TO THE SEA is a collaboration conceived by Joe Schwarz and commissioned by Players by the Sea as a part of the Year of the River in partnership with the Cummer, where the 45-minute piece will be performed by three actors (Ricky Watson, David Gile, Ben Ketchum) the evening of Wednesday, October 21 under Jason Collins' direction. Players By The Sea has been a very active and conscientious part of the drive to bring original theatre to Jville Audiences. Check out how it happened after the Jump
Jim Alibiso and the playwright, Kelby Siddons
This January, I was backstage at Players by the Sea in Jacksonville Beach, preparing for a run of Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde. As I pinned my ascot into place, executive producer Joe Schwarz paused by the costume rack. He was catalyzing his next great collaboration, and this one would involve me in my favorite role – playwright. (Players by the Sea has bolstered local writers’ processes exponentially in recent years; both Joe and Holly Gutshall were instrumental in making Olivia Gowan’s Cotton Alley part of the theater’s mainstage 2015-2016 season.)
“You have to meet my friend Jim,” Joe said.
He meant Jim Alabiso, one of the First Coast’s most visible advocates for the St. John’s River. Jim has traversed the River solo many times and organizes similar recreation for other swimmers and river-seekers through his advocacy group, JumpingFish. “His story is just incredible. It should definitely be a play, and this being the Year of the River, it’s time. We’re already talking to the Cummer about it; it’s going to be great.”
After he and Joe discussed the project, Jim named the project for the Facebook status he uses to commemorate each sunrise ocean swim: To the Sea.
Jim Alabiso and Joe Schwartz
I loved the title. I collect titles like a magpie; they’re seeds of plays. But this project provided more than a seed, it also provided – aptly – plenty of water through my conversations with Jim.
The prospect of spinning someone else’s life into a script was both exciting and unnerving. (What if he hates it?) But my initial meeting with Jim reassured me.
Jim is a writer, storyteller, and entertainer himself, as well as someone who has meditated significantly on the lives he’s led growing up in New Jersey, cleaning up Northwest oil spills, training up to swim the St. John’s.
He has clarity.
He recognizes the parallels and the motifs, the demi-climaxes and turning points. He knows the story is less about any one man, and more about Man and Nature, hurt and healing.
As his tale drew to a close, I had a moment of clarity, too, and pitched his story back to him as theater: “Three characters onstage. A boy, a man, and a swimmer. They are in different places and times, they don’t see each other, but their monologues weave in and out of one another, reflect one another. And in the final moment…”
I already knew how it ended. The clarity was catching.
I wrote on-and-off over the summer, returning often to the notes I’d transcribed from more meetings with Jim, letters and photographs he’d shared, articles he’d written, trying to tap into his voice, inevitably melding it with mine as I strove to live up to Joe’s idea.
I stalled, I restarted.
I wrote all three characters interrupting each other from the top, then each of the characters separately, then quilted it together, paused, polished. This month, I sat in a room with Jim as the play was read.
Neither of us had a printed script in front of us; we just listened as our cohorts in the Groundling Scribes – a script development collective – read the parts aloud and scratched notes lightly in the margins.
Near the end of the hour-long read, when I dared to look up, Jim was smiling and shaking his head. “Wow,” he said. “You got it.”
I breathed again. Afterward, Jim asked how I guessed about this-and-this, or how I knew about such-and-such, as if it were magic. The truth was simply that he’d told me, and I’d been grateful. I am a magpie for more than just titles.
It is with additional gratitude I can announce a new branch of collaborators to continue what Joe started.
Longtime Jacksonville actor and director Jason Collins will direct actors David Gile (Swimmer), Ricky Watson (Man), and Ben Ketchum (Boy). The world premiere production will be Wednesday, October 21st at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens.
For further information, please find us on Facebook, on the To the Sea project page as well as via Players by the Sea (playersbythesea.org) and the Cummer (cummermuseum.org).
Kelby Siddons has lived in Jacksonville since second grade. She studied playwriting at Northwestern University (’10). Beyond the River City, her work has been on stages in New York (Manhattan Theater Club), Milwaukee (the Rep), Chicago, and Houston.