roberto-headshotRoberto is a playwright (American Psycho, Say You Love Satan, The Muckle Man), screenwriter (Carrie, Glee, and the upcoming Riverdale), and comic book writer (Fantastic Four, Afterlife with Archie). He is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and the Chief Creative Officer of Archie Comics.

Did you always know you wanted to include supernatural elements in this story?

That element of the piece evolved as I was working on it. At first I was surprised when it started going that way, but I don’t know why, because often my plays start in a realistic world and then, at the fringes, supernatural or genre elements start creeping in—ghosts, aliens, sea monsters—so in a way, I shouldn’t have been so surprised when the devil walked in to Abigail/1702.

What made you say “I’ve got to write this play?”

Abigail/1702 came out of two impulses. The first is my deep, abiding love of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Years ago, I was doing a play at Steppenwolf, and I was watching their production of The Crucible, and I was reminded what a great play it is. In the lobby afterwards, they were selling copies of Miller’s script with his annotations, and there was a section in the back detailing the historical people the play is based on. At the end, there was a single sentence about Abigail that read something like: “Legend has it Abigail turned up years later in Boston as a harlot.” I read that sentence, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I thought, “That’s a play.”

The second impulse, which flowed from that revelation, was how drawn I was to the character of Abigail, who is an agent of chaos in The Crucible, but then leaves suddenly and you don’t know what happens to her. I wanted to take one of the most irredeemable characters in theatre, up there with Iago, and try to redeem her.

Jon Kovach, Rachel Napoleon, and Mark Kincaid in Abigail/1702. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Did you take on any research while writing?

When I started writing Abigail/1702, I thought it was going to be a history play. I did a lot of research about the Salem Witch Trials, Puritan life and religion, and the way women functioned and lived in that society. I researched everything from the pirates of that time, to smallpox, to Samuel Sewall’s public apology to the young nation about his role in the Trials, which galvanized me. I read about Arthur Miller’s writing of The Crucible, and the real people he based his characters on. When I’m writing, I often like to expose myself to works of art that are of the same world, so I started reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories. He wrote two, “The Minister’s Black Veil” and “Young Goodman Brown,” that both featured the devil as a character. When I read them, something clicked, and I realized that I wasn’t writing a history play, but a ghost story. The play is a Gothic folk tale set in the New England woods.


Both Arthur Miller and Nathaniel Hawthorne influenced Sacasa’s writing.

Were there places you felt you wanted to fill in gaps in the history?

When I was younger I used to confuse The Crucible with historical fact. In high school, when I studied the Salem Witch Trials in history class and The Crucible in English class, I thought they were one and the same. It was only later I found out that Miller had taken huge liberties in writing that play. So for this piece, it was less about finding historical gaps than just giving myself permission to use artistic license, to allow myself to tweak events. Like Miller’s play, Abigail/1702 is not purported to be historical fact, because I changed things as well.

You’ve done a lot of horror writing – does that genre excite you? Do you see this as a horror story?

Of course horror excites me. Those are the movies I like to see, the stories I like to read. A lot of my plays flirt with horror. With Abigail/1702, there’s a way this play could have easily been a psychological horror story, a character study about the way this woman was tormented by metaphorical ghosts—her guilty conscience—but of course it becomes a real ghost story, and she is pursued by a physical embodiment of the devil.

When I first turned in this play, a lot of people commented about how happy they were to read a play of mine that didn’t have supernatural elements… and then they got to the scene with the devil. Ultimately, this is a much woollier play for all of its horror elements, and I love it that much more for them.

Jon Kovach, Mark Kincaid, and Rachel Napoleon in Abigail/1702. Photo by Meghan Moore.

What’s it like to write a play, versus a comic book?

The mediums are totally different. Plays are alive, they happen with living, real human bodies that are constantly in motion. Even if the character is being still, they’re existing, right in front of your eyes. In comics, they’re frozen images and your imagination fills in the blanks. There are common elements in all of my writing: I like twists and surprises, with muscular, genre storytelling.

