Production Blog

A behind the scenes peek at rehearsals, artistic choices, artist interviews, and the daily business of running a theatre.

A chat with actor Shannon McGrann about the rebirth of an icon

Q: Nora Helmer may well be one of the most important characters ever written. In taking on this new incarnation of her, how do you think she is different from the original play, and how to you think that affects how A Doll’s House, Part 2 is different from A Doll’s House?

 

A: Nora in A Doll’s House, Part 2 has evolved into an individual with agency and her own means, as opposed to Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House who is merely being an extension of her domestic situation. By Part 2, she has realized she has the power to make her own choices and knows she has to and can live with the consequences of those choices, whatever they may be. 

Here we are, over 100 years later, and we’re still holding men and women to different standards, even when they make similar sacrifices, similar transgressions, and have similar aspirations. Right now, the subject of equality is one of the most talked about things in our culture. We’re talking about it more frequently and openly. 

A moment with A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2 Director Clare Shaffer

Tom Fox/DMN Staff Photographer

Q: Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is probably one of the most important and iconic pieces of literature in the world canon. In what ways do you think that this new sequel is in dialogue with the original? And what do you think this sequel has to say that is different from the original?

A: A Doll’s House Part 2 is a modern continuation of the conversation about gender roles that Nora began just minutes before she walked out the door in 1879. In the original, Nora had just begun to understand the implications of the patriarchy—in Part 2, her views have matured and expanded beyond a critique of traditional marital values to include thoughts on subjects including polyamory, the epidemic of mansplaining, and gender performativity. She has progressed from discovering gender inequality to understanding and trying to combat it, giving the sequel a bolder and far more grounded protagonist. Ibsen’s Nora left home in search of her voice in a time when women were legally and socially considered inferior to their male counterparts—and in this sequel, we get to hear that strikingly relevant voice loud and clear. 

image: Tom Fox, DMN Staff photographer

A chat with OCTOROON actor Ryan Woods

Q: An Octoroon is a demanding script, while also funny and entertaining. It examines identity and race in a melodramatic style through a contemporary lens. It has a meta-theatrical play-within-a-play structure. What are the most exciting and challenging aspects of working on this script?

A: An Octoroon is definitely a beast of a play. What excites me about working on such a challenging script is the relevancy it has in regards to the current social and political climate. Through its meta-theatrical structure of a ‘play within a play,’ it examines aspects of racism through the lens of melodrama (an adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon) which allows Jacobs-Jenkins to utilize broad racial stereotypes and tropes found in melodrama to shine a light on issues of racism. Examining racism in our society through humor and stereotypes is an effective way to get people to think and reconsider their own views.

What I find the most challenging is figuring out how to juggle portraying three different characters within the same story (which I found early on is no easy feat!). There’s the role of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins himself, who we see struggling with the fact that he’s not just a playwright, but a “black” playwright, and what it means to always have the qualifier of race put upon anything he chooses to do. This is something I think every person of color can relate to. Then we have George (the “protagonist”) and M’Closky (the “villain”) who are larger than life with their broad characterizations, but both highlight the complicated image of a racist. Trying to wrap my head around these three roles and their purpose in delivering the message of the story has been truly humbling.

But all of these things are what make working on this play so exciting! The audience is bombarded by a multitude of stereotypes and tropes, and through the lens of humor and melodrama, they are forced to examine how this adaptation of Boucicault’s play alludes to the many racial and societal problems that we struggle with today (especially in our current political climate). People will find themselves laughing, crying, and feeling immensely uncomfortable (sometimes all at the same time) which is what makes An Octoroon such a powerful piece of theatre. Audience members will leave the theatre reeling from the experience, but more importantly, they will leave reexamining their own beliefs concerning racial identity and politics, and what all of that really means in our “progressive” American society right now.

Drinking for Diversity

Nancy Churnin writes "Stage West's 'An Octoroon' underscores how far we've come — and still have to go — with racial equity in theater".  (You should click and read her piece. Lots of good stuff in there, plus it's the only way to keep getting arts reporting funded by our local news media...) We explored diversity on stage at our Happy Hour event the week before opening with artist Christopher Blay.

