Michelle Blackmon on making Enquiry Concerning Hereafter

duane kelly radio play enquiry concerning hereafter

Michelle Blackmon for AdamSmithWorks

Blackmon spent hundreds of hours with Adam Smith and David Hume (and the Greek ferryman to the underworld, Charon) in the past few months as she worked on creating an audio version of Duane Kelly's Enquiry Concerning the Hereafter. Here, she shares some brief reflections on the project.  
Michelle Blackmon takes time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions about her audio production of Duane Kelly’s Enquiry Concerning the Hereafter. The play is about the friendship, ideas, and deaths of Adam Smith and David Hume. Charon, the ferryman of the Greek underworld, calls for them each in their turn. They question him, each other, and themselves in the course of work.

Blackmon produced, directed, and narrated the audio production in collaboration with Kelly.  The production was released on AdamSmithWork’s Great Antidote podcast in two parts: Act I, which centers on the death of David Hume who was older than Smith but still a close friend, was released on July 14th and Act II, which focuses on the death of Adam Smith as the ghost of his dear friend Hume comes back to help him one last time, was released on July 21st.

The play draws on many details from Smith and Hume’s lives and the playwright Kelly cites early inspiration from Dennis Rasmussen’s book, The Infidel and the Professor: The Friendship of Adam Smith and David Hume, which includes an account of their final days.

The first live production of Kelly’s play is being produced by the Edinburgh Business School at Panmure House in Scotland which was Adam Smith’s residence in his later years, as part of the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, August 4-28. As you’ll learn in the interview, Blackmon will be attending that one herself as well.

Blackmon’s interview is lightly edited below or you can watch it here

Did you know much about Adam Smith and David Hume before you started on this project?
One of the things that I love about theater is that every project takes you someplace that you may have never have gone before. There's a lot of research that goes into it. And so I did research in looking up both Adam Smith and David Hume and went, oh, yeah, I remember those guys. Digging deeper into who they were and what they were about was really fun. They are quite the characters, both of them and through this play, you get to see some of that relationship. Even when they're on death's doorstep, they're still talking philosophy and, and enjoying each other's company. It's wonderful to see two men have that kind of relationship with each other and engage in ways that you don't often get to see.

Do you have a scene that you really enjoyed working on?
Hume starts off with where when he's talking to Charon and says, “Where will I go? Will I meet other souls there?” He starts asking things like, “Can ask Herodotus why he insisted on writing history as fiction? Will there be an opportunity to debate tragedy with Aristotle and, and ask Socrates whether Plato told us the truth about his death?” And, you go, this man is on his deathbed and he's still dealing with the subject of philosophy. It is amazing to me how deeply rooted both of them are in this and pretty much everything that they discuss is in some way related. All of their conversation also circles around justifying why they believe, what they believe, and how important it is to them, and how important it is to human nature and how we deal with life and our understanding of life and death.

There were so many times when I was laughing at their exchanges. For example, Smith says to Hume, “We travel in the same direction, and as surely as a stone tumbles down Castle Mount, I imagine the sight of the ground approaching would unsettle any man.” It's that thought of you're getting ready to leave us now, and, yet, you're still here talking to me about philosophy and your understanding of the world and what you have gleaned from the many books and journeys that you've been on. I loved that. I love that about the two of these characters and their love for each other.

There's another thing that Hume says to Smith, “I was always glad to come in sight of you, if only by this distant view, but I long to speak, so I would have crossed the Firth to visit. But you know how mortally sick I get!” And Smith says back to him, “Does Charon know he would have a mess in his boat?” There's just so many lines in this play that just cracked me up. I had so much fun working on this because Dwayne wrote an amazing script and I think really got the to the heart of who these two characters are and their love for each other. It's been a lot of fun.

You and Duane (Duane Kelly, the playwright) worked really closely on this project, what was that like?
Well, after reading the script, I made a list of things that, as I was going through it, I had questions about, and sent the questions to Dwayne. We started this conversation back and forth about the script and what he meant by certain things, and then my thoughts, and it wound up in this wonderful collaboration. There were things originally in there that we both decided, well, you know, that moment doesn't quite work as well as he originally thought it did. And we both shared back and forth. And so what we ultimately came up with was something that I think really moved very well through the pace of the show… It was wonderful sort of getting into his head and understanding exactly what he was trying to do with this and then, you know, putting in my 2 cents.

