by Martin Denton · January 7, 2014
Playwrights on New Plays #26: Indie Theater Now Playwrights David Koteles and Chris Van Strander discuss their new play Edison's Elephant at Metropolitan Playhouse's The Gilded Stage Festival (January 13-26). They are joined by three members of the cast: Alyssa Simon, Lynn Berg (also an Indie Theater playwright) and CJ Trentacosta. Can you give us a quick summary of what the play is about?
David Koteles: The play is about Topsy, an elephant who was electrocuted by Thomas Alva Edison on Coney Island before an audience of 1,500. Topsy was by all accounts the sweetest, gentlest elephant, but one day she killed her terribly abusive trainer. And so—even as is the practice today with such events—they put her down. What makes this unique is that they electrocuted her. And it was done as a sideshow act. AND Edison filmed her death and then had it play in nickelodeons around the country. It was a huge hit for his film company and everyone made a lot of money off of it. This play deals with the convergence of the invention of electric currents and silent film and the circus and animal rights and the death penalty and business and loyalty and what we do for money.
Chris Van Strander: Edison’s Elephant is about the January 4th, 1903 public electrocution of Topsy, a former circus elephant, on Coney Island. The electrocution was engineered by Thomas Edison, and filmed by Edison Studios (the footage, should you care to watch, is online). The play examines this infamous episode from many points of view, including that of: Whitey, Topsy’s keeper; Charles, an Edison employee who feels responsible for the execution; various spectators (including a young boy); as well as Edison himself. The play moves backwards and forwards in time, detailing the events leading up to the electrocution, as well as its present-day ramifications in the characters’ lives.
How did you choose this topic?
David Koteles: My great grandfather worked for Thomas Edison, specifically on Kinetoscope (those very first films) at the time this play takes place. I don’t know much about his life, but his obituary says he was president of Edison Films at one time. The only thing I could come up with to back that up is a snarky footnote in a cinema book that says he was a salesman who Edison promoted to screw over someone else. I don’t know… Anyway, a few months ago, Turner Classic Movies was showing all the existing (many have been lost, of course) Edison shorts and I watched with complete fascination. And naturally I wondered what role my great grandfather played in all of these marvelous films. It was on TCM that I first learned about Topsy, and was I horrified, but intrigued. I said to myself, “That has to be a play!” But I honestly didn’t think I was the person to write it. I thought that Chris, one of my oldest and closest friends, would be the perfect playwright for this piece. By coincidence, I was invited to his home for brunch the following Sunday and I told him there that I had his next play. And he already knew the story! Then, I think it was the very next week—everything happened SO FAST!—I heard about the Metropolitan Playhouse’s Gilded Age festival. I missed the deadline by a day, but called Alex and he told me the deadline had been extended a few days. So I immediately called Chris and begged him to write a proposal. He said he couldn’t write a play that quickly, but if I would co-write it with him, he thought it could get done. Chris is a master at period pieces. He loves research and details and this kind of wonderfully bombastic, flowery, gritty, antiquated language. He really makes it sing, like no one else can. And together—and with director Dave Elliott—I think we’ve created a very special evening of theatre. As well as a lovely tribute to Topsy.
Chris Van Strander: My co-writer David Koteles suggested it. He’d seen a documentary that mentioned the electrocution, and said there was a play in it. When we were, soon after, given an opportunity to pitch a project to the Metropolitan Playhouse, we quickly agreed that this was our topic.
What brought about this writing collaboration? How did you meet and how did you decide you wanted to work together on this particular piece?
Chris Van Strander: I’ve been wanting to collaborate with David for years. We met temping together (of course) in the late ‘90s, and I became an instant fan of his deeply funny, deeply humane writing. David, for his part, has supported me since my very first indie theater show, Daniel Pelican. This past summer, David asked me if I had a project to pitch to the Metropolitan Playhouse, and I said no (I’m working on two other plays right now). He didn’t either, so I suggested we collaborate on something—that way, we’d each only have to come up with 40-some minutes of material, instead of double that. We decided to “stake out” individual territory/characters in the Topsy story, write separately, then fuse our material once we were both finished. As it’s turned out, we’ve each added dimensions to the piece that neither of us would’ve reached on our own (we're very different writers, with different instincts). It actually amazes me how naturally our writing is fitting together--how our individual contributions complement and deepen each other. That's really exciting.
Who is the character you play in EDISON’S ELEPHANT and how does he or she fit into the overall story?
Lynn Berg: I play Charles, a low-level employee of Thomas Edison who was involved in experiments with electricity that lead to the method of Topsy’s execution. He’s led to Coney Island that day by his mother’s curiosity and partly by his own morbid curiosity. Charles’ feelings of responsibility pull him in many directions.
Alyssa Simon: I play Patsy, the wife of Charles. He works as a transcriber for Mr.Edison's company, typing up the notes from experiments conducted with animals and electricity. We've come to the soon to be opened Luna Park on Coney Island at the insistence of Charles' mother Nan to see the electrocution of Topsy, the circus elephant. Although Charles knows much more than his wife and mother about the pain and terrible deaths to which the test animals have been subjected and the similar fate that most likely awaits Topsy, it is Patsy who sees the actual event and describes in horrific detail what is happening before her eyes. I think Patsy is meant to serve the script not only as a witness to history, but as a person who questions the meaning of justice and vengeance when she sees the killing of another living being.
CJ Trentacosta: I play the role of Albert, the son of a nickelodeon owner who meets Mr. Edison and asks him why he helped electrocute Topsy the Elephant. He has to explain and defend why he did it.
How did you get involved with this show?
Lynn Berg: I’m lucky to have become friends with David Koteles through my wife, Alyssa. I admired his writing and hoped one day I’d get to play his words. Thankfully, David made that possible by writing the role of Charles with me in mind. I’m doubly grateful that he’s given me the opportunity to work with Alyssa and Wendy Merritt, who I also admired. It’s a privilege to work with everyone involved in this show.
Alyssa Simon: I had the great privilege to be in David Koteles' first play at the Metropolitan Playhouse My First Lady, in January of 2013. It's such a pleasure to work on anything he writes and now I am a huge fan of his co-writer on Edison's Elephant, Chris Van Strander too!
Do you bring the play home with you after rehearsals, or do you avoid working on the play in your “civilian” life?
Lynn Berg: I always bring a play home with me. Alyssa and I understand each other’s preoccupation with our work. With Edison’s Elephant we get to indulge our preoccupations and be directly involved in each other’s creation. It’s exciting to get to share scenes and ideas with such a perceptive actor not just on stage and in rehearsal but on the subway and in our living room.
Alyssa Simon: One of the great things about working with my husband is, not only is he talented, but he's great to talk to about theatre, plays and character stuff. He's interested, like I am, in how to always improve a scene, make it sharper or clearer. We love to discuss the work!
What has been the most fun part of working on this show?
CJ Trentacosta: The whole process has been such a thrill. This is my first role Off-Broadway and the entire cast has been so welcoming and encouraging. I also really enjoy the script, it’s a really interesting story about Thomas Edison, one of the greatest inventors of all time and listening to him defend his actions to a 12 year old is really fun.