Saturday, December 27, 2014

Year in Review: PlayMakers in 2014

Here's a look back at some of our favorite PlayMakers memories from 2014.
(in no particular order)

1. Lisa Brescia's spirited ‘Last Midnight’ as The Witch in Into the Woods

Read more: “Becoming the Witch in Into the Woods“; Lisa Brescia, photo by Jon Gardiner

2. Roger Guenveur Smith in Rodney King, sparking community conversation during PRC² in the wake of the events in Ferguson, Missouri

Roger Guenveur Smith in Rodney King at PlayMakers

3. The elegant 1930s Café Society Supper Club set for Private Lives

Kristen Mengelkoch, Tom Coiner, Jeffrey Blair Cornell and Julie Fishell; photo Jon Gardiner

4. Ray Dooley’s Puck and Julie Fishell’s Nick Bottom as we’ve never seen them before in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Read more: A Conversation with A Midsummer Night's Dream's Ray Dooley and Zachary Fine; photo by Jon Gardiner
Julie Fishell and Ray Dooley; photo by Jon Gardiner

5. Crazy, carefree, sometimes ‘clothes-free’ Spike in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Read more: “Christian Daly makes his PlayMakers debut”; Christian Daly as Spike, photo by Curtis Brown

6. The beautiful healing and hope of Love Alone

Patrick McHugh and Jenny Wales. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

7. Associate Artistic Director Jeff Meanza trips the light fantastic in Assassins (and again as The Baker in Into the Woods!)

Jeffery Meanza; Photo by Jon Gardiner.

8. Joel de la Fuenta’s mesmerizing performance as Gordon Hirabayashi in Hold These Truths

Read more: “Meet Joel de la Fuente”; Joel de la Fuente, photo by Lia Chang

9. Mike Daisey explores America’s national obsession with guns in our commission and world premiere of The Story of the Gun

Mike Daisey, photo by Ursa Waz

10. The Summer Youth Conservatory’s Madison-dancing cast of Hairspray raises the roof of the Paul Green Theatre

"PlayMakers Summer Youth Conservatory presents: HAIRSPRAY"

And a 10 plus 1 we’ll never forget…

11. Adorable bovine Milky White stealing our hearts in Into the Woods!
Read more: “Working with Puppets” by Donovan Zimmerman, Puppeteer, Into the Woods

Friday, December 19, 2014

Creating a Dialogue with Wrestling Jerusalem

Wrestling Jerusalem
is a piece Aaron Davidman has been working on for a long time. The idea was first sparked when he visited Israel for the first time in 1992. In the decades since, the central idea has had several incarnations, but after repeated trips to the Middle East, Aaron found that there were many stories to be told.

“It feels to me that the Israeli/Palestinian story is the most important story for Jews to understand, and as an American Jewish theatre artist I felt compelled to go deeply into the material to see how I could make sense of this very troubling and often confusing conflict,” Aaron explains. “I was inspired to reach beyond the headlines, beyond polemic, and understand the complexity and nuance, the history and current events, the mythology and the real politik of the ‘situation’ as they call it in Israel.”

The result is a one-man show with 18 different characters (including himself), each with a very different, but very real perspective on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The characters are directly inspired from his interviews of people living on all sides of the dispute and coming to an understanding of it from their unique perspectives.

Aaron Davidman in Wrestling Jerusalem

Though the problem has been there for generations, the “situation” is still actively smoldering, flaring up dramatically on many occasions. As it all develops, so too does the play. Since premiering in San Francisco last spring, the terrible war in Gaza over the summer brought Aaron to do a major rewrite.

“I don’t rewrite the play to speak to current events, but rather, I have to be sure that the tone of the piece remains connected to where our world is—in my subjective opinion of course—in relation to this continually evolving conflict."

It is this immediate relevancy, of course, that draws us here at PlayMakers. The mission of our PRC² series is to bring these hot issues in front of us and our community to engage us all as part of the dialogue. Producing Artistic Director Joe Haj explains, 
“In the first season that I programmed at PlayMakers (2007/08) we included When the Bulbul Stopped Singing, a solo piece that I acted in. That play was an examination of the Palestinian/Israeli divide as viewed from the perspective of a progressive Palestinian civil/human rights lawyer, Raja Shehadeh. Now, in 2015, especially given the recent events in Gaza, it is important to once again look at this area of the world, this time through the lens of a progressive Jewish artist and activist.

