Back in January on the Miles Davis Movie blog I wrote about Seven Days: a Fantasia on the Life of Miles Davis, a play written by Greg Machlin, which was then playing at the UI Theatre Building on the campus of Iowa University.
The play follows a seven-day stint in 1954 during which Miles Davis returns to Illinois to try to kick his heroin addiction. The narrative bounces between events leading up to his addiction and after he quits. While the events are as accurate as possible, the play is presented as ‘an imaginative examination of a musical genius.’
I recently had a chance to speak with Greg Machlin, who was wonderfully candid about the genesis of the show, playwriting and, of course, Miles Davis.
Miles Davis Online: What was the inspiration to write a play about Miles Davis?
Greg Machlin: In the fall of 2006, “Bloody Lies,” a comedy of mine about a guy who falls in love with a vampire, was produced at Iowa (where I was getting my MFA). There was a very talented African-American graduate actor named Ethan Henry whom the director and I both wanted for the menacing, Dracula-like role. No such luck. Every show wanted him, and he was cast in another show.
The following semester, I was directing another writer’s new play; the writer and I both wanted Ethan for the central, starring role of the doctor. No such luck. That summer, Ethan came up to me in The Mill, Iowa City’s best dive bar, and said to me, out of the blue, “Yo, Machlin. You wanna write me a play about Miles Davis?” Dying to work with Ethan, I responded: “Yeahhhh, I think I can do that.” Sometimes, it really is that simple.
MDO: Describe the play’s focus. Is there a specific message you’re trying to get across to the audience about Miles Davis – or is it a much broader theme, with Miles Davis merely the vehicle to drive the idea?
GM: There are definitely themes in the play that are prominent–artists’ sacrifices, their struggles to remain relevant in society, and the complicated lives artistic creation can leave in its wake, as well as questions about addiction. I wouldn’t say there’s a specific “message,” per se; while the focus of the play is definitely on Miles Davis, I hope that people come out of the theatre thinking about art in a general sense.
MDO: Do you have a creative process for writing a play like this? Was there a lot of Miles Davis music playing the background?
GM: As a biographical play, this involved more research than many of my previous works. I devoured “Miles: The Autobiography”, watched whatever I could track down (including Ken Burns’ Jazz), and read several other Davis bios. Most of the time, I preferred to write in silence–Davis’ music is so good it was actually a distraction–but outside of writing, I made sure to listen and re-listen to Sketches of Spain, In a Silent Way, Bitches’ Brew, Kind of Blue and a collection of four early Miles Davis albums I was lucky to pick up at the Strand that winter for $10 (the set included Boplicity & Birth of the Cool.)
Ethan and I had a few meetings as the play was taking shape, bouncing ideas off of one another. But beyond that, the process was mostly the same: write, procrastinate, write, procrastinate, tear my hair out, write some more, and have a public reading in the Iowa Playwrights’ Workshop (in March of ’08), where, as is my habit, I scribbled furious and panicky notes to myself before realizing during the post-reading discussion, as I listened to the positive feedback, that no, it really was quite good. I then revised it over the summer & fall before entering rehearsals in Thanksgiving of ’08 for the January premiere.
MDO: Was the chapter in Miles’ life that the play focuses on something that jumped out at you for any particular reason?
GM: The event in his life jumped out at me for a number of reasons–the first was that this couldn’t be a conventional biographical play; there would have been far too many characters, and sets, it would have been 16 hours long and cost millions of dollars to produce. I wanted to tell a complete story about Miles Davis in 90 minutes, so when Ethan told me that Miles Davis had locked himself in a room in 1954 and simply gone cold turkey off of heroin by sheer force of will, I jumped on that.
At first, I thought that would mean leaving a lot of fun things out of the story. But with great restrictions come great opportunities: the hallucinations that can come with withdrawal gave me an excuse to jump forwards and backwards in time, giving me tremendous freedom as a writer to go non-linear…which would mean that we’d get to see the beginnings of Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain after all.
MDO: It seems the heart of the play has a universal quality about overcoming life’s obstacles, definitely a subject that even someone who doesn’t really know much about Miles Davis can still connect with.
GM: I got two major notes after the initial reading in March of ’08–one was that people wanted more music in the play, and the other was questions about how accessible the play was to people who didn’t know Davis’ work, so I revised it with those notes in mind.
The feedback we got after the Iowa production from audience members was very positive; my director, Ethan and I worked hard to sure that the material would be enjoyable both for the Miles Davis devotee and the newcomer. Obviously, there are a couple of details that may carry more weight for those who are familiar with Davis (particularly the first meeting between Davis and Bill Evans), but our goal was always to create a piece of theatre that anyone who likes music could enjoy, and I believe we’ve succeeded.
MDO: Would you ever consider tapping into another episode in the life of Miles Davis for a play, or perhaps another medium?
GM: Well, I’d love to see “7 Days” become a movie (as would Joe Luis Cedillo, my superb director, as would Ethan) or a TV miniseries. As for another Miles Davis play–well, I never rule anything out, but before writing a new Miles Davis project I’d first want to make sure that “7 Days” gets full attention from me as a producer (the marketing/business side of being a playwright).
MDO: What’s the latest news on the show?
GM: The University Iowa run this January sold out; there’s a producer at Open Fist theatre here in Los Angeles who’s expressed an interest in the show, and it’s under submission to other theatres & development workshops.
MDO: Are you working on anything new?
GM: On the film side, I recently completed a comic screenplay about Hollywood in the “Being John Malkovich” vein called “The Bacon-Weaving Axis” (with, ideally, Kevin Bacon and Hugo Weaving playing themselves) and am submitting that places; I have a couple of TV pilots and spec scripts, and I’m working on a novel. I was commissioned in August to adapt a cult film from the 60s into a stage play. I’ve also written a web series for an actress friend of mine in New York called “Starring Laura Silver” that we hope to produce later this year or next year.
On the production side, “7 Days” is one of a loose trilogy of historical or autobiographical plays that were all produced at Iowa, each directed by Joe Luis Cedillo, for which I’d like to find future homes; the others are “This Is Your Life” (my parents meet cute in Berkley in the 1960s and fall in love) and “A History of Bad Ideas” (the end of a relationship between a writer at Iowa and his exuberant, actress girlfriend from NY. Not based on my life in the slightest.)
MDO: What’s your favorite Miles Davis record?
GM: Kind of Blue. It’s a clichéd choice on my part, but a classic nonetheless, with In a Silent Way a close second.
Images: 2 photos from rehearsal