For each show this season, we had an opening event or happy hour to introduce folks to the show. At our An Octoroon Happy Hour we experienced artist Christopher Blay's relational aesthetics art experience Drinking for Diversity.

Here are the instructions:

And here's the pour chart, illustrating the casting breakdown by ethnicity for New York City theatres.

Some of our written and drawn responses to questions 2 & 3 above. 

We also got to hear director Akin Babatunde and the cast of An Octoroon discuss the show. 

A chat with DON'T DRESS FOR DINNER actor Catherine DuBord about farces

Q: Farces are know for quick rhythms, eccentric characters in extreme situations, and lots of entrances and exits. What do you find to be most exciting and challenging aspects of performing in a farce?

A: As actors in DFW, we don’t get many opportunities to do a full-blown farce. As modern actors, we tend to get grounded in naturalism. A Farce develops its comedy through physical humor and deliberate use of nonsense. The trick is to stay committed to the heightened importance of every single conversation or interaction. All of these characters are larger than life – very Shakespearean even. Each objective must be gone after with extreme vigor and the flexibility to turn on a dime. The fun part is getting comfortable in these people’s shoes, who live every moment larger than life. They love harder, cry louder and get angry more passionately than what contemporary society would deem acceptable. You have to be willing to strap yourself into this obscene roller coaster, keep your eyes open at all costs and take the ride every night. The hardest part is to remember to trust the work that we have put in as a company and know that we have built a fantastic, terrifying ride.

A moment with DON'T DRESS FOR DINNER Director Christie Vela about the update


Q: This play is normally set in the 1960's, but in this production you are pulling it forward into the 1980's. What inspired this decision and how do you feel that this adjustment of decade informs the direction you are taking with the show?

A: When I read this play the first time, I immediately thought to set it in the 1980s. I was reminded, transported, to the movies and television shows then; in particular, the romantic comedies in which the women are clearly smarter than the men. I thought back on the “breaking the glass ceiling” elements of Working Girl, or Who’s That Girl, in which the “fish out of water” woman outsmarts the people who think they’re smarter than her. What fascinates me about these stories is that they are attempts to empower women that, all the same, take part in a culture of female objectification. And I believe that that’s something that we can observe to this day: how often do we quote Mean Girls? How much nostalgia do we and our kids have for other “girly” movies from the 2000s that, despite having only come out ten to fifteen years ago, played undeniable roles in our personal and cultural development? 
I think that it’s necessary that we confront these cultural, historical specifics. And, when you’re given a script like this--which is by turns hilarious and frustrating, just like any good farce--I think it’s important that we have fun when we do it.

A chat with HIR actor Zander Pryor about the attachments

Q: There are so many aspects of this play to grapple with and be entertained by. What excites you most about this play and why do you think that it is one of the most produced scripts in the nation right now?

A: It's hard to identify what excites me most about Hir. So many different aspects of it excite me but I think the part that makes me the most happy might be the inclusion of Max as a character. As cliche and predictable that might be, it makes me so happy to see a character like Max. What I specifically love about Max is that ze has a personality outside of being the "token trans" and an interesting, engaging personality at that. Max is openly trans and proud of that fact, which makes ze such a fun character to play. I can't express how much it meant to me that Taylor Mac specifies that Max should be played by a trans individual.

My own personal theory as to why this play has been produced so much relates to how it's simultaneously new and old. It's written in a genre that is quintessentially American and is quite familiar to theatergoers but it also addresses those who are normally left out of these narratives. It's telling the same story from the perspective of characters we have not heard from yet in this genre. In this fashion, Hir is both foreign and familiar. 

 

Show:

A selection from an interview with playwright Halley Feiffer about laughing through tears

Q: What inspired the play and how do you explore the relationship between laughter and grief?

A: The play is not inspired by true events. Nothing in the play ever happened. I wish I’d had a steamy sex scene in a bathroom. That has yet to happen to me, but it’s on the bucket list. Basically what happened was my mother, who is in wonderful health today, did have a hysterectomy to treat ovarian cancer a little over ten years ago. I was a college student at the time, and while I was in the hospital caring for her, I remember thinking, “I don’t know how to show up for my mother the way that I want to.” I was 20 years old, drinking really heavily, and just a profoundly selfish young person.

