we couldn't put ninety people's stories into one play; we'd have a 27 hour play! And I would love to do that, but I realize that people would go crazy. So it's been a challenging process -- who do we put in? We've done a lot of trial and error.

EDGE: Has the play changed much since last April, when you previewed the material?

Joey Frangieh: Yes. Last April we had a great opportunity to put it on a stage in a preview form. Up until that point we'd only done workshops and readings, but the play has significantly shifted. We focus now on fewer people, and we go more in depth into each of their stories. We were trying hard last April to get so many different people's stories, and we realized that in some ways it's better to focus on a smaller number and go really into detail. [And also], last year we did it in a 50-seat conference room; now we're in the 1,100 seat Shubert Theatre, so we've had to adjust.

The show has changed so significantly; the script we have today is different from the script we had three weeks ago. There are three new characters in our show that are brand new, [based on people] that we interviewed three months ago. It's an evolving piece.

EDGE: Last year when the play was given a workshop presentation, I interviewed one of the ten cast members, Devon Scalisi, who said you had let the cast listen to the interview recordings if they wanted, in order to prepare for their roles. Is that still an option for the current cast as they prepare for the official world premiere?

Joey Frangieh: Yeah -- we've had the audio available to all of them. A lot of them have chosen to listen to it; some of them have chosen not to listen to it. As a director, when I took this on, I was very clear with the cast and the whole team that I don't want to mimic or imitate any of the people. And you'll see that we didn't make an attempt to cast actors who look like the real people. We saw on that day that heroes come in all forms, not limited by gender identity, ethnicity, ability, age, or economic status. We cast the best possible actors we could find. Our goal has always been to honor and report the words [of the people who lived the experience], not to mimic or imitate them.

EDGE: What's the reception been like following last year's presentation, both here in Boston and in general?

Joey Frangieh: What was really important was the reception of the real people. That has always been the most important thing, because all we're doing is creating a platform for their stories to be told, so we wanted to make sure that their stories were told in the way that they wanted. They have been really excited about the piece; the first workshops we did was closed to the public, and we just invited them. A lot of them came and thus far they've been excited. They actually thanked us, which was a little crazy -- we were like, what? We want to thank them for sharing their stories with us and being so brave. Their reception has been really encouraging.

You know, we see time and time again that after something bad happens, like a terrorist attack, people come together, and people do extraordinary things. But does it take a terrorist attack for us to be kind to one another? We're asking those really important questions. At the same time, we're celebrating so many of the heroes that came out from that day, ordinary people who did extraordinary things, and we're hopefully remembering and honoring those who we lost. We've been very lucky that up to this point audiences have seen that, and have been supportive of our goals and our mission.

EDGE: Also last year, there was some interest from national news outlets about the play; you even went on NBC to talk about the piece. Has that excitement in the media continued and built?

Joey Frangieh: We have a partnership with NBC Boston; they're doing a 30-minute Making Of, and then a 60-minute preview of the show. NBC Boston has really come on and been a partner with us, which has been very humbling.

EDGE: Hollywood has taken an interest in the story of the Marathon bombing as well. This last year we had a Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg film about it; later this year there will be another movie about it from a different perspective. Were you surprised at the amount of interest Hollywood has shown in the story?

Joey Frangieh: Surprised? I don't know... I am such a theater nerd that I really never watch movies. I think I've seen two movies in the past year. I'm not really in tune with what goes on outside the theater community. I see a lot of plays.

"Finish Line" runs March 15 - 26 at the Shubert Theatre. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.bochcenter.org/finishline2017

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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