A conversation with Jay Zehr, author/ director of The Playhouse’s upcoming production of The End of the World as We Know It.
So, Jay, what’s this play about?
On the surface, it’s about an elderly woman who is just on the edge of not being able to live on her own. She has a daughter and a granddaughter, and the daughter is trying to convince her to go to a home or find a better place to live. Meanwhile, this elderly woman has surrounded herself with a group of cultists who expect the world to end on Wednesday. They whole group is planning to take themselves to Reddish Knob to get picked up by the flying saucers. So, I guess you could say, the whole thing is somewhat farcical.
Where did the idea for The End of the World as We Know It?
Years ago, I had an obsession with UFO’s for a while, which, fortunately, I outgrew. I started this play off by trying to rewrite Molier’s Tartuffe, and that was the departure point for The End of the World as We Know it.
I also had a monologue I’d written as a separate piece and I fit that in. Writing this play was actually kind of an unconscious process. I started from those two points and just kept going until it was finished.
How did you get involved in theater, Jay?
I started off sort of late in life in the mid-eighties as a student at James Madison. While going to JMU, I studied with Tom King and Tom Arthur – both of who, incidentally, are now retired and active with our group. I guess I consider myself first an actor, second a director and third, a playwright.
What are some of the acting roles you’ve had?
I just played the young priest in Doubt. I also recently played Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey in a production staged in Staunton. That was a role I enjoyed very much.
What’s the appeal of acting?
What I like about acting is being on stage and sharing the energy and the give-and-take between the audience and the performer. It really is a unique experience. It reminds me of mountain climbing — it’s terrifying when things aren’t going well, and very exciting when they are.
What’s playwriting about?
You know, I’m not sure what playwriting is about. I got into it in the first place out of necessity – or it might have been laziness. You see, I wanted to direct plays at JMU, and I couldn’t find anything I liked. So I just started writing my own. I’ve written five or six plays in all, most of which I’ve staged myself. I’ve also got a drawer full of plays and screen plays in various stages of completion that haven’t been staged.
How did The End of the World as We Know It come to be staged by the Playhouse?
I’ve been directing the summer show for our group at Court Square for maybe five or six years. For the summer production, I always try to do something that involves lots of people, and is also funny and easily accessible to an audience. After all those years of directing, I kind of ran out options – I’d already done everything that I thought really suited. So, taking a page from my JMU experience, I decided to write my own.
How long did it take you to write it ?
Two or three months to write, once I got rolling on it. The ideas had been percolating in my head, of course, for a couple of years.
You’re directing The End of the World as We Know It, as well. How do you separate writer hat from director hat … or do you?
I don’t know that I do. Supposedly you’re supposed to, because there are pitfalls in trying to do both at the same time. But I’ve never found it problematic. And you know, as a director, if you’re doing a script that already exists and you’re having problems with a passage, you can always say this worked for other people, so we’re just not doing it right and so we have to keep struggling. But, if you’ve written the play yourself, you have the option of changing things around to make them work better.
Will you be rewriting during rehearsals?
Hopefully not. There are a few things that might have to be changed once everybody’s up and talking, but I’ve had two read-through and everything seemed to work pretty well.
Who’s in the cast?
Helen Nafziger, who’s done a lot of productions with the Playhouse, is playing the older woman. Rebecca Wishon is playing the granddaughter; and Susan Comfort, the daughter. The rest of the cast includes a lot of really experienced people. It’s a really good ensemble.
So, Jay, is this writing/directing gig fun?
It’s really challenging. I suppose it’s the sort of thing where if you knew how much trouble it was going to be you probably wouldn’t do it. But productions always turn out in the end. What I really want to try to do in this play is put more emphasis on being in the moment as opposed to telling the actors what to do. That’s when you have theater that’s really alive — you connect more fully with the audience when what happens on stage is more spontaneous.
Why should I come and see The End of the World as We Know It.?
Because it’s going to be very, very funny. And there’s going to be some good acting. There will also going be a few touching scenes dealing with aging and mental illness – two subjects I’ve tried to approach gently. I think this production will just be another great Playhouse summer experience.
I really appreciate the city council for providing funding to the Arts Council. It’s really helps to keep the theater going. I firmly believe that The Playhouse helps nurture the soul of the community. And I’m just really a happy to be part of it
Martha Woodroof reports for Public Radio station WMRA and frequently on assignment for the NPR Arts and Information Unit. She produces and edits the WMRA essay series “Civic Soapbox,” and her own essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune. Martha lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Her closest neighbors are cows.