“As with Rodney King, which we presented only a few weeks after the events in Ferguson, Missouri, it is my hope that the theatre can be a place for community dialogue, for increased tolerance, and for healing; a safe environment in which to have difficult conversations.”
Discussion will certainly be sparked as a result of Aaron’s provocative piece, and we give our audience a forum in which to participate and process questions raised during the show. Gathering a variety of panelists ready to engage with you, we think of this post-show conversation as our “second act.”

Aaron says, “I hope my audiences come with an open heart. People are very divisive about this issue, understandably. I think we are capable of holding vast complexity and even contradiction. I think we are more connected to our own humanity when we are generous with each other, when we remain curious about the ‘other.’”

Joe is confident that Aaron’s vision will be achieved in the setting of our theatre. “I have known Aaron Davidman for many years, and his deep thinking, his honest, personal and rigorous attempt to understand the situation, gives another voice and another perspective to one of the world’s thorniest issues.”

There are only six performances of Wrestling Jerusalem, January 7-11. Call our Box Office at 919.962.PLAY (7529) or Click Here to buy tickets and find out more.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Regional Premiere of Wrestling Jerusalem

Turning our attention to a new year and a new show, Aaron Davidman brings us his one-man show Wrestling Jerusalem January 7 to 11. We are proud to be the first stop on his national tour, which will go to Los Angeles, Boston and New York City.

Wrestling Jerusalem grapples with identity, history and social justice, exploring the competing narratives at the center of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict that has lasted generations. The San Francisco Chronicle calls it a “remarkable solo performance” [of] “yearning beauty … deep sadness and wistful hope.”

Aaron describes it as following one man’s travels to Israel and Palestine “to try to understand the nuance and complexity that lives in the hearts of the human beings at the center of the conflict. Part personal memoir, part transformational theatre, in addition to myself, I play 17 different characters whom I meet along the way, each with his own story and perspective to share.”

We strive to bring you innovative, topical performances in our PRC² series. Earlier this season, we presented Roger Guenveur Smith’s Rodney King, which was highly relevant given the events in Ferguson, Missouri. The generations-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is the focus of Wrestling Jerusalem, remains fresh with the current situation in Gaza. The questions and dialogues these shows spark are the hallmark of PRC² enhanced by their "second act" of our engaging post-show discussions with the creative artists and expert panelists following each performance.

Performances of Wrestling Jerusalem will be 7:30 pm nightly plus 2pm on Sunday, Jan. 11 in the Kenan Theatre.

For tickets, contact the Box Office at 919.962-PLAY (7529).

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Conversation with A Midsummer Night's Dream's Ray Dooley and Zachary Fine

We sat in on a lively conversation between veteran company member Ray Dooley, featured in our previous post, and PlayMakers newcomer Zachary Fine. They are both starring in our current production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, onstage through Dec 7. (Buy Tickets Here) Read below to see what they have to say about the production and each other.

On Playing Theseus (Zach) and Philostrate (Ray):
Zach as Theseus, Ray as Philostrate and Arielle Yoder as Hermia.
Photo by Jenny Graham

: With Theseus/Philsotrate, there is not a ton in the play in terms of their relationship, but much of the rest of the play, they serve as a mirror to Oberon/Puck. That's always fun to play with, or at least be conscious of in the playing of it. I feel like with both of those relationships, because Ray and I are in different stages of life, the status is unique to those relationships which allows for the comedy to come through even more. It's simple and direct.

RAY: Right, it's very straightforward. We're doing so much with the other side of it, with Puck and Oberon, that it's almost a pleasure to sit back and let the play do it for us. Look at each other, say the lines, talk and listen, and let the play do the work. (laughs) It's so beautifully done and so beautifully written that we can afford that.

ZACH: I think the simplicity and directness of the language there, particularly with Philostrate describing the Mechanicals, the pleasure of that relationship of who Philostrate is describing this play is, for me, one of the most satisfying moments to just sit back and watch, even though I'm onstage. It's such good writing, and so beautifully delivered by Ray. It's just pure comedy.

Arielle Yoder as Hermia, Schuyler Scott Mastain as Lysander, Zach as Theseus, Ray as Philostrate, Lisa Birnbaum as Hippolyta, William Hughes as Demetrius, and Allison Altman as Helena.
Photo by Jenny Graham

On Playing the Mechanicals

RAY: Oftentimes Oberon/Theseus and Philostrate/Puck are doubled, but the wild card is in the Mechanicals. I've seen Mechanicals doubled with fairies. That's not unusual in a smaller cast production, but to have the actor playing Theseus/Oberon and the actor playing Philostrate/Puck also playing Mechanicals presents logistical problems. Puck and Oberon both show up in Mechanicals scenes. So in our play, I'm absent from one scene and Zach is absent from one scene where the other character needs to be. We're only in one Mechanical scene together as Snug (Ray) and Snout (Zach), only in that first scene. Those Mechanicals scenes were built from the ground up with whatever we could each bring to it. Not just Zach and I, but all of us. Obviously Julie [Fishell] and Kathy [Hunter-Williams] have the heavy lifting in those scenes. We just try to support that.

