Production Blog

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

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 Natalie R. Mabry, 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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