If someone were to sit down and read all of my work, from the stage, to comic books, to television and film, I think they’d see recurring themes and motifs. For instance, I’ve written Archie comic books, an Archie play, and now I’m working on an Archie TV show, and while I’ve been able to explore different sides of those characters through each medium, many of the core themes remain the same.

Why do you write for the stage?

Early on I was just drawn to it, especially to the people who work in theater. I felt like they were my tribe, as people like to say. When I do it, I do it just for me. Even now, when I spend much of my time working in television, with every new story that pops into my head, I always think of it as a play first.


Abigail/1702 runs October 12 – November 6 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.




Ground plan for Abigail/1702


James J. Fenton is a nationally celebrated scenic designer whose productions at MRT have included The Outgoing Tide, The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith, and Mrs. Mannerly.

What was your starting point for the physical world of the play?

I found that this story begins and ends in the Circle in the Woods – and this also provides a ceremonial location for the set to evolve from, a place of protection, mystery, danger and redemption. An emotional, psychological, and physical sphere that has surrounded Abigail her entire life. A place where she goes to hide and then to be free.

The original “thumbnail sketch” of Abigail/1702.

As with The Outgoing Tide, this play is set in real-world locations that are always shifting. What special challenges does that create?

I have attempted to free myself of absolutes insofar as any given location. Abigail seems to slip in and out of a natural chronology in time and space as she reflects on her life throughout the story.  I found that visually overlaying her Circle in the Woods (trees, garden, path, and moon) with the interior elements of her home (bed, fireplace, chairs, and floor) helped me to believe that things are not so strictly defined. It creates one of those arcane locations that I find hiking through the forest, where an ancient structure has been re-taken by nature. Something forgotten waiting to tell its tale again.

Developed sketch of “Abigail/1702”

Sean has called you a “master of theatrical realism” in reference to your attention to detail. What details give this set its character?

That’s really quite humbling. I would say I indulge in a certain obsession over the use and treatment of real materials that bring their own textural integrity. Rather than affecting surfaces with overtly scenic paint treatments I try to choose substances that come with their own historic or tactile realism. One example here is the naturally felled trees you see. Also, the prop master Brendan Conroy and I have worked very hard to seek out actual colonial artifacts for the furnishings, set dressing, and properties.

What were your favorite research findings for this project?

Obviously the period and historic location offer a rich and evocative palate to work with. The imagery and literature of Colonial Massachusetts can really transport you. Just simply walking through the woods in our immediate area helps immensely, but honestly it is Roberto’s words that really provided the key directions for me to look. The mood and consequence he provides heavily informed the content and atmosphere of the research, as well as his invocation of circular imagery. This led me towards more ephemeral art installations of natural materials like Andy Goldsworthy and the Land Art movement.



Research images of colonial homes, outside and in
Andy Goldsworthy’s “Oak Room,” a major inspiration for the set of Abigail/1702

What’s something you’re doing with this set that you’ve never done before?

Well this will be my first forest of real trees… hahaha!

The finished model for Abigail/1702

Why do you design for the stage?

That is a question I ask myself over and over again… Designing environments for performance was an inevitable destination. It is beyond just what I love to do, it is something I have always done. I love to tell and be told stories, so I absorb the emotional content of these fictions and develop ceremonial and expressionistic architecture that responds in both the historic and immediate context.

In other words I am a big nerd.

Learn more about James J. Fenton at https://jamesjayfenton.carbonmade.com

See Abigail/1702 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre: http://www.mrt.org/Abigail


45 Plays for 45 Presidents is a roller coaster ride.

As a cohort, I’ve had a blast attending a number of rehearsals and one show (so far.)   One of my biggest take-aways is that the five actors are agile in every sense of the word.

Veronika Duerr, Nael Nacer, and Celina Dean. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Mentally Agile:

During the rehearsal phase, the screenplay and stage directions were constantly being tweaked.   As the director and actors better understood the logistics of who enters where and what props and costume fixes are needed, lines and roles are swapped.  Dialog is added or deleted.  Stage directions are changed to tighten up the pace. Changes are made at such a dizzying pace, it made my head spin.  Seeing the final production on the main stage, I understood the result of all that tweaking is a tightly run performance with impeccable timing.  It’s poetry in motion—the kind of poetry that Shel Silverstein writes.

