_JWG8561‘Tis the season when theaters across the country announce their 2014-2015 seasons. Two plays continue to dominate the boards, just as they did last year: David Ives’ Venus in Fur and Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. These shows played off-Broadway in 2010 and 2012, respectively, both transferred to Broadway and both have been top choices for artistic directors across the country ever since.

The bajillionth time I saw that one or the other of these plays will be/have been part of a regional theater’s season, I had to ask myself,  What is it about these plays that makes them necessary art right now? Will they help promote the theaters’ stated missions of diversity and attracting new audiences? Are they about healthcare? Immigration? Gay rights? Gun violence? Unemployment? These are issues concerning all Americans these days. Plays about these topics might actually be timely in New York and Los Angeles and D.C. and San Francisco and Nashville and Dallas and Minneapolis and Chicago and Seattle and Milwaukee and Portland.

But neither of these two popular plays are about any of those things. They are both written by white dudes and  feature middle- and upper-class, educated white characters. And both plays contain characters who work in the theater. In other words, the plays are set in the same worlds occupied by the mostly white male artistic directors who love them, which may explain why they all find them so relevant. But I’m not so sure that they are that relevant to a theater audience that is 68 percent women (at least in London), and they certainly won’t bring in the young, diverse audiences that theaters claim to be devoted to attracting. Oh, but Venus in Fur does have a dominatrix. So there’s that.

_JWG8917Meanwhile, genuinely relevant, quality plays are being written by women all over the country. Deborah Salem-Smith’s play Love Alone, for example, is an intimate play about family and grief that also manages to take on gay rights and medical malpractice. The story centers on three women at totally different points in their lives: Helen Warren (50s), her daughter Clementine (20s) and Dr. Becca Neal, a 33-year-old anesthesiologist. When Helen’s partner of 20 years, Susan, dies while undergoing minor surgery, Helen and Clementine have to learn to live without her, while Dr. Neal has to deal with her first “bad outcome”–the loss of a patient on the operating table.

The brilliance of Smith’s play is that it works on both personal and political levels. Helen and Clementine go through the same thing every mother and child go through upon losing a family member: They cry, they laugh, they yell and, in the form of a lawsuit against the hospital, they seek an explanation for a loss that can probably never be satisfyingly explained. Witnessing these deeply human experiences allows audience members to empathize and identify with the characters, so that when they discover that Helen–not having been married to Susan–does not have legal standing to hold the hospital accountable, they understand on a personal level how deeply unjust marriage inequality is.

In what must feel like a rare gift to the women in Love Alone, all three characters have complete story arcs that make them more than just wives, mothers and daughters. The loss of Susan changes Helen, who had never been the kind of person who seeks revenge. It changes Clementine, a rock-’n’-roll performer whose music becomes quieter and more introspective. And Dr. Neal goes from being cold and distant (she experiences the tragedy primarily as a threat to her career) to being compassionate and able to accept responsibility.

Love Alone, which premiered at Trinity Repertory Company in Rhode Island in 2012, will open its second production on March 1 at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, N.C. Smith shared with me her goal in writing the play:

I really wanted to write a play with a 20-something female who is not in a love story, because I don’t see that person on stage enough, and I think 20-year-old vibrant women have a ton going on in their lives. They’re not just trying to kiss someone.

Smith’s previous plays did not contain gay characters, but as her children have grown older she’s begun deliberately writing them and deliberately addressing issues relevant to gay families like her own:

I started to have a growing realization that as our children are getting older and they start coming to the theater, I want them to see our family on stage. The other motivation was that when we talk about marriage equality in our country, we tend to overlook that the biggest cost of having a lack of marriage equality is on children. Because a lot of gay families now have children, and you put those children in a really perilous positions when you don’t empower those parents to make choices for the family.

_JWG8833I spoke with the director of this production, Vivienne Benesch, about how she thinks the play will resonate with a North Carolina audience:

I hope and expect that it leads to a very genuine conversation about an important topic–marriage equality–that may not even be in the zeitgeist of that community in the way that it should be. I’m also excited to be doing it in the Research Triangle and the medical community, because they understand the ethical tightrope that medical professionals have to walk.

