Meet the Playwright: Scott Carter

We caught up with Scott Carter to discuss his inspiration for the play and writing for great men of history.

Scott Carter took nearly thirty years to write The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, now onstage at Lantern Theater Company. “It’s surreal,” Carter says, “to fly into a city, get tickets, seat myself, have the lights go down, and then have the lights come up and watch people I’ve never met start to speak these words that have been in my head in one form or another for so long, and then to hear an audience of strangers, laughing… It’s surreal and delightful.”

“Surreal and delightful” could also be used to describe his play, in which the three famous and accomplished men who lived decades and continents apart tussle in the afterlife. This trio wasn’t always the plan, however.

After a near-death experience in 1987, Carter left the hospital in what he terms “a bliss state.” But when that sense of connectedness with the universe began to slip away, Carter says he “resolved to try to stay connected to the best of these feelings that I had, just like Scrooge on Christmas morning.”

It was in the throes of this effort to “start paying attention to the big questions of life” that Carter first encountered the Jefferson Bible in 1987. The play began here, as two one acts: one was Thomas Jefferson’s dying days, and the other was a distilled version of his gospel. That changed in 1996, when Carter first heard of Charles Dickens’ gospel, and discovered that its content was the opposite of Jefferson’s in almost every way. Carter revisited his play: “So then I thought maybe it was more like a dual lecture, like a debate, where at the end of the night the audience is figuring out who they think is winning.”

This changed again in 1998, when Carter saw a reference to Leo Tolstoy’s gospel in a Jefferson biography. “When I saw that I had a dual reaction. One was, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool!’ and the other was ‘Oh no, I’m going to have to spend at least the next two years or so catching up on Tolstoy.’”

Brian McCann as Dickens, Gregory Isaac as Jefferson, and Andrew Criss as Tolstoy in Lantern Theater Company’s production of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO… Photo by Mark Garvin.

Now that his three luminaries and their gospels were in place, Carter took nearly a decade to write a complete draft, drawing on almost twenty years of intensive research. The resulting play was 151 pages.

“Everybody hated this first draft.” Carter states. “I put it away for three years.”

But in 2008, Carter went back to this play. “I boiled it down to 49 pages,” he says. Then he brought it to a good friend: Garry Shandling. Carter read the play aloud over dinner, using stick puppets for the three characters. They stopped halfway through so that Shandling could give his notes, and Carter came back the next night to finish. “It was like Scheherazade,” Carter jokes.

Carter did many of these readings over the next several years, with and without hired actors. Carter’s long career as a television producer provided him with a wide and experienced crowd to call upon; audiences for these private readings included Norman Lear, Ariana Huffington, and Shirley MacLaine. MacLaine even took Carter to dinner to convince him to include Sir Isaac Newton, who she believed was reincarnated as Stephen Hawking.

Gregory Isaac as Jefferson, Andrew Criss as Tolstoy, and Brian McCann as Dickens in Lantern Theater Company’s production of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO… Photo by Mark Garvin.

In the thirty years between his near-death and the play’s Los Angeles premiere in 2014, Carter had heard or performed fifty readings and done almost two-hundred drafts. While he thinks another playwright may have done it faster, he was persistent. “The thing about me,” he says, “is that I just keep going.”

Despite his extensive television experience, Carter knew he wanted this story onstage. “The theater is the best medium for that kind of work.” Carter notes. “You look at the works of people from George Bernard Shaw to Tom Stoppard to Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, and there’s a history of plays being successful in finding wide audiences while being essentially intellectual.”

The play is no lecture, though; The Gospel According To… is as playful as it is provocative. And writing jokes for three historical geniuses proved to be a task well-suited for someone with both Carter’s research and day job. “Some of [the jokes] are their own lines. Some of them are juxtapositions from my decades of research,” he notes. But the jokes he wrote are thanks to his decades in television, working with world leaders and celebrities alike. “It kind of allows you to treat these figures not as gods, but as men and women, and there’s an ease with this that I developed in writing dialogue for these people that comes out of the work that I do every day as a producer.”

Lantern Theater Company Artistic Director Charles McMahon moderates IN CONVERSATION: PLAYWRIGHT SCOTT CARTER at the Lantern on June 3, 2017. Photo by Alexis Garcia.

In early June, Carter had that “surreal and delightful” audience experience again when he attended the Lantern’s production and participated in an In Conversation event afterwards. Carter proved to be an active and energetic storyteller, punctuating talk of his process and the history of these men by getting to his feet, whether to act out Christopher Hitchens’ shock at discovering that the Dickens and Tolstoy gospels were real, or to demonstrate the way in which Jefferson would whistle while simply changing chairs, calling it Jefferson’s “own traveling music.”

Carter took audience questions and spoke about the bliss state that led to the play (“It was like the short story, Flowers for Algernon, where this man gets a serum that makes him into a genius, but after a while it starts leaving.”), the history that couldn’t fit it into 90 minutes (both Jefferson and Dickens had pet ravens), and the ending. We won’t spoil it, but according to Carter, it has roots in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “You’re searching for images and actions that feel correct,” Carter says about where the play ends up.

Carter’s near-death epiphany thirty years ago has produced a funny, incisive, and transformative work of theater that keeps his bliss state alive on stages across the country. As Carter told our audience: “My goal is that maybe this play instills in some of you the same sense of urgency I had to clarify what one thinks about what we are here for. What life is all about.”

Join us for The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord at Lantern Theater Company, June 1 — July 9, 2017. Visit our website for tickets and information.

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