The World of Amy Freed: Comedy of the Outrageous

John Glore, with additional material by SCR Staff
 | Oct 26, 2020
Amy Freed
Amy Freed

About Amy Freed

She is the author of SHREW!The Monster Builder, Safe in Hell, The Beard of Avon, Freedomland and You, Nero, all commissioned by or performed at SCR. Her other plays include Them That Are Perfect, Restoration Comedy, The Psychic Life of Savages, Still Warm and Claustrophilia. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama (Freedomland) and the recipient of both the Joseph Kesselring Award and the Helen Hayes/Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play (The Psychic Life of Savages). Freed’s work has been widely produced in a variety of houses including Arena Stage, Playwrights Horizons, New York Theatre Workshop, The Flea, Goodman Theatre, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Aurora Theatre Company, American Conservatory Theater, California Shakespeare Theater, The Canadian Stage Company and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. She lives in San Francisco, where she is an artist-in-residence at Stanford University.

The Freed Players

"Amy is one of the smartest people I know," Art Manke, director, colleague and longtime friend of Freed’s said in an interview with Theatre Times. "You have to find actors with keen intelligence and a sense of irony and a sense of humor and not every human is born with a sense of humor. They also have to be imaginative and emotionally grounded so that they’re playing truthfully, but yet with a sharp eye on the punch lines and on the comic turns. It’s a tricky balance to find those kinds of actors. So, Amy has found a group of them along the path of her career that she clings to very passionately.”

The group has coalesced into something akin to “The Freed Players” and at SCR includes Danny Scheie. He has played the title roles in You, Nero and The Monster Builder. Scheie interviews her about her playwriting in the premiere of the video series, #Commissioned.

​What is a Commission?

Through commissions, SCR provides support—in both literary and financial terms—for playwrights to write new works. It’s a seal of approval by a Tony Award-winning regional theatre to commission a playwright. The process for developing new plays is customized for each commissioned work; playwrights are asked “What do you need in order to advance this work?” and the theatre works to do the right thing for each individual play. Through in-house workshops, public readings, the Pacific Playwrights Festival and productions, commissioned writers are able to hear their works and see them come to life.

This overview of Amy Freed’s work appeared as a dramaturgical blog for the world premiere of her play, SHREW!, in 2018. It has been updated for the inaugural episode of #Commissioned, featuring Freed being interviewed by actor Danny Scheie.

Since South Coast Repertory began its relationship with Amy Freed in 1996, eight of her plays have appeared at SCR in productions or staged readings for the public. In them, her comedy of the outrageous has zeroed in on people behaving badly—or in some cases, humans behaving all too humanly—in first century Rome, England of both the Elizabethan and Restoration eras, Puritan America and even the domestic realm of a modern-day American family. But in each case, she has had her eye on what’s happening in the world today.

“I’m a satirist to a degree and my work is to try to use sometimes satiric forms to address contemporary topics,” Freed told the Orange County Register in 2018. “I’m spontaneously drawn to subjects I think are of major social importance, and the form of satire is where you can make those arguments.”

Freed says SCR is “the most profound patron a playwright could have in America, and has been absolutely enormous in my development as a writer. They’ve remained interested in my work and will read with interest things I write and send to them—the kind of thing every playwright I know is longing for.”

An Overview of Amy Freed’s Plays at SCR

Heather Ehlers, Peter Michael Goetz and Annie LaRussa in Freedomland.

(SCR commission, world premiere on the Segerstrom Stage, 1997)

The Underfinger family, led by patriarch Noah, is falling apart at the psychological seams. Daughter Polly can’t finish her dissertation on “the secret lives of the women of the Iliad,” after years of trying. Her sister, Sig, has cornered the market on sad clown paintings. Their brother, Seth, is a survivalist with violent tendencies. When they all come home to the family farmhouse in upstate New York, lugging their neurotic baggage with them, things don’t go well. But the Underfingers find their way to a moment of respite in reminiscing about the family’s last happy day, which came many years earlier on a visit to the now-shuttered amusement park, Freedomland—the day before Mom committed the kids into Noah’s incapable hands and left for good.