He was very open and receptive to things that I suggested to him. And we had a great time with this back and forth. One of the things that I really appreciated about Dwayne is he was very thoughtful in his approach to this. He was never defensive about anything. I'm a pretty straight shooter with what I think. So, I said to him, “Duane, what does this mean? Or what are you trying to get out of this?” And he told me, and I said, “Well, okay, that sounds great, but how about if we do it this way?” He would think about that and, and he would go, “Hey, you're right.” Or he would say, “Well, that's not exactly what I was trying to do.” But it was never a battle between us, I have so much respect for him and, and the way he writes.

I said to him, “you're a very heady writer.” And he said, “Yeah, I am. I've been told that.” It was so wonderful to be able to really understand where he was coming from and be part of this process. I felt fully engaged in it and was able to then transfer the ideas from my conversations with Duane to the actors. I felt that that communication between Dwayne and I really being able to guide the actors through what they needed to do. I was very pleased with that collaboration.

I imagine it is very difficult to be an, an actor in a production at the same time that you're trying to be all the other things you were being. Could you share a little bit about what that was like?
It is challenging because you've got many things running through your brain, and so you're trying to parse out, okay, now I need to look at this from the producer and or the director end, and then switch into character mode. It is a challenging thing to do… A lot of people do movies where they're directing and acting and whatever. I'm not sure that that's something that you necessarily want to do with every type of character, but I felt, because the narrator keeps everything sort of grounded, and I was as director, I was trying to keep myself grounded in listening to the piece and making sure that actors were getting what they needed.

I sort of split my brain into two parts, and one was functioning as the listener, and then the other would just kind of stop and take a moment and go into narration mode. We had our challenges along the way, like with any project. It's sometimes frustrating because I'm a perfectionist and I like things to go smoothly, and, and when they don't it's kind of crazy making. But I have realized in all the years that I've been doing theater, it's the nature not just of doing theater, it's the nature of life. Things don't always go the way you think they are…. That doesn't mean that your work is any less or that the you're doing is a failure. It just means it's something to learn from. Also, in doing something to find a way to still feel the joy in it, even when things go wrong. It's about the work ultimately, and can you find a way to make that work come to life? I feel in everything that we dealt with and all the challenges and ins and outs, that ultimately, we were able to do that. That's what pleases me most, is to see the life that comes from a project in the final analysis.

Is there something in the end that sort of delighted you, that perhaps you weren't expecting?
The thing that I enjoy most is in the rehearsals, listening to the actors start to really get the sense of the characters and come to life. Their work through the course of this really made it feel like they were a family of sorts, and they all enjoyed working together. And I think each appreciated each other's talents that were brought to the table. As I see that develop and grow as a director, that is what is most exciting to me: To see the whole piece come to life. These actors really engage and connect as though they were really having these conversations with each other! That was a lot of fun. I just enjoyed watching it and being a part of it.

For our listeners who want to see more of your work, where should they look?
I am now working with the Pacific Northwest Multicultural Festival. It is a reader series and film series. So playwrights and film writers send their scripts and they are adjudicated and then selected for the piece. And so I am directing two plays as readings for this particular event and I'm very excited about it. I am going to Scotland to see the stage version of Enquiry Concerning Hereafter, and I'm very excited about that. It'll be nice to see what it, it looks like from a live perspective as well.

Is there anything you would like to share with our audience?
I just want the audience to know that this is an amazing production, and I hope that people enjoy it. 

Michelle Blackmon has worked as an actress, director, choreographer, theatre arts instructor, film casting assistant, stage manager, and more. She recently retired from the City of Seattle, working for both the Office of  Arts and Culture and Seattle Center. 
Blackmon is now working on directing two plays, Speak My Words, Tell My Truth and A Black Father's Plea at Pacific Northwest Multicultural Reader's Series & Film Festival, August 17-20, 2023 in Portland, OR. You can find out more here: pnmcfestival.org