Shop Talk: Jim DeVita on 'An Improbable Fiction'

Posted May 19, 2021

Aif Rehearsal

You likely know Jim DeVita. He's acted on at least one APT stage nearly every year since he played Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. And in just over a week, he'll be premiering his latest writing venture on the Hill stage with An Improbable Fiction (seen above in rehearsal, with Brian Mani, Ronald Román Meléndez and Tracy Michelle Arnold).

Jim was gracious enough to share some thoughts on An Improbable Fiction, and we in turn would like to share them with you! And don't forget to buy your tickets to this world premiere while you can.

Notes On An Improbable Fiction

By Jim DeVita

The idea for this play came about in the very early days of the COVID pandemic. I had absolutely no desire to write about anything in those first few months. The world had turned topsy-turvy: the theater industry had shut down, we'd lost our jobs, our incomes and a plague was overtaking our country. I was feeling lost and lazy and depressed, and also feeling guilty for feeling lost and lazy and depressed. I knew I should be writing, but I had no energy or inspiration to do so.

Then someone sent me a link to a magazine article. It was a story about how much writing Shakespeare had accomplished during the plague years of his time. His theaters had also been closed, but of course—Will being Will—he'd used the time write King Lear and Macbeth, for god’s sake.

Far from this article being inspiring—I’m embarrassed to say—it just pissed me off. I was dour and dark, and all I could think was, “Stop shaming me by telling me about all the great things a genius like Shakespeare accomplished during a 16th-century plague, okay?! Leave me alone. I’m not a genius, I'm depressed, and I’d like to stay that way, thank you very much. Our industry is gone, I’m unemployed for the foreseeable future, my friends are losing their apartments and struggling to buy groceries, cities are erupting in protests—why the hell would I write a play? Who would want to see a play that had anything to do with these times anyway?

“You know what I should write?!” I continued, still very pissy. “A story about a bunch of actors, like us, out of work, that’s what I should write about. Or—no, no—wait, I’ve got it! Not actors, but a bunch of characters from plays that can’t be acted any longer. Wait, even better, Shakespearean characters, like Falstaff and Mistress Quickly—yeah—and they’re stuck in a bar somewhere—stuck in the goddamn Boar’s Head Tavern—out of work, and struggling with the same issues we’re all struggling with, and they’re driving each other a little crazy because they’ve been cooped up together for so long, and—oh, just forget it! I’m not writing anything to make me feel more depressed than I am feeling right now. So, leave me alone. I’m going to have another cocktail far too early in the day than I should be having another cocktail.”

I dismissed the idea and made myself a rye Manhattan.

The next morning, though . . . the idea was still there, lingering over in the corner . . .

Falstaff, sitting in a bar.


And that was the beginning of the play. What would Falstaff do during the plague if he couldn’t be with his companions? This man who embodied the Shakespearean adage, “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come!” This lover of good friends, good food and drink, and joy, and humor, and pranks? What would he do without Pistol and Poins to tease and carouse with? Without Bardolph, Nym and Pistol? What would happen if he wasn’t able to cavort with Prince Hal and laugh out these difficult times together?

Hmm . . . there could be something there.

Still, I wasn’t completely convinced about the idea.

Then I remembered something I had read while working on Dickens in America, a one-man show I had written about Charles Dickens. It was a quote by his son, speaking about his father's writing habits:

“He lived, I am sure, two lives, one with us and one with his fictitious people, and I am equally certain that the children of his brain were much more real to him at times than we were. I have, often and often, heard him complain that he could not get the people of his imagination to do what he wanted, and that they would insist on working out their histories in their way and not his."

And that was the real inspiration for me: I would write, in effect, Shakespeare’s Dream. I would write a dream that Shakespeare was having during the plague, a dream in which his characters would dare to alter the great Author's text and “work out their histories in their way and not his.”

This was the improbable fiction on which I'd hang the tale.

Crazy, I know. But there it is.

The lion’s share of the dialogue in the play is made up of Shakespeare’s own words. Culled and cannibalized from nearly all of his plays, I used many of them verbatim (in different contexts), but also adapted them, turned them on their heads, twisted them inside out, and reassigned them into the mouths of other characters from his plays. I also adapted language from archaic texts: 14th-century writings by Petrarch on the plague (which literally sounds like today’s news); Samuel Pepys diaries (1665), Thomas Dekker’s accounts of the plague (1603); and documents from the UK National Archives on the Great Plague, of which there are legions.

I started out to write a comedy. The first few drafts, therefore, did not dive very deeply into the darker happenings outside the world of The Boar’s Head Tavern, into the reality of what was happening to London's population at that time: the struggles of the poor and under-represented; how those in power had abandoned the populace; how scores of the population ignored the curfews and laws against large gatherings, further exacerbating the spread of the disease (see Pepys diaries and UK National Archives on the Great Plague). How could I include social context like this in a comedy?

Many months later, however, when I began to work on subsequent drafts, our country had lost more than half a million people to the pandemic, our Capital had been attacked, and cities were aflame with a generation fighting for equity and justice.

Life-altering events such as these literally change the words that come to mind while writing. The “little people,” as R.L. Stevenson called them—or the muses, or the imagination—actually choose different nouns, different verbs; words that are more appropriate to the larger context of the life one is experiencing. The palette darkens, because the world has. Were I to ignore this, the play would be a lie. Yes, even within this funny, metaphysical, dream-like, improbable fiction . . . it would be a lie.

So I decided then that I would write a comedy, mostly. The final draft was, like all of us, greatly altered by the events of 2020-2021.

I tried to write a story that would be joyful and funny and loving and hurtful and maddening and heartbreaking and bewildering—as 2020 and beyond has been for so many of us—and I tried to write a story that, in the end, would be hopeful. For as Mistress Quickly reminds us in the play:

“When time shall serve, there will be smiles again.”