Monday, October 12, 2015

Seminar: Let's Be Brutally Honest

by Adam Versényi

Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, with its conversation surrounding mentorship and education is, in many ways, the perfect play for production by a theatre company like PlayMakers located on a university campus. That conversation is even more relevant when it quickly becomes clear that the seminar in question is concerned with creative writing, a discipline with a long strong history on the UNC campus. The South is a region known for the strength of its fiction writers, many nurtured by programs like ours here in Chapel Hill.

Rebeck’s biting comedy is set in a New York City Upper West Side apartment where four young writers gather for a master class taught by Leonard, once a young fiction phenom himself, who is now a highly sought after editor and a journalist covering war-torn, strife-ridden areas of the globe in the style of Christopher Hedges or C.J. Shivers. The old lion Leonard circles and snipes, pokes and prods, insults and incites the young feral cats that are his charges. In the process, Rebeck explores these writers and all of our life-long cycle of self-identification. The question at the root of this seminar is not so much what it takes to be an artist, but more provocatively, what it takes to be a human being. Rebeck’s characters expose themselves to one another and to us, moving in and out of states of vulnerability and rawness, struggling with how the nature of authenticity contrasts with the perception of authenticity.

Perhaps the central vehicle Rebeck uses to explore these questions is the various shades of honesty we encounter in the play. Like us all, her characters are honest with one another in different degrees, at different times. Leonard’s teaching technique of brutal honesty with his students motivates a great deal of the play’s dramatic action, but also raises questions. Is he being truly honest, both with them and with himself? And is brutal honesty, the tearing down of a student in order to build her or him up again, an effective teaching technique, or simply an exercise of power, an unadulterated ego-trip? Through her characters Rebeck allows us to come to different conclusions in answer to these questions as Leonard and the young writers explore nature vs. nurture, the quality of experience vs. innate identity, as they work to become the type of artist they want to be. The feral cats act on instinct while the old lion offers sage advice gained on the killing fields of the savannah. Rebeck’s play is certainly full of witty dialogue, but it is much more than people sitting around pontificating. This is a muscular, active experience for the audience member. Pull up your chair for this Seminar; join the debate.

Seminar is onstage beginning October 14th.

Click here or call our Box Office at 919-962-7529 for tickets.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Ray Dooley: Finding and Becoming Leonard in Seminar

Ray Dooley as Leonard
In Seminar, Ray Dooley plays the ruthless and frank character of Leonard, a writer/editor who conducts private seminars with young writers looking for both expert criticism and connections to the field of publishing. "Leonard's brain moves so quickly that one sentence can last the better part of a minute. His mind is continually turning over new images and thoughts, and new thoughts are pushing the previous thought out of the way as he strives to make his point the most effective way he can," says Ray, describing how Leonard's grammar is connective and that learning it requires intuitive leaps, one of the largest challenges of playing the role.

With a cast of five, the play "adheres to the unities of time, space and action" more closely than some other productions. The scenes lead to a final showdown, which creates a tighter and smaller canvas. Leonard is moving on a straight line towards an climactic encounter, which is easier to get one's mind around, "but just as a sonata or a quartet, it's not necessarily easier to play." Ray says that although it's different, it's more focused, and in some ways more demanding.

Through a series of metaphorical exercises led by director Michael Dove, Ray was able to uncover the underpinnings of each scene and the skeleton beneath the surface which provided structure to the action.
"Near the end of the play, I have a long speech where I am including one of the young writers in a pointed and emphatic critique of his life, my life and the writing profession. Myles [Bullock], the actor playing the young writer, in order to 'protect' himself, started building a wall around me with chairs. It became that he was putting me in a prison so that I couldn’t get to him with my critique and attack. At the end of the speech, what happens in the play is that my character leaves his character in a very exposed and bleak position. As I got near the end of that speech, I walked around, took him by the hand, walked him into the prison he had created, and as I finished the speech, I close the door on him. We had a visual metaphor of what my character had, in essence, done to his character, leaving him locked in a prison of his own creation. It was a beautiful visualization of that moment."
The four actors playing the writing students in PlayMakers' production are actually Ray's students in UNC's Professional Actor Training Program. "There's always extra pressure when you are working without a net with your own students." He describes the pressure to practice what he preaches, as they can see whether or not he's applying the things taught in the studio. "It's also a great joy when I see these early career professionals doing so well," says Ray.

When creating the wardrobe for Leonard, Ray and Jade Bettin, costume designer for Seminar, drew closely from real life models. "There's an actor in New York I admire greatly, who has some similarities to Leonard." To some degree, they based the wardrobe on that real life person's clothing choices, found in professional and candid photos. "When an actor is building belief in a character, it's a great help to know that these are looks that actually work in real life." The duo also considered where Leonard had just come from and where he is going. In doing that, Ray is able to build a backstory for the earlier portion of the day, which may or may not have gone well.

