Playwright Notes - This Prison Where I Live

by Angela Iannone

FTC New Play Development Series

Notes on the Play

"This Prison Where I Live" is set in 1879, on the stage of the McVicker Theatre in Chicago, where Edwin Booth was performing in Shakespeare's "Richard II", a play he had performed briefly with Augustin Daly's company in New York in 1878. The play itself had not been performed in America since the time of Edwin's father, famed tragedian Junius Brutus Booth. It was an unpopular play, neither critics nor audiences liked Edwin in it, and no one liked him in a blonde wig, which he adopted to more realistically portray the blonde Richard Plantagenet. By this time in his life, Edwin is 10 years into his disastrous marriage to his second wife, Mary McVicker, whom he had met playing Romeo to her Juliet in 1868, at the McVicker. Mary McVicker struggled with addiction and mental illness throughout their marriage. She had bouts of calm and efficiency alternating with wild fits of rage and sorrow. They lost two children, the first in 1870. Their son Edgar, a large and healthy infant, proved too large for a normal birth, and his head was crushed during extraction. He lived 20 minutes. Mary was kept in a drugged coma for two weeks after his death, and never fully recovered. Edwin had the boy buried with his first wife. In late 1878 Mary McVicker and Edwin lost another child, this time there wasn't enough to bury. Edwin's first marriage, to his beloved Mary ( Mollie) Devlin, also an actress, and whom he had met when playing Romeo to her Juliet in the company of famed American icon Joseph Jefferson, had ended when she died of tuberculosis in 1863, shortly after the birth of their only child, Edwina. Two years later his adored younger brother John shot President Lincoln, and Edwin never spoke his brother's name again, nor allowed it to be spoken in his presence. Edwin spent eight months in seclusion, teetering on the edge of sanity and suicide before returning to the stage in another triumphal production of Hamlet. Hate letters continued to follow him throughout his career, but he had been forgiven. Or so it seemed. In 1879 a dry goods clerk named Mark Grey took aim at Edwin while he was onstage performing in Richard the Second and fired two shots, either of which should have killed the actor. For some reason Edwin, who never varied his blocking once he had set it, changed his position on the stage, and both bullets missed. Edwin would never speak of it afterwards, would never tell why he had moved or what had prompted him in that moment to rise and get out of the line of fire. He came out of the experience with a renewed sense of purpose. And he never performed Richard II again.

It has been seven years since my relationship with Edwin began and I am delighted to share my passion for him. Enjoy the show.

Production history for The Edwin Booth Trilogy

The first play of The Edwin Booth Trilogy, "The Edwin Booth Company Presents" was written for the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Theatre Department. The production premiered in 2012 and went on to American College Theatre Festival honors in that same year. In 2013 "The Edwin Booth Company Presents" was produced by Titan Theatre Company as a staged reading at The Players in NYC, the home of Edwin Booth. The original production and the New York production featured the actor for whom the role of Edwin was written, Jake Lesh . The second play, "This Prison Where I Live" was originally workshopped at Door Shakespeare Company in 2012, given a staged reading by the same company in 2013 and produced Off Off Broadway by Titan Theatre Company in January of 2014 to critical and audience acclaim. The Off Off Broadway production featured the two actors for whom the roles of the Booth brothers were written, Reese Madigan as Edwin and Tristan Colton as John. The third play, "Irving & Booth in Othello" was workshopped at Door Shakespeare Company in 2013 and produced as a staged reading by G&M in Milwaukee that same year. Both featured the actor for whom the role of Henry Irving was written, Richard Ganoung. The staged reading also featured Simon Provan as Edwin.




On Looking


by Jake Penner

There is a question at the heart of RED. But it’s not the one you’ve been hearing about. By now you’ve likely seen the advertisements or any number of writeups and reviews about Forward Theater’s production of RED; and you’ve also probably noticed that they all draw attention to the only discernible refrain of the play:

What do you see?

Obviously an important question for a visual artist, especially to one so monumental to our national aesthetic as Mark Rothko. But I’d argue that it’s not the question most important in this play. Because What do you see? is, ultimately, subjective. Why do you keep looking? is a matter of human drama.

Right now, I’m involved in my own drama. I’m at the Chazen Museum of Art to see a painting by Rothko called Untitled, 1968. I hesitate to tell you to see it also for fear of guiding you into the predicament in which I find myself presently. For this is my fifth visit to see Untitled. Why am I back? Because I have absolutely no idea what I’m supposed to be seeing, and I, infuriatingly, feel compelled to keep looking.

The Russian-born Rothko rose to fame in the 1950’s and ‘60’s as part of the school of Abstract Expressionism (no resemblance to our world, yet emotional). But the style for which Rothko became known bears little resemblance to the works he’d created earlier. He did a series of paintings of subway platforms as part of a WPA project in the 1930’s. In the 1940’s, Rothko began drawing from ancient myth while incorporating elements of surrealism and his subjects are still very recognizable.

I don’t care much for these earlier works, and I suspect neither did Rothko, hence his resolve toward the style we know so well today. He didn’t see it yet, but he knew it was there, so he kept looking. In the play, you’ll see Rothko quietly considering the blank canvas alone for long periods of stage time; what you won’t see are the decades he likely spent performing this same act: staring at the canvas alone, awaiting the true point of view to reveal itself.

Why did he keep looking? Why do any of us keep looking? Money helps (RED begins with Rothko starting a mural for the Four Seasons in what was the most lucrative commission to date), as can the need to strengthen one’s legacy. You’ll see Rothko and assistant Ken wrestle with both of these possible motivations for continuing to pursue an art form.

