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From Epics to Clerics

The Creative Duo behind 'An Iliad' Refines their Biblical Commission

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Lisa Peterson (center) with actors at the workshop for "The Good Book."

What do you do after you’ve adapted one of history’s greatest epics into a poignant, critically acclaimed one-man show?

The natural response for Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare—the creative duo behind the critically acclaimed An Iliad—was aim higher. Together, the two have set their sights on the Bible in The Good Book, which received a Center Theatre Group completion commission beginning in 2016 and was workshopped here in April.

The Good Book got its start when O’Hare was asked what creative project he had planned next after An Iliad. With no concrete plans, O’Hare blurted out, Well err uhh…probably the Bible, a subject he had been fascinated with—from a secular perspective—since he was young. Court Theatre in Chicago gave O’Hare and Peterson the original commission for the piece, which had a workshop production there in 2015. But they knew there was more work ahead.

So when the opportunity of a completion commission at Center Theatre Group came up, the duo jumped at it. The completion commission has given us a home here at Center Theatre Group to dig back into the piece, said Peterson. She highlighted how the resources of the company—including support for workshops and readings with professional actors—have helped their creative progress. We actually have to hear actors read it, she said, that’s how we can tell if the dynamics are right.

The completion commission is primarily to support artists to finish work that has already begun. Or as in the case of The Good Book, to refine a work that has already been produced. Other artists who have received these innovative grants include Young Jean Lee for Straight White Men, which became a 2015 Douglas production and heads to Broadway this summer.

Peterson and O’Hare agreed that the completion commission helped give them the security they needed to dive deeper into a daunting writing project. It’s a combination of having an institution focus on you—give you a form of legitimacy—and give you a goal, explained O’Hare. You have to be brave enough to fail ugly early…then you can build on these things, he added.

In their earlier work, the two shied away from identifying as writers. I think we both respect writing enough to have not felt comfortable saying we’re writers, explained O’Hare, an Emmy-nominated actor who was a series regular in True Blood and has had recurring roles on American Horror Story and The Good Wife. Peterson is an Obie Award-winning director who has worked across the country, including 10 years as Resident Director at the Taper, where she’ll return this fall to direct Lynn Nottage’s Sweat.

Though their plan was never just to adapt the Bible to the stage, The Good Book has evolved a great deal over the past few years. Their initial focus was investigating the question of ‘What the Bible really is?’ said Peterson, in terms of both its origins and its contemporary relevance. That led them to the three major threads of the play: Biblical stories themselves, the story of a contemporary religious scholar who is also an atheist, and the story of a young gay boy who wants to become a priest.

It’s the kind of story that probably wouldn’t be possible without the support of nonprofit theatres including Center Theatre Group, Court Theatre, and Berkeley Rep, where the show will open in April 2019. For our part, Associate Artistic Director Diane Rodriguez describes the commission and the work it supports as an important part of how we measure our success as an institution. If we can make a difference in the work of an artist that we believe in, she said, or if the work becomes part of the canon of the American theatre, then we have done our job.

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