In an interview about the play, Freed spoke of growing up “among a generation of lost fathers profoundly affected by the early 1970s, when families were dropping like flies. They were hit by the raised consciousness of the ’60s, the Vietnam War, drugs, the quest for complete self-gratification. The lightning that strikes this family has to do with a cultural shift. They haven’t found a language for their belief and self-definition... They’re trying to live in an age of unbelief, when they’re all really believers by nature.”

A CurtainUp review of the play’s off-Broadway production said, “Freed, like John Guare, is an inspired wordsmith with a gift for surreal touches in situations grounded in familiar and real territory.” The play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.

Beard of Avon
The cast of The Beard of Avon.

The Beard of Avon
(SCR commission, world premiere on the Segerstrom Stage, 2001)

Only Amy Freed could write a wildly funny romp about the centuries-long scholarly controversy surrounding the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. With tongue in cheek, she proposes that the plays were actually written by an assortment of Shakespearean contemporaries (including Queen Elizabeth herself), whose high station forbade them from taking credit for their writing, but whose egos demanded that their plays be staged. The hapless (and not untalented) actor/poet, Will Shakspere, agrees to serve as their front after falling under the sway of the licentious Earl of Oxford.

A New York Times review said, “What is especially satisfying about The Beard of Avon is that it is not only shrewd and ambitious but also modest in its authorial tone. In several sly instances, Ms. Freed suggests how recurrent themes in Shakespeare—mistaken identity, for example—might have been inspired by real-life occurrences. Equally cagy is her suggestion that Shakespeare’s understanding of human relations is informed by a sexual orientation that is open to all possibilities. These are big ideas, but they aren’t trumpeted and you don’t have to be a Shakespeare aficionado to appreciate them. Indeed, like the rest of ‘Beard,’ they are delivered with a genuine awe and delight at the genius in the 37 plays, whoever is responsible.”

After its SCR premiere, the play went on to numerous productions at major theatres nationwide.

Safe in Hell
Suzanne Jamieson, Robert Sella and Graeme Malcolm in Safe in Hell. Photo by Ken Howard.

Safe in Hell
(SCR commission, world premiere on the Segerstrom Stage, 2004)

Using the 17th-century Puritan minister, Cotton Mather, as its protagonist, the play satirizes the religious zeal that led to the Salem witch trials, suggesting that the insecure Cotton’s fraught relationship with his powerful preacher father, Increase Mather, contributed to his witch-hunting mania. Freed also has fun with the lust lurking beneath Cotton’s God-fearing demeanor. “Cotton drew his power from fear,” said Freed in an NPR interview. “His sermons were about devils and Satan and the presence of hell... [He] is driven enormously by his desire to have a breakthrough to the spiritual world that has eluded him so far. And the avenue that is presented to him is this connection with these possessed girls, who contain all this crazy sexual energy and bottled up rage and all these things he can’t touch in himself.”

Counterpointing Cotton’s fire-and-brimstone obsession is the feel-good vibe of Reverend Doakes, a proto-New Age preacher who wants to help his “red brothers” find Jesus. “He’s my reproach,” Freed explained on NPR, “to what I see as the failures of the left in this country. He’s a guy who is all for the softness and pleasure and ease of God, a well-meaning fellow...without any sense of the sacrifices of free speech or a free society.”

The Los Angeles Times review of SCR’s production said, “The play is rife with references to contemporary American culture. Most of these produce audible guffaws...But the humor isn’t mindless; Freed clearly wants her audience to think about parallels with events in our own times.”

Restoration Comedy
The cast during the NewSCRipts reading of Restoration Comedy.

Restoration Comedy
(NewSCRipts reading, 2005)

Freed dusts off two obscure comedies from Restoration England to create her own mash-up, having fun with such comedic staples as disguise and sexual dalliance, while lacing the proceedings with liberal doses of anachronism. Freed’s writerly act of “restoration” points up the ways in which the foolishness inspired by love and lust hasn’t changed much over the centuries.

