Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Crystal Skillman: Rain And Zoe Save The World

By | Published on Friday 4 February 2022

I was drawn to this production – which is opening this week at Jermyn Street Theatre – the moment I heard about it.

‘Rain And Zoe Save The World’ – which charts the journey of two teenage activists to a protest on America’s west coast – was created by US based writer Crystal Skillman, is directed by Hersh Ellis, and features original music by Bobby Cronin.

I wanted to find out more about the show, and about the creative behind it, so I put some questions to Skillman ahead of opening night. 

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the narrative of the play? Who is the play about and what happens in it?
CS: ‘Rain And Zoe Save The World’ is an adventurous new play with a pulsing original soundtrack which takes us on the road trip of two teens who ride off on a motorcycle, journeying across the US to join an environmental protest at a refinery.

But on this journey they find themselves having to make huge choices that will forever impact their lives as activists and friends. With dark humour, and through a young adult lens, the play asks what it means to try to make an impact in our current climate crisis. 

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
CS: The climate crisis of course, but also intergenerational activism, climate change denial, animal conservation, grief and loss, Gen Z activism, protesting tactics, how far you’ll go for standing up for what you believe in, burnout, and family values. 

One of my joys is that by using the cross country genre on this heart palpitating ride with Rain and Zoe we literally crash into and through these themes alongside them.

There are two other actors in the play who embody the motorcycle itself, the nature around Rain and Zoe, and animals – frogs, owls, etc – they meet on the way. All of this creates an intimate theatrical experience in our seventy seat house at Jermyn Street!

CM: What inspired you to write about these themes and this subject?
CS: The first would be a political one – to keep inspiring hope for us to work together in my country and internationally in order to truly fight the climate crisis. The second is a personal one. This is a family play for me.

My father and mother ran away together on a motorcycle, my cousin in law is environmentalist Ken Ward – the documentary ‘The Reluctant Radical’ is about his work – and I teach teens playwriting through the Theatre Development Fund.

Between my personal family history, being on the ground floor of seeing how difficult the dedicated work of environmental activism is, and from getting to really see how teenagers are not only shaping our world in the news, but in my classrooms, the idea of the story of Rain and Zoe formed.

Could I pen a road trip on stage that could unearth a deeper story for an audience? Could it be fun, could it be dangerous… could it inspire hope in dark times?

CM: Have you been involved with the ongoing production of the play?
CS: I’ve been here the whole time and it’s been a joy. In general, my work uses naturalism for an effect but there is always an element of the fantastical in a theatrical way – my play ‘Open’, about the love of two women, is “a magic show without magic” for instance.

Because of this approach, after my scripts are developed, I’ve found that my work often needs designers in the room, and perhaps a lab to work out physical vocabulary, which is what we did here.

Director Hersh Ellis, who has a nice sense of a cinematic technique on stage that has a powerful live presence, has really put together a rockstar team of designers working together. The work our movement director Jasmine Ricketts has done to make a motorcycle come to life with four bodies on stage is truly inspired.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about you now? Did you always want to write plays? Was this your intended career path?
CS: I’ve always known I was a storyteller. I was always writing plays and also had a hand in the visual arts as I studied photography at Parsons School Of Design. It was when I was interning at Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York that I was put into the pivotal playwriting group for emerging writers called Youngblood. There I began merging my visual sense of storytelling, and my work as a writer for the stage, together.

CM: How did you go about beginning and maintaining a career in the arts?
CS: I love talking realistically about this journey! It is so difficult for writers. I have always worked day jobs, or have had to teach. In the past few years I have been making most of my income solely as a writer, though being a freelancer is certainly “feast or famine”. 

My advice for those looking to make their living as a writer, especially if coming from the theatre world, is to start looking at the worlds you’ve created in your plays. Are there other stories in them that can be told in different mediums? My play ‘Open’ has led to a new fictional podcast series coming out later this year and ‘Rain And Zoe’ will also be a graphic novel as things roll along. The stories we create can be our currency. 

To maintain a career, I suggest asking what you’d like to accomplish in three years, one year, in the next month. Try to break things down into accomplishable goals. And turn to those that support your work, show your work where and when you can – in the back room of a bar, online, etc. I keep honing my craft even in downtime – when no productions are set up. Having your work ready for when you finally get an opportunity is really helpful.

CM: What aims do you have for the future?
CS: I am currently expanding into television with new pilots that I’m finally starting to pitch. It’s pretty exciting. But I’m building a life that will allow me to also keep working in theatre, depending on schedule. My husband – Fred Van Lente – is also a writer and sometimes we create together, which I love.

As I keep building a life for myself as an artist, my ultimate goal is to be able to have more time to mentor young writers as I go. I want to help diverse voices be heard. When you shine a light on a powerful writer or play, it is important. It is life changing for that artist.

CM: How has the global pandemic affected your work? How did you get through this difficult period?
CS: It was so challenging for us all, but also uniting. It is challenging to have worked for such a long time in great sorrow, but it also made me appreciate whatever joy I could find.

As an artist it really focused me. It made clear to me what’s important. It has been such a painful time, but we writers have had the gift of being able to make that pain into something. Writers can escape this world by penning a line that literally brings us into a new one.

Losing myself in fiction saved me and I saw the hope that fiction can give us to get through times such as these. The question is… now can it make us refocus on our dying planet and use that fiction to inspire? I believe so!

CM: What’s coming up next for you? Do you have projects in the pipeline?
CS: I just finished the first pages of my new play commission ‘The Rocket Men’, about the Nazis who created the rockets in Huntsville that brought us to the moon – portrayed by an all female identifying cast.

Lately, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to work as a book-writer on several musicals currently being produced and coming out such as ‘Mary And Max The Musical’, ‘Concrete Jungle’ – both with Bobby Cronin who scored ‘Rain And Zoe’ – and ‘Postcard American Town’ – with composer Lynne Shankel – which will run as a part of SDSU’s Musical Initiative in a production in San Diego this April.

Even in my audio and television work, I’ve found this sense of musical storytelling really exciting. Folks can follow me here for details on all.

‘Rain And Zoe Save The World’ is on at Jermyn Street Theatre from 10 Feb-12 Mar.  For more information and to book tickets see the venue website here.

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