821/823 W Vickery Blvd, Fort Worth, Texas 76104
A behind the scenes peek at rehearsals, artistic choices, artist interviews, and the daily business of running a theatre.
Q: During your relatively brief time in DFW, you have made quite an impact as a sought-after director who specializes in highly theatrical, hard-to-stage pieces. The Children may fall under your specialization, but likely in a far more subtle and understated way. How do you find that this script both suits your directorial sensibilities and stretches new muscles, and in what ways ways do you find it to be different from your previous work in DFW?
A: Wow, this is very kind of you to say. I was initially attracted to the sci fi/ghost story undertones that waft their subtle way through The Children. It takes place in the near, pre-dystopian future (no robots, but a nuclear disaster with a robust group of survivors now living in a world with less technology and more farms). There is a floating ghost story about a lost village under the sea and sometimes, one can hear their church bells. There is a small fear of eggs hatching into monsters, which I think is a fun, telling way of talking about parenthood. And I love all that stuff. I love stories that address “the real” through the lens of “the imaginary.” I think that mode of story telling offers a special kind of hope for a better future, a better way of being that I find really attractive. Telling stories in that way tends to mean that I and the cast and designers have to invent a slightly different language for the piece. This can be a very physical language, like the second act of Noises Off that I did at T3 recently, or it can be a very sort of visual, rhythmic, tempo kind of language as we did in Reykjavik, which I directed at Kitchen Dog. I love doing that too, because I love the process of creating new ways to think about familiar things.
So The Children is right in my wheelhouse in those ways. In other ways…I am using some tools I haven’t picked up since I was in grad school, honestly. One example that comes to mind is that Hazel, played brilliantly by Lisa Fairchild, makes a salad over the course of 18 pages!!!!!! The playwright is very specific about this salad making including; what ingredients are in it, where they are in the kitchen, when she gets them, when she washes the lettuce leaves, when she chops the vegetables, when she mixes the salad, when she adds the dressing, on and on and on. And the actors all have to be able to eat it. So, the way I usually approach staging, which is to pick a few pages at a time, watch what the actors do and where their impulses take them and then edit and collate those impulses into story, was not going to work here. I had to do what I DO NOT prefer, which was plot it all out ahead of time with Lisa, and then drill those movements until they became second nature. Lisa as Hazel may not “feel like” making the salad …she may have the impulse to do something else. And normally, I’m all about exploring that other option, because who knows what great thing we may discover? But in this play, she can’t follow those impulses because if she doesn’t have X done by this line, then other lines don’t make sense. So working with that kind of strict adherence to repetition is a bit of a stretch for me. Fortunately my actors are brilliantly talented at it, so it’s fun to do!
Q: The Children focuses on three characters of the baby-boomer generation. But the Tony-nominated script was written by a millennial and this production is being directed by a Gen X-er. One of the interesting aspects of the script that makes it so dynamic is the respectful, open, and humane intergenerational dialogue that it creates. With the characters’ layered histories and this critical moment in which they find themselves, in what ways do you find this script and this production to be creating bridges of conversation?
A: Our creative team has discussed our surprise that the playwright, Lucy Kirkwood, was in her early 30’s when she published this play. Our characters are not written as baby boomer caricatures or villains responsible for all the current ills of the world. The dialogue allows discussion of climate change, natural vs. man-made calamity and personal responsibility without definitive generational blame.
At one point, my character Hazel says, “No good getting silly about nuclear because what is the alternative?” Hopefully, audience members who remember the effects of coal pollution and the limited sources of natural gas at that time will share that the development of nuclear power seemed a great advance for cleaner air in the early 70’s. The play certainly leaves room to question if physicists like our characters also recognized the potential for future disasters like Fukushima in Japan which resembles the disaster in our play. It shines a light on the question of what each generation “owes” the one before or after —technology keeps changing, the world is evolving and our planet is subject to not only issues that have been happening for centuries, but also new environmental problems.
Another interesting dynamic in this play is the relationship of Robin and Hazel as parents of four children, and Rose as a single woman with no children. It’s an interesting contemplation for me as the mother of a millennial. If I had to make a choice to “save” my family or the entire world – what sacrifices would I make? What choice would she and my stepchildren who are Gen-Xers with children of their own want me to make?
This dramaturgical information was compiled by our intern Nic McMinn.
The fictional nuclear disaster in the play is copied closely from a real-life disaster in the Fukushima area of Japan. On March 11, 2011, an earthquake struck off the coast of Japan and sent a 45-foot tsunami to the Daiichi nuclear plant. The reactors automatically went offline for safety.