Ray as Snug and Zach as Snout
Photo by Jenny Graham

On Playing Oberon (Zach) and Puck (Ray)

ZACH: Oberon sees Puck as an extension of his own body. As part and parcel of himself. He's his great friend, his comrade in mischief and mayhem. His confessor, and his servant. He is the extension of me. Puck is also my only friend other than my wife [Titania, Queen of the Fairies (Lisa Birnbaum)]. I worry that sometimes he likes to do things the way he likes to do them as opposed to the way I tell him to do them. In this production, Puck is a bit of a parental figure. Someone who I can process the world with and sometimes can get good advice from. Not always!

Zach as Oberon and Ray as Puck
Photo by Jon Gardiner

: Puck calls Oberon the Fairy Lord or Fairy King. He's clearly the leader. Each production has its own dynamic, and sometimes it can be very stern, austere, patrician almost. Oberon with a very juvenile Puck. This is a different dynamic because of who we are and our personal relationship outside of the play. We were able to bring that in. The director [Shana Cooper] encouraged that, in fact, which was one of the great joys of the rehearsal process. Puck thinks very much that Oberon is in charge. The way it has developed in performance and in rehearsal, Oberon can be inept sometimes. (laughs) Although he has his mischievous side, Puck is a bit long-suffering in our production. It's all done in great fun. I think it's part of the charm of our production. People have told me that they've never seen anything quite like this, like this dynamic.

Zach as Oberon, William Hughes as Demetrius and Ray as Puck
Photo by Jon Gardiner

: I find that surprising.

RAY: I agree. It allows us to show a great contrast when we go back to Athens. The very formal, structured society and this catch-as-catch-can happening out in the woods where not all t's are crossed and i's dotted. If the characters are sure and in complete control, it's so much less interesting. Nothing is guaranteed here. This could all go very badly very quickly. Which raises the stakes and makes it much more fun, much more immediate. I think it's a lovely live dynamic not to have everything square and secure.

William Hughes as Demetrius, Arielle Yoder as Hermia, Ray as Puck and Zach as Oberon
Photo by Jon Gardiner

: So often Oberon and Puck, particularly Oberon, are the order. He's the King of the Fairies. When I say things like do this then this, and "all things will be peace," if the approach to that is that I know that this is going to happen, it's already solved, then what the play philosophically is saying is that in this fairy world, it's figured out. There's order. There's control. As opposed to the way we're playing it, we're in the same type of chaos. This is in the play, but we're turning up the volume on all of us fumbling around in the dark. I like that we get to play with that a lot. That Oberon doesn't have to have it all figured out.

Ray as Puck and Zach as Oberon
Photo by Jon Gardiner

I was gently nudged in a direction with Oberon in my audition by the director Shana. She was interested in seeing an Oberon who was not as certain as other Oberons. The way she put it was an almost Woody Allen type neurosis. So I took that and said, yes, I can play with that and it fit in with my own playful neurosis.

On Working Together:

ZACH: The relationship Ray and I had immediately clicked around this playfulness we had in our rehearsal room from the start. So we both were saying "yes, and..." to each other immediately. That enabled me to go further with the choices I was making. Ray is a person that I look to for guidance and wisdom, so I can act that out in the play very easily.

Ray as Puck and Zach as Oberon
Photo by Jon Gardiner

: It's a joy when that happens, to be given the freedom to create that way. We were encouraged to do it that way by the director, who came in with some very strong ideas. She had just done the show. Maybe we were very much swimming in the river she already had envisioned, but certainly, she made way for the small, individual things we came up with and gave us a lot of license and encouragement.

In early rehearsals, we had something set up where I had big pillows, and Zach was practicing throwing balls at me. That insouciance that Zach was bringing while I was covering up for dear life! (laughs)

ZACH: There is a level of sadism to Oberon in his relationship to Puck.

RAY: Intentional and unintentional. (laughs)

William Hughes as Demetrius, Ray as Puck, Zach as Oberon and Arielle Yoder as Hermia
Photo by Jenny Graham

: It is very rare that you get to work with an actor and you don't have to talk really. Our rehearsal was not spent talking about the play trying to understand it from some intellectual place. We just clicked. We just got into the rehearsal room and we kept throwing ideas out there, and both of us liked each others' ideas.

