Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Plan-B Theatre: Radio Hour - Alice

Posted By on October 20, 2009, 12:41 AM

Continuing the opening season of theatre in Utah, the next play we're taking a look at has seemed to have gotten a little lost down a rabbit hole. But the end of the tunnel presents a delightful telling of a classic story, and also brings about the end of a successful local series.

--- Starting this Thursday, Plan-B Theatre Company brings RADIO HOUR back to the Rose Wagner stage, kicking off their 2009-2010 season with ALICE, putting a new spin on Alice In Wonderland with the classic broadcast format. As of this interview posting nearly every show has been sold out in anticipation, already making it one of the must see productions of the year. And with good reason as this will mark the final year Plan-B will present this kind of show. For this interview I got the to chat with three of the actors: Teresa Sanderson, Jay Perry and Bill Allred. As well as playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett, director Cheryl Ann Cluff and producing director Jerry Rapier. Focusing on the play itself, thoughts on local theatre, and a brief chat about what will become of RADIO HOUR.

Matthew Ivan Bennett, Cheryl Ann Cluff, Jay Perry, Bill Allred, Teresa Sanderson & Jerry Rapier


Hey guys, first off, tell us a bit about yourselves.

Bill: I’m not sure what you want to know. I’m not very tall (5 feet 6 inches) and I love spaghetti, jai alai, and long walks in the rain with my puppy. I was born in Ogden and studied theatre at Weber State and Penn State. Now, I do a morning radio show, The Radio From Hell Show, on X96

Matthew: As a child and teenager I was incredibly introverted and used theatre to express what was inside. I was a church mouse until drama class, at which time I'd boom with Richmond from RICHARD III. Over the years I've become socially confident, but theatre remains a way for me to explore sides of myself I wouldn't normally feel comfortable exploring. I just finished a run as a loud-mouthed bully in THE CARETAKER at SLAC. I never want to be a bully, but I learned from having to be so ebullient every night.

Cheryl: I have a theatre arts undergrad degree from Southern Utah University. I have lived in Utah my entire life. I’m 44 and married to Todd Riesen. We have two kids, Charlie – 3, and Lydia - 17 months. A little more than a year ago I quit my corporate job with Intermountain Healthcare to work exclusively for Plan-B. I’m really grateful that Plan-B has grown enough that I was able to do that.

Jay: I've been working as an actor in Salt Lake for the past few years, always with a survival job or two. Lately that's been voice over work for a software company in North Salt Lake that teaches English reading comprehension. I grew up in West Valley and Sandy, went to high school at Judge Memorial, attended the University of Utah's Actor Training Program and now live downtown with my girlfriend, Daisy Blake, who's doing the foley work in this show, and our pet ferret, Murphy. My hobbies vary but in the last couple of years I've been working on old cars with my dad and recording†music with my cousin, Vito. I'm really drawn to the outdoors and love a good day-hike or river trip.

Jerry: I feel honored that I have a full-time job in the arts. I have been with my partner Kirt, the love of my life, for fourteen years. I have been with Plan-B, the other love of my life, for ten years.

Teresa: A bit about me, I am a wife and a mom. I volunteer for the Davis Arts Council
in my community (Layton) where I am currently serving as board chair. I also stage manage the shows that come to our venue for our
Summer Nights With The Stars summer season and run the Arts In The Park program for Layton City. I act for many of the theatre companies in town and serve on the board for PYGmalion Theatre Company.

Gavin: What inspired you to take an interest in theater?

Bill: When I was seven years old, my mother enrolled me in a summer program called Theatre Arts for Children at Weber State College. I got to play The Shepherd in a play called THE STONE IN THE ROAD and I was the title character in a production of LITTLE BLACK SAMBO. Yep. They still did things like that back then. I was hooked on acting from that point on.

