Inside the Process: LETTERS OF SURESH
We first encountered Rajiv Joseph's play Letters of Suresh in our Winter Writers' Retreat, and we could not be more excited to watch it take flight this fall at Second Stage Theater, directed by our very own Artistic Director, May Adrales. In Letters of Suresh, Joseph reveals intimate mysteries through a series of letters between strangers, friends, daughters, and lovers — many with little in common but a hunger for human connection. Sending their hopes and dreams across oceans and years, they seek peace in one another while dreaming of a city once consumed by the scourge of war. In this interview, May interviews Rajiv to learn a bit about what inspired him to write this play, the development journey, and what he is looking forward to when the production opens.
Watch or listen to the interview above, or read the transcript below, and be sure to get tickets to see Letters of Suresh, September 14-October 24!
May Adrales: Hi everybody! I’m May Adrales, Artistic Director of The Lark, and this is
Rajiv Joseph: Rajiv Joseph, playwright, Lark board member
MA: Yes. And we’re working together on Second Stage’s production of the world premiere of Letters of Suresh.
RJ: That’s right.
MA: I’m here to talk to you a little bit about your process. What inspired you to write Letters of Suresh?
RJ: I wrote a play about 12 years ago called Animals Out of Paper. I developed it through The Lark, and it was at the McGinn/Cazale Theater with Second Stage the summer of 2008. In that play, there is a young teenage boy named Suresh who is an origami prodigy. The play was a really interesting play for me to work on. I didn’t know much about origami, so I did all this research for it, and years later I started thinking about the character of Suresh. I started wondering what would have happened to him as he grew older, because he was only 18 in that play. So this play meets up with him ten years later, and we see sort of where his life has taken him. Not that you need to see that play to know this play because it’s not really a sequel. It’s more of a companion piece, but it was interesting for me to come back to a character that I had already developed to a degree.
MA: And tell me about the writing and development process for this piece. You actually went to Nagasaki.
RJ: Yeah, I went to Nagasaki in the summer of 2017 because, in part, part of this play takes place there, and there’s a scene in Animals Out of Paper that takes place in Nagasaki, and that’s where the seeds of this play grew. I decided to go there, and actually, the first time I really workshopped it was at the Winter Writers’ Retreat at The Lark shortly after that. It was a much different play then, and I’ve been working on it since then.
MA: That’s great. How has The Lark helped you, helped inform the play?
RJ: The way The Lark always does: by providing space and opportunity to experiment. The first few drafts of the play was an entirely different play than it is now. It has many different characters than it does now. In a different format and structure. I was able to hear those pages, determine that they were bad, and start again. That was really important.
MA: The form of this play is so unique. It’s in the form of letters. Can you talk about how you arrived at that and what that’s taught you?
RJ: There are these letters that this woman finds in Nagasaki when she goes to her great uncle’s funeral, and they are all from a mysterious man named Suresh. The original version of the play, the only part that I liked, and again, this was at the Winter Writers’ Retreat at The Lark. We did a whole reading of a bunch of scenes that I wrote, and the only scene that resonated with me was in this format of monologue that was actually the letters that had been found that he had written, this man. Chris Burney, who used to be the Associate Artistic Director at Second Stage and who’s an old friend of both of ours is sort of one of those playwright-whisperers, dramaturgs, who can be very useful to me. He pointed out to me, he said, “Well what do you like about the work?” and I said, “I like the letters,” and he said, “then just write letters” and I was like, Oh that’s so simple. It wasn’t so simple, but that’s what led to the format of this play.
MA: And it was set actually to premiere in 2019, no in 2020, the fall of 2020,
RJ: Yes, the fall of 2020
MA: And we will open for performances September 14 as our first preview, and a lot has happened in this year and a half.
RJ: Yes, a lot has
MA: Has the play changed and evolved since then?
RJ: You tell me. Yes it has. I did a lot of rewriting of it over the pandemic. I don’t know how other writers have dealt with this, but I had this play and actually another play that had been postponed because of the pandemic, and as frustrating as it was in the moment and frightening just to be living through it, the dirty little secret is that I got more time to work on these plays--time that turned out to be essential. I feel much stronger about this piece now a year later because I’ve done a few drafts, some of which we’ve had zoom readings of, and learned so much from the mistakes. Even though that...I still felt like that play development that I’ve come to rely on, we're still able to sort of embrace this past year to a degree.
MA: How do you think it’s going to be to be finally in a theater and to be witnessing it with audiences?
RJ: I mean,
MA: What are your hopes for it?
RJ: This past week and a half we’ve been in here in the rehearsal room, and it’s been so amazing.
RJ: Just as you said, just going downstairs and sitting in the house, sitting in the seats again fills one with happiness that we’re there again, nostalgia for when we were doing this on a normal basis. Can’t wait. I think that, health restrictions notwithstanding, we’ll be able to do that, and people will get to see a new play again in the city.
MA: I will say, what I’m learning and discovering about this play is it’s so intimate. It really hearkens up so many of my own personal demons that I'm wrestling with, and to be able to experience that intimate moment with an audience is transcendent. So that’s what you will look forward to.
RJ: I hope so
MA: Thank you!