A Mind-Bending Riddle In A Dangerous Destination

James Still, Playwright-in-Residence At Indiana Repertory Theatre, Discusses His Play <em>Miranda</em>

Indiana Repertory Theatre playwright-in-residence James Still spoke with IM about the upcoming Indiana premiere of Miranda, which debuts Tuesday, March 28 at Indiana Repertory Theatre. Set in Yemen, explores the existential crisis of a CIA operative struggling to find her identity in one of the world’s most explosive regions.

How did you imagine a Middle Eastern setting for a play performed in Indianapolis?Long before the production of the play, I’m somewhere in the world writing alone. I wrote Miranda in various places around the globe, including my home in Los Angeles; in New Harmony, Indiana, where I first started researching and writing the play; in Minneapolis, where the play was first produced; and in Lucca and Florence, Italy, where I hid away for several weeks to work on the play. During all that time in all those places, I wasn’t thinking about how the play would look on stage, I wasn’t concerned with creating the Middle East in a theater in Indianapolis—when I was writing the play, I had no idea the IRT would eventually produce it … Honestly, part of the thrill (and terror) of writing for the theater is knowing that so many other collaborators will have a hand in making my play vivid and present for audiences.  This doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions during the design and rehearsal process—but I’m not thinking about any of that when I’m writing.

What inspired Miranda?
Inspiration for my projects can come from anywhere and strike at any time. The trick, for me, is to always be ready. For Miranda, I was supposed to be writing another play. Suddenly, there was a shift of energy, a wake-up call, a force that I couldn’t ignore—and without completely understanding the urgency, I knew I had to follow this story of a woman in the CIA who had spent her adult career trying to avenge her brother’s death in 9/11.

Your play is centered around an existential crisis. How did you get yourself into that mindset?
For Miranda in particular, it’s been a process of understanding the nature of her crisis—and because it’s a play, I’ve immersed myself in the ways she’s responded to this moment in her life through her feelings and actions. So many of us grow up believing in our inalienable right to pursue happiness. We meet Miranda at a moment in her life when she’s less focused on happiness and much more focused on the pursuit of meaning. What does my life mean? What do all of my choices mean, how do they add up?  I know what I used to believe—but what do I believe now? Miranda is asking thoughtful questions all of us can recognize. What makes her questioning unique is that she’s asking those questions while working as a CIA operative in Yemen in 2014 to 2015.

The cast of Miranda consists of two men and three women. Are there any benefits, or downsides, to having such a small group of actors?
I try not to think about cast size when I’m writing. Later in the process, there are economic realities that most writers have to wrestle with—a larger-cast play is usually harder to get produced because it costs more money to put on stage. But I had a play in Los Angeles with a cast of 56 actors! And I’ve written plays with one actor, and everything in between. The play almost always dictates the cast size, the story will determine how many characters, and sometimes I will have a preference about the doubling of actors. In Miranda, for example, there are three actors who each play two characters. In a world of covert living, multiple identities, and aliases, I felt like it was interesting that we see a couple actors play multiple characters and maybe even wonder for a moment if they’re the same person in an alias.

What can audiences expect from Miranda?
There’s a line in Miranda where she’s asked what her mother knows about the work she does in the CIA, and Miranda says, “There’s so little you can talk about without talking about too much of it, you know?” It’s the same with my play. But what people often say about the play is that it is deeply layered, that there are many things going on at once, that all of the characters have secrets and are living dangerously with issues of identity and trust. While the play isn’t about the CIA, it is about people whose lives are entrenched in the worlds of the CIA, and with that world comes undeniable mystery.

Miranda runs from March 28 through April 23. Tickets start at $25. Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., 317-635-5252