In a prologue, the play’s lead character confesses to the audience that the sole reason for presenting Restoration Comedy is simple: “So we can wear the clothes!” —and in truth, Freed is mostly interested in having fun with the extravagance of the characters and language; the plot is secondary, but a Variety review of the play’s Seattle Repertory Theatre premiere does a good job of summarizing it: “Unfaithful husband Loveless, who has been roaming the world on a hedonistic binge, learns of his wife’s death in London and decides it’s now safe to return to his stomping grounds. However, his wife, Amanda, turns out to be not the least bit dead, and she promptly tries to woo back her prodigal husband by learning the ‘art of lewdness.’ In the first act, she succeeds. In the second, Loveless backslides and Amanda, too, is tempted to stray. Freed knows well that, as one character puts it, words can be ‘as intoxicating as flesh,’ and the repartee between Loveless and Amanda is as energetic and tantalizing as their sex play.”

You Nero
Danny Scheie and Kasey Mahaffey in You, Nero. Photo by Henry DiRocco.

You, Nero
(SCR commission, world premiere on the Julianne Argyros Stage, 2009)

Once again Freed takes a playwright as her protagonist—in this case a fictional one named Scribonius, who is commissioned by the maniacal emperor Nero to write his life story and help him repair his reputation among the people of Rome. Hanging over the playwright’s head at all times is the prospect of a painful death should he fail to satisfy Nero’s every whim. Scribonius also has to contend with Nero’s mother, Agrippina, and new wife, Poppaea, both of whom want him to center his play on them, thereby serving their lust for power and their need for survival in the cut-throat world of Nero’s Rome. When Scribonius falters, Nero finally takes matters into his own hands by creating an autobiographical one-man show, which he performs at the climax of the play; it culminates in a pyrotechnical display that—legends of fiddling aside—sparks the city-consuming conflagration for which Nero is now most famous.

You, Nero may deal in ancient history, but its awareness of what’s happening in America today—politically, socially and pop-culturally—drives the play to its outrageous finale. “After I started working on it,” Freed has said, “the parallels were obvious: Two civilizations in decline and crumbling under the weight of their own decadence.”

She added, “The button in me that got pushed by writing this was a great sadness and rage that so much is falling apart... All the bonds of fellowship and society are weakening, and I really don’t know if human beings can survive with nothing but On Demand entertainment.” That Freed’s sadness and rage spurred a riotously funny comedy is par for the course for this playwright.

Monster Builder
Danny Scheie, Susannah Schulman Rogers, Gareth Williams, Colette Kilroy and Aubrey Deeker in ​The ​Monster Builder.

The Monster Builder
(Pacific Playwrights Festival Reading, 2010, titled Right to the Top)

The plot of Freed’s satirical comedy, The Monster Builder, hinges on the fate of a decaying boathouse, hidden away in a city park. The city planners are of a mind to tear the old boathouse down, but Dieter and Rita, a husband-and-wife architect team with their own little boutique firm, have put forward a proposal to preserve it. They have in mind a respectful, restorative design that will retain all the vernacular charm and simple serenity of the original, while fortifying it and reclaiming it as a gathering place for the community.

Freed gives vent to her own dismay at some of the trends in contemporary architecture, and her sense that our cities are being despoiled by the work of today’s starchitects. “I try to bring these concerns into a language that’s theatrical, that’s fun, that’s a little outrageous,” said Freed, “to provoke discussion and reaction.” The reactions the play provokes are likely to range from hilarity to a kind of delighted horror.

The cast of SHREW! Photo by Debora Robinson.

(Workshopped and developed at the Pacific Playwrights Festival Reading, 2017; world premiere, Segerstrom Stage, 2018)

In 2014, Freed was among the 36 playwrights commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to write “translations” of all of Shakespeare’s plays. Freed asked for The Taming of the Shrew. But even before she’d finished that translation project, which had strict rules about what could and couldn’t be done, Freed made up her mind to write her own free adaptation of Shakespeare’s Shrew. She was convinced that if the mature Shakespeare had written the play, rather than that young playwright just learning his trade, he would have brought a different, more complex sensibility to the characters and their story. Freed’s take delves into Kate’s and Petruchio’s back stories. For Kate, it’s breaking free of the constraints on women of the late 16th century and enjoying all the rights and opportunities that men in her society enjoyed. For Petruchio, it’s a smoothing-out of his stock braggadocio with more complicated dimensions and creating in him a suitable spouse for Kate.

Theatre Times’ review called SHREW! “a triumph that is brilliant and innovative, all the while being respectful of Shakespeare. There is plenty of iambic pentameter and her textual innovations include some hilarious anachronisms. If you love Shakespeare and like to laugh, this is your show.”