I remember taking an old edition of Stanislavsky's
An Actor Prepares from my high school drama class and reading it in long bursts under a tree in my backyard. I was taken with theatre before that, but it was at that point I realized I was a thespian in my heart, mind, and soul. For every page Stanislavsky gave to me I wanted to give a hundred years to the stage or to a notebook. I learned from Stanislavsky not only about theatre, but about myself. I began at that point learning about myself through theatre and I learn more with every production.

Cheryl: I think its Jayne Luke’s fault. When I was a kid, probably around seven or eight, my family used to see shows at the outdoor Sundance theatre every summer. I remember her specifically and I think I was watching her when I thought, “I want to do this.” Of course it was always acting that I was interested in up until 1991. I never dreamed I would be involved with running a theatre company.

Jay: When I was in the 8th grade my next door neighbor convinced me to go to an audition at the Vine Street Theatre in Murray. It was for a play called A WRINKLE IN TIME, an adaptation of the novel by Madeleine L'Engle. I got the part and really enjoyed it. It wasn't until high school that I really got bitten by the theatre bug, though. I'd been tossing around different ideas about what I wanted to do after graduation and, by the end of junior year, was down to psychology or the Catholic seminary. In my senior year I got cast as the lead in the musical and on closing night, after everyone had left the auditorium, I looked up into the light grid and was hit pretty hard with the notion that I was just exactly where I ought to be. That's when I knew that I wanted to be an actor.

Theatre got me early. My Mom swears I showed up singing and acting. I started dancing when I was three and did my first play when I was seven. SNOW WHITE. I think I got the role because I was the only girl brave enough to let a boy kiss her. I really got hooked in middle and high school and continued to train in college.

Gavin: How did you first get involved with Plan-B Theatre?

Bill: Because of my work on the radio, Jerry Rapier asked me to be a part of the annual Plan-B BANNED
fundraiser several years ago. I hinted that I’d love to do other acting projects with Plan-B and Jerry offered me RADIO HOUR: ALICE. I can’t tell you how excited I am to be a part of it.

I e-mailed Jerry Rapier a copy of a play called EASY in 2004 when I was living in Chicago and we began e-mailing back and forth.

Cheryl: I co-founded Plan-B with Tobin Atkinson back in 1991 and have been working with Plan-B since then.

I did a couple of shows for Plan-B early on, then just enjoyed watching the company come together and grow. I joined them again for ANIMAL FARM in 2004 and have been around every season since for one show or another. I must say I love this company.

Jay: I first met Jerry Rapier in the summer of 2003. He'd seen me in a production of THE COMPLEAT WORKS OF WLLM SHKSPR (ABRIDGED) at Salt Lake Shakespeare and we spoke at a party after the show. My first show with Plan-B was TRAGEDY: A TRAGEDY in 2005. Since then, my work with Plan-B has included two SLAMs, THE ALIENATION EFFEKT, FACING EAST in Salt Lake, New York and San Francisco, GUTENBERG! THE MUSICAL! and now all five RADIO HOURs. Plan-B is like family. The impact they've had on my personal and professional life is immeasurable.

I was hired to direct MOLLY SWEENEY in 2000. By the time the show went into production I was running the company alongside Cheryl.

Gavin: Where did the original idea to do RADIO HOUR come from?

Cheryl: The radio drama seed was planted back in the early days of Plan-B. We were primarily focused on engaging the audience in ways that require the audience to be more active with their imaginations – puppet shows, dumb shows, masks, etc. Tobin was the artistic director at the time and came up with the idea to do Macbeth as a radio drama, with Orson Welles’ WAR OF THE WORLDS broadcast as inspiration. We specifically chose the radio drama style because the audience is more active in their imaginations – they create what happens visually in the play. We provide the sound effects, music, script, actors, but the audience gets to do the rest. This was in 1995. We did a few other radio drama pieces and then eventually produced WAR OF THE WORLDS in 2002 after Jerry joined the company – the performance on Halloween was broadcast live on KRCL. Jerry and I talked about doing another live radio drama after that but weren’t really sure what or when. Then we met with Doug Fabrizio at KUER. We knew he shared our love of radio drama and asked if the station would like to be part of an annual Halloween radio drama. They went for it.

