Murray Ross likens theater production to building sand castles: "You spend hours perfecting one just to watch it get washed away, and then have to start again from scratch."
He's done it for 40 years. But over the past four months, the TheatreWorks artistic director has been engulfed in a show like never before. Because this time Ross isn't just starting a new sand castle; he's creating the sand, too.
In conjunction with All Pikes Peak Reads, TheatreWorks tonight debuts I Am Nikola Tesla, using Ross' first-ever totally original script, about the eccentric adventures of a Colorado Springs legend. The story is inspired by the mysterious life of the Serbian scientist who lived in Colorado Springs in 1899. Tesla is credited with laying the groundwork for developing the alternating current, and many other electric innovations. His mercurial personality is equally famous.
All Pikes Peak Reads, the community-wide reading initiative led by the Pikes Peak Library District, asked Ross to create a play about Tesla in honor of this year's theme, "Innovation and Enterprise."
"Who better to use as an example of innovation than Tesla?" Ross asks."He comes to us theatrically charged."
The play takes place in modern-day Colorado Springs, in the basement of a Tesla geek, Luke, who is attempting to re-create one of his idol's many inventions. Played by Sammie Joe Kinnett, Luke becomes Tesla's apprentice when the inventor, played by Michael Cobb, returns to Colorado Springs as a ghost.
Kinnett, a 26-year-old actor with no traditional training, says a lot of improv worked its way into Luke's dialogue. Both he and Cobb, head of voice, speech and text at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, say they've been fascinated by their characters.
"How do you portray someone who is that genius and contributed that much to the world?" asks the 50-year-old Cobb. "I'm still figuring that out."
While the plot is, naturally, completely fictional, Ross says Tesla's lines and actions throughout the play are inspired by research and biographies of the scientist and cult icon.
"It has been incredibly difficult to get the script exactly where I want it," Ross says. "I'll probably be adjusting it until closing night."