Local playwright Douglas Williams talks about his latest creation, Ship, presented by Azuka Theatre through March 15th

Alison Ormsby (Caitlin) and Annie Fang (Nell) in Azuka Theatre’s production of Ship. Photo by Johanna Austin/AustinArt.org
In Ship, written by Douglas Williams, we meet Nell. She’s just out of rehab and returns to her hometown of Mystic, CT where she has two goals in mind-  to track down her former classmate who tried and failed to grow the longest fingernails in the world, and to become a tour guide at the Seaport. Williams writes from the heart with this show, drawing real-life inspirations from his family, growing up in Connecticut, and his love for the Guinness Book of World Records.

The Azuka Theatre’s mission is to tell the story of outcasts and underdogs. According to Williams, Ship absolutely checks those boxes! Read our Q&A with him below to find out more about Ship, how he brought it to life, his background in writing, and why you should see it.

Every show at Azuka is pay what you wish, after you see the performance. Catch Ship now through March 15th. Info and tickets here.

Q: What inspired you to become a playwright?
A:  I grew up all around the country, but moved to Philly to go to film school at Temple. The school was great but I was…most interested in how to tell a story, how to write characters. Around this time, I took a class with Ed Sobel on American Playwrights and in a whirlwind of a semester decided to change my career goals to be a playwright. The work we were reading in the class by writers like Suzan Lori-Parks and Sam Shepard was just so much more daring and exciting than what I was studying in film school.

Q: Tell me about your relationship with the Azuka Theatre 
A: After graduating, I spent a summer at the O’Neill and moved to New York City for two years working in non-profit theatre literary departments. After two years of gaining little (read: no) traction as a playwright…I moved back to Philly. Within just a few months of moving back, I met Kevin Glaccum (Azuka Theatre director) at a theatre gathering and the rest is history. Kevin and I have a really close relationship…we’re always keeping each other updated on what we’re working on or what we’re thinking about artistically. SHIP really grew out of that.

Q: Talk about the evolution of Ship. How did it begin? 
A: I had this random idea about writing a play about someone who tries to grow the longest fingernails in the world. It just kind of hit me out of nowhere. Slowly that idea developed through a workshop I did with Matt Decker and Bristol Riverside Theatre. At that point I had these three characters sketched out and some conflict and the setting – but it was still a pretty early draft. The play has a lot to do about sibling relationships and includes a lot about my real life relationship with my sister, Katie. She was instrumental in bringing this play to the next level. I was wading through a second and third draft when the play was chosen for the Great Plains Theatre Conference, which was really a total surprise. I did lots and lots of work in Omaha at the GPTC (so grateful for their resources and help in making this play what it is). When I came back from the conference Kevin asked for a new draft and suggested we do a “dark night” reading at Azuka just for fun. From there Kevin and I worked through several more workshops, readings and meetings which really polished off the ideas of the play. I also worked more with my sister during a few retreats to hone in moments on the play. I feel like a highly collaborative writer, I conduct interviews with people for basically any new thing I’m working on, and this play is definitely a result of many people’s influence, Kevin and Katie most of all.

Q: Why was it important to work with Azuka for this play? 
A: Azuka is unquestionably my artistic home. This will be my third production there and I’m incredibly grateful to have Azuka, Kevin, Maura (Krause) and Mark as champions. I think it’s every playwright’s dream to have the kind of relationship with a theatre that I have with Azuka. I’m just so so thankful. Ship is such an Azuka play. It’s about down and out characters, it’s quick and funny (I hope!), it’s a play with grit, but also hope. Azuka just feels like the natural home for a play like that. It feels like a natural home for all my plays really!

Q: Your random thought about a person trying to grow the world’s longest fingernails is obviously inspiration for writing out this play. What else drew you to writing the story? 
A: The Guinness Book of World Records is really central to the story – these odd and sometimes random achievements that normal people are recognized for. I had one of those daily calendars in 4th grade with a different person / record on each day…I was just so obsessed with looking at the world’s largest gallbladder, just a weird ass kid! So I thought it would be funny to have a play that revolved around it. The more I started writing, the real heart of the play became about family trauma, specifically viewed through an adult sibling relationship. Siblings are sort of tied to each other, you go through periods where you hate each other, hurt each other, and if we’re lucky, grow and still love each other through it all. That was something that felt super relevant and had a lot of heat as I started to uncover those ideas through the writing. As I said earlier I worked pretty closely with my sister on a lot of these ideas. Just talking through our own history, through our own experiences. So much of those conversations ended up in the play. This is not an autobiographical play, in the traditional sense, but it is deeply deeply personal. 