Relevance to the community in which it is being produced? Check. Written by a woman, featuring women characters that can be cast with any ethnicity and therefore add diversity to a theater’s season? Check. Appeal to a young audience by featuring live rock music and projected music videos? Check. No wonder artistic director Joseph Haj decided to produce it. He put it this way:

Deborah’s play is beautiful. Full stop. That’s why we programmed it. It offers aesthetic diversity, a diversity in point-of-view and diversity in style from much of our other work. We’d be crazy not to want that for ourselves. It’s actually that simple. Running a theater is monstrously difficult. Including women and people of color as playwrights and directors is not one of the hard parts of the job.

PlayMaker’s 2014-2015 season includes 4000 Miles by Amy Herzog and Trouble in Mind by the late Alice Childress, who is African American as well as a woman. Of course the season also includes Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike. Given Haj’s genuine dedication to diversity, maybe at least he, unlike everyone else across the country, won’t cast it entirely with white folks.

Love Alone runs through March 16.

Photos by Jon Gardiner

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Originally posted at HowlRound

When The Antaeus Company began in 1991, under the auspices of Center Theater Group, the idea was to find a way to maintain a classical theater company within the specific environment of Los Angeles where, for most actors, a living is made through a series of one-day jobs as costars, guest stars and spots on commercials. Today Antaeus operates as an independent theater company in North Hollywood, but it remains true to its vision of providing a touchstone for actors working in film and television, a place where they can “regain their creative strength by returning to the wellspring of their craft: live theater.” Today many of its founding members still perform with the company, which produces a wide range of plays by Shakespeare, Greek drama, and Restoration Comedy; American classics like The Crucible; and modern updates and adaptations of the classics.The governance of the company has changed over the years—today they have three co-artistic directors—but since the beginning, Antaeus has practiced double casting, or what they call “partner casting:” Every role in every show is cast with two actors. Though the practice began as a way to ensure that they would not have to cancel shows every time an actor booked a lucrative one-day gig, according to co-Artistic Director and actor Bill Brochthrup, it grew from there:“What we started to find after the logistics of it were implemented was that it has artistic merits and it’s an interesting thing for the actors. It’s tough for the scheduling—the scheduling is nightmarish, there’s no way around it—but we started to find that when you’re creating a part with another person and you set it up from the beginning that these two people are creating this role together, and come at it with a lack of ego and a collaborative spirit, you really find interesting things.”Over time, the company has discovered that the best way to foster the kind of collaboration necessary to building such a show together, the whole company has to rehearse as a group until tech, when the actors are finally divided up into two casts. Up until tech, whenever a character is called, both actors playing that part are called, and they alternate acting and watching their partner act.Co-Artistic Director and actor Rob Nagle described the benefits this way: “As long as the actor can set aside their own ownership of the role and start to watch it as though you are creating something together, it works. Each time Brian [his partner in a recent production] would go onstage and do something I could say ‘Oh that’s good, I like that, I want to build on that.’ So you find yourself building on the shoulders of the other person’s performance, so you both get higher and higher up into the role,” he says. “But you have to check out of this ‘I have to make it mine concept,’ which is a really hard thing for actors to do because we’re supposed to make something our own. We have to make it ours in a plural sense.”

The final production of Antaeus’ 2013 season—David Ives’ adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s The Liar—could be seen with the “Tangerines” cast or the “Cherries” cast in alternating performances on Saturdays and Sundays, and on Thursdays and Fridays with a mash-up of the two called the “Pomegranates.” (These fruit-themed groupings derive from the play’s titular character’s elaborate lie about a great date at which “five blindfold virgins served us pomegranates on alabaster plates.”) Through the weekend, Tangerines and Cherries take alternate turns on the stage through three shows. Though technically the Tangerines and Cherries casts were two wholly different sets of actors, when anyone in either cast got another job, their counterpart subbed in.

