The Wine & Reading Series playwright shares about her play, And Cauldron Bubble, and her life as a writer and artist.
Found Stages: Can you give us a summary of your play, And Cauldron Bubble?
Lee Nowell: King James is in a quandary. He sits on the throne of England, but he doesn’t technically have the right to rule. Coupled with that is his constant feeling that witches are out to get him. In order to keep the throne, he needs to invent a lie that justifies his right to rule. King James commissions Shakespeare to write a propaganda play that will rewrite his own ancestry. Meanwhile, witches abound in Scotland, England, Ireland, and the newly formed American colonies, and King James can’t kill them quickly enough to feel safe. Based entirely on historical fact, this is the reason Shakespeare wrote Macbeth.
FS: Why do you care about this play?
LN: One of the characters in And Cauldron Bubble is Agnes Sampson, a person King James had killed for witchcraft. I like the idea that Agnes is getting her chance in this play to come back and battle the king who had her killed. It satisfies something in me as a playwright- that there was this great injustice done in real life, but I can go back and rewrite it so that the underdog gets her chance to win.
FS: What led you to write it?
LN: I was driving behind a truck which had a bumper sticker that said “If it ain’t King James, it ain’t the Bible.” I thought, “Wow, if you knew the story of King James and his reason for having that version of the Bible written, you might change your tune on that…” And so the seeds of writing And Cauldron Bubble were planted. My mother was an English literature professor who had read extensively about the British monarchy, and Phillip DePoy had done research about King James (in order to write his book The King James Conspiracy), so I knew that a number of things people thought about King James were misguided. I didn’t know how misguided they were, though, until I dove into the research myself. My mother had talked about the historical figure of Macbeth, and how he was misrepresented in Shakespeare’s play of the same title. So that was of interest to me, too. When I started researching King James and Macbeth, I realized that our modern notions of King James and Macbeth are actually reversed. We think King James was godly, and Macbeth was murderous. But as it turns out, it’s the opposite. King James is responsible for the witchcraft trials in England and Scotland and even in America. The fear of witches was so great that one of King James’s ships from England couldn’t even wait to reach America before they decided there was a witch on board that had to be killed. Thousands of women and men were burned at the stake, tortured, and drowned under the direct decree of King James, who developed torture techniques and published a book called Demonology, which was his treatise on black magic and the devil. Meanwhile, Macbeth was actually a good and fair king in Scotland who journeyed to Rome to pay tribute to the church. There is an ancient notion that if you have a good king, the kingdom and land will thrive. Scotland fared well under Macbeth’s reign, but England did not do well under King James: there was famine, crop failure, and the plague.
FS: What is your personal goal as a writer?
LN: I write about things that bother me. If something really latches onto my brain, the only way I know to handle that is to write a play about it. Some of my plays deal with injustice on some level. Some of them deal with something bad that happened to someone I know. I write a play that gives that person a better ending, the possibility of justice, or a kinder life in general. It’s my version of sympathetic magic. I think playwrights, storytellers, musicians, and artists spin and weave the stories that comprise the world. We’re in direct connection with the energies that spin the world into being. What we write can come to be. (Note to science fiction writers: Please start writing possible futures that include peace on earth and enough food for everyone. If you write it, other people will believe that it’s possible and will work to make that happen.) If I write a better ending for someone, maybe that will create even the slightest possibility that that person’s life will get better, because someone dreamed a way in which that could happen for them. That’s my goal as a writer: to make things better.
FS: What do you find most challenging and most rewarding as a writer?
LN: The most challenging thing is the direct relationship between art and commerce. That can mean finding the balance between making a living and making your art. It also means that programming decisions by theatres are increasingly being made based on the fear of not making enough money in ticket sales. So new stories can get pushed by the wayside, in favor of old stories. That is happening even though on a national (and local) level, audiences are saying that they prefer to see new plays (telling brand new stories) rather than old plays. People are desperate for actual content. At the same time, commerce has started putting bigger pressure on plays to appeal to a bubblegum audience. You see this particularly clearly on Broadway, which used to be the hub of new American plays wrestling with contemporary issues (Arthur Miller’s canon springs to mind). Now it’s becoming some glam version of a Disney fun park: movies are made into musicals, which are made into films, which are remade into musicals, which are made into TV shows. They’re all glittery- but it’s the same story, over and over and over again. In a time when people aren’t clear on what is fact and what is fiction in digital media, we need to start relying on people who spin fact into fiction onstage to tell us the actual truth. A great example of that is The Lehman Trilogy — it tells you exactly what led to the U.S.’s financial collapse in 2008, and how that relates directly to you right now. What we need is for more theatres to produce new plays.