RAY: By throwing ideas out, that usually didn't come in the form of words. It came in physical ideas. Actions.

Ray as Puck and Zach as Oberon
Photo by Jon Gardiner

: I've never had an experience like that, actually, when it's been so seamless.

RAY: Like Helena's [Arielle Yoder] line, "So we grow together, like to a double cherry, seeming parted, but yet an union in partition." The pure fun we had in rehearsal played out on stage, and the audience can sense that.

On Their Offstage Relationship:

ZACH: I'm not very fond of the man. It's a front. (laughs)

RAY: We had an opening [in the department] when our esteemed movement teacher Craig Turner went into semi-retirement. Based on meeting Zach twice, I called him and offered him the job. I knew that this was the right fit.

ZACH: It sounds scripted to say this, but it felt that way on the other side too. It was an enormous opportunity to step into something I had been hoping to step into in life. Since I've been here, Ray has been my guide, my shepherd, and my friend. It has been really special to have that relationship. To have begun what I think it's going to be a really long friendship. That's been the best part of it all.

L to R: Ray as Puck, William Hughes as Demetrius, Allison Altman as Hermia, Schuyler Scott Mastain as Lysander and Zach as Oberon
Photo by Jenny Graham

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Dream's Ray Dooley

Photo by Jon Gardiner
If you've been with us before, then you likely already know Ray Dooley's work. This season marks Ray's 25th anniversary as a company member of PlayMakers.

In our current production of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Ray plays three different parts, Philostrate, Snug, and the legendary Puck. Portrayed as Theseus's (Zachary Fine) chief-of-staff, Ray characterizes Philostrate as part muscle, part concierge.

Zachary Fine as Theseus, Arielle Yoder as Hermia and Ray Dooley as Philostrate
Photo by Jon Gardiner
Snug is a member of the mechanicals, amateur actors who present the unwittingly hilarious play-within-the-play. When Snug, who is prone to panic attacks, is cast as the lion, he ends up being more of the cowardly variety, "a gentle beast."

Photo by Jon Gardiner 
Of course, it is his Puck that drives the play and spins the rest of the characters into their dizzied states. Ray refers to him as "a country spirit," rooted deeply in the folklore of Shakespeare's time. Helpful or harmful, he embodies mystery and superstition to explain why things happen beyond our understanding when we step away from society into the wild unknown.

In developing his character, Ray drew inspiration from the John Milton poem L'Allegro. Filled with pastoral images of nymphs and goblins full of joy and mischief among the birds and trees and citing even Shakespeare himself, it is evident Milton had the very Puck in mind when writing it. We have all sides of him, from the unbridled and fanciful:
     Haste thee nymph, and bring with thee
     Jest and youthful Jollity,
     Quips and Cranks, and wonton Wiles,
     Nods, and Becks, and Wreathed Smiles
to the hard-working and dutiful:
     Tells how the drudging Goblin swet,
     To ern his Cream-bowle duly set,
     When in one night, ere glimps of morn,
     His shadowy Flale hath thresh'd the Corn
     That ten day-labourers could not end,
     Then lies him down the Lubbar Fend,
     And stretch'd out all the Chimney's length,
     Basks at the fire his hairy strength
Ray Dooley as Puck and Zachary Fine as Oberon
Photo by Jenny Graham
Among the most formative moments within the rehearsal process were "essence pieces" that director Shana Cooper employed. Actors were given a separate space to develop their own 10-15 minute scenes which gave them room to explore their characters more deeply as well as their relationships with others beyond Shakespeare's text. They used props, everything from ladders to flower petals to buckets of snow. What they came up with helped strengthen their understanding of their roles, and some bits even ended up on stage, such as Puck's playful ladder-balancing act to depict his transformative abilities.

Photo by Jon Gardiner
It is amusing to draw a parallel between Ray's description of Puck as a shape-shifter and Ray's own work on our stage during this production. Slipping in and out of three different roles with three different costumes is no easy feat. Some of his costume changes are so quick they need to happen onstage in mere seconds with the aid of carefully rehearsed lighting cues. In fact, there are times, such as during Bottom's (Julie Fishell) return, when he is actually wearing all three costumes at once. Don't look, but Snug has Philostrate's hat tucked under his arm!

Photo by Jon Gardiner
We'll explore more deeply Puck's devotion as servant to his master Oberon (Zachary Fine) in our next post later this week when we sit in on a conversation between Zach and Ray about their onstage and offstage relationship.

In the meantime, don't miss your last chance to catch A Midsummer Night's Dream! The show closes this Sunday, December 7, so Click Here get your tickets today.