When playwright John J. King looks around the McKim Courtyard at the Boston Public Library, he sees “a great place to write.”
“You have the sense of being enclosed, but also open to the sky,” he says. “The sound of the water in the fountain is a reminder of its importance.”
Writing in the library courtyard is part of King’s new role as the BPL’s first playwright-in-residence.
“Since the completion of the renovation last summer, we’ve seen many new patrons visiting the library,” says Michael Colford, director of library services at the BPL. “We wanted to find new ways to energize the space and provide cool programming for all our patrons. After piloting a composer-in-residence program, we decided to launch one for playwrights.”
Colford and the BPL partnered with Fresh Ink Theatre, a company dedicated to developing new work that has used the Rabb Lecture Hall for play readings. Besides the requirement that the playwright use library resources and lead some workshops at the branches, Colford says he is letting Fresh Ink drive the creative process.
“When they suggested John King’s idea of a play that takes place in Boston after climate change has redefined the city’s borders, it sounded perfect,” says Colford. “We currently have an exhibit in the library’s Norman B. Leventhal Map Center highlighting our extensive collection of historic maps of Boston, which illustrate how much the city changed as the city limits expanded into areas once covered by water.”
The exhibit, “Regions and Seasons: Mapping Climate Through History,” runs through Aug. 27 and features more than 60 maps and objects related to tracing weather data, dating from the 15th century to today.
King’s play, called “Martha’s (b)Rainstorm,” imagines the ways in which Bostonians adapt after a catastrophic flood.
“In many ways, it’s an archetypal story about a society in transition,” says King. “How do communities come together, or not, after a cataclysm? As a way to engage the audience, I am working with [Fresh Ink literary director] Jessie Baxter to offer alternate endings. We’re calling it, ‘Choose your own future,’ but it’s a riff on the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books.”
Those books, often credited with inspiring many video game scenarios, make the readers the protagonists, taking them to a turning point in the story and then offering a variety of options to follow, each of which leads to a different conclusion.
“It makes my job a little more complicated,” says King, “since I have to essentially write four plays. Jessie and I have also been talking about moving the audience to different rooms in the library too, but that might be too much.”
Boston, says King, provides a unique perspective on his theme.
“Boston has always had very defined neighborhoods,” he says. “What happens when those neighborhoods are segregated by water?”
The choice of King for this inaugural position is inspired, since his playwriting is renowned for his quirky sense of whimsy: Puppets are featured in “From Denmark with Love,” a side-splitting mashup of “Hamlet” and James Bond; and his adaptation of the libretto for the 19th-century opera “Der Vampyr” includes clever references to “Twilight.”
“I’m not going for a dystopian future,” King says. “I am an optimist. I always have my eye out for the joy, silliness, and absurdities. When I interviewed a PhD candidate who told me his favorite salt marsh plant is an edible glasswort, with the unfortunate side effect of being a powerful laxative, I knew I’d have to find a way to work that into the play.”
King is still in the research stage, immersing himself in the historic maps of Boston, interviewing contributors to the city’s evolving Climate Action Plan, contemplating John Singer Sargent’s complex “Triumph of Religion” murals at the BPL, and putting ideas down on paper in the McKim Courtyard.
The first public reading of “Martha’s (b)Rainstorm” will be held at the end of the summer, and audience responses will help King shape and revise the script further. A workshop will be held during the fall and winter, with a staged reading in May or June of 2018. While working on the play, King will also visit some branches, offering writing workshops.
“This is a potentially huge topic with many stories to tell,” says King. “I’m enjoying the process and the opportunity to immerse myself in it.”
One man’s exploration of race
Actor Keith Hamilton Cobb brings his award-winning solo play, “American Moor,” to the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre July 19-Aug. 12. The play explores the experience of a black actor auditioning for the title role in William Shakespeare’s “Othello.” As the actor struggles with the expectations and assumptions of white decision-makers, the play becomes an exploration about race and asks the question of who gets to make art in America and whose perspective matters. Tickets to the 85-minute play are $25-$35. Call 617-933-8600 or go to www.bostontheatrescene.com.