Playwright and novelist Joy McCullough observes a rehearsal for a previous production of her play, 'Blood Water Paint'. Photo by Joe Iano.

5 Questions with Playwright & Novelist Joy McCullough

Before Blood Water Paint became a bestselling novel it was written as a play, one which imagines the great 17th century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi in her studio, interacting with the apocryphal subjects who inspired her. Macha Theatre Works’ production of Blood Water Paint, staged with aerialists in key roles of Gentileschi’s muses, opens this Friday at 12th Avenue Arts. 

After sitting in on a rehearsal in the aerialists’ studio, NWTheatre talked with the playwright, Joy McCullough, about her inspiration and research process, reworking the play into a young adult novel, and artistic trust with director Amy Poisson in working on this and other productions.

Interview content is condensed and edited for clarity.

 

You’ve talked about this idea starting with a passing reference to Artemisia Gentileschi in a Margaret Atwood novel. Where did your research take you from there? And how much of it is direct fact, versus “inspired by,” versus filled in by imagination? 

My initial discovery of Artemisia Gentileschi was way back in 2001. There has been more scholarship on her since then, but at the time, my main resource was a book titled Artemisia Gentileschi by Mary D. Garrard, which includes many full color reproductions of her work, as well as the art historical context on the work, and most importantly to me, a complete transcript of the trial of her rapist. That was a treasure trove of information, not only about the attack, but also her day-to-day life.

It’s difficult to delineate fact from invention, partly because the bulk of the research was done so long ago, but also because after I’ve laid a foundation of factual knowledge, I try to let it be just that — a foundation. I build the play or novel on top of that foundation. I want the facts to support the story, but the design of the house is up to me. That said,the play is built on a very strong foundation of facts about Artemisia’s life and work and the circumstances of a woman painting in that time.

And is there anything that’s helpful for audience members to know about Gentileschi’s story going into the play? 

Aside from a trigger warning for sexual assault, I don’t think audience members need to know anything going into the play. If we’ve done our jobs correctly, everything they need will unfold on stage. And if they’re inspired to know more after the play, I’ve heard there’s a pretty decent book on the subject.

 

Your play and book are both deeply connected to Gentileschi’s works. Did you have a connection to painting? What did you discover about her process or her works? 

Bianca Raso as Artmesia Gentileschi, in rehearsal for Macha Theatre Works’ production of ‘Blood Water Paint’. Photo by Joe Iano.

I don’t have a background in painting or any fine arts, and I don’t think I found anything specific to Artemisia’s process in my research. What I connected to was her passion and her determination to tell these stories in her way. I didn’t need to understand the process of oil painting to tap into that. In writing and researching the play, I didn’t need to understand much of that process at all, because I could simply write a stage direction that said, “She paints.” The rest was up to the actor and director.

I’m not a fine art connoisseur and the artist’s personal story will also be wildly more compelling to me than the brushstrokes or use of light or composition of a painting. With Artemisia’s work, her personal story is often inextricable from what she puts on the canvas, and that’s what I’m drawn to explore in her art.

I actually did a lot more research on 17th century painting process and technique when it came to writing the book, because I had to do more description of the process and the studio and I couldn’t rely on an ensemble of theater artists to help me.

 

What led you to transform the script into a book?  

The play originally had its world premiere with Live Girls Theater at Theater Off Jackson in 2015. At the time, we discussed whether we should make an age recommendation for the audience, since there was brief nudity. I believe we decided on 14+, but it got me thinking how much I really wished young people could have access to Artemisia’s story. I knew the reach of one production would be small, and at that point I was not yet published but had been working on fiction for a number of years, so I started to play with the idea of adapting the play into a young adult novel.

Writing a novel is always a huge undertaking, but part of me thought adapting it would be a fairly straight-forward process. In fiction, plot is always my biggest challenge, and here I already had the plot in place! Only it turns out that writing a play is entirely external – I write only dialogue and occasional stage action. Certainly I consider the internal, but I don’t have to articulate it. And novels in verse, which is the form the book takes, are deeply internal with minimal dialogue. So while I had the plot in place and knew the world and characters well, adapting it into a novel was a process of really getting inside Artemisia in a way I hadn’t before.

 

How did your artistic relationship with Amy Poisson develop? And what can you reveal about your next projects? 

I have Live Girls! Theater’s artistic director Meghan Arnette to thank for my relationship with Amy. Meghan paired us together for a reading of Blood Water Paint in 2014. I was wary of another reading of the play, because so often new play readings do not lead to productions. But as soon as I met Amy, I knew there would be a production. She is a force and she had a vision for my play from the first meeting.

After Blood Water Paint premiered at Live Girls!, Amy became artistic director of Macha Theatre Works, and together we did another historical world premiere, my play Smoke & Dust, which is about Italian composer Barabra Strozzi. Barbara was played by Bianca Raso, who now plays Artemisia in the Blood Water Paint remount.

As for new projects … well, I’ve had the concept for my next play with Amy in mind since Smoke & Dust closed. Whenever one play ends, my principal motivation to write a new one is to get back in a room with Amy. But when she decided to remount Blood Water Paint, I set the new play on a back burner, because my fiction life is very full these days. In that arena, I have a novel for younger readers coming out in April called A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and a second not-yet-titled novel for teens coming in 2021, which is also about a feminist historical figure.

 

What were your thoughts when you learned that Poisson would be bringing aerialists into the mix for the show?  

Amy had the vision for aerialists since before the Live Girls! production, but we could not find a space to accommodate the silks. When she told me she wanted to produce the show through Macha, including the silks was a primary reason to mount it again. The script hasn’t changed at all, but Amy has made it an entirely new production.

I didn’t understand the concept of the silks when Amy first told me. Her excitement was infectious and I was willing to give it a try, but I wasn’t disappointed when it didn’t work out. This time around, though, we’re on our third production together. I trust Amy’s artistic vision implicitly and if she’d told me she wanted to tell this story with hip-hop clowns on roller skates, I would have been on board (probably). From what I’ve seen so far, the aerial element is amazing.

 

Bonus question: You wrote for 14/48: The World’s Quickest Theatre Festival just recently, as Blood Water Paint rehearsals were happening. How was the experience of being a 14/48 playwright? Are there particular doubts that it piques, or strengths that it plays on?

I love 14/48 and was delighted to participate in the August festival. It was my sixth time participating as a writer, though it had been a number of years since the last time I did it. Publishing books can be a frustratingly slow endeavor. New play development is often similar. So 14/48 offers a wonderful chance to exercise different muscles. Playwrights are required to make bold choices and dive in without a ton of pontificating. There simply isn’t time, and amazing things can bloom under that pressure.


Blood Water Paint opens Friday 9/13 and runs through 10/6 at 12th Avenue Arts on Capitol Hill (with a pay-what-you-can preview on Wednesday 9/11). Tickets $25, available hereFor showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall, with one nearby gender-neutral, single-stall restroom available by key code. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible. Blood Water Paint the book, quite different from the play script, is available at the major booksellers and libraries.

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.