It’s 1945. World War II rages across the globe. The Allied Powers are pressing to bring it to a definitive close. In the United States, in the unforgiving desert climate of Los Alamos, New Mexico, a group of scientists execute the first successful test of the most powerful weapon known to man—the atomic bomb. As they struggle with the moral dilemma of their unparalleled innovation, their spouses grapple with government-enforced secrecy invading their marriages, as well as the unique self-doubt, isolation and confusion that accompanies idleness in times of conflict.
This is the story of The Way Out West, a new play written by Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama alumna Liza Birkenmeier (A 2012) and directed by School of Drama faculty member Kim Weild. Not only does the play have the distinction of being the first work commissioned by the School of Drama, but it is also the first main stage show written by an alum. The show ran from October 4-18 in the Philip Chosky Theater.
We spoke with the playwright and the director about the process behind crafting this one-of-a-kind production.
SCHOOL OF DRAMA: Beyond its status as the first production to have a world premiere at the School of Drama, what do you feel makes The Way Out West stand out compared to past main stage productions at the school?
Liza Birkenmeier: The intention of the piece was to make something rigorous and playful that would allow an ensemble cast to ask giant questions relevant to their lives as students. For instance, how do we participate in monetizing and militarizing our science? And how does that propagate violence?
Because I’ve gotten to work with students at CMU over the last couple of years, we’ve been able to shape some of the biggest narrative bits based on conversations and interactions within the department. So I suppose I hope this play is—if I may be so bold—a quintessentially CMU artistic effort.
Kim Weild: As I am only entering into my second year on the faculty at the School of Drama, I can only respond by referencing last year’s main stage productions. What I think differentiates this one from last year’s shows is the way media has been integrated into the production. We also purposefully pushed what could be done with lighting and sound, particularly in the bomb sequence.
SOD: What have been the most rewarding aspects of your collaboration with one another?
LB: We got to take a trip to Los Alamos, New Mexico together, which solidified an investigative, fun, and generous approach to the piece.
KW: Liza and I are fortunate in that we have an ease in the way we communicate and collaborate with one another. We had never worked together before nor really knew much about each other. It could have turned out to have been a disappointing match, but on the research trip to Los Alamos we discovered we have shared influences and understand one another’s aesthetic. At the core of our collaboration is respect and admiration. One hopes for this, but it isn’t always the case.
SOD: What was the biggest challenge of the development process?
LB: Writing plays is terribly difficult for me; I prefer research.
KW: The biggest challenge was not being able to have Liza with us through the whole rehearsal process and through opening night. We were fortunate to have her come in several times during the year for development and then she was with us for nearly a week when we were into the third week of rehearsals and then again for tech and opening. Each time she came in the script grew, changed, was refined, and went deeper. I loved the process of asking her questions and the cast also loved having her in the rehearsal room. That kind of time is irreplaceable.
SOD: What would be your advice to a playwright and a director overseeing a production on this scale for the first time?
KW: Be organized. Listen. It’s okay if you don’t have all the answers. You are not in this alone. Remember to have fun.
SOD: What was the biggest benefit of developing this play in an academic setting rather than a professional one?
LB: Generally, I feel like working in an educational environment makes the process experimental in the truest sense; the agenda is egoless. I hope that the performers and designers continue to walk into processes with the same amount of generosity and curiosity.
KW: It cannot be underestimated how much the students learned from this process. I witnessed first hand their remarkable growth, how each one engaged in the process, opened up to it and blossomed—not only the actors, but also the designers were tenacious and and the stage management team was beyond stellar. They have the tools and talent to be a part of the industry—to excel in and innovate.
Written by Joseph Hefner