My Experience Workshopping and Directing Nicholas Dunn’s THE VALUE

Poster for Nicholas Dunn's THE VALUE, courtesy of Emily Armstrong at Starling Memory Designs

Poster for Nicholas Dunn’s THE VALUE, courtesy of Emily Armstrong at Starling Memory Designs

Clockwise from top: Leslie Appleton, Edwin Wong, Wayne Yercha, Vishesh Abeyratne, Nicholas Dunn, Alissa Grams, Anthony Gaskins

Clockwise from top: Leslie Appleton, Edwin Wong, Wayne Yercha, Vishesh Abeyratne, Nicholas Dunn, Alissa Grams, Anthony Gaskins

The more you read, the more ideas come to you. In the preparations leading up to the workshop and performance of Nicholas Dunn’s The Value, winner of the 2nd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition, I’ve been reading. Mark Bly’s book New Dramaturgies: Strategies and Exercises for 21st Century Playwriting inspired me to run the workshop around a series of questions. I would divide the play into thematic units and pose questions for the actors to explore. The questions would be mine; the answers would be theirs. You can see below how I’ve divided The Value into sections for the creative team to explore.

A concern, however, lingered: what if their answers diverged from my own ideas about the play? While reading George Sapio’s book: Workshopping the New Play: A Guide for Playwrights, Directors, and Dramaturgs the answer appeared. At the end of the book, Sapio  writes:

Bear in mind that the closer the play gets to opening night, the more redundant the director becomes, as well. I may catch hell for saying so, but it’s true. In the beginning, the actors follow the director’s ideas. They work with them, adjust to them, fine-tune them, and then make them their own. The director has the overall vision of the play and was chosen to direct because of that vision.

What a brilliant observation. Although it’s self-evident that the director has the overall vision of the play, Sapio’s words woke me up. I could start the workshop by communicating my vision of the play. This would establish a baseline around which we would explore The Value. My series of questions could be designed to tie back into my overarching vision of the play. By coming up with answers together with the actors may produce a more convincing reading. After all, it is the actors and not the director who will be presenting the dramatic vision to the audience. If the actors are themselves invested in the dramatic vision, they have skin in the game. Skin in the game, it’s all about having skin in the game.

That seemed to me to be a good start. If anyone is interested, here are my notes from the workshop. Enjoy!

My Vision of Nicholas Dunn’s The Value

Have you looked up the German expressionist painter E. L. Kirchner? He’s a real guy. 1880-1938. But Kirchner’s painting in the play, Summum bonum, is unattested. Summum bonum is Latin for “the highest good.” Philosophers from Cicero to Augustine and Kant have wrestled with the idea. The name of the play is called The Value and the dramatic fulcrum of the play is that the characters all try to value Kirchner’s painting. In other words, Dunn has them all trying to value “the highest good.” Brilliant. Through a crime drama—and a fun crime drama—Dunn explores a hard-core philosophical idea, namely the price that the highest good exacts on you. This exploration is the play’s kernel. How much is the highest good worth, in both dollar terms and human terms?

Through laborious training and sacrifice, Kirchner pays the price to create the painting. But notice that he doesn’t assign a price to it. Instead, he gifts it to McEvoy’s grandmother. The highest good changes hands the first time as a part of a gift exchange. We do not know what McEvoy’s grandmother gave in exchange for the painting, nor does it matter. It is enough to know that she did not give in exchange greenback dollars.

In Ian I see a clever, talented, and driven individual who didn’t get the opportunities most people enjoy. Society has crushed him down and spat him out. He’s been at the bottom too long. He’s willing to lay everything on the line to climb the food chain. And that means turning everything into cold, hard cash: he capitalizes on his relationship with Zoey, he capitalizes on this mysterious opportunity, he has a conscience, and for a second thinks about returning McEvoy’s heirloom back to its rightful owner, but he sells that out too. 

I think the play asks: “What if he gets millions? Will he have enough?” Or, once he climbs the food chain and gets his millions, will he then start feeling the poverty of a single-digit millionaire in the company of double- and triple-digit millionaires? He’s got the Midas touch.

In McEvoy I see a man haunted by the image of the highest good. He has insight into the value of art. He disagrees with Ian, who is quick to put a dollar figure onto the highest good. He understands the labours of the artist and the difficulty of valuing the aesthetic realm. With McEvoy, however, I think the play asks: “Is that a legitimate use of the highest good to keep it locked away?” Because that’s what McEvoy’s going to do. He can’t ever hang the painting. He can’t ever show it, or even let anyone know that he has it. What’s the value of the highest good if one person hoards it, locks it away in a cupboard?