Q: If you had just a minute of time to tell someone about this play, what would you say?
A: My ten second pitch is always “It’s about a guy who tries and fails to grow the longest fingernails in the world” but that’s not the most accurate description because he isn’t the main character the play. But it kind of gives people an idea of the humor and the odd tragedies that I think exist in the play. Really it’s about Nell, a woman who is trapped in her hometown, but obsessed with the Guinness Book of World Records. She’s never really achieved anything of note, and so instead she reveres these normal, everyday people who can ride a unicycle all the way down the east coast or hold their breath for four minutes straight. She sees something of herself in those people, even if she knows she’ll never actually be in the book. Then when her former classmate who tried to grow the longest fingernails in the world moves back to her sleepy hometown, she becomes obsessed with tracking him down. Through it all, Nell and her sister are mending their relationship after, as we learn later, Nell has recently returned from rehab for opioid abuse and is starting her recovery journey. It’s a play about redemption and recovery at its core. It just happens to be told through the lens of super long fingernails, wooden whaling ships and Childish Gambino.

Q: What does Ship mean to you personally?
A: My last play was about this super turbulent time in my life when I was struggling to live in New York City. This one is less frantic, but still about growing into adulthood and trying to discover who you’re going to be. With Nell, she’s struggling to overcome and move past a particularly dark and difficult period in her life – her struggle and her desire to succeed even as she pushes people away is very personal to me. Also, in a lot of ways I wanted to depict characters that might, in some small way, humanize the opioid epidemic. Often times in the media this epidemic is portrayed in this kind of big picture, data driven way. It’s hard to see the toll an addiction can take on a family and on a personal level. I was much more interested in looking at the way a family heals or tries to mend after the worst part is over and the recovery begins. What does recovery look like on a day to day level?

Q: What do you hope audiences take away from seeing Ship?
A: I think as a writer you always want an audience to see parts of themselves in the characters. So if people have had trauma within their family, or had difficult relationships with family members – which I would assume nearly everyone has at one point or another – I would hope people can see some of these moments on stage and be able to relate them to their own experiences. Forgiveness and redemption are strong tools and I hope when people see those themes on stage they see them as truthful and relatable. Even if that’s difficult. I also hope people find it funny. People can leave the play and be like “hey, that was funny” and then later at dinner, or the next day when you’re brushing your teeth, I’d love it if people had some of the softer hidden moments in the play hit them differently. I always strive to write plays that are funny on the surface, but have hidden tragedies just below the surface.

Q: Following up with the above question…opening night just wrapped. What was the general audience reception? Do you think they related to it in the way you had hoped?
A: It was such a fun night. I’m always a ball of nerves and we were still making a fair amount of changes during the previews so I was really excited/scared to hear everyone’s response. But the house was so amazing. They were all super engaged and laughing at all the right moments. It was a dream, really. The play is tough because it jumps from a really high energy, jokey vibe and then sudden drops down to this serious moment, before bouncing back up again. It can be really challenging for actors and for audiences, but on Saturday night everyone was in it together and were really, Really responsive.

Q: You live in South Philly, where RowHome Magazine is based. What are some of your favorite neighborhood spots (to eat, hang out, explore, etc)? 
A:I live three blocks off of East Passyunk, so my girlfriend and I are always hitting our favorite spots over there. We’ve been going to Barcelona’s happy hour a lot recently, and we love going to Le Virtu for their Sunday night dinners (shout out to Tracy!) which might be the best dinner deal in Philly. I write for a beer magazine for my day job, so you can usually find me at Fountain Porter two or three times a week. Sometimes when it’s slow, I’ll bring my computer with me and work on my plays right there at the bar.

 Q: What’s a three-sentence bit of advice you would give to any aspiring playwrights in Philadelphia?
A: It’s such a boring answer, but in one sentence, I would say “just keep writing.” I go back and look at some of my old plays and they’re so so bad. But for whatever reason I just didn’t stop. Ta-Nehisi Coates has this great piece of advice that I think about a lot, where he said when you’re a young writer there are lots of other young writers. But as you keep writing and get older, because the path of being a writer is so tough, most of those people are going to give up and go to law school or go to business school. If you’re still at it, in your 30s or 40s, at that point you’ll have a skill set that other people just won’t have. It’s the idea that good writers become good because of perseverance, and I’ve always tried to hold onto that.

I’d also say to ask local writers you look up to to go get coffee, especially in Philly. When I was living in New York it was really really hard to connect with people and for them to make time, but when I moved back to Philly suddenly everyone I reached out to was game to grab a beer or a coffee and just talk about writing. I’d say not to be afraid to shoot someone an email and introduce yourself and ask if they have an afternoon to spare, they’ll probably take you up on it!

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