Though Ives’ translaptation, as he calls it, of Corneille’s neo-classical comedy strays from the original in plot, character, and dialogue, it recreates, often in modern urbanese, the florid verse peculiar to the form. Likewise, the acting and design of director Casey Stangl’s production capture the essence of the period’s style without turning its stylistic elements into set pieces. In fact the rhyming couplets and physical comedy of the mistaken-identity/lost twin/life-changing events-that-nevertheless-unfold-within-24-hours shenanigans that typify these comedies make it perfect for the practice of partner casting, in which the blocking or the positioning of actors on the stage must be executed with exactitude so that any actor may be subbed in with any cast at any time.

Stangl says that the process necessary to building such a show actually suits her directing style, even though the usual “negotiations” are a little bit trickier: “You really have to talk about everything in the moment that you’re working on it so somebody doesn’t come back the next time and do it completely differently cause they think that’s how it should go. It’s a little more delicate matter juggling that so that everybody feels heard and listened to and valued.”

For her, the benefits are well worth the scheduling nightmares. Speaking of the actors’ process, she shared, “In a way it’s almost like you’re watching yourself on stage, you have a sense of your character not just when you’re up there in your bubble, but you can see it in the whole of the production. So you start to see how your character fits into the world of the play in a kind of holistic sense. And I have found that as a director to be invaluable, to have actors be able to make observations and comments based on that kind of bird’s-eye view.”

Though the blocking stays the same in all performances, Stangl, who has directed with the company before, works with the actors to find what she calls “dealer’s choice,” moments where two actors playing the same role can make different choices. As a result, when one actor substitutes for another in the cast with which she doesn’t usually perform, the subtle differences require the entire cast to be particularly in-the-moment. As Co-Artistic Director John Sloan, who also acts with the company, put it, “You are instantly that much more alive and awake and listening that much more acutely. It’s fun and terrifying.” Nagle echoed the sentiment, saying, “It’s fantastic because you get to play again like you were in rehearsals. In front of an audience. It’s terrifying and exciting at the same time.”

The roster of actors in The Antaeus Company is multi-faceted: Some ensemble members have decades of experience performing in theater, film, and television while others have only recently joined the Antaeus Academy and are still surprised to find a company so focused on the classics in the heart of Hollywood. Sloan contextualized the value of Antaeus both for actors and audience this way: “One of the founding goals of the company was to counteract the speed of Hollywood and the jobs you’re forced to do as an actor where you go, you have a couple of takes and you’re told what to do when and it’s over in 20 minutes. In a place that worships the new, the next thing so aggressively, hopefully we can offer a little oasis that says there’s value in taking time and in the practice of listening to complex language and thoughts—that there’s something to be learned from that as well.”

As to The Liar in particular, it’s not hard to find the resonances for a Los Angeles audience of a play about a compulsive liar and rake whose skills in love are surpassed only by his ability to spin a tall tale. In a land where the ability to sell oneself is prized above all else, the liar’s ode to lying really hits home:

This world’s a scrim, Cliton, a fiction,
A richly tapestried, inch-thick depiction
Stretched over some mysterious cosmic hole.
You say that you’re a servant. How do I know?
Who’s she, or he? Who is the whole back row?
How do I know the smallest thing? I can’t.
No one knows anything. So people rant,
Protest, despair, take up astrology —
For each man fears in his biology
That life’s a fraud, a fake, an empty vial.
Why else do people primp and pose? Denial.
That’s where the liar comes in. Because he knows
The truth, accepts the void, because he shows
Us the absurd commedia we’re all masked for.

Images:
Joe Delafield and Bo Foxworth as Alicippe and Jules Wilcox and Kate Maher as Clarice. Photo credit: Geoffrey Wade.
Jules Wilcox and Kate Maher as Clarice and Ann Noble and Joanna Strapp as Lucrece. Photo credit: Geoffrey Wade