In Zoey, I see a woman who’s willing to sell the highest good to create her own highest good. Her highest good is family. Whereas McEvoy looks at the highest good as something to possess and Ian looks at the highest good as something that can be converted into greenback dollars, Zoey understands that the value in the highest good is that others will pay money for it, and this money, in turn, can bring family back together. With Zoey, the play asks: “Can one give away the highest good to achieve a human good?”

So what’s my vision of the play? I think Ian, McEvoy, and Zoey each champion a certain truth about human value. I may have a position on who I like. And Dunn probably does as well. But Dunn doesn’t tell you what’s best. He invites you to consider these different standpoints on value. And that’s what makes this play extraordinary. A family person would understand Zoey’s position. An art lover would understand McEvoy’s position. And someone down-and-out for too long would see Ian’s point of view. My vision of the play is that no one’s right or wrong. They all take gambles and go all-in to get their heart’s desire. Their gambles are all reasonable, what someone in their position would do. But, just like in life, the unexpected happens. The crappy painting happens to be valued at $24 million. What were the odds? The unexpected throws down the best-laid plans of mice and men. Let’s see if we can capture this vision from page to stage.

Sections and Questions (divisions are my own)

1.1.1 IAN ALONE pgs. 1-3

Ian: “This is what happens…” Ian speaks similar lines on pg. 28, the flashback on p.64 and his closing lines. What’s going through his mind? Though he’s oppressed, beaten down, he feels a sense of destiny, like he was meant for something big. Born to lose but live to win. When he speaks these lines, he can sense his destiny unfolding. He speaks these lines with the fiery energy of destiny. Nothing will stop him. Nothing can get in his way. He is a character fascinated with himself. Can be played many ways. He reminds me of Shakespeare’s Richard III in his charisma.

1.1.2 THIS IS AN ART HEIST! pgs. 4-8

Zoey: “We pulled it off. Like, a heist! Like the guy in the, um, the Thomas Crowne affair.” Misdirection. In the “shitty newer one (Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo),” the characters overcome monetary issues to reunite. Brosnan could run, but he doesn’t: “Suppose I did run, then what would you have? Not the painting, not the $5 million, and not me.”  Moral of the story: Ian isn’t a billionaire playboy like Thomas Crown. This is a difference between theatre and the silver screen. Pg. 6, Victor’s first drink.

1.1.3 SO, WHAT’S IT WORTH? pgs. 8-12

Zoey: “Even a pawn shop has security—” Ian: “Yeah, probably better security than most museums. You’d be surprised.” How does Ian know so much about security? Ian: “Don’t use your phone.” A symptom of Ian’s fierce independence. He doesn’t want to be connected by phone. He doesn’t want to be connected by internet. He doesn’t want to be connected to the people who love him. He ran away to be by himself. Why is he so individualistic? Call this the Ian “fiercely individualistic motif.” 

1.1.4 IAN AND ZOEY pgs. 13-15

Zoey: “What, is this some kind of way of getting back at me?” This comment and back rubs and knowing looks. Something has happened between Zoey and Ian in the past, but what?

1.1.5 IT LOOKS LIKE A FIVE-YEAR-OLD’S FINGER PAINTING! pgs. 16-20

Victor sees mountains, deer, trees, and a cougar whereas the others see globs of colour. Is Victor seeing this for real? Ian: “We’re climbing the food chain. Tonight.” What does Ian mean when he says “climb the food chain?” Insatiable appetite? They discuss perceived value of painting. Pg.16, Victor’s second drink. 

1.1.6 BROTHER AND SISTER ALONE pgs. 20-25

Zoey: “He found him though. Put the guy’s face through a window.” Ian does the right thing and pursues vigilante justice in the case Zoey talks about. But he doesn’t do the right thing when McEvoy asks him to return the painting to the rightful owner. Why? Pg. 21, Zoey’s first drink.

1.1.7 ZOEY AND IAN ALONG pgs. 26-34

Ian: “This is what happens.” Then catches Zoey looking at him, looking at him at his moment of destiny. Zoey’s wager: I did this to be with you, for family. Ian’s declaration that “I left for me.” Recalls the Ian independence motif. Pg. 33, Zoey’s second drink. Pg. 34, Victor’s third drink.

