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By Brian Robin

What “The Call” Meant One Year Later

SCR Artistic/Audience Engagement Associate H. Adam Harris brings you the story behind Eleanor Burgess’ Galilee, 34 in this video. 

Eleanor Burgess remembers where she was when she got “The Call.” She was in “the little glass box of an office” she rents in the trendy Gowanus section of Brooklyn. On the other end of the Zoom, coming to Burgess from three time zones and 3,000 miles away, were SCR Artistic Director David Ivers and Andy Knight, the Director of The Lab@SCR.

“Andy told me we were going to ‘debrief the festival.’ His way of being diplomatic,” Burgess said, referring to the 2023 Pacific Playwrights Festival reading of her Galilee, 34. “Two sentences in, David said, ‘We’d like to program Galilee, 34.’ I started grinning and probably talking like a fool because I was just thrilled.

“SCR is a place I’ve always dreamed of working at and for most writers, it is a dream theatre and a dream phone call to get.”

Starting April 21, the fruits of Burgess’ now-4-year-old project blossom on the Julianne Argyros Stage, when Galilee, 34 makes it world premiere. It runs through May 12.

Galilee, 34 highlights one of the most famous stories in history with wit and intelligence. The healer from Nazareth is dead—and his followers are determined to keep sharing his message. The problem is the Roman Empire wants them out of the picture. And they don’t have a leader. And they can’t quite agree on exactly what that message is. Burgess takes us back to the start of a world-changing movement for a deeply personal look at those who made it happen.

When we interviewed Burgess this time last year, she was eagerly anticipating Galilee, 34’s reading at the Pacific Playwrights Festival. It was the final play in the lineup, playing to a Sunday morning audience, and Burgess literally had no idea what to expect.

“The Pacific Playwrights Festival was such a seminal moment in the development of this play. It was the first time I ever heard this play in front of an audience,” she said. “When you’re writing a play that is funny, but dealing with huge topics that are complicated and emotional and full of history and context, with a cast of eight characters who are bunched together on stage with agendas and personalities, the fundamental questions are, is the audience following this? Are they understanding it? Are they feeling the gut punches and twists? Are they laughing at the jokes and the humor?

“You don’t know until you hear it in front of an audience whether it speaks to people.”

Galilee, 34 spoke loudly and clearly. Burgess emerged from the reading to hear audience members rhapsodizing about the funny, clever way she told the story. One man could be overheard telling his wife, “I want to see this again for real.”

Now audiences can see it for real, with director Davis McCallum at the controls and seasoned actors such as Eric Berryman, Amy Brenneman, Christopher Cruz, Teresa Avia Lim, Sharon Omi, Benjamin Peltesen, Jeremy Rabb and Raviv Ullman in the cast.

What has Burgess done to her opus in the past year? What lessons did she take away that she could incorporate into her work?

“The biggest thing I learned is things were working. People could follow the arguments and laugh at the humor,” she said. “That allowed me to keep things that were working, because the one thing you don’t want to do is a massive rewrite.

“Something I learned in the reading is where we needed an earlier touchstone for different characters. It’s an exciting challenge for audiences to really follow five or six characters as they each go on their own individual journey with these events. I was able to spot during the reading places where I wanted more from a particular character. We don’t get to hear this character’s opinion until this many pages in. I want to hear from this person earlier and I’m not hearing it right now. That was my biggest takeaway.”

One element over the last year that Burgess was able to dial back was her penchant for research. A former high school history teacher, Burgess spent three years writing Galilee, 34—much of that coming through a meticulous attention to detail. She researched Jewish and Christian theology—calling somewhat on her background being raised in a half-Jewish, half-Catholic home—the Roman Empire, the history of the Kingdom of Judea and the daily life of the denizens of ancient Judea in the first century CE. Burgess said Galilee, 34 was the slowest first draft she ever wrote. It took her nearly a year, with a break courtesy of the pandemic and giving birth. But there was a part where she ran into a research roadblock on the Resurrection and couldn’t keep writing until she got past it.

Now, dramaturg Charles Haugland, who Burgess previously worked with, is on hand to pick up the research pieces. Burgess can finally back away from the library, understand that—as she put it—“there are enough books out there about this subject that you could write a 30-day play and not be done…” and flesh out her already well-developed characters more fully.

“You’re never going to tell every story and you’re never going to get every fact in there,” she said. “Some of the central facts are disputed. At some point, I had to stop trying to get in what really happened and say this is imaginary, a what-if. An imaginary story inspired by real events. In the end, my job is to tell this imaginary story in a powerful way.”

“I had a clear sense of each of these characters from the jump because they all represented different parts of me and my worldview. In my head, I had a clear worldview of them, but getting that on the page was the thing I had to focus on.”

But Burgess can’t completely stay out of the library. Since she watched Galilee, 34charm the audience at the Pacific Playwrights Festival last spring, she’s begun work on a new play, written a screenplay for Amblin Entertainment and begun work on her first Young Adult novel.

“I’m pretty busy touching on themes of history and how the present and the past interface,” she said, about the novel. “That’s an obsession I can’t let go of. How the past is full of really human people. We have a tendency to make the past into something foreign or mythologize the people or make them strange or totally alien to us. I think the past is very real and human and alive and not so foreign after all. I think that conviction drives a lot of my writing.”

About the author

South Coast Repertory

South Coast Repertory is a Tony Award-winning theatre is known for producing classics, contemporary hits and world premieres, for having the largest new-play development program in the nation and for advancing the art of theatre in service to the community. 

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