I didn’t know nothin’ ’bout no radio drama until I met Cheryl. Now I’m completely captivated by it.

How did you eventually decide on ALICE for the play this year?

Matthew: We knew we wanted to continue adapting classics for the radio. ALICE was a no-brainer because it lends itself so well to Halloween. When Cheryl approached me with the idea, she said that if we did it, it would have to be in the style of "Victorian psychedelic nightmare." When I heard those words, I was sold on the idea.

After the success of FRANKENSTEIN last year, we were looking for another classic story to adapt but we wanted something with a completely different feel. Then Alice's Adventures In Wonderland came to mind and we decided it was perfect because it was scary in a totally different way, definitely a classic and also wouldn’t be something you’d expect experience as radio drama.

Gavin: Did you have an idea of who you would be casting prior, or at least an idea of the specific voices you wanted for each role?

Matthew: We knew we'd definitely have Tobin, Jay, and Teresa back. They are actors of such vocal skill that we can't not use them.

Cheryl: With the exception of Emma Munson (playing Alice) we knew last year, as Matt started his adaptation, who would be in the show and I think Matt always wanted Bill Allred as the narrator role. The other characters/actor assignments were kind of up in the air until we did a couple readings. The actors we have are extremely versatile. Any of them could play any of the roles. I just wanted everyone to have an equal amount of juicy characters. We’ve had a core group of actors for a while – Jay Perry has been a part of RADIO HOUR since the beginning; Teresa Sanderson has been involved since the second year. We added Tobin Atkinson last year for FRANKENSTEIN and I wanted the three of them in the show again this year. We asked them to be involved before we even knew what the script would be! Bill Allred expressed interest last year after seeing FRANKENSTEIN and we thought he would be perfect for ALICE. We didn’t have Emma initially. We decided the show would have more of an impact if an actual young girl played ALICE. We had several girls from the Theatre Arts Conservatory audition for the role. They were all marvelous but it was clear that Emma was our Alice!

Gavin: What’s the appeal for you as an actor to do the Radio Hour plays?

Bill: I’ve always loved radio drama and comedy. I’m pretty familiar with many of the old time shows that were on the radio before television came along and I still listen to them.

When the audience is deprived of the visuals of set, costumes, lights and props, and it's all shaved down to an audible experience, they can let their imagination go and fill in the gaps in an unbridled and very personal way. I have a similar experience in performing it. With the visual aspects left to the imagination, the world of the play has a dimension that's less fixed and gives my mind more to play with. The physical part of the work doesn't stop happening, but it's all done sitting on a stool into a mic. It really forces you to listen and since you're creating a sound picture, it sometimes requires a different level of vocal precision than is used on stage.

There are lots of things to love about this project. I must say it is a little worrisome when you look up at Cheryl, who has her head in her hands, her eyes closed. But then I realize she is just listening to every little thing, and I know we are in good hands. Hope you all enjoy listening with us.

Gavin: What was the process like in developing your voice for the role and adapting it to the play?

Bill: I only do one character in the play – Psychopomp, the narrator Matt created. My voice has to be the voice of authority taking the audience, and Alice herself to some extent, on a fantastic and frightening journey. As Matt said, I’m your “tour guide to hell.”

For me it's an ongoing process that leads right up to opening. It's pretty organic and involves diving right in and taking risks. It's also very collaborative. Often I don't really know what's going to work until I'm in the room with the other actors. All of the standard rules for creating a character apply. What does this person say and do? What do they want? What do others say about this person? What's the world this person lives in? Et cetera. There's less focus on how a character might hold his tea and more focus on how he might use the consonant letter T. It's also challenging to create a number of different characters and to get them all separated vocally.

Teresa: It's always fun to look at a new script, figuring everything out (table work excites me), all of the voice and character work. The crowd scenes are a kick. Then just adding each element: set, lights, mics, music, sound effects and working hard as a team to get every beat perfect.

What's the overall feeling from all of you going into an opening night?