Terrell Donnell Sledge, Veronika Duerr, Aaron Munoz, Celina Dean, and Nael Nacer. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Physically Agile:

The actors dance, run, die, lift one another, fall down (a lot), jump rope, grab and move props and more.   This is a very physical show.  I wasn’t surprised to hear that Terrell hurt his ankle (he soldiered on).  I can picture the whole cast needing chiropractors by the end of each show.

Cleveland’s “Frenzied Romp:” Veronika Duerr, Aaron Munoz, Celina Dean, Nael Nacer, and Terrell Donnell Sledge. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Emotionally Agile:

This is what impressed me most of all.  To me, the biggest emotional contrast is the Grover Cleveland play and Abraham Lincoln play.  Grover Cleveland’s is frenzied romp in which all five actors dance and carouse while wearing children’s bright birthday party hats.  They act so goofy, I laugh out loud every time I see it.  In contrast, Abraham Lincoln’s play is a dramatic piece that–with a combination of startling facts, eerie rhythms and poignant singing–gives me goose bumps.

Audiences will feel like they’ve been on a roller coaster ride by the end of the play and come away with smiles and laughs as they process this crazy night at the theater that is 45 Plays for 45 Presidents.

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45 Plays for 45 Presidents runs through October 2.



1 – Artistic Director, Sean Daniels.

Artistic Director Sean Daniels. Photo by Meghan Moore

He’s out in front during rehearsals, watching everything and everyone. He is always looking at the big picture, thinking about the audience, the actors, and the overall presentation.

4 – The number of seasons this play has been produced.  The first play was 43 Plays for 43 Presidents, and the writers just keep adding plays, and modifying the existing ones as history unfolds.

5 – Very talented (and busy) actors: Celina Dean, Veronika Duerr, Aaron Munoz, Nael Nacer, and Terrell Donnell Sledge are needed to put on this production.

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Aaron Munoz, Terrell Donnell Sledge, Nael Nacer, Celina Dean, and Veronika Duerr. Photo by Meghan Moore.

This play is very physically demanding as well as mentally taxing.  If I had to play the role of a president whose politics I disagreed with, it would be a challenge; Imagine playing the role of several presidents whose politics were counter to yours!

5 is also the number of playwrights involved in the production of this play.  Andy Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Chloe Johnston, and Karen Weinberg collaborated on writing the script.

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Promotional art for the original Neo-Futurists production: Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Andy Bayiates, Karen Weinberg, Sean Benjamin, and Chloe Johnston.

For the first writing, I’m told they chose which plays to write by drawing names.  They collaborated on the more recent presidents, re-writing updates as history unfolds and opinions change.

12 – People behind the scenes, making sure the production runs smoothly, and everyone has what they need to be successful.  There is Danielle Zandri, who attends all the rehearsals, takes detailed notes, and plans the schedule for each day. At the end of each day, Danielle sends out a report with notes, changes, and/or additions required for Production/Facilities (Peter Crewe), Props (Brendan Conroy), Scenic (Michael Raiford, Scenic Designer and Patrick Storey, Stage Supervisor), Costumes (A. Lee Viliesis, Costume Designer),  Lighting & Sound/Music (Carter Miller, supervisor; Brian J. Lilienthal, Lighting Designer; Stowe Nelson, Sound Designer; and unique to this play: Ido Levran, Projection Designer and Josh Dean, Supplemental Audio Recorder). Choreographer Wendy Seyb works with actors on the dances, fight scenes, and other antics.   There are also the Administrative, Front of House, and Marketing issues to track, as well as script changes to track. Each night a report goes out, and minutes later, the emails start flying: confirming, clarifying, and communicating, to make sure everyone is on the same page.

23 – Additional MRT Staff, from Executive Director Elizabeth Kegley, to the 5 Apprentices and Interns who are the playwrights, directors, and designers of the future.

26 – Days between the first rehearsal and opening night. Which is…

139 – Hours of rehearsal time.  That isn’t really a lot of time when you think about just how much needs to go into a production like this.  I am continually amazed at the amount of effort that goes into this, in such a short span of time.