What is most rewarding to me as a writer is when I’m sitting in the theatre, during one of my plays or during someone else’s play, and I hear that the play is resonating right that second with the audience. Plays are powerful. Theatre is my church.
FS: What do you love about writing plays (compared to other forms of writing)?
LN: Plays have a structural muscularity, a visceral quality that I find really compelling. Plays are largely dialogue driven. Even playwrights who work with silence (like Pinter or Beckett) spin plays out of dialogue. The silence is part of that dialogue. I also appreciate the double-edged sword that is the commerce of writing plays. There is so little money to be made in writing (and producing) most plays. Playwrights tend to tell the truth in their plays- and I mean absolute, penetrating truth- because there is no monetary pressure to do otherwise. You can’t really say that about any other form of creative writing right now, with the exception of poetry, literary fiction, and the rare independent film written and directed by one person like Roma.
FS: Anything else you’d like to add?
LN: Yes. I’d like to thank Found Stages for producing these scripts exactly as the playwrights want them. To my knowledge, this reading series is the only one of its kind in Atlanta. Every other reading takes a script and puts it through a kind of dramaturgical committee, which means that sometimes the writer’s original intent, and even their voice, can weaken in the process. I recently had a conversation with people at Bay Area Playwrights, and we were saying, “hey, where are the theatres that put the playwrights in complete control of their own work? Like the Provincetown Players, where Susan Glaspell and Eugene O’Neill wrote whatever they wanted and then produced it, with the playwright retaining complete control over the script?” I’m really happy that Found Stages is doing exactly that with these readings, and I’m glad to be a part of them.
Lee Nowell’s And Cauldron Bubble will be part of Found Stages’ Wine & Reading Series on Sunday, August 11th at 2pm at Dunwoody Nature Center. (Click here for tickets.)
Playwright Lee Nowell began her career at Hedgerow Theatre (PA), the country’s oldest resident repertory theatre company, where she trained to be a director with Obie award winner, Lou Lippa. She focused on new play development and workshopped world premiere productions. After two seasons at Hedgerow, she was nominated for the New York Drama League’s Directors Lab. Her plays have been workshopped, produced, and commissioned by Actor’s Express (Albatross, Paper House, Obsession), Theatre in the Square (Urban Fairytale), Metropolitan Theatre Alliance (Preacher from the Black Lagoon), Ex Somnium (How to Survive Being Human), Horizon Theatre (Blue Angels Weekend), Play West (The Commission, Blue Angels Weekend), Synchronicity Theatre (Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The Troy Davis Project), 7Stages (The Commission), and Georgia Public Broadcasting (Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The Troy Davis Project.) How to Survive Being Human was published by Ex Somnium in 2014. Ms. Nowell was commissioned, with Edgar award-winning author Phillip DePoy, to adapt a play from the novel, Pot Liquor. Urban Fairytale and Preacher from the Black Lagoon were also collaborations with Phillip DePoy. She is the recipient of two Inverness Playwriting Awards, three Turner New Voices in the Works Grants (Paper House, Obsession), two NEA Grants (Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The Troy Davis Project) and has been nominated for The List (Paper House), a Jennie Award (Urban Fairytale), two Suzi Bass Awards (Albatross, Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The Troy Davis Project), Best Play of the Year by Atlanta Theatre Fans (Albatross ), and an NEA Distinguished New Play Development Award (Paper House). She attended Kenyon College, where she graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in drama. Ms. Nowell is also in the vanguard of the burgeoning Salon Theatre movement in Atlanta. She serves on the advisory board of Essential Theatre and is an Artistic Associate of Synchronicity Theatre.