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Recess interviews: Duke theater professor and playwright Neal Bell

Duke Players is presenting staged readings this weekend of “The Report from Planet X,” a new play written by Duke theater professor Neal Bell.
Duke Players is presenting staged readings this weekend of “The Report from Planet X,” a new play written by Duke theater professor Neal Bell.

Currently professor of the practice in the department of theater studies at Duke, Neal Bell has an accomplished career as a playwright that includes an Obie award in 1992 for sustained achievement in playwriting and the Edgar Award for the best mystery play of 2005. In anticipation of Duke Players’ staged reading of his new play “The Report From Planet X” this Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. in Brody Theater, Recess talked to Neal Bell about his career and his latest project.

The Chronicle: What inspired you to become a playwright, and what’s been your path to this point?

Neal Bell: I’ve always been interested in putting on plays and used to, as a small child, put on plays in my backyard. I grew up in Norfolk, Virginia and I remember starting to see theater as a teenager there. We had what was called a little theater. It was one of the theaters started by the Federal Theater Project back in the 1930s. Norfolk Little Theater was doing musicals and some fairly serious work — I saw a wonderful version of “Antigone” by the French playwright Jean Anouilh that I got very excited about back when I was a kid. I ended up going to grad school at the University of Iowa, which was a great program. I was able to get everything I wrote produced — minimally, in classrooms and all — because there were only a handful of playwrights and a bunch of directors. It was a great experience seeing how something works on its feet. Because one of the hardest things for a playwright to learn is that what works on a page may not work on stage. 

After Iowa I kind of drifted around for a while, sending my plays out and getting them rejected and sending my plays out and getting them rejected. Finally, a play of mine was done at the Eugene O’Neill [Theater Center’s] National Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Conn. That was a wonderful place: They had eight to 10 playwrights, and each of them got to work on their play with professional directors and actors from New York for three and a half days. Then, they would do a stage, book-in-hand reading … I got an agent to look at my play, and it got produced in New York the following autumn. Then I kind of took off from there.

TC: Can you give a preview of “The Report from Planet X”?

NB: What seemed to be underneath it all was the idea of transcendence — how we transcend our limits as humans as a species, like Elon Musk is trying to do by getting us to Mars in case the planet blows up, or like Peter Thiel is trying to prolong our lives. So the play ended up being an intellectual battle between these two men over what the right path for humanity would be — and all the personal ramifications of that. I took as many liberties as possible to make sure nobody thought it was literally Peter Thiel or Elon Musk. When the cast was researching, they did a lot of research of those two people in particular. 

TC: What do you aim to do through the medium of playwriting?

NB: I think it should be a provocation to the audience to think about things they may not have thought about, or to imagine things they may not have imagined with this particular subject … There are just things that I think are fun to think about, are worth thinking about. I don’t think plays should answer questions. I think they should ask them and leave the audience to make up their own minds.

TC: Will this play have a life beyond the stage reading?

NB: I hope so, though you never really know. This is a production of Duke Players, the group that’s sponsored by the theater department. It’s given me a chance to do some work on the play, which has been very helpful … It will be interesting to hear it being performed with an audience to see how they respond. It’s just always kind of nerve-racking. I find it very difficult to sit in an audience while they’re watching my work, because I’m conscious of every rustle and of people pulling out their cell phones.

TC: Do you feel like you’ve had obstacles, personal or emotional, you’ve had to overcome in your career?

NB: I think there’s always that element of trying to figure out why you’re continuing to do this. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in getting most of the plays I’ve written produced and working with some incredible people, like Michael Greif [a stage director for shows like “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Rent”]. But I’ve never had a big commercial success, and so sometimes I think I worry too much about that —  wanting to be a brand name, which I never quite was. But I think that’s balanced by the fact that I’ve had such amazing experiences working with some really wonderful people. I know getting bad reviews is one of the hardest things that one has to deal with. I wrote a play called “Raw Youth” that was produced at Playwrights’ Horizons in New York. The play was not autobiographical, but it had very personal material and a particular personal value to me … And it was decimated by the New York Times critic, Frank Rich. He used the word “cockamamie” in the first paragraph, and I realized, “Oh — this is not gonna be a good review.” That play had a limited run to begin with; then it closed and was never produced again. That was hard because the play had a particular personal meaning to me and it was hard to realize that somebody like a critic has that much power over whether your work succeeds or fails. Critics are a tough part of the process.

TC: Do you have a message for Duke students?

NB: I just hope students will come to see theater at Duke. I know there’s so many things competing for students’ attention, but I think that theater has a particular power that makes it different from other dramatic forms, like movies and television — the liveness of the event, the relationship between living actors and the audience, and the event happening in real time with the audience as a necessary part of the experience. I think when that connection happens, and it’s a good audience and a good theater piece, it’s more exciting than just about anything. So people who are not in the habit of going to the theater, I encourage them to give it a shot. There’s a lot that’s going on not just at Duke but also in the Durham area. I hope people take advantage of that.

The staged readings of “The Report from Planet X” will take place at Brody Theater at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Admission is free.

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