Production Blog

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

Gloria Benavides on Playing It Up

Q: In this show, you play a character named Vesta Verile who is inspired by real-life male impersonator Vesta Tilley. And Vesta (in the play within the play) portrays the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, one of the most iconic characters in the Western canon. Can you talk about the cross-roads of playing both a character inspired by a pioneer of gender performance and also one of the most famous characters in world literature?

A: I am a queer performer. I love breaking the rules, pushing boundaries, and poking fun at the normies. I’ve been playing men since I was 16. Even as a kid, I loved it—it’s always a challenge, and you have access to fun, meaty roles. Although we’re seeing some gradual (see: slow) progress in terms of representation in playwriting and on stage, women often still have to fight for just a few roles in every play, and many of those characters are underdeveloped. Yes, even in 2021. So, we can imagine the circumstances Vesta Tilley came into as a young performer in the 19th century, an era when women were relegated to playing princesses and maids. The fact that she was able to circumnavigate the limitations of the time and make a career on her own terms is some BOSS BITCH SHIT and I am honored to tap into some of that power on stage as Vesta Virile. Because of pioneers like Vesta Tilley and Gladys Bentley (look them up!), I’m suiting up every night to play Ebenezer Scrooge— I am wearing a mustache, creeping around with a candlestick, and having a hell of a time playing the one of the meanest, crustiest, most iconic misers in literature. Oh! And I’m doing it all in this Latina’s body. I’d like to think that would have really pissed off a guy like Scrooge. I’m here for it. I hope you are, too.

Director Danielle Georgiou on Revisiting a Classic

Q: A Christmas Carol is a staple in the western zeitgeist - a story that stands the test of time, and is examined and reinvented in new and varied ways by each generation. This version of the story takes itself far less seriously than what we generally expect when we encounter the traditional telling of the tale. Why do you think we continue to explore this story and what does this zany, silly, and a little bit naughty version add to the conversation?

A: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is arguably the author’s best work, and is a classic piece of literature that will be read and studied for many more generations to come. It addresses societal conditions that are universal in concept and theme, and it is an excellent examination of the human condition. Even though it was written 177 years ago, it still endures in a world that is almost unrecognizable from Dickens’. I think that we continue to see parodies of this classic tale, like our production of Scrooge in Rouge, because of these qualities. Dickens, in his nuanced storytelling, has given us a lead character that is layered, complicated, tragic, redeemable, human – not someone to hate, but rather someone from whom you can see a mirror into yourself. And to have the opportunity to explore these very real characteristics through comedy is so special and necessary. If we can’t laugh at the Scrooge inside of us, how can we grow? As Dickens ended his story: “Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh... for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset... His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”

A chat with Shyama Nithiananda on playing history

Q: This new script draws on the life of John Quincy Adams in a way that asks us to examine our own relationship with our government, each other, and ourselves. In some ways this play is simultaneously a character study of both the man himself as well as the nation. The conversations in this play are as present now as they were then. As you work on creating this production, what aspects of this show strike you as being timely and modern?

A: I was never a stellar history student – I wasn’t bad, per say, but only insomuch as I was an acceptable student generally. History had an uncanny ability to annoy me to no end as a child – I could never seem to order events properly in my mind, and the yearly realization that I did not in fact learn everything about World War I in sixth grade history and would need to reimagine the event with even more details for seventh grade history was an annual source of frustration for me. 

As such, my knowledge of John Quincy Adams prior to starting this project was limited, anecdotal, and fairly irrelevant. He was the ineffective, presidential son of an ineffective president – the embodiment of ruling class privilege in a country new enough to distrust fresh blood and stratified enough to limit potential challengers – a symbol of everything nepotistic, out of touch, and elite about our early leaders without quite managing to push through any policies that would, say, show up on the AP test at the end of the school year. I vaguely remember Dr. Russell’s assurances that the subsequent, horrifying term of Andrew Jackson was, in part at least, a reaction to JQA’s blandness, but cyclical reactionary voter patterns seemed to be about all JQA was good for in my high school history class. On top of that, he seemed to me a rather unintriguing person to study, seeing as even the people of his time found him, well… boring.

So, you can imagine my surprise when, upon hearing about this project, a family friend announced, quite earnestly, “John Quincy is one of my favorite presidents!” … What?! On top of the already foreign notion of having a “favorite president,” I could not fathom why anyone would choose JQA for that title. As it turns out, Uncle Sujit has an affinity for presidential biographies and a keen interest in JQA as an abolitionist. 

Of course, I was surprised to find out that JQA was so vehemently against slavery – without advocating equal rights. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. It’s been pointed out to me before that Abraham Lincoln, even, was not particularly revolutionary in his politics. The (white, male, voting) populace of the time accepted abolition under Lincoln, not because of him. What is so brave about doing something baseline humane – ending the enslavement of human beings – when you know large swaths of the country already agree with you? What I learned about Lincoln in history classes lacked context – the same lack of context that infuriated me about sixth grade history. The reality that men came before him with similar views and laid groundwork for him – men like John Quincy Adams, for example. 

There are other interesting tidbits about JQA, of course, that I found during my research, ranging from the international influence of Abigail Adams to Louisa’s chocolate habit. But what sticks out to me the most is that JQA was an abolitionist. It isn’t some massive, unheard of stance. It doesn’t absolve him of his racism. It doesn’t stick out because I even find it difficult to believe. It sticks out to me specifically because I was surprised to learn it. Because I assumed that every founding father, every man of influence at the time was, in some way, a proponent of enslavement. How could he acknowledge the humanitarian abomination of slavery without abolitionism becoming his entire identity? His legacy? 

The answer, of course, is that people are complicated, that our ideals are incongruous, that recognizing evil does not equate to a complete understanding in our bodies and souls of its fullness. And yet, with complication, incongruity, and incompletion, JQA as a historical figure began to lay the groundwork for actual meaningful change that would not happen in his lifetime. 

Working on this play, with this in mind, and with a full understanding that it is not historically accurate, I have been coming back to this idea a lot. I play JQA in his youngest years. I start to mold a character who I will not play. I lay the groundwork for a politician who is not yet a politician, a husband who is not yet a husband, a father who is not yet a father. And after I take off JQA’s red coat, I get to watch a microcosm of history unfold before me. The character I began gets adopted, changed, grown, and remembered in ways I intended and didn’t intend, just as the country we inherit and will pass along to future generations is and will be a product of history we could not control – and yield results we do not imagine.

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