I remember looking at the curtain that separated her side of the room from her roommate’s and thinking, “God, wouldn’t it be great if there were some cute family member of her roommate, say her son, who I could flirt with and that would help make all this pain and fear go away.” And then because I’m not a 100% sociopath, I realized it was a very fucked up thought. But I filed it away to write about, because I did think it was a funny premise for a play.

In a way, that situation perfectly captured what that experience is like; that you at once want to show up and be useful for your loved one and, because we’re human beings, we’re filled with selfishness – we also want to escape.

It’s really interesting as you get older and meet more people and have more in-depth conversations, you realize that your way of going through the world might not be the way that everyone does. I’ve always chosen humor to cope with anything really. It just comes naturally to me; both my parents are incredibly funny people. That’s how I was raised and it’s in my blood. So I’ve found myself making jokes at the most inappropriate moments. I’ve also found it rather pleasantly surprising how healing it can be – and how responsive others may be to it too, in ways that you might not expect. Even in the most painful of circumstances, it really is, in my experience, the most effective tool to move through with compassion and lightness.

*full interview (conducted by Clare Drobot, Director of New Play Development at City Theatre) at http://www.citytheatrecompany.org/a-conversation-with-a-funny-thing-play...

A chat with actor Janielle Kastner

Q: You, like your character Karla in A Funny Thing... are both writers - she is an aspiring stand up comedian and comedy writer while you yourself are a playwright. In the rehearsal process, are you finding any other striking similarities between you and Karla? And conversely, in what ways to you think you are quite different from your character?

A: The first moment of the play is maybe my favorite, when Karla is workshopping a new “dirty” joke. Partly because as an actor it’s fun to say the word “vibrator” that many times onstage, but also because as a writer I know how exhilarating it is to circle a scary-funny-honest-taboo idea, finally hone in on the exact right words for it, then launch it at an audience and make them deal. One of the biggest differences between Karla and myself is how, while we both like watching people squirm in response to our creative work, I am not great at watching people squirm socially. There are so many moments in the play where I would jump in and fix something that Karla doesn’t, whether preemptively letting someone off the hook when they’re trying to apologize, or even just simply listening to someone tell a story without actively nodding and affirming them the whole time. While Karla has her own grab-bag full of emotional dysfunctions, I’m sure she wouldn’t find herself politely held hostage by a stranger telling a story in line at CVS as often as I. We also both have single moms that mean the world to us, though Karla’s crass/”my artist daughter is selfish”/social worker mom is kind of exact upside-down to my devout/”everyone should come to my daughter’s new play”/special education teacher mom.

A chat with Delaney Milbourn about being the first

Delaney Milbourn, Actor in LIKE A BILLION LIKES

Q: This exciting world premiere has got to be a thrilling project to be a part of - to be the first to bring this story to life in a full production. What has been the most exciting part of working on this production and what themes in the play resonate with you most?

A: First of all, it is an honor to be a part of this project. I have enjoyed working with each and every person on this production. Bringing a show to life, building a world with its own set of rules that both the characters and audience get to briefly experience tends to be my favorite part of theatre. It has definitely been the most exciting part of this process for me so far. It can be challenging to find, it takes teamwork from everyone involved, but it usually brings a cast and crew together in such a unique way. I love it. In particular, I have loved building this world with my fellow cast mates and directing team. I find a lot in common with my character (keep in mind, not EVERYTHING, as Misty tends to be a bit naive and rash more often than not) but all she wants is to have a voice of her own in the world, and, really, just to matter. I believe that is one of the most relatable issues for the younger generation, if not everyone. So when social media is practically a free personal microphone, it seems like the place to feel important. But what happens when everyone else has a microphone? When everyone else speaks  just as loud? What do you do then?

There are many themes this play presents, many questions to be explored, but the plight of seeking worth by means of such an ever fleeting, shallow platform is such an intriguing one for me, to say the least.

A word with playwright Erik Forrest Jackson about the inspiration

Q: Your funny, thought-provoking, and deeply human new play deals with some interesting themes from the trials of adolescence and growing up to gender identity to family dynamics to the pressures young people feel and are under in the age of social media. What was the source of inspiration for this play and what has your process bee like writing and developing the exciting piece?

