Interview With…Crystal Skillman

We chatted to Crystal about her play Rain and Zoe Save the World, playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre from the 10th February.

Hi Crystal, for those who don’t know what is Rain & Zoe Save the World about? The play is about two teenage climate activists in America who take off from the west coast (Washington state) on a heart palpitating motorcycle mission to join a group of oil protesters on the East Coast. The goal is to join the movement, but Zoe is also convinced her mother who she hasn’t seen in years, will be there. We encounter the journey as Rain and Zoe do – meeting everything from overzealously hooting owls, to following the moon in the night sky. In the piece, we really get into Rain and Zoe’s head, and their active imaginations really set the tone of our show. It’s probably one of my funniest plays in terms of its humour as it takes on the classic road trip genre, but the play’s true strength is how deeply it explores what it means to be a young activist, and what it means to grow up and navigate the tough choices our new everyday world presents to us and them. In this coming of age story, over these seven days we really are with Rain and Zoe as they navigate together the joys and troubles they face on this journey. 

How did the idea for the play come about? While Trump (or “He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named” as I call him) was running for election, I had been working on a play that digs into my personal family history that was a “road trip” play. My parents “ran away” on a motorcycle together; we made a cross country trip across the country in seven days that affected me when I was young; a version of my actual dad called “Bike Dad” appears in the play… honestly most of the dialogue in those scenes are from our conversations. The story dives into how Zoe emulates her mom who was a controversial activist, and much of my own experience with my own mother is in there too. I teach writing at high schools, and writing the voices of Rain and Zoe, while heightened a bit, felt so natural to me (and I was sure to share with my teens for feedback).  At the same time I was becoming greatly moved by the climate crisis movement, and those civilians who were leaving their homes or former jobs to dedicate themselves to this work. My cousin-in-law is Ken Ward (the documentary The Reluctant Radical is about his work), who stopped a coal barge in Rhode Island using the self defence of the earth. When the play was read at a theatre conference in the heartland of America, and I suspect there were even a few climate crisis deniers in the audience, and the entire room wept at the end of the play, I realised how powerful the play was. 

How does it feel to be bringing the play to the Jermyn Street Theatre?  It feels so new and yet so like home to me. As a “downtown baby”, I’ve worked at intimate spaces in the heart of mid-town (my play Open, at the recent 2021 Edinburgh Fringe) premiered at the Tank in New York. I feel the choice of a theatre greatly effects the theatrical experience, and to hear that Artistic Director Tom Littler and the entire Jermyn Street team were so passionate about the piece, and saw the merit of its conversion as well for London audiences, was thrilling for us, as it really is the perfect venue. For me, the intimacy of this space in the West End so reflects the spirit of the play which is an epic theatrical adventure in a space where you really feel a part of the journey. Did I mention we are forming a whole motorcycle theatrically on stage formed by the actors that literally breathes and moves on stage?!

What would you like for audiences to take away from Rain & Zoe Save the World? Zoe talks about connection in the play, and that’s the key. How can we accept the insurmountable, intense, obstacles we are up against in this crisis, and how can we begin to make the work to fight this crisis a part of our every day lives without it being overwhelming? The secret, to me, is none of us are alone. It’s also very important, especially when we’re theatre making at a crucial time politically and environmentally in the world, and as we return to the theatre after such a difficult time, that we dive into pieces that are not theatre for theatre’s sake, but have a strong call to action. Our whole team is united in this mission. I encourage you to follow actor Jordan Benjamin, playing Rain, who is actually doing a 30 day climate change challenge on Instagram and his videos are very impactful (and hilarious!).  @j0rdan_benjamin. Or you can find them on our account @rainandzoesavetheworld. 

Could you tell us a bit more what you consider the main themes of the play to be?  The Climate crisis, intergenerational activism, animal conservation, grief and loss, coming of age, the environmental moment, Gen Z activists, standing up for what you believe in, burnout, the denial of climate change, and family values. 

How has it been watching your play transform from being on a page to now becoming a production?  It has been such a gift. The play has had several new play development opportunities and won several prizes (like the Earth Matters on Stage prize), but development was always around a table or at music stands. I had always wanted the bike to be formed by our two players in the play who play all the characters Rain and Zoe met on their journey. A big question in moving towards production was how that could happen. The piece stays true to a real experience of a road trip (storms, crashes, etc). Director Hersh Ellis, who I started doing readings with three years ago, had a particular vision of how the motorcycle could work, which felt so right. With our creative producers Drew and Dane Productions, our beautiful underscoring by my frequent collaborator Bobby Cronin, now a team of inventive designers… and most importantly these incredible actors … this theatrical piece is coming together in ways that is beyond my wildest dreams. 

What are you most looking forward to about audiences experiencing this play live?  The play is meant to connect by using the power of a live experience to tell this timely story. It’s an especially moving play to see now that we’ve returned to theatre going in the past few months, as it has a surprising ending for the audience (which I saw work for the first time in the heartland of America). Our whole team can’t wait to share this ride with a larger audience. 

By Emma Clarendon

Rain and Zoe Save the World will play at the Jermyn Street Theatre from the 10th February until the 12th March.

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