For months, playwright Charly Evon Simpson kept a tab open on her computer to “Jumpers,” an article in The New Yorker about those who attempt to end their life by leaping off the Golden Gate Bridge. In fall 2016, Simpson was reminded of the piece during her residency at SPACE on Ryder Farm, a nonprofit in Brewster, New York. By the end of the week, Jump was born.
Simpson is still developing and polishing the play’s script with help from Chautauqua Theater Company’s New Play Workshop program, which is funded by the Roe Green Foundation. Jump continues its run with a performance at 4 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3, in Bratton Theater, followed by a talkback after the show.
Jump tells the story of a family struggling with the loss of a loved one. Over the course of the New Play Workshop, Simpson said she hopes to learn more about the characters’ relationships, as well as whether her writing translates on stage.
“We are now entering a phase with this work where there’s going to be an audience, and they’re going to have reactions,” she said. “I’m curious as to what those reactions are.”
Two characters in Jump, Fay and Hopkins, originated in another play that Simpson never finished. The playwright said the characters stuck with her until she found a better world for them to live in.
“You see them meeting, and they clearly have a connection and a friendship, but it’s nothing like in the play that I was writing,” Simpson said. “I don’t know if this rendition of Fay and Hopkins would end up in that place, but I sort of liked them as people and I liked their names.”
Due to the short rehearsal window for the New Play Workshop, Simpson recruited Summer L. Williams to direct the project. The two previously worked together on the play at the Kennedy Center last summer. Additionally, Simpson cast guest artists Brian D. Coats, Alex Gould and Margaret Odette because of their respective histories with the play.
“We knew this is such a short process, so having people in the room who at least know some version in the play … and have inhabited those characters in some way was going to be super helpful,” Simpson said. “Maggie hasn’t worked on this piece nearly as much as Alex and Brian, but Maggie was in Chautauqua, so she might be more comfortable with the quicker process.”
Simpson, who studied to be an actor in college, read the first scene of Jump at her 10-year reunion. Odette, the playwright’s former classmate, read the part of Judy opposite of Simpson’s Fay. For the New Play Workshop, however, Odette will take on the role of Fay, while the other sister will be played by CTC conservatory actor Johnique Mitchell.
Simpson said previous productions of Jump have helped her clarify the story’s timeline and dramaturgy, while also bringing unexpected revelations.
“I had a reading in Orlando, for instance, where I noticed I’m kind of a Yankee writer,” Simpson said. “I thought this play was able to be set anywhere, but maybe it can only be set in specific cities where people are fast talkers.”
The New Play Workshop will also allow Simpson to experiment with a team of designers to bring her stage directions to life. Given the play’s magical elements, the playwright said it is important for her to learn what is possible on stage.
“I sort of wish I was a designer, but I have no skills,” Simpson said. “I think one of the things that really excites me about this opportunity is to see … how can I not only speak to actors and a director, but also communicate with designers, too.”
In January 2019, Jump will premiere at PlayMakers Repertory Company. In the meantime, Simpson said she is rewriting three other plays that will be workshopped in New York City throughout the fall.
“August will be a mad dash of making plays better before I have to turn them over to other people to also make it better,” she said.
Simpson’s other plays include Behind the Sheet, Scratching the Surface, While We Wait and form of a girl unknown. Simpson said that while some of her plays touch on similar themes, she wants each piece of theater to be distinct so as not to pigeonhole herself into one style.
“A lot of my plays as of late are different characters figuring out why is this is happening, what is happening and how do I feel about those things?” Simpson said. “I’m interested as a playwright in exploring that (but) not necessarily in a linear fashion. Sometimes there’s magic that will happen, and that makes more sense than the very real thing that has happening in front of us.”
Simpson lost three family members while writing Jump, a coincidence she did not realize until it was later pointed out to her.
“I never think about that in the play; it’s not an active thought in writing the play at all,” she said. “I think me not realizing that points to some of the characters in the play and how they are dealing with these really big emotions and these really big questions that they have.”
Simpson said she hopes audience members will see Jump and reflect on how they process their own emotions, thus contributing to a shared experience with the cast and crew that the playwright compares to a religious communion.
“I think that something really magical happens when people sit in an audience and have their energy, and people on stage have their energy, and people behind the scenes have their energy and they’re all coming together,” Simpson said. “It’s all about sharing those energies, and everyone is an equal player.”