A: First off, I’ve got to state that it’s been a real honor to debut this work with Stage West, which consistently executes such care and intelligence with their productions. Their embrace of challenging theater and insanely high caliber of playwrights I’m in the company of this season thrill me to no end.

So, to answer your question, I began work on Like A Billion Likes about three years ago, but before it was one play, it was two.

In the immediate wake of the Caitlin Jenner media blitz, I was struck by how several camps quickly formed and faced off. Of course, there were the expected passionate detractors and supporters. But I found another camp quite a bit more compelling: those people who were at sea, struggling to comprehend just what was happening, both in Jenner’s life and in the cultural at large.

I was writing two different plays at the time. One was about a Texas teen who was desperate to get noticed. Another was about a gender nonconforming teen who was determined not to. When I developed the character of a floundering high school principal - the type of guy who would be flummoxed by Jenner and also quietly furious at the erosion of his cis male dominance - I had a lightbulb moment and realized he was a bridge that linked the two in-progress plays. I married the plots and started bumping these struggling, deeply flawed characters up agains one another, and things aligned in surprising new ways.

The piece became an exploration of assumptions and appropriation, of relationships forged out of opportunism and out of a genuine yearning to connect in a rapidly fragmented world - all amplified by the clumsy, inescapable bullhorn of social media.

I hope the play will shake up perceptions, pop some preconceptions, and maybe even make audiences laugh as they hopefully recognize in these characters aspects of their neighbors and maybe even themselves.

 

A chat with BJ Cleveland about putting on the halo

Q: What a role - the Almighty! You certainly have immeasurable experience performing for DFW audiences as one of the premiere talents in our region, and have a long history of fantastic roles and brilliant performances. For you, what is different about this play from others you’ve done, and what most excites you about performing this critically acclaimed new script for the DFW audiences who know and love you so well?

A: Well, THAT was certainly a wonderful intro - It makes God happy! I think it is every actor's dream (and sometimes greatest fear) to work towards a one-man show format – quite a marathon of storytelling on our part. Although I am blessed to have two other wonderful actors, Doug Fowler and Parker Gray, as my "Wingmen" to share the experience, I cover about 93.5% of the lines. It's hard to imagine a role that would come with so much history (infinity), thought, reverence, and pre-conceived notions as the Almighty himself. So, no pressure there, right?

I'm a very physical actor, so the fact that I'm in the Heavenly Lounge sitting and visiting with the audience and not relying on a lot of physicality to tell my stories (or remember them) is a challenge for me (although, there is some hilarious physical comedy and even a song and dance!).

But the script by David Javerbaum (of The Daily Show) is funny, thought-inducing, irreverent, and surprisingly sentimental; I relish the words and re-telling the stories we grew up with in Sunday School from an original perspective. And specifically, talking about Junior (Jesus Christ to you) from a parent's point of view. It's hard not to get choked up. It's new, fresh, and funny. 

So come with an open mind, open heart and exposed funny bone - it will be tickled. 

Of course, GOD has taken over the body of B.J. Cleveland for the night, (and THANK GOD I'm available), so no there's NO telling what HE will say or do!

A word with director Harry Parker about the seriously funny

Q: This highly comedic and fun play is chock-full of laughs and hilarity, but also has some interesting things to say. What do you find most intriguing about the script, and what excites you most about directing this production?

A: For me, the most interesting thing about David Javerbaum’s An Act of God is the way he seasons what is largely a comic spin on God and the Ten Commandments, with moments of serious insight and some thoughtful ideas for the audience to ponder. Javerbaum has carefully modulated these two disparate elements into a carefully balanced evening that is designed to primarily entertain, but also to challenge. There are so many wild, hilarious, and controversial positions espoused by God in this play, that I seriously doubt that An Act of God will line up exactly with any single audience member’s individual theology. But that really isn’t the point. Javerbaum’s quest is to create a hilarious commentary on our concept of God, and he’s happy to provoke the audience along the way to accomplish this. Audiences will enjoy the play most thoroughly if they are able to laugh at religion a bit, and also at themselves.