147 –  Different characters/rolls played by the 5 actors in the 45 different 2 minutes plays.  That’s A LOT of personality changes in just 120 minutes.

Veronika Duerr, Aaron Munoz, Celina Dean, Nael Nacer, and Terrell Donnell Sledge. Photo by Meghan Moore.

I encourage everyone to make the time to see this excellent play.  I’m sure you will enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed following its progression.  Opening night was tonight, September 10, 2016 and it runs through October 2nd.   You can purchase tickets online at http://www.mrt.org/box-office or by emailing box_office@mrt.org.

-Lisa Arnold, Cohort

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45 Plays for 45 Presidents runs through October 2.




SMOOTH AS SILK by Geoff Bryant

Veronika Duerr, Nael Nacer, and Celina Dean. Photo by Meghan Moore.

As I write this, I am excited to think that the cast and crew is getting ready for the first preview showing. That must be so exciting. Are they ready?

Well, I dropped in yesterday afternoon as they finished off the tech. I had stopped in the first day of tech which was quite interesting and this time was about the same. The surprise to me is that when they finished, they had a dress rehearsal that night and the first preview tonight.     I’m amazed at how short the time is from when the cast arrives to having everything worked out and then really one full dress rehearsal of the whole thing before the first audience.

The first time I was there for tech I watched the stage and what was going on for the cast and what the audience saw. There were tables behind me where lights, sound, and effects were worked but I didn’t really check it out. As I wrote I was impressed at how fast effects could be dropped in.    One problem that day was that the projector for the presidents wasn’t bright enough, so it was hard to see effects on there. This time, problem solved and it looked great.

One cool effect is seeing Terrell as George Washington behind the screen. He said he had room enough for 1 step, but he made it look like a real walk and created quite the effect of his silhouette on the screen.

This time I walked up the balcony to check out the tech folks. I expected boards with dimmers and buttons and such. They still do that at concerts after all. But there wasn’t a knob or slider to be seen. Laptops. All laptops. Tech is now high tech. Cool and sad at the same time. It did make sense though as to how they could be down in the seats working out cues  and such.

And back to the question – are they ready?  Well, many things were being worked out in doing the tech, so I doubted they could be ready. Well, tech finished, they took 10.

After the break, they started the play from the beginning. A couple of things to change in the initial trivia.

Ready? Well, then they started and did several presidents. Smooth as silk. Yeah, they’re ready…

Oh wait – can they double dutch? We’ll see…

-Geoff Bryant, Cohort


Veronika Duerr, Aaron Munoz, Celina Dean, Nael Nacer, and Terrell Donnell Sledge. Photo by Meghan Moore.

To start, WOW, quite amazing to see the whole come together at speed.

I must say, after seeing the first table reading to the first preview, I continue to be in awe of the work from the whole team that puts on a production. The design of the stage, the music, the lighting, the props, the costumes, the interaction with the audience.  So much effort and energy from so many contributors, with so many hidden from the audience but adding to the total experience.  Just amazing to get a chance to see some of the process.

Of course, I must admit having seen lots of the parts, I had the luxury of watching a lot of details that go with the show. I found myself watching how Veronika controlled the knife.  I watch as the flashlights were handed out and used, and how the clicks matched the dialog. Not what I hope the audience was noticing, but having watch the cast work on these items in rehearsal, it was a pleasure to see how this happened to make the main action work. In some ways like a great painter prepares a canvas before the main subject is added.  Of course the lighting, sound, and images added quite a lot to the production that I had no insight to when I watched the rehearsals. An energetic and inspiring production.

I hope the area rewards this production with a smashing attendance, since I think the show rewards all, with laughs, presidential facts, and a marvelous set of live performances (including a shoe falling off the stage).

-Richard Pitkin, Cohort


What do the “Phantom of the Opera”, “Miss Saigon”, and Teddy Roosevelt have in common?

You can start with theatrical infinity.  One hides, one cries, and the other rides on stages to never ending audiences everywhere at warp speed.  However, I’m more interested in another commonality which is their use of technology and special effects in the theatre.  Specifically, they all share a stage which is dependent upon technology and special effects to the success of their respective plays and/or productions.  Well, maybe not so much from our deranged masked friend and tragic Kim (dare shall I say it after all these years – the chandelier and helicopter are just gimmicks people)!  There I said it, now I’m in trouble.