But I don’t think our playwright, John Logan, believes that money or legacy are what drive either Teacher or Apprentice to keep looking: by the time we meet Rothko he’s already wealthy, and Ken endures a level of abuse that would quickly discourage a pursuant chasing anything as transient as fame or fortune.

No. These are characters that are so completely called to create that they continue to do so in spite of success or insurmountable frustration. They can’t help themselves. They are so taunted by what’s hidden in the canvas, that they have to keep searching for it, because what else is there for these two men? These characters represent that innate human stubbornness that forces us to keep looking, and that, every so often, allows a handful of us to create something revolutionary. 

When you see RED, I’d challenge you to consider the forms you practice in your own life. Why did you begin? What have you achieved as a result? And, why do you continue despite those achievements? These are the questions I ponder while staring at Untitled, 1968, as the museum security guard checks again to see if I’ve finally just made off with the damn thing already.

I can’t resist. “Hey,” I say, pointing at Untitled. “What do you see?”

He steps casually beside me, his hands locked behind his back. He’s suddenly the art critic I imagine him to be when the museum is empty of ruffians like myself. He is silent for a full minute before he turns to me, finally to speak.

“A painting,” he says. 

A preposterous answer! And yet the most insightful one I’ve had yet. He ambles toward another room, knowing full well he’ll see me again later. I turn back to the canvas to keep looking.

Because I just can’t help myself.

Remaining performances of Forward Theater Company’s production of RED are nearly sold out. Get your tickets online or call the ticket office at Overture Center at (608)-258-4141.


Forward Theater & VSA Wisconsin Join Forces


by Karen Moeller

VSA Wisconsin and Forward Theater joined forces this winter to challenge perceptions and raise awareness about art and the creative process. In partnership with Forward's production of Red, VSA Wisconsin is presenting a corresponding exhibition “What is Art? A Showcase of Expressive Responses” created by adults with disabilities.

VSA Wisconsin is a statewide nonprofit organization that uses dance, drama, creative writing, music and visual art to celebrate the creative power and artistic accomplishments of people with disabilities. VSA Wisconsin’s choirs, artist residencies, art classes and workshops provide an outlet for creative expression and unlimited possibilities for personal, academic, and professional success.

Kathie Wagner, president of VSA Wisconsin says, “Our collaboration with Forward Theater has inspired us to think outside the box. We challenged the teaching artists at our art center to plan their fall classes around the theme What Is Art? They were excited and came up with new ideas for individual and collaborative art making that they hadn’t tried with our program participants. One teaching artist projected images of the work of famous artists. After viewing a Kandinsky, one participant, who had previously only drawn cats, drew something entirely different, and with complementary colors, for the first time. Another participant, who has a very short attention span, finished an entire art project and proudly pointed out shapes in his storybooks -- a new experience for him as well as for his father, who viewed the completed project with delight and surprise.”

Audience members for Red will be able to view samples of some of the VSA Wisconsin projects in the Playhouse Theatre lobby and talk more about this collaboration before performances. Patrons will also be invited to add their responses to "What is Art?". 

All attendees and the public are invited to view more of the art works created by visiting VSA Wisconsin's exhibition, "What is Art? A Showcase of Expressive Responses," on view January 6 through April 10 at the VSA Wisconsin Gallery, 1709 Aberg Ave. in Madison. Hours are Monday-Thursday 9 am-3 pm or by appointment. And on Friday, February 7, you can celebrate the exhibition at VSA Wisconsin’s Beat the Winter Blues party from 5:30 – 8:00 pm.

Forward Theater is proud to be a part of this collaboration with VSA Wisconsin, and looks forward to sharing the amazing art created as we present Red!

A Quick Guide for Choosing a Night to See Sons of the Prophet


by Jake Penner

Actors are crowd pleasers; they can’t help themselves.

And because of this — a characteristic that renders these types practically useless in other lines of work — plays tend to change night to night according to the reactions of any one specific audience. If an audience came to laugh, the ensemble will play for laughs; if the audience seems more contemplative, the actors will provide a more thoughtful experience. Essentially, the audience gets the show for which they’ve asked.

With this in mind, I’ve put together a brief guide for all of you still in the process of choosing your night to come see Sons. (Don’t wait too long, tickets are tough to come by). Enjoy.

Come to a Thursday show if…

You love to laugh.

Thursday night audiences are particularly energetic, which in turn makes the performers more energetic. Personally, I love a loud audience, and playing a comedic role like Charles Douaihy, Thursday’s are likely going to become my favorite nights to perform Sons. Have a beer, be loud.

Come to a Friday show if…

For you, theatre is a contact sport.

Friday audiences are always intense listeners and there’s usually a critic or two in the house. You, Fridayers, are the old-school connoisseur theatre-goers and you take your plays seriously. You’ve spent some time in New York or Chicago and you can’t wait to talk with friends afterward about how we stack up against Broadway. We always have our game faces on for Friday.

Come to a Saturday show if…

You want to sit back and let us entertain you.

It’s been a long week and you’ve probably come straight from’s likely date night...there may have been wine (there was probably wine)…

Come to a Sunday show if…

You’re an intellectual and you’ve come to the play as much for the post-show talkback as the show itself.

Sunday audiences are thinkers and they always have a lot to say afterwards. These tend to be more even-paced, contemplative shows. Come Sunday if you want us to give you something to think about and then if you’re dying to pick our brains at the talkback later.

Still haven’t purchased your tickets for Sons of the Prophet? Visit our tickets page at Overture Center Online now.