A chat with Kally Duncan about the audience and the process

Q: This play, like the rest of Posner’s Chekhov cycle, asks that the audience have a unique role to play in the telling of the story - they are not only spectators but participants that the characters need in order to proceed in their story. And each character has their own specific relationship with the audience. What do you find most interesting about this conceit, and what most excited you about this play?

A: Having audience participation makes this show so unique because no two shows will ever be the same! It is set up kind of like a melodrama from the beginning so you know you’re going to have a good time. Whats interesting is that the audience pushes the characters toward different destinations, they guide us to new ideas. And we have no idea how the audience is going to respond! So its like an improv show at times, which can be extremely fun for us and the audience. 

I was so excited to join this cast, not only because the people involved are amazingly talented, but because I have a real love for Chekhov. I fell in love with Anton Chekhov’s plays in college and having the opportunity to bring Sonia to life in such a new and modern way is just incredible. Plus Aaron Posner’s writing is hysterical and so real! I have never laughed so much during a rehearsal process as I have with this show. The excitement of getting to work with such amazing artists was palpable, including the nervous butterflies, and as soon as I sat down at our table read I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime show not to be missed.

 

A word with LIFE SUCKS. director Emily Scott Banks

Q: Having worked on last season’s production of Stupid F*cking Bird must have been highly informative in regards to approaching this season’s production of Life Sucks., both being a part of Aaron Posner’s Chekhov cycle. In your experience of directing both, what do you find are the similarities between these two productions, and what differences can audiences expect?

A: Both Stupid F*cking Bird and Life Sucks take place in the same world - in fact we even decided for our purposes, they were on the same lake, and the characters were likely neighbors or acquaintances. Both plays very much have the same voice and specific sense of rhythm that Aaron Posner brings to his writing. That said, the overall storyline of Bird lived in the element of the air, and was a bit more about youth and early adulthood; whereas Life Sucks is more of the earth, and deals more with the places in middle life. Both very much blend absurdity and heartbreak in a delicious cocktail, and both works invite and include the audience in writing the journey of the show - which makes the audience both necessary and culpable. We also made the conscious choice to not only include Easter eggs in both for those who know the Chekhov source material well, but to carry over little touches from Bird to Life Sucks - not essential for full enjoyment, but a little delight for those who have seen both.

A chat with Grace Montie about the feel

Q: This play is unique, and interestingly contradictory, not only in its setting, but also in elements of its tone, mood, genre, and structure. It is a highly contemporary play that also has an antiquated feel to it – there is a classical three act structure, but the play is completely modern. It’s set at the bottom of the world, but has an innate warmth. How would you describe this play, and, in your experience, what aspects of it seem most unique to you?

 

A: The Royal Society of Antarctica (by the incomparable Mat Smart) is interesting & complex for a myriad of reasons; the main one (in my opinion) being that it centers more on the emotional journeys of certain characters rather than being completely plot-driven. It focuses on the emotional arc of my character, Dee, however the multifaceted people she meets at the bottom of the world begin to reveal authentic sides of themselves that in turn affect Dee’s mentality & attitude in a huge way.

Dee begins the play with a certain attitude & approach that has been forming her entire life, and by Act 3 we see a stark change in her and what she finds important. This shift is completely in response to the quirky people she has met in Antarctica, and the different things she has absorbed while learning their stories.

In addition to the structure, the play is also unique in its’ use of silences. While the majority of the show moves rather furiously, there are certain moments written in the script that require everything to halt, perhaps to emphasize the importance of certain moments. This allows the audience to make the realizations & follow alongside the emotional journeys of specific characters.

This unique play juxtaposes the idea of living in the harshest climate on Earth where death is just one wrong footstep away, with the warmth and charisma these very genuine characters bring to their relationships with each other.

A word with playwright Mat Smart about the inspiration

Q: The bottom of the world is an exciting and unfamiliar place to write about. It is certainly clear that your time in Antarctica influenced the setting and texture of your play The Royal Society of Antarctica, but what about your time there inspired the story you settled on telling and the characters that you wrote to inhabit your version of McMurdo Station?

