Entertainment » Theatre

Life's Briars, Time's Brambles, and 'Blackberry Winter' :: Author Steve Yockey on His New Play

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Mar 28, 2016

Playwright Steve Yockey has garnered acclaim for his stage works, which include "afterlife," "Octopus," "Subculture," "Very Still & Hard to See," "CARTOON," "Large Animal Games," and now, with a multi-stage premiere that's rolling its way across the country, "Blackberry Winter."

The title of the play comes from an expression for a springtime cold snap. It is -- as the reader will see below -- an apt choice of title for the one-act stage work, which, in its Boston area incarnation, stars Adrienne Krstansky and is directed by Bridget Kathleen O'Leary.

The 80-minute work is, essentially, a one-woman exploration of a situation that children of the aging Baby Boomer generation increasingly encounter: The need to become a caretaker to a parent. It's a grim, but also potentially life-affirming flip side, to the more usual view of the parent-child relationship: Whereas a parent tending to the needs of a child probably has a sense of working toward an expansive future of limitless possibility and investing in the family line beyond her own individual life span, a child caring for a mentally fading parent is faced with a glimpse at the sobering prospects for his or her own individual future. But all is not anxiety and gloom; even here (perhaps especially here), there is room for tenderness, hope, and gratitude.





Yockey keeps busy not just by penning critically admired plays, but also by writing for a comic book and contributing scripts to two different television shows: "The Brink," which is a blackly comic HBO series about geopolitics threatening to end the world as we know it, and MTV's "Scream," a weekly version of the popular slasher/satire film franchise.

Steve Yockey graciously took time from his schedule to chat with EDGE about "Blackberry Winter" on the eve of the new play's Boston area premiere, a New Repertory Theatre production that runs through April 17 at the Arsenal for the Arts in Watertown.


EDGE: "Blackberry Winter" seems an ideal title for a play that deals with dementia and the effect the disease has on a family, in particular the life of the sufferer's adult daughter. As a writer, what drew you to this theme?

Steve Yockey: I was actually commissioned by Out of Hand, a very dynamic theatre company in Atlanta, GA. At first, I declined the offer because I was intimidated by the subject matter, it's daunting and touches so many people's lives, and I felt there is already a wealth of strong theatre out there about Alzheimer's. But when they idea evolved into exploring the role of the caregiver, the potential of the piece just opened up for me.

EDGE: You explore some fantastical realms of imagination in the play; Vivienne, the adult daughter whose mother is suffering from dementia, invents a story for herself that involves a gray mole and a white egret (played in the New Rep production by Ken Cheeseman and Paula Langton). Why these creatures, in particular? It almost sounds totemic, or like you are winking at the idea of "spirit animals."

Steve Yockey: Well, the layers of what they represent unfold throughout the evening so I'll let that be mysterious. But they are absolutely icons for real world issues in addition to conflicting aspects of Vivienne's personality. In a sense, they really are spirit animals although it might break Vivienne's heart to admit it. I should add that Carolyn Cook, the actress who originated the role of Vivienne and significantly contributed in developing the play, came up the selection of those two particular animals in a workshop exercise. And her instincts were dead on.

EDGE: "Blackberry Winter" is receiving a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere. Could you say a few words about this program?

Steve Yockey: NNPN is an organization of theaters around the country that believe in the creation and support of new American theatre. They have many programs, but the Continued Life of New Plays Fund is a big one. It supports rolling world premieres, essentially providing additional support to theaters that share the premiere of a new play across a season. A play that comes through this program has the opportunity to benefit from several productions and really find its footing in the relatively resource-starved environment of American theatre.


EDGE: As I understand it, the rolling premiere gives the author a chance to do re-writes based on what he's seeing and hearing along the way, so as the play moves from city to city it's changing a little. Have you made substantial revisions to "Blackberry Winter" prior to the play reaching us here in Boston?

Steve Yockey: Not "substantial" revisions, but I've absolutely been refining. I'm always looking for a tighter script, more clarity, the most engaging experience for an audience.

EDGE: Have you had much dialogue with the different directors prior to or during the various productions of the play?

Steve Yockey: Definitely. That's par for the course with a new play. And everyone's been incredibly enthusiastic, which is not always the case. So it's been fun.

EDGE: There have been different actresses playing Vivienne in the play - Carolyn Cook in Atlanta, Amy Resnick in Sacramento, April Fosson in Salt Lake City, and now Adrianne Krystansky in Boston. Have their performances been quite different?

Steve Yockey: Without question. The play is a new and different animal depending on the combination of actress and director each time. This is true with all theatre, but because "Blackberry Winter" is so much about Vivienne, so much of her engaging directly with the audience, the women have room to animate her in very different ways. It's fantastic.

EDGE: You know, it almost seems like your theatrical works follow an arc - from frisky youth (in "Large Animal Games" and "Octopus") to the ravages of age and fading faculties ("Blackberry Winter") to the Great Beyond ("afterlife: a ghost story"). Had you set out to create a cycle of plays along these lines?

Steve Yockey: It would be amazing if I had some grand architectural design. I just dig into subject matter that I have questions about, things I want to understand better. When an audience watches one of my plays, they're watching me wrestle with something. Hopefully with solid craftsmanship and some theatrical gestures, but that's how I see plays: as struggles. "Afterlife" was the last play I had at New Rep and I was incredibly proud of that production. But as the story of a woman who eventually surrenders to being a ghost, it was relatively bleak. Luckily, they've let me back in the door with this play which, ironically given the subject matter, feels much more hopeful in the end.

EDGE: You write for a comic book ("Grimm Tales of Terror"). You also write for television on HBO's "The Brink," a black comedy about political tensions threatening the existence of human life on Earth and MTV's "Scream," an hour-long horror/suspense show that riffs on the iconic movie franchise. Its pretty heavy stuff! Do you find you are pursuing similar themes in these other forms of writing?

Steve Yockey: When you're writing for comics or television, you're fulfilling someone else's vision, unless you're lucky enough to have your own show. But I will say that elements of horror and suspense infuse almost everything I do. Not this time around, though. None of the work in those other mediums is as theatrical or as gentle as "Blackberry Winter."

EDGE: Insofar as TV is dialogue-driven, and graphic novels also strike a balance between artwork and dialogue, do you feel there are any close connections between writing for stage, screen, and comics?

Steve Yockey: You're right on. Television and comics are much closer to playwriting than something visually heavy like screenwriting for instance. But you're using different sets of muscles with each medium.

EDGE: Are there any writing formats you haven't tried that you'd like to explore - sonnets, novels, an "Avengers" movie?

Steve Yockey: Honestly, I'm barely staying above water now. But I promise to let you know if I accidentally find myself trying something new.


"Blackberry Winter" continues through April 17 at the Arsenal for the Arts in Watertown. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.newrep.org/productions/blackberry-winter


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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