1.1.8 MCEVOY CALLS AT DAWN! pgs. 34-35

Zoey: “Everyone has their issues.” What are Victor’s issues? Compare this play to Ibsen’s Ghosts or O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night. In those two plays the playwright gives us the prehistory. But in this play, their prehistory is shrouded. Is there a dramatic advantage of shrouding the past? Pg. 35, Zoey’s third drink and Ian’s first drink.

1.1.9 LET’S TALK ABOUT RELATIVE VALUE! pgs. 36-42

Ian: “Right, it’s a chance! An opportunity. They’re rare, and sudden, and yeah, usually a gamble. But that’s how we get ahead. You afraid?” What do each of the characters wager and why?

1.1.10 MCEVOY ARRIVES! pgs. 43-50

Has anyone ever been so fascinated by something or someone as much as McEvoy with the painting? Think of Gollum and “my precious” from Lord of the Rings. Pg. 44, Zoey’s fourth drink: she’s ahead of Victor and Ian now! Divergences between the text and reality. The text points to Victor as the hard drinker. But in reality, Zoey drinks harder than Victor.

1.1.11 IT’S A SUMMUM BONUM BY E.L. KIRCHNER! pgs. 51-53

What’s the significance of the name, which translates to “the highest good?” How do we incorporate the irony of negotiating over the highest good into the action? Note how the highest good was the highest evil to the Nazis: like the expressionist art form of jazz, it was “degenerate art,” had to be destroyed.

1.1.12 LET’S TALK MONEY pgs. 54-59

Stage direction: “Victor dives to the floor and begins to gather the money stacks.” How do you picture this stage direction? Desperation, savagery, animal-like, or? Notice Victor’s affinity with the animal realm: he see coyotes in the painting, he talks about Lucky, his childhood dog, later, Ian refers to him as a runt. Irony of pricing out the highest good as though the highest good could be understood in terms of money. It can only be understood in terms of sacrifice, which is what all the characters do: Kirchner sacrificed himself to make it, Ian sacrifices Zoey to get the most value for it, McEvoy sacrifices his integrity to get it back… McEvoy: “I thought… thought you were something different.” Ian is a chameleon. What did McEvoy think Ian was, exactly?

1.1.13 WHAT?!? IT’S WORTH $24 MILLION? pgs. 60-61

The first act ends swinging on the dramatic fulcrum of the play: the unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event.

2.1.1 FLASHBACK pg. 62

Ian: “…And we’ll just…see what happens.” Similar to opening lines. Is this spoken with a sense of destiny, when he expects the rays of the Fates too converge on that one moment?

2.1.2 I’M FUCKED! pgs. 63-67

Victor: “Whenever people are obsessed with something and something bad happens they always say: ‘That’s like Hitler’, or ‘it’s like the Nazis’ … These cartel assholes are like Nazis. About their money. They’re gonna murder me like the Nazis.” The irony of selling the highest good, the Summum Bonum portrait, to pay off the lowest of the low, the cartel assholes who are “like the Nazis.” The highest good, through the market process, is converted into the sustenance of the devil.

2.1.3 YOU REMEMBER LUCKY? pgs. 67-69

Does Victor identify with Lucky, looking at himself like a chained up dog? He also sees a coyote in the Kirchner. Affinity with animal world, he himself is savage, see 1.1.12.

2.1.4 PICK UP THE PHONE! pgs. 69-71

Zoey: “Wait, you don’t think there’s any chance that…” Victor: “What?” Zoey: “No. There’s no way.” Victor: “What?” What’s going through Zoey’s mind here?

2.1.5 NO SALE pgs. 71-73

Ian: “We caught a break! We caught that bit of fate, that kind of lucky chance that you can’t buy or, or work your way into. We caught it by accident. We have to use it!” This line ties into Ian’s opening and closing lines (“This is what happens”), full of a sense of destiny as a recompense for all he has suffered.

2.1.6 ZOEY’S REBUKE pgs. 74-75

Zoey: “This is an opportunity. To fix things. To survive together. To maybe get to a place where having something is just as good, just as fulfilling as wanting it … I risked everything for you. Because we are kin … Well? what will you do?” Ian: “I. Can’t. Settle.” These lines break my heart. Why can’t Ian settle? Does it tie back to the opening epigram by cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins: “Modern capitalist societies, however richly endowed, dedicate themselves to the proposition of scarcity”? That is to say, Ian cannot have, he can only want?