A: One of the buildings I had to clean as a janitor at McMurdo Station was the Science Support Center.  From the second floor of that building, there was a stunning view of the Royal Societies – the majestic mountain range across the sound from the base.  At the SSC, they had great maps on the walls, and so I often looked at the names of the different peaks.  Also, a woman named Pam worked in the building – who had been coming to the Ice for twenty-something years.  I once asked her if anyone had been born at McMurdo and she said no, but there had been a close call one winter.  I believe all of these things came together to form a curiosity in me of: what would it be like to be born in the most inhospitable place on Earth?  

The Dead Seal, the dance move in the play, was inspired by two things I experienced at MacTown.  The dance that summer that took the base by storm was the Cat Puke.  Picture what a cat’s body does before it pukes – that’s pretty much the dance move.  But I wanted to come up with something very Antarctic-themed, so I meshed that idea together with the fact that there’s dead seals out on the mountaintops in the Dry Valleys.  

Tamara is based on a real life legendary jano that I was there with.  I got to share the play with her during a workshop at Portland Center Stage.  Before the reading, I explained to her that she was the inspiration with one big exception – that the character has a big problem with lying whereas my friend was incredibly honest (perhaps too honest).  She sat next to me during the reading and it was a blast.  Thankfully, she was honored.  She likes to be the life of the party.  

I interviewed a bunch of the scientists there, trying to find the most fascinating experiment and metaphor.  While so many of the projects are vital to understanding climate change, many of them are pretty dull.  I was amazed when I learned about the diatoms – the unicellular creatures that star in the play.  All of the science described is accurate.  It’s so far-fetched, I couldn’t have made it up.

The Biscuits and Honey Butter were amazing.  The best thing I’ve ever tasted.

Lastly, the Poop Chair was real.  And it was epic.  But thankfully, I didn’t have to clean it up.

Find out more about The Royal Society of Antarctica playwright

 

Stage West + FWISD !

Stage West made a commitment back in January with the Ghostlight Project to increase the ways that we give back to our community, especially those portions of our community that have been historically disadvantaged. We each started planting seeds.

While doing a College and Career Readiness Session with a lovely group of young women at Morningside Middle School back in February, our Marketing Director was approached to see if Stage West would be interested in participating in a similar summer program. Would we? Of course we would! How wonderful!

And finally it's time!

The FWISD IROC program (I’m Ready for the Opportunity of College!) is a summer camp facilitated by the Fort Worth ISD Academic Advisement Department. IROC! helps middle school students investigate their potential for college attendance and career exploration. The program involves visiting a variety of business environments as well as participating in local service projects. It has proven to help keep students on a college track, particularly among minority and first generation college students.

Our IROC! camp will be Thursday, July 6. In these interactive sessions, the staff at Stage West will offer students an overview of potential careers in the performance, technical, and business aspects of theater arts. Executive Producer Dana Schultes, actors Garret Storms and Mark Shum, Stage Manager Tiffany Cromwell, Education Manger Andrea Gonzales, Technical Director Ryan McBride, and Marketing Director Jen Schultes will engage with over 100 8th grade students over the one day event. From Q&A sessions to improv games to branding basics, we have pledged to pull back the curtain on a world of careers in the arts and arts management spheres.

The participating students will be representing Leonard Middle School, Kirkpatrick Middle School, Meacham Middle School, Rosemont Middle School, Rosemont 6th, Daggett Middle School, Morningside Middle School, Forest Oak Middle School, Jacquet Middle School, William James Middle School, Meadowbrook Middle School and Handley Middle School.

We are so excited, We can't wait to share what we have learned in our careers, to help the younger generation achieve their dreams of college and careers, whatever path they take.

 

Some background on Sex With Strangers

Q: Laura Eason’s new script, Sex with Strangers, is one of the most produced plays in the nation at the moment. As Executive Producer, what about it struck you as being a great fit for Stage West? '

A: Balance is everything when planning a season, and I was immediately taken with the current relevance of Sex with Strangers alongside its strength as an interesting, dramatic and fun story. It's a two-actor piece with some nice twists that easily leaves audiences with something to discuss afterwards. Laura Eason's recent prominence as a writer and producer on the hit Netflix show House of Cards has also played a hand in the popularity of the play. She's a great writer, and it is difficult for any producer to resist a well-written play that satisfies audiences eager for a meaty story. On a personal level, I was taken by the character of Olivia Lago and knew I would want to play her. She is smart, sassy, and strong but also full of self-doubt and vulnerability. Furthermore, I knew this would be a perfect piece for former Stage West Artistic Director Jim Covault to rejoin our merry team for a bit as director. And of course, though I didn't know this at the time of season selection, we ended up with a primo team all around with Jake Buchanan playing Ethan Kane opposite me, supported by an outstanding technical and design team. Sex with Strangers is a fun, steamy, intelligent show that exemplifies a classic Stage West play.

