Professor combines environmental themes in new play

James Kennedy

With experience in play-writing, acting and directing, Johnston Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre Jimmy Maize will bring his expertise to the latest Harper Joy Theatre production, “John Muir Wolf,” for which he wrote the script. Drawing upon the folklore and recent events of the Pacific Northwest, Maize hopes this latest production will convey his admiration for the wilderness and theater.

Photo by Annabelle Marcovici.
Photo by Annabelle Marcovici.

A Whitman alumnus, Maize’s first successful play premiered on campus in 2002. After winning the David Nord Award for Gay and Lesbian Studies, Maize was able to fund a tour of the United States interviewing young gay and lesbian individuals under the age of 25. Inspired by those interviews, Maize wrote the documentary play “In One Room”, which was a hit at Whitman and later premiered in theaters in Chicago and New York.

“That play not only ended up having a successful premier in April of 2002, but Whitman college opted to do it every year for its opening week activities for about 7 or 8 years after that,” said Maize.

Since the success of his first play, Maize has written, adapted and directed several other plays. One notable play he wrote is Burn the End, a punk-rock musical about French poet Arthur Rimbaud.

While working with Tectonic Theatre Project in New York, Maize began using the “moment work” style of playwriting. This style of writing creates a fluid, constantly changing script that reflects the input of the actors and production crew. Maize used moment work to write “John Muir Wolf,” finalizing the script about two and half weeks before the premier, so Whitman students working on the play had a large say in the shape of the script.

“It’s the way I love working, and [the students have] had a great time,” said Maize.

The play itself is a combination of two stories. The first is of John Muir, a Scottish-American naturalist that immigrated to the Midwest before traveling to California, where he found spirituality in nature and became a staunch advocate for wilderness preservation. Muir had many notable accomplishments during his life, including the drafting of conservation bills with President Theodore Roosevelt in Yosemite, but Maize wanted to focus on the earlier, exploratory part of his life.

“I wanted to tell that specific part of his life around the 1870s when he decided to come off the mountain, so to speak,” said Maize.

Central to this story is the relationship between Muir and his mentor Jeanne Carr. Carr was a married woman with whom Muir exchanged letters and shared an intimate spiritual connection. On a thematic level, the play is about the sacrifices Muir makes in order to promote the greater good of nature and God. Maize is inspired by Muir’s dedication to these concepts. Spending so much time in New York City, he felt separated from the wilderness and admired Muir’s journey to protect that wilderness.

“Being so removed from the nature I grew up in, I wanted to tell a story about someone who went into nature but then made a compromise in his life and chose to move back to civilization in order to accomplish some of his greatest work, to write his books and advocate on the behalf of wild spaces to launch our conservation mindset,” said Maize.

The second component of the story is of OR-7 or “Journey,” a wolf from the Wallowas that left its pack and became the first wolf seen west of the Cascades since the 1940s. Fitted with a radio collar, the wolf made headlines in 2011 as people were able to track its trek across the Western US. Maize saw overlap between the sacrifices Muir and Journey make, so both of their adventures will overlap and intertwine throughout the play.

“For me it was … a nuanced story about when someone decides to give up everything they love so much and have a connection with a deep spirituality,” said Maize.

Maize began research for the play in 2012 and wrote much of it over a brainstorming session in the Connecticut wilderness during February 2013. When he began teaching at Whitman as a visiting professor in 2014, he picked the play up again due to interest within the Theatre Department, and the play will finally be performed Nov. 12-15 at the Harper Joy Theatre.

“It seemed a really good fit for Whitman and the students, especially since it’s also partly a local story,” said Maize.

For aspiring playwrights, perhaps those contributing to the upcoming One Acts Festival, Maize advises to let ideas germinate, and not to rush the process. He believes that youth is a good time to experiment with form, rather than restrict oneself to comedies with small casts as most student writers to do. But above all, you should always write from a place of passion.

“Write about what you love, not necessarily what you know,” said Maize. “There is a great deal of adventure in playwriting using acting and using theater as bridge to the other, to the unknown experience.”

Photo by Annabelle Marcovici.
Photo by Annabelle Marcovici.