Quick note on nuclear reactors: the nuclear reaction is kept in check a number of ways. One of the most important is a constant flow of cool water around them to keep them from over heating and melting down. Water pumps are needed to send the water around the reactor, and those pumps run on electricity.
When the plant stopped producing electricity because the reactors went offline, the water pumps were fed electricity by diesel generators. These were housed in the basement of the power plant. The tsunami submerged the generators, killing them. Without electricity, the pumps turned off, and the reactors were no longer cooled by water. Consequently, several of the reactors melted down and sent some of their radiation into the surrounding area.
A 20-km exclusion zone was set up at first, but it was expanded to 30-km. This area remains essentially abandoned and uninhabitable. As of 2018, a third of the displaced population remains refugees. This disaster is the only other “Level 7” nuclear incident besides Chernobyl.
Radiation exposure is measured in millisieverts. Everyone receives a little bit from cosmic radiation and random tiny radioactive atoms in soil. The average amount of annual exposure is 2.4 millisiverts. The exposure levels described on pg. 27 of the script (pg 20 of the pdf) of 100 millisieverts to 250 millisieverts are indeed dangerous. The temporary raised level to 250 that Rose describes mirrors the exposure the Fukushima workers experienced.
A Town Swallowed by the Sea
The “lost town” swallowed by sea mentioned several times throughout the script is a direct reference to Dunwich. This was a busy seaside town that was eventually lost to the North Sea due to erosion eating away the shore. From 1066-1086, the town lost half of its farmable land. It remained a successful fishing town after that but continually shrank. It is gone today; the last piece of the last church could be seen at low tide in the 1970s. Local legend says that the bells of the churches can be heard at certain tides.
Here is a postcard of All Saints church from 1904. You can see how the land is disappearing into the sea on the left:
First photo on this page: IAEA experts depart Unit 4 of TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on 17 April 2013 as part of a mission to review Japan's plans to decommission the facility. Photo Credit: Greg Webb / IAEA
Q: Ada had an astounding impact on the advancement of computer programming, and we interact with her work every day through our phones or television or computers. Can you talk a bit about what it’s like to portray a woman who actually lived and give voice to her when many may not know who she is? And how do you strike a balance between honoring both what we know about the real Ada and also Lauren Gunderson’s version of her?
A: Getting to portray an intelligent progressive woman nearly buried by history has been an honor and a thrill.
In current day, seeing women coming forward and leaving a mark on history seems a new idea. In some ways it is. But despite the constant shushing and silencing of the male-dominated world we live in, women have ALWAYS been making waves, moving mountains, and changing the world. Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, Marie Curie, Harriet Tubman, Joan of Arc, Susan B Anthony, Anne Frank, Queen Victoria, Sojourner Truth, Sacajawea, Eleanor Roosevelt, Grace Cooper, Naomi Parker, Margaret Sanger, Jane Goodall, Indira Gandhi, Shirley Chisholm, Sally Ride, Henrietta Leavitt, Ching Shih — the list truly is endless. Ada is among them as the first human to create binary code. She died so young it makes me wonder what else she could’ve invented.
What I love about Ada and how Lauren (the playwright) has given her such life is that she had a bad ‘past’, bad health, bad ‘decorum’ and STILL she created something beyond most of what society could even DREAM of. Of course, when writing a play, you can only reveal a story of humanity and kindness and genius in just an hour and forty-five minutes, something to help the audience empathize and recognize their own humanity in a short time. Lauren has taken bits and pieces of a crazy time in history surrounding a protege genius who could have a 5 hour play about her life and still not cover all that her and her family went through during this time-not to mention her very famous father, the epic poet Lord Byron. Even still, Lauren captures the simplicity of how a human with a mind of a computer can love, be loved, and navigate her way through the time she was given to leave an imprint that changed the course of history forever. I think of Ada and thank her for the world of communication, advancement, and over all connection she has given us. Her difference on the world has taken us from zero to one and beyond.
I hope you read about her. I hope you come see a play about her. I hope you look up all those women I mentioned before-especially the ones you’ve never heard of. As you look them up, think of Ada and the chance she has given you to gain knowledge, to communicate with your loved ones, to progress yourself into the future, where Ada believed we as humans could better the world with her ideas. Let’s prove her right.
Q: Audiences have come to know you as a staple at Stage West - both on and off stage. As a director, can you talk a bit about your process and how you arrive at your vision - from initial thoughts about the script to design concepts to staging? And is there any aspect of this process that has been unique?