A word from the director

Q: One of the over-arching themes in the Sex With Strangers is ambition - and how the relationships we form aid or hinder in achieving one’s goals. In your approach to the script, what do you think the playwright it trying to say about desire and ambition? And what other aspects of the script are you excited to “uncover”?

A: Both characters in Sex with Strangers are indeed ambitious writers, though one (Olivia) initially feels less able to express that ambition. “Why am I not allowed to be ambitious?” she asks. The answer is almost certainly because she is a woman. In a relationship where both people are artists, and each can be useful to the other’s career, layers of desire and affection and ambition begin to bleed into one another, until neither character can say for certain what is driving them. Playwright Laura Eason, who is also a writer for television’s House of Cards, has created an intriguing complication in Sex with Strangers - each character at some point writes under a pen name and develops a public persona to go with the name. Working on the play, it’s fascinating to pursue the various iterations of the question - which is real, the public persona, the person you know from reading their book, or the one next to you in bed? That question becomes fiercely important for both Ethan and Olivia, and uncovering the truth is a life or death issue for their relationship.

The Aliens: Director's Notes

The first thing audiences should know about The Aliens is some background on its playwright, Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker. She has an incredible gift for realism and dialogue. She captures life beautifully. One of the devices she uses to do that is silence. Her Playwright's Notes for The Aliens (an Obie Award winning play) state "half of this play should be in silence." Without that silence, the play would be a little under an hour. Ours runs just under two, with intermission included. 

Those silences are not empty. They are filled with life: tension, happiness, longing, need, curiosity... The silences define the rhythm of life as it's lived. For our characters, the set is their playground... a place of ultimate refuge and safety where they can vent, create, experiment and just be.  In this play, we the audience are voyeurs watching events unfold over a couple of weeks one summer behind a coffee shop in Vermont.

So, what is the play about? It's about life. Growing up. Connection, friendship, love, loss, hope. Drugs, rock-in-roll, Bukowski, poetry, disillusionment and fireworks. It is about a teenager who finds himself through the most unlikely of mentors. It is simple and full. It is life. I am so honored to bring this beautiful play to the stage and to share it with audiences.  

One more thing: During casting, I really struggled. Both of my older actors were fully capable of playing either role. They couldn't have had more different takes on the characters but both performances were honest and sublime. About midway through rehearsal, I confessed the casting dilemma I'd had to Jake (Buchanan) and Joey (Folsom), the actors in the roles . Together we decided to let them do one rehearsal in the opposite role. I was sold and they were excited, agreeing to the added work with the pay-off of getting a very rare opportunity for an actor. It's worked out great. Seeing the different performances is a trip. Completely different but fabulous. Audiences will see the original casting on Thursdays and Saturdays and the alternate casting on Fridays and Sundays.

The Aliens (a poem by Charles Bukowski)

you may not believe it 
but there are people 
who go through life with 
very little 
friction or 
distress. 
they dress well, eat 
well, sleep well. 
they are contented with 
their family 
life. 
they have moments of 
grief 
but all in all 
they are undisturbed 
and often feel 
very good. 
and when they die 
it is an easy 
death, usually in their 
sleep. 

you may not believe 
it 
but such people do 
exist. 

but i am not one of 
them. 
oh no, I am not one of them, 
I am not even near 
to being 
one of 
them. 
but they 
are there 

and I am 
here

from The Last Night Of The Earth Poems

A chat with actor Parker Gray about getting really really real

Q: The playwright of this show, Annie Baker, has become known for her hyper-realistic aesthetic and style. She posits situations, characters, and environments that are true to life in very specifically modern ways. In working on The Aliens, what have been the most exciting and challenging parts of exploring a theatrical style that is (the characters notwithstanding) stripped of much theatricality?

