Arts & Culture

Burning Coal Theatre stages ‘Iron Curtain Trilogy’

Jeff Aguiar plays Professor Nikolai Shubkin in The Burning Coal Theatre Company’s production of “The Prisoner's Dilemma.” The small troupe will stage the “Iron Curtain Trilogy,” three full-length works by award-winning British playwright David Edgar that will play in rotation throughout September.
Jeff Aguiar plays Professor Nikolai Shubkin in The Burning Coal Theatre Company’s production of “The Prisoner's Dilemma.” The small troupe will stage the “Iron Curtain Trilogy,” three full-length works by award-winning British playwright David Edgar that will play in rotation throughout September. LIZ CONDO

To mark the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s collapse, Raleigh’s Burning Coal Theatre Company is attempting a feat no other theater company anywhere has ever accomplished.

The small troupe will stage the “Iron Curtain Trilogy,” three full-length works by award-winning British playwright David Edgar that will play in rotation throughout September. Burning Coal has mounted the three plays separately before, but this is the first time any theater will present them together. And to top it all off, the company will take the rotating plays to London’s Cockpit Theatre for three weeks in November.

It’s a daring undertaking for a nonprofit, professional company whose $550,000 main-season budget is dwarfed by such groups as UNC-Chapel Hill’s PlayMakers Repertory Company, whose budget is close to $3 million. But Burning Coal has grown steadily in output and ambition since its 1997 launch, focused on productions that spotlight social and political issues.

“The Triangle is a region for big ideas, and the notion of expanding freedom certainly falls into that category,” said Damon Circosta, executive director of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which provided a $37,500 matching grant for the “Iron Curtain Trilogy” project. “I hope audiences will come away feeling inspired about everyday people and their ability to make history. The most important social movements really are people-driven. These plays are a great way to spread that message.”

The ambitious project is the outgrowth of an unlikely partnership between Burning Coal and the playwright, who has used its productions as a laboratory to rethink and reshape his work.

Artistic director Jerome Davis decided this anniversary year would be the right time to stage the trilogy because the plays explore the tense ethnic confrontations and fraught political negotiations that often arise after repressive regimes are toppled, conflicts still being played out today.

“In the U.S., where this subject is concerned,” Davis said, “we subscribe to a fancifully shortened version of the story which goes, ‘There was this really bad idea; thank God it’s over; let’s move on.’ But I think that shortchanges three-quarters of a century of history and possibly opens the door for it to happen again.”

Inspired to write

During his prolific career, Edgar has mostly concentrated on issues of the day. So it was inevitable that, after watching televised coverage as the Cold War boundary between communism and democracy fell on Nov. 9, 1989, he would be inspired to write.

The next day, as the wall continued to crumble under sledgehammers and chisels, Edgar began writing “The Shape of the Table.” The play charts the desperate attempts by a fictional country’s weakening government to stay in power by giving in to protesters.

Then, spurred by the Bosnian war in 1994, Edgar wrote “Pentecost.” The story centers on a fresco discovered in an Eastern European church that stands to change the history of Western art. The government and clergy clash over ownership, while British and American art experts have their own agendas. When rebel refugees invade the church and take hostages, the situation becomes a nightmare of separatism and national pride.

By the time Edgar finished “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” in 2001, he’d become disillusioned about the lack of progress in settling discord in Kosovo and Chechnya. The play contrasts a “successful” negotiation between ethnic factions in a mock situation with a fractious real-life conflict between a minority government and freedom fighters.

An artistic partnership

Davis had only read “Pentecost,” and was not aware of the other two plays when he decided it was the perfect debut vehicle for his newly formed Burning Coal Theatre Company in fall 1997. He had no inkling then that the company would become closely allied with Edgar, but the seeds of that relationship were planted when the sister of one of Davis’ actors ran into the playwright in England shortly after seeing it.

“She told me in very strong terms that it was a completely mesmerizing evening,” Edgar recalled by phone from New York City, where he was attending an off-Broadway revival of his play earlier this month. “I told her to tell them if they ever did the play again, I’d come see it.”

Seven years later, Davis had his own chance meeting with Edgar during intermission at the New York premiere of “Pentecost.”

“David remembered his promise to come over,” Davis said, “so I immediately improvised and said we’d do ‘Pentecost’ again for our 10th-anniversary season.”

When the revival came to pass in January 2007, Edgar was in the audience.

“I was terrifically impressed,” he said, “because they’d made it really crisp, much shorter than other productions, without sacrificing the art.” He suggested that Burning Coal produce the other two plays of the “Iron Curtain Trilogy.”

Davis scheduled “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” to open the 2008-09 season – something of a coup because it was the play’s U.S. premiere. Edgar was on hand for the start of rehearsal.

“As we sat reading it, I thought, ‘My God, this is difficult,’ ” he recalled. “What had been in the headlines when I wrote it was not headline news now. So I did a lot of work on the play, shortening and clarifying it. I thought the Burning Coal production was very successful.”

Edgar also attended rehearsals for “The Shape of the Table,” whose 2011 Burning Coal production was another U.S. premiere. Once again, Edgar reworked the script with the company.

“I spent a lot of time making sure the play could be understood by the audience members and actors who weren’t even alive when the events in the plays took place,” he said.

Edgar will be on hand for the opening weekend of the trilogy and will later participate (by Skype from England) in visits to Wake County Schools where Burning Coal personnel will share excerpts of the plays. Five hundred students will also get free tickets to see one of the complete plays.

Energized by the work

The trilogy is the costliest and most demanding production in Burning Coal’s history. Expenses for a single play in its main-stage season average $50,000, but the estimated cost of producing the trilogy, including the London transfer, is $238,000. In addition to the Fletcher Foundation grant, Davis held an online crowd-sourcing campaign.

With 25 actors, 17 crew members, and three different sets and audience configurations for the trilogy production, Davis realized they’d need a more accommodating space than Burning Coal’s home theater in the old Murphey School. The plays will be in Raleigh’s Warehouse District in a building on South West Street that had been used as a church for the past 10 years.

Rehearsals began July 7 and, with the help of two assistant directors, Davis has been able to coordinate work on all three plays at once.

Actors get some breathing space by being cast in leads in one play, minor parts in another and sitting out the third. After getting the actors to make it through initial rough staging of all three plays, Davis then broke down the detailed rehearsals in rotating groups of three days per play.

Despite the strain of such concentrated work, Davis has been energized about the project. “I don’t think there’s been an event on a global scale since World War II that has had more impact than the fall of the Berlin Wall,” he said. “I think these are the best works of art yet created about that event.”