2.1.7 CAN A $24 MILLION PAINTING BE WORTH $60,000? pgs. 76-78

Was it fair for McEvoy to offer $60,000 for a $24 million masterpiece?

2.1.8 IT WAS GRANDMA’S PAINTING pgs. 78-79

Why did Kirchner give this to McEvoy’s grandmother? This painting was originally a gift. Does its transition from a gift (priceless) into a commodity (worth x dollars) change the nature of the painting? Is it more “mercenary” now? Is there a secret McEvoy has kept to himself?—he seems intimately aware of the painting’s history. McEvoy: “It [Summum Bonum] is humanity at its basest and its most glorious. It is Kirchner.” Why does McEvoy say that the painting is also humanity at its basest? Because of the painting’s association with the Third Reich?

2.1.9 APPEAL TO IAN’S SENSE OF JUSTICE pg. 80

How close is Ian to capitulating? Remember that in the case of Derek and the orphans, he had done the right thing, and at considerable expense to himself.

2.1.10 GIFTS THAT ARE WORTH EVERYTHING AND NOTHING pgs. 81-82

McEvoy: “You can’t auction it, you can’t advertise that you have it. You don’t know who to look for to sell it illegally. It is now only worth what someone like me can give and what people like you can find.” McEvoy, Zoey, and Victor all think Ian should close the deal at $60k. Is Ian’s case that he can get more than $60k a strong one?

2.1.11 GOODBYE MCEVOY pgs. 83-85

Ian: “You are what people see, what people think you are worth.” McEvoy: “You are what you do! What you do. Nothing more.” Ian talks of other people evaluating an actor’s actions. McEvoy talks of the actor reflecting on his own actions. Ian’s point recalls the behaviorist psychologists—led by BF Skinner—who thought the brain was a black box: what’s inside doesn’t matter. It’s a functional view of action. It’s how you appear to others that counts. McEvoy’s point recalls the state of the mind as it reflects on itself. It’s an expressionist view of the mind. Expressionism, after all, attempts to communicate the subjective state of the mind to an outside viewer.

2.1.12 FIGHT! pgs. 86-93

Zoey: “Just give it to them, Ian, Because it doesn’t matter. With a shit-load of money or none, you’re the same. You’re nothing. You’re no one.” Would Ian be nothing were he to get his millions? Say his plan works and, down the road, he gives Zoey and Victor their share. What then?

2.1.13 pgs. 94-95 THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS

His face becomes stern, confident, almost welcoming. His eyes alight, determined. He drinks in his new reflection. Ian: “This is what happens.” This ties in the beginning, middle, and end of the play with a sense of fate or destiny.

Special Bonus: Opening Comments Prior to the Show

Hi everyone, I’m Edwin Wong, thanks for joining us.

The second annual Risk Theatre Tragedy Competition is upon us! Today we present the winning play, Nick Dunn’s The Value. Risk theatre is a theory of tragedy I developed. I wrote a book on it. It’s like Aristotle’s Poetics, except, instead of pity and fear—which is so fifth century—risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action because risk is one bad ass 21st century idea. This competition promotes a new brand of tragedy, one where low-probability, high-consequence events thrill audiences, one where the characters pay the price when they are struck down by the highly improbable. When you see the play, think on your own life, and how you interact with the improbable.

Nick Dunn’s The Value, dramatizes risk and the impact of the improbable. There’s nothing like it that explores value in art—absolute value, perceived value, relative value, and intrinsic value—in such a sustained attack. An all-star cast will be performing the play. Anthony Gaskins plays Ian. Leslie Appleton plays Zoey, Vishesh Abeyratne plays Victor, Wayne Yercha plays McEvoy, and Ali Grams narrates. There’s so much action we have no time for intermissions. Running time is 2 hours, 10 minutes. The show is co-produced by Theatre Carpe Diem—thank you Kara and Anton—and streamed to you by The Canadian Play Thing—thank you Janet! This is Zoom, glitches are going to happen. Dropouts are going to happen. And we’re going to power on through because risk theatre is theatre in love with risk. Stay with us after the show for an audience talkback.

Nick, so glad you participated in the competition and congratulations on taking the $9000 prize. Did you want to say a few words about the play before we dive in?

– – –

What a fireworks way to end year two of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition. Onwards into year three!

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

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