Following a performance of The Greeks: Part Three at Juilliard last February, an audience member approached the director, Brian Mertes, in the lobby to say, “I’ve lived in England for seven years, but when I was sitting out there tonight, I was proud to be an American.” Mertes could not have felt more satisfied. “That was my goal with Part Three of The Greeks—to begin to repair who we are in the world as Americans,” he said in a recent interview. It seems wholly appropriate, then, that this year’s fourth-year class has begun work on the first installment of the next trilogy that Mertes and his creative team have decided to take on: The Americans, Part I: The Lay of the Land.
The Greeks was originally created by John Barton, written with the assistance of translator Kenneth Cavender, and all nine parts premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980. Barton essentially distilled all of the major ancient Greek drama that we have into these nine parts. Mertes and his team tackled this beast of a play by doing three, three-part productions: Part I: The War; Part II: The Murders; and Part III: The Gods. The productions were abrasively beautiful and combined music, singing, dance, and text, as well as visual media. Similarly, The Americans will be a three-part series, with Group 39 passing the torch to Group 40 for Part II and Group 40 to 41 for Part III.
However, The Americans was not Mertes’s first idea as a follow-up to The Greeks. He knew that he wanted another trilogy for three years of fourth-year classes to take part in, but he searched quite awhile to find writers and a topic. Some strong contenders included The Russians, The French, The Europeans, and The Spanish. Mertes found inspiration in Russian literature and thought a trilogy of different Russian writers could easily be created. He also found particular inspiration in the work of Molière. But this project carries with it specific needs that Mertes was forced to keep in mind. It is an ensemble piece and it involves the entire fourth-year class in its last full production on the main stage; therefore, Mertes needed to ensure a large cast with plenty of artistic meat to go around. He eventually began to turning to American writers, and, slowly but surely, Sam Shepard began to worm his way into the Mertes’s hunt. “I finally went towards Sam Shepard, partly because of my own experience from working on his plays and the sheer pleasure of it, and partly because he is also related to The Greeks. So that it wasn’t me turning my back entirely on The Greeks. It was actually bringing The Greeks into this next trilogy.” The Greeks told stories about families fighting and falling apart, as well as stories of haunted pasts and broken love affairs, and these themes are also prevalent in Shepard’s work. A prolific playwright, actor, and writer, Shepard won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his work Buried Child. His theatrical canon includes more than 45 works, and his plays range from the starkly realistic to the wildly absurd. He draws from his extensive travels out West as well as his dark, surrealist imagination (Beckett being one of his idols). In so many ways, the writing of Shepard was the ideal choice for Mertes and his team to harness for Part I of The Americans.
Meshing together a few of Shepard’s works, Mertes and Stephanie Fleishmann, the lyricist and dramaturg for the show, were able to concoct a world where all 18 members of the class were given their fair share of challenging material. “The other part of this project is that it should establish very difficult problems for the fourth-years to solve,” Mertes said, “and the only way to solve that set of problems is to use all of the skills that you have gained in the training, while I am simultaneously telling you that I don’t want to see that training.” In that way, the rehearsal process for The Americans offers a true stepping stone. As the fourth-year actors move from students to professionals in their art form, their training needs to become more integrated and more invisible.
However, it is undoubtedly true that this project demands every bit of training that these drama students have gained in four years. Every day, the group is presented with a complex schedule of dance, music, and text-based rehearsals. In addition to singing, the actors are asked to play any and all instruments they can, to build a world of music that complements Shepard’s text perfectly. This should not be surprising, considering Shepard’s well-known love of music. (He is famous for saying, “I don’t want to be a playwright, I want to be a rock and roll star.”) The songs in The Americans were written by Jim White, a composer specifically chosen by Mertes, and the dances are being created by Drama alum Jesse Perez, who worked as the choreographer on all three parts of The Greeks.
In addition to all the music and dance, the text of The Americans combines three different sources, interweaving them into a balanced, accessible script. Mertes and Fleischmann took a screenplay by Shepard, a compilation of his short stories and poems, and peppered that material with “family origins stories” submitted by the cast. (Each cast member was asked to write down stories about their families, either personal experiences or old family legends.) Mertes elaborated on his decision to include the family tales: “I ultimately believe that all of us are coming up out of a different set of ancestors, and that manifests in each of us individually as artists. I felt in terms of The Americans: Part I, that it was essential that we have the family origins stories present, or, at least, the hunt for that story.” Some of the anecdotes were turned into songs, some into dances, a few into both, but in most situations the actors themselves are being asked to share a taste of their ancestry with the audience. These stories will demand that the actors examine themselves, through their families, and ultimately discover something about their call to be an artist.
The play’s subtitle, The Lay of the Land, was given to Part I because this first installment is an opportunity to take stock of where we are now. As a country. As artists. As families. As individuals. The process of The Americans is one of trial and error, but, more importantly than what goes right or wrong on any given rehearsal day is that a dialogue has begun—a dialogue among the current fourth-years, the upcoming classes who will share in The Americans saga, and the whole creative team on The Americans trilogy. A new trilogy has begun, the land is being mapped and overhauled daily, and the product promises to be nothing short of revelatory.