In terms of set, scenic designer Robin Vest has built a sunken living room downstage, close to the audience, where the first two seminar sessions take place. This allows for a more personal, intimate setting, whereas if the play were upstage, "we would have to try to open it out to the audience, almost as if we were playing in a proscenium house, and probably not able to play quite so intimately." Ray says that playing downstage allows the cast to "paint with fine brushes" rather than having to be sure the audience can hear and see them, allowing the cast more flexibility.

Ray feels it has been a rare privilege to be a part of PlayMakers for so long. Being at PlayMakers is the job Ray says he trained for in the 1970s at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. "Among the greatest joys are my colleagues." Ray describes the role of Leonard as a parting gift from former Producing Artistic Director Joseph Haj and calls working with director Michael Dove "a joy." "It's an extraordinary company of people, and in many ways, a family. We have become the fabric of each other's lives and it shows in the work on stage."

"I certainly get inspiration from the audience here; the audience and I have a 26-year relationship now-and that’s a great privilege. I try to live up to that every time I step on stage and try to live up to the responsibility and the implicit promise every time." 
- Ray Dooley

Seminar takes the stage October 14th through November 1st.

Click here or call our Box Office at 919-962-7529 for tickets.

Monday, October 5, 2015

What We Can Learn Through Seminar

Michael Dove, Director of Seminar

Michael Dove, founding Artistic Director of Forum Theatre in Washington, DC and winner of three Helen Hayes Awards, makes his PlayMakers debut directing Seminar. Michael says, "the thing I most often find myself thinking about in rehearsals for this play is how painfully difficult it is to know yourself."
 Life is complicated. People are complicated. If you can’t figure that out, you’ll never be much of a writer.
"Isn't that the truth!" agrees Michael.

When he heard that neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks had died, Michael found himself obsessed with reading Sacks' writings, realizing that no new words would be coming from him again. Sacks' explorations and discoveries helped shape how Michael sees the world, and understanding the self became the soundtrack to his experience with the bitingly funny Seminar. "It's become a dramatization of Sacks' ideas and questions for me... a play about passion and discovering who you truly are."

In Seminar, four young writers enroll in a private class taught by Leonard, a renowned novelist/editor (played by Ray Dooley). Leonard only has time for the truth, unfiltered. His unorthodox methods put their fragile, developing egos on the cutting board and bring their ferocious envy to the forefront. "Here are four young writers all struggling with the ability to perceive themselves and to find their true voice coupled with a mentor whose tough exterior protects the wounded artistic soul inside," says Michael.
To me, the most compelling stories are the ones that are complicated. The brilliant writers are the ones that try to tackle all the contradictions ‪in our world, all the complexities of relationships, all the differings of opinions, all the nuances of a culture within the confines of the page. The best short stories, novels, plays take all that chaos and help you, the reader or watcher, better understand the human condition.
- Michael Dove
Michael says the beauty of Seminar is how it infuses toil and difficulty with humor. Actor Alan Rickman, who originated the role of Leonard on Broadway, described the play as a "comedy of very bad manners."

"Everyone struggles everyday to find their true self and purity," continues Michael, making Seminar a relatable comedy. "Insecurities, pain... how can we not laugh at that."

"Some of the richest stories of our lives are the traumatic academic experience or pangs of heartache that make it up. The characters [in Seminar] combat with 'such animalistic ferocity' that makes for wickedly funny and clever theatre."

"I have long admired the work at PlayMakers and can’t wait to share the pleasure of watching the amazing Ray Dooley with you all as he takes on the role of Leonard. This is one of the smartest comedies to come out of the American Theatre in the last five years, and I am thrilled to share it with this community."

Join director Michael Dove and his creative team for Seminar. Onstage Oct 14 - Nov 1.

Click here or call the Box Office at 919-962-7529 for tickets.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Critical Acclaim for Disgraced

Mainstage Season opener Disgraced is making an impact on audiences and critics alike. Read what reviewers have to say about this "profound" Pulitzer Prize-winner.

Samip Raval as Abe and Rajesh Bose as Amir
The News & Observer:
“a much-needed eye-opener”
“one of PlayMakers’ most satisfying productions in several seasons”

The Daily Tar Heel:
“astounding ... a brilliant success”
“’bravo tutti’ to PlayMakers for its magnificent interpretation and presentation of a remarkably necessary artwork to the Chapel Hill and UNC communities”

INDY Week:  4 1/2 Stars:
“audience members … won’t soon forget”
“powerful ... astonishing"
"most highly recommended"

Triangle Arts & Entertainment:
"brave and necessary"
“anyone, of any age, should have something to think about”

Nicole Gabriella Scipione as Emily and Rajesh Bose as Amir
And from another article in The Daily Tar Heel:
“audience members were immersed from the moment they walked in”

Playwright Ayad Akhtar tells a story that captivates, giving theatre-goers much to discuss and think about.

Experience Disgraced for yourself. Onstage through October 4th.

Click here or call the Box Office at 919-962-7529 for tickets.