Friday, 3 June 2016

Dramaturgy with The Dragon: Kevin Rolston @ Edfringe 2016

First Sprout Theatre presents 
Deal With The Dragon
August 5th-29th (not 15th)
20:30 (1 hr)
C nova (Venue 145)

Actor-writer Kevin Rolston brings his hit one-man play Deal With the Dragon to Edinburgh after it was deemed “Best of the San Francisco Fringe”. 

This dark and comic look at a Faustian bargain will make you forget you’re watching a single actor on stage.

This darkly comic one-man play tells a very modern tale about what happens when a talented artist unwittingly (perhaps) strikes up a relationship with a handsome and cultivated European gentleman who oscillates from seduction to intimidation - and who also happens to have the gift of breathing fire. 

While the artist seeks a way out, another pursuing success and fame wants in. Among other things, the play asks: who is that charming man?


What was the inspiration for the piece?
 About 7 years ago, just as I was becoming more and more successful as a stage actor here in San Francisco, I was experiencing intense episodes of rage. It was increasingly becoming a problem.

One night, my then-partner and I came home after a particularly painful night at the theater (as audience members) and we got into this raging argument. Eventually I threw my cell phone at him.  

Well, toward him, it missed his head and hit the wall next to him. I stormed out, and he threw my phone back at me, as I walked down the stairs into our apartment building lobby.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that argument was the original inspiration for Deal With the Dragon.

(That story has a happy ending, by the way. My then-partner and I got married last October!)

How did you go about gathering the team for it?
I had been writing and developing the piece for about a year at The Marsh, which is the solo performance theater here in SF. I noticed that the show was getting away from what I had set out to do. Now, it’s one thing to be open to where a piece wants to go and it’s another to not write about something because you’re ashamed and embarrassed about it. I realized that it was the latter.

I knew I needed to collaborate with someone who would immediately understand what I was trying to write about and someone who could give the show shape and structure, while also infusing it with danger and spark. 

Years before this I had seen a theater piece directed by a friend and colleague of mine. To this day I couldn’t tell you what the hell it was about, but what I remember viscerally was the electric charge he had created with the piece. The very air in the room felt dangerous and elevated and sacred and magic.

I reached out to him and asked if he would be interested. I sent him what script I had at the time and he immediately said Yes. So I got my first choice.  And M. Graham Smith became my developmental partner, dramaturge and director.

Graham and I had worked together before a couple of times on new writing readings and workshops, etc.  One was a new adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real. When we moved into the Costume Shop for the world premiere of the Deal With the Dragon, I brought my Kilroy chalk with me as a totem for magic and good luck.

How did you become interested in making performance?
When I was nine years old I drew an audience of faces on my bedroom wall. I performed for that sold out house almost every night.

Eventually I found my way in front of real audiences.

Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?
The process of making Deal With the Dragon has been completely atypical, totally different than the process I am used to. It has been terrifying and exhilarating for exactly that reason.

I’ve been an ensemble stage actor since I was 24. So you know what that process is for the most part. You get the part, you start to work by doing your prep, your research and your memorization. Then you collaborate with the director and other actors.

For this, I started with nothing but an idea: 

A guy has a dragon for a roommate, who he is bound to in some mysterious way. 

The process we eventually found was: I would write a scene, perform it live, discuss with Graham what was strong, confusing or missing.  Then I would put the script down and record as I improvised, often with Graham throwing in prompts, questions and curve balls.

Then I would synthesize what worked from the written and improvised drafts. Rinse and repeat. It was grueling. 

There is only one scene in the play that exists in its original form. Something that I wrote in one sitting in about as much time as it takes me to perform it. 

What do you hope that the audience will experience?
I hope that the audience experiences the slow burn of the piece.

I hope that the play gets inside their head and heart before they realize it has happened. 

I hope that, at one very particular point in the play, just as the audience is watching one of the characters shatter and fall apart because of a deal gone bad, they are each simultaneously taken to a parallel moment in their own lives and that they then see that moment differently than they’ve ever seen it before.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

(Graham, my developmental partner, dramaturge and director, is a much better person to answer this question. I’ve emailed him about it. At the moment he’s assistant directing a show at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It might take him a while to respond)

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?

When I had the original idea, I wanted the piece to be a new myth:
A modern myth to survive by.

During its development, the piece evolved into a modern fable.
One that is… “sly, shocking and won’t let you go.”   -KQED

You should come see it.  You’ll like it.


Rolston is a highly trained stage actor, with over a decade of experience with new writing plays and a background as a stand-up comic, which is the perfect training for a play that will make you laugh – and terrify you – as well as make you question your own decisions.

Rolston’s theatre colleague and friend, Mark Rucker, was an early champion of the work. He played a crucial role in bringing the show to the stage, saying “I just need to let them know this play is really important to me, personally.” 

Less than two months later, Rucker was dead from an accidental overdose. In honour of his friend and mentor, Rolston hopes to continue the conversation about self-destructive behaviour, and whether it is possible to break free.

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