A: I think perhaps the most exciting thing about any hyper-realistic play is (when you’re able to fulfill the requirements of the role) how easy it is to understand where these characters come from, where they are, and where they’re going. And when you have a playwright as talented as Annie Baker creating these stories and characters, it does half of the work for you. Playing around in Evan’s world has been extremely fun and challenging at the same time.

Something exciting to play with is the fact that, because these characters are SO human, every thought that goes through your head completely supports the action of the scene. And what I mean by that is, in other plays it is really easy for an actor to be upset with themselves because they will become distracted and their thoughts will roam if they aren’t listening well, or even if they’re listening “too hard”. You can start to judge your thought process and get in your own way, because you don’t feel connected with your partner, or you haven’t quite figured out your path yet. However, with the help of Annie’s writing and the world she has created, this hyperrealism allows the actor to think SO many thoughts about what’s going on, and it’s almost impossible to lose track of where you are. I’ve found that Evan is an extremely vigilant and observant character, so he is constantly judging the world around him and he’s judging himself through these experiences around him. And because of this, I as the actor, am fully able to jump into that mindset and track my journey through each scene. Evan is always hyperaware of when he is messing up or making too many waves, and so every self-conscious thought an actor could have is mirrored in Evan’s world. No thought is off limits; which is so freeing as an actor. It is so easy to find your way back to the scene or the action if you’re lost. However, this ability isn’t possible without doing the outside rehearsal room work you need to do as an actor, but Annie Baker definitely helps you get to where you need to be.

Now this script isn’t void of challenges by any means. Every night is fun, because you get to play around and try new things, but this play still costs you something. It is a tiring journey to go on. The play is so sweet and endearing, while also being brutal and heartbreaking. And I as the actor feel that every day during and after every rehearsal. These characters are all wounded in some deep, serious place, and in order to fulfill the requirements of this play, you have to go there and it’s tough. Each character is so meaty and full, and any actor would love to be able to sink their teeth into these roles, but it comes at a price. And that’s what good writing and good acting requires: a price to be paid. Annie spends precious time setting these characters so high on a pedestal, only to fall very far very quick. And you have to go there in order to do the play. And because of the brilliant writing and the hyper-realistic style you FEEL that every time. It’s challenging, but in a good way. Acting wouldn’t be fun if it was easy. And I wouldn’t want to do it, if I didn’t have to work. This play makes you work, but it also makes it seem effortless. And with this cast and creative team, it’s impossible not to have fun, to go after each other, and to feel all the things every night.

Theatre Jones spotlights Aaron Mark and the world premiere of "Deer"

Garret and Lisa and John and the rest of us here at Stage West are excited to present the world premiere of Deer to the playwright himself this weekend! Please join us on Sunday March 26 for our matinee performance. Playwright Aaron Mark will be in attendance and will lead the Post-Show Conversation. 

In the meantime, check out this interesting article Work in Progress: Deer - Playwright Aaron Mark talks about the unusual path his play Deer took for its world premiere at Stage West by Shelby-Allison Hibbs over at Theatre Jones (and excerpted below...)

Aaron Mark grew up in Houston, attending theatre and classes at the notable Theatre Under the Stars. Instead of taking the typical route of going to college and majoring in theatre, Mark decided to move directly to New York City after high school to start his career working in the theatre. He began by assistant directing numerous musicals. Mark mused about his past ambitions,  “I was on a path to become a director of musicals.” He’s most known as a director, and has a notable amount of credits in the city.

But something changed as Mark began to take an interest in writing plays… weird plays, as he says. Deer was inspired by real events; a couple of Mark’s friends were driving in a wooded area when they suddenly hit a deer. It completely changed their night because the animal was not quite dead yet—one of them would have to kill it. Mark was fascinated by that situation. “Who is going to do it? What does it reveal about the dynamics of their relationship? What would it catalyze in their relationship? I was intrigued by the intensity of that moment.”

Deer is unusual from a development standpoint… because it has already been published. Even before a single production of the play had occurred. That is interesting…and almost unheard of.

Check out the full article at Theatre Jones to find out the rest of the path Deer took to its world premiere at Stage West.

Hope to see you all on Sunday with your questions and comments for the director.

(photo: Aaron Mark)

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