Give me Teddy and his other Commander in Chiefs in 45 Plays for 45 Presidents.  This IS a play dependent on technology for it all to come together.  I saw this first hand at a recent tech staging which focused on the technical crew putting it all together.

As I entered the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre in Liberty Hall, things were already underway.  Upon sitting in the balcony, I felt as if I was a passenger on a space ship.  It was dark but there were flashes of light at the controls too.  For example, there was light on the stage.  Hmm, maybe I should say stages; 45 stages that is.  With the ongoing toys that bestow the stage(s) and which scream snap, crackle, and pop – kudos to the designers and creators on the continuous set design.  All I’m going to add on this one is that I want one of those lighted “Quote” thingies for my nightie lamp to reside on.

Moving back ten rows or so and seated from the illuminated stage were three technical crew people.  Here is where I could see the stars before me (or should I say the five actors) being led or manipulated into the 45 Plays for 45 Presidents solar system by the tech crew.  Two of them had laptops which were constantly flashing as if a hurricane followed by a rainbow had hit their machines and caused a viral thermonuclear blast.  A few rows back from the three were two other technicians.  Please forgive me as I don’t know the names of these talented technicians.  Due to this oversight on my part, I must provide substitute names for them as I don’t want to refer to them as Technician 1, Technician 2, etc. out of respect to them and their profession.

Captain Kirk (oops, I mean Director Sean Daniels) is the space ship’s PAC leader of the group.  He oversees the Precision, Accuracy, and Communication (PAC) that are all things technical.  We’ll focus on three of these PAC members and call them Lieutenant Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov (again, just to give them and you a respectable label along with a point of reference).  For the three seated ten rows back, Sulu sat in the middle and drove the space ship’s sound effects from the firestorm that lived on his laptop.  On his right was Chekov who drove the space ship’s lighting (again, from his laptop; the marvel of technology).  He communicated with others around him by phone so as not to scream his direction of constant lighting changes (by my observation).  Sulu and Chekov impressed me not only with their obvious tech skills in sound and lighting but the way they could edit a quick change at the request of Sean or other member of the PAC team.  Moreover, they provided logic to their precision like-work that spoke of a theatrical surgeon.  For example, a quick transition from the sound of a gunshot to the actor’s response followed by a lighting change occurred one after another in a matter of seconds.  For that, I should rename them Bones and Spock but I’ll only confuse myself.  To the left of Sulu and Chekov sat Lieutenant Uhura.  She was the Communicator Officer in the space ship to the five stars.  What impressed me most about her was her cool demeanor.  With microphone in hand, she’s got Captain Kirk (I mean Sean, sorry I did it again) instructing her in one ear to tell the stars to “take it from the top” and Sulu and Chekov in her other ear with any sound or lighting changes.  Talk about multi-tasking in the final frontier, this Lieutenant is one to teach the ultimate class.

How many times have you heard someone say “great special effects” when questioned about a blockbuster movie or technical laden theatre production (I always wondered what they thought about the story but I digress)?  The use of technology is something special in the theatre when the play is dependent on it as part of its lifeline.  Furthermore, a movie has time to edit the process.  In live theatre, there is limited or no time to edit that computer graphic.  No time to edit that quick lighting transition.  No time to edit that explosive sound.  Everything has to come together with no mistakes – timing and technology working together as one in marital bliss.  This has never been so true for something like 45 Plays for 45 Presidents.

Don’t look past the real names or at least the resume of this talented group of techies like I did.  Check out your playbill before the show and read the technical crew’s background and contribution to the play.  More importantly, without these guys and gals, there are no plays and no presidents.  There’s only a ticket refund and a return home to a special effects snoozer on the tube with no story to speak of.  On that note, please tell Teddy that I said hello when you see the play and tell the Trust Buster to ride on.  Just shy away from any falling chandeliers or helicopters in warp speed.  Time for the show to begin, beam me up Scotty.

-Paul Galinis, Cohort