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Blog Less Traveled: Talking Emperor and Galilean with Neil Wechsler

Emperor and Galilean will run at Torn Space Theatre from March 1 to March 25.

blog by Scott Behrend  • 

This week, we speak to local playwright Neil Wechsler, whose current adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean opens at Torn Space Theater on Thursday, March 1.

Wechsler won the 2008 Yale Drama Award—an international prize for emerging playwrights—for his play Grenadine, which enjoyed its world premiere at the Road Less Traveled Theater in September 2009.

A husband and father of two, Wechsler is a graduate of Yale University and is an avid supporter of theater and the arts.

Neil Wechsler

Blog Less Traveled: In its native form, Emperor and Galilean runs about seven hours and features a hundred characters. You’ve reduced it to two hours and twenty minutes with a cast of 10. What kind of challenges did you and (director) David Oliver confront in your attempt to distill the material?

Neil Wechsler: The scope of the play is immense—the final 12 years of Julian the Apostate’s life, his rise to Emperor, his confrontations with Christianity. Ibsen wrote the play as mental theater, to be read, not staged. To bring it to the stage, the main question becomes how to tell the story as clearly as possible, to handle all the themes, events and characters naturally, from a time period unfamiliar to most of our audience. The massive doubling and tight transitions create further challenges. Precision is necessary at every level. David has been working wonderfully through the play, line by line, with great vision. The actors and the entire production team have shown incredible dedication and skill.

BLT: As dense and comprehensive as Ibsen’s original text is, how did you determine which elements of the story were essential?

NW: I wanted to remain as faithful to Ibsen as possible. This is his play, and I wanted to uphold his structure and style. I tried to focus on Julian’s tragic arc, and essentially became a kind of editor. Anything that seemed remotely unnecessary, I removed. This doesn’t mean that the line or the scene was bad, but that it hindered the momentum. David made wonderful suggestions, draft after draft, that I incorporated into the final version. We had dozens of conversations and meetings over the past two years, trying to figure out how to make everything work.

A scene from Torn Space Theatre's Emperor and Galilean.

BLT:It’s impossible to read an unexpurgated translation of Emperor and Galilean without thinking of our own ongoing national debate about the separation of church and state. Have you elected to bring these parallels to the forefront of your adaptation?

NW:David and I always wanted this to be an intimate, actor-driven production. The characters and their emotional conflicts would drive the play. This isn’t to say that the themes of religion and government aren’t crucial, but not outside what the characters themselves create. Both David and I were wary of making political statements that would detract from the actors’ ability to tell the story organically. We didn’t want to make judgments or assign moral values to the issues. We wanted the audience to make its own conclusions.

BLT:Your first produced play, Grenadine, has continued to enjoy a lot of attention following its world premiere at the Road Less Traveled Theater. Talk to us about its continuing life on stage.

NW: After its premiere at RLTP in 2009, there were two student productions, one at Southern Methodist University in 2010, the other at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2011. I was able to attend the UNC production. The students were very enthusiastic about the play and did a wonderful job with it. This past fall, there was a reading in New York City by the The Common Tongue Theater, with Bruce Dow as Prismatic and longtime Buffalo actor John Warren as Pyx.

Scene from Neil Wechsler's Grenadine.

BLT:Even in your relatively short career as a playwright, you’ve established yourself as an artist who is unafraid to take your time getting it right—first with Grenadine, then with The Brown Bull Of Cuailnge—which you revised in the Emanuel Fried New Play Workshop—and now with your adaptation of Emperor and Galilean. Is there an update on The Brown Bull of Cuailnge?

NW:In a few weeks, students at UNC-Chapel Hill, as part of the Lab Theatre, will workshop scenes from the play. They will break up into groups of four—there are four characters in the play—to work through their scenes, then perform them in front of an audience. They’ve asked me to participate in the workshop, which I’m really looking forward to.

I truly enjoy working with students. They tend to approach theater with genuine courage. I’m still uncertain about several stage directions in the play, and I hope to learn a lot from the students.

Emperor and Galilean will run from Thursday, March 1 through Sunday, March 25 at The Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle (612 Fillmore Avenue, Buffalo). Please visit Torn Space Theater online for showtimes and ticket information.

TAGGED: blog less traveled, emperor and galilean, grenadine, henrik ibsen, neil wechsler, road less traveled productions, scott behrend, torn space theater

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