Interview: Crystal Skillman, 'An audience is an intergenerational gathering'

Crystal Skillman, the four-time NYT Critics’ Pick, is a passionate believer in art and activism. She is combining the two with Rain & Zoe Save The World, a coming-of-age play about two teenage climate activists that is set to open at Jermyn Street Theatre on 10 February.

We spoke with Skillman about the play and bringing a road trip to life in the initmate surroundings of Jermyn Street Theatre.

Q&A with Crystal Skillman

Hi Crystal, thanks for talking to us about your new play Rain & Zoe Save The World which is about to receive its world premiere at Jermyn Street Theatre. What can you tell us about the play?

Absolutely - so glad to be chatting with you! Rain and Zoe Save the World is the story of two teens in America who take on the climate change crisis through a cross country road trip, starting on the west coast, to shut down a refinery on the other side of the country. The stakes are high and personal as Zoe believes her mom, who is a controversial activist, will be there. On this journey Rain and Zoe challenge each other’s perception of what change truly means to themselves and each other as the audience realizes we are truly experiencing the journey through their eyes. Two other actors (the players) evoke all the animals, nature, and characters our teens meet on the journey. The challenges mount for Rain and Zo until they are forced to decide what they will do as young, environmental activists when come they encounter a dangerous situation from a pipeline. 

What can you tell us about your writing process - did the characters of Rain and Zoe come to you first, or had you already decided on the environmental theme before starting work on the play?

In the past few years, my work in the states has been driven by the politics in my country, as well as the international effect of those events on the world. Nothing has been as affected by this as much as climate change. And it’s a cause that no matter where you are at on your journey or where you live affects us all.  But honestly each president, and each generation has let this slip from their grasp to lead us to the crisis we are now in. Years ago I began to note how civilians were not just protesting but leaving their homes and jobs to dedicate themselves to this movement.

My cousin in law Ken Ward (subject of the documentary The Reluctant Radical) was one of those dedicated to this fight as an environmental activist (Among other actions, he stopped a coal barge using self defense of the earth). His dedication to this work came out of the urgent need to help his son’s generation. In thinking of this as an intergenerational crisis I was struck with an idea. This is what theater was made to do and be! To connect to an audience. An audience is an intergenerational gathering (or should be!). I began to ask, what if I crafted a story that explored the how different activists are approaching this crisis?

It became a deep family story for me as I used the experience of having a father who was a racer of cars and motorcycles, and having experienced the very road trip Rain and Zoe (when I was six years old we moved from the west to east coast). Road trip stories are so rich, but I wondered if this journey play can occur on stage, yet remain theatrical. That's when the idea of the players came to mind…. Two other actors who play all the roles in the play, including the motorcycle Rain and Zoe ride.

Rain And Zoe Save The World in rehearsals at Jermyn Street Theatre.

What can we expect from the production?

An epic but personal story in an intimate space. We often describe the play as a piece that faces twin disasters - coming of age and climate change. We hope the approach to our production captures this. Later in the play, as Rain and Zoe find themselves on the run, in thrilling ways they never dreamed of, these two outcasts find themselves racing to stay one step ahead of everyone else. We hope you will feel that thrill, and also the great importance of them racing to actually save the earth, especially as currently the younger generation is burdened with this task which may not happen in their own lifetime. The two older players represent the struggles with climate change activism previous generations have had. This mix of perspective and experience is meant to continually lead the audience to face the issues these two face, but also like them, problem solve, and never lose hope. 

How has it been working with director Hersh Ellis and the rest of the cast and crew?

Three years ago Hersh Ellis become aware of my work and we began talking. As I began to share work, he gravitated to this play. As Hersh and I began to discuss the play, it was clear that the challenges of the piece excited him which excited me! Now, after the play was selected for the Outsiders season at Jermyn Street, these challenges are what we are tackling together in this room. The play is a playful one with a lot of humor. As the piece is from Rain and Zoe’s perspective it has a young adult feeling to the storytelling, but we also explore darker waters. How to keep that balance? Hersh creates a very collaborative space to work for our actors.

As you can sense, it’s truly an ensemble play. I wrote the play to explore two characters who couldn’t be more different from where they started by the end of the play. Mei Henri and Jordan Benjamin bring such depth to these roles as Zoe and Rain. I find their portrayal of these two teens mesmerizing. Our creative space has really allowed movement director Jasmine Ricketts, set and costume designer Zoe Hurwitz, her associate designer Ellie Roser, video designer Elizabeth Mak, and lighting designer Pablo Fernandez Baz to explore cinematic effects that enhance the play, yet harness the power of live storytelling. It’s an international team that our producers and director have brought together which blends together in innovative ways. Of course we have our stage manager Annette Waldie to help us keep it all together.

My frequent collaborator Bobby Cronin (King Kirby audio drama, Mary and Max the musical) has created an electrifying and innovative soundtrack that highlights a motorcycle road trip with dynamic rhythms, industrial soundscapes, and hypnotic melodies with a trance and EDM influence. Through sound, you feel the wind whipping through your hair, hear live songs played on guitar and ukulele, meet wild animals Rain and Zoe encounter along the way (Yellowstone National Park anyone?), and experience the vastness of a natural landscape, all at Jermyn Street. 

Jermyn Street Theatre is probably the most intimate theatre in the West End. Has it been a challenge bringing a roadtrip to life in that kind of space?

Oh my yes, oh my yes! Jermyn Street is a seventy seat house! But this intimacy is what makes the epic journey so exciting to experience in this particular space. It’s why artistic director Tom Littler and his wonderful team picked the play. And why our producers, Drew and Dane, felt passionately about starting our journey here, and to connect to a UK audience, as well as the climate change movement here.  We hope to start here, and then keep connecting globally. But whew! It’s scary as a writer to bear your heart in a family story this way in front of an audience this intimately. But it’s been exhilarating. I can't wait for an audience to see this. Speaking of … I’d get my tickets now… did I mention the theater is only seventy seats?!

You are also working on two animated series and a musical half hour comedy for television. How big a difference is working in theatre to television and do you have a preference?

Yes - I’ve loved expanding into television. Every writer has a different journey and it was my work writing fictional podcasting (The Magician’s Magician comes out this year) and comic books (Adventure Time, etc) that has lead to the opportunity for me create these new series. But, like Phoebe Waller-Bridge with Fleabag, this has all started with theater in a lot of ways. The Magician’s Magician came from the world of my play Open (which just played Edinburgh). My cartoon called Cosmic Critters (with Bobby Cronin) as well as musical half hour Overnight Success (with Lauren Elder), all came from working in musical theater for so long. My visual writing background is actually where I started from in fine art/film school. So it feels like home to me just as much as theater.

I love writing for both because I find the production times actually compliment each other. It takes SO long to move towards production in theater, and it takes SO much time to pitch a project, that one can bounce between these worlds as an artist. I love the power playwrights have to create a world that we experience live, but even in theater I was creating episodic work downtown for a long time as I was writing serialized plays (at the Flea in Tribeca, with Vampire Cowboys in the East Village, and at the Brick in Williamsburg).  But I will say it is surreal to be in rehearsals for this play during the day and then going home to pitch my television work from my London flat at night! 

Finally, how would you describe Rain & Zoe Save The World to someone considering buying a ticket for the show?

Two teens, on a heart palpitating road trip to shut down a refinery, find themselves challenged by the idea of what it means to connect and have one’s actions create a truly lasting environmental effect on our world in this coming of age climate crisis play. 

Rain And Zoe Save The World is at Jermyn Street Theatre from 10 February to 12 March.  For more information and tickets visit www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk




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