A: My process, as it were, is always inspired and described by the unique qualities of each text – which completely vary from script to script. However, initially I always begin by asking what I perceive as the playwright’s intention with the piece, and do I resonate with that and feel I have a way to tell it that inspires larger emotions in me; passions, joy or even fear. (Sometimes the latter is oddly the most inspiring.) Then, once I have read the script, and sat with myself in quiet, I ask from as ego-less a place as I can, “Why should I be a part of this story? What can I bring to it? How can I helm this in a way that might have meaning for an audience?” If I feel there is an answer that reverberates positively, I proceed. Additionally, if images, emotions and challenges start firing in my brain from first reads of the script, and then I cannot stop thinking about them, I am passionate about proceeding. After that, I always strive to suit my approach and style to the individual needs of the script. If it’s an Aaron Posner meta-theatrical piece, I highlight the theatrical seams and go for the unadorned emotional truth. If it’s a language-driven classic, like An Iliad, it all depends on the rhythm and poetry of the language, and how to honor that but keep it alive and connected to an immediate humanity. If it’s a period piece like Ada and the Engine, I want to remove the barriers of time between the humans of Then and the humans of Now. However, always, always I respond to the music and rhythms and movement…and these are unique to each text. Finally, I never want to insert myself in an overt way between the text and the audience – instead I want to remove those doors and barriers.
Curious to know a bit more about Ada Lovelace? Enjoy this fascinating documentary by mathematician Hannah Fry.
What Happens There by John D'Agata published in The Believer Jan 1, 2010
One summer, when sixteen-year-old Levi Presley jumped from the observation deck of the 1,149-foot-high tower of the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas, the local city council was considering a bill that would temporarily ban lap dancing in the city’s strip clubs, archaeologists unearthed shards of the world’s oldest bottle of Tabasco brand sauce from beneath a parking lot, and a woman from Mississippi beat a chicken named Ginger in a thirty-five-minute-long game of tic-tac-toe.
On the day that Levi Presley died, five others died from two types of cancer, four from heart attacks, three because of strokes...
Q: There are plenty of stories that cross artistic mediums: books become television shows and movies, short stories are turned into musicals, Shakespeare gets adapted to ballet, fashion designers are inspired by visual art and architecture. But when the basis for the art is real-life, things might get a little sticky if permissions with artistic license are taken too far. To your mind, how does this play discuss the responsibility that art has to truth, when the art is directly inspired by real-life facts?
A: Art has had a complex relationship with "real-life" since inception. Henry VIII was dismayed when his "to-be" Anne of Cleaves didn't quite resemble the beautiful portrait he had been sent. Patrons of the art exhibit at The Grand Central Palace were in arms about whether Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (an ordinary urinal signed by the artist) could even be considered art. In 2019, podcasts like My Favorite Murder have to issue "corrections" every week as their fast and loose comedic style often comes at the expense of journalistic precision or even accurate pronunciation of names and places.
The Lifespan of a Fact doesn't try to resolve this complex relationship in one hour traffic on the stage. The Lifespan of a Fact allows its characters to try and paint boundaries around fact and art without giving the audience an easily packaged answer. Rather than a sermon, it's much more of a debate....a debate that includes slamming doors, traffic diagrams, and strangulation.
Q: In a time when facts seem to be something you can choose believe in or not and in a time when art is, at its core, a medium for truth-telling, The Lifespan of a Fact brings up a lot of interesting notions and ideas to wrestle with. In bringing this regional premiere comedy to Stage West, how do you balance the hilarious tone of this play with the very timely conflict it’s exploring? And what do you think the play is offering us in terms of a way forward?
A: One of the many fun things about a play like Lifespan of a Fact is that it allows us to laugh as we wade into some very deep and treacherous waters: What constitutes a Fact? Does the sum of a collection of Facts equal The Truth? Is Truth is more powerful than Fact?
What starts as a simple splash in the colorful, fun, shallow end becomes a struggle against a maelstrom. Our very notions of “right” and “wrong” swirl in on themselves, ultimately blurring into a Gordian Knot of logical fallacies and drowning our equilibrium.
The balance in this type of play comes from the storytellers, and we are fortunate to have three magnificent actors taking us on the journey. Dana Schultes, Chris Hury, and Evan Michael Woods are masterful and nuanced in their ability to elicit laughter in one moment, then drive home a core truth in the next. They are an extraordinary ensemble.
As both a society and individuals, we live in a constant battle of Fact versus Truth in both a macro and micro sense. While current events certainly put that battle in the foreground of our collective consciousness on a daily basis, this isn’t a new struggle. What the play offers us in the way of moving forward is evident in it’s key active example: Keep listening and talking to and with one another. Acknowledge the validity and value of another’s perspective. Stay open to what you don’t understand in the hope that growth towards understanding can occur. It may not happen today, but there is hope for tomorrow.