Bill: Pure adrenaline.

As a writer I mostly feel curious. I like to sit in the back of the theatre and watch the audience as I watch the show. In my early twenties what I wanted was the audience to respond to my work in the way I, consciously or unconsciously, thought they should respond. Now I'm merely curious to see how different people respond differently.

Cheryl: I hope I can sit still in my seat. When I’m directing I tend to pace around a lot. There’s nothing like an opening night – the energy from people in the show and the audience, is different than on any other night. We look forward to it and we look forward to getting the nervous energy part of opening night behind us. It’ll be interesting to see how the audience reacts to this version of the story. There’s an open invitation at the very top of the show for the audience to surrender their imaginations and their subconscious and imagine themselves as Alice herself. I hope they are scared and disturbed by it. It IS Halloween, after all.

Jay: It's very exciting to finally give the play to the audience. There will have already been previews, but everything is sort of heightened and extra-energized on opening night. It’s great to be able to perform RADIO HOUR in front of a live audience in addition to having the broadcast, October 30
th at 11AM and 7PM on KUER. The alchemy that happens in the space between the players and the audience is great to look forward to.

Gavin: ALICE marks the 5th RADIO HOUR from Plan-B. Are there any plans to release these as a compilation or as single releases down the road?

After five years, we’ve decided to call it a day with RADIO HOUR. But fear not – next Halloween plans are in the works with KUER to air a marathon of all five RADIO HOURs. Stay tuned!

A bit state-wide, what are your thoughts on local theater, both good and bad?

Matthew: The theatre community, in Salt Lake and state-wide, is comparatively small but offers remarkable variety. I appreciate being able to see original melodrama while I eat a pizza (Desert Star), world-class Shakespeare (Cedar City), and social-political puzzlers (Plan-B). If anything is "bad" about local theatre it's that it lacks a strong community feeling.

Cheryl: The good part is that there is plenty of it, and that there’s something for just about everyone at each end of the spectrum. There’s more and more cutting edge, alternative stuff being done, so and that’s good. Variety is the spice of life and all that.

I am greatly encouraged by the increasing number of new plays being staged in Utah. The more the better.

Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to improve it?

Matthew: I personally would like to see Salt Lake theatres doing co-productions together. The companies must support each other better. We need to see each other's productions and lend material support to each other when and where we can. We must put away this scarcity mentality, which cements our thoughts about theatre as being a commercial enterprise, and focus more fully on the work.

Cheryl: I think it would be very helpful for smaller groups to have more access to affordable, smaller, fully functioning theatre venues. The Studio Theatre at the Rose fits the bill perfectly but it’s hard for new groups to get into because it is used so much. We pretty much have to schedule that space two years in advance.

We must give people reasons to leave their electronics-laden homes. We must continually assert our vitality. How do we do that? By developing a stronger sense of community as artists. By approaching each production with zeal and passion. By honoring the audience. By taking risks. And we must work together. To that end, I have initiated two unique partnerships with several other theatre companies. First, The EDWARD LEWIS BLACK THEATRE FESTIVAL (January-March, 2010 – look for details on that page
by November 1st). And second, THE SAMPLER, where you can see five plays by five companies at the Rose Wagner for $55 – check that page for details!

Gavin: What can we expect from all of you the rest of the season?

Bill: When the grand jury convenes after the new year, I’m sure I’ll be indicted.

I'll be acting in AMERIGO
and writing for AND THE BANNED SLAMMED ON again at Plan-B. I'm also developing a one-act for the Theatre Arts Conservatory and for the Meat & Potato/Plan-B Lab.

Cheryl: Interesting, compelling, intimate theatre—next up at Plan-B is WALLACE, for which I’ll be designing sound.

I start rehearsal for GO, DOG. GO!
at SLAC in November, directed by Jerry Rapier. It's their first children's show and performing it at Christmas time should be a blast.

I’ll be directed LADY DAY AT THE EMERSON BAR & GRILL and appearing in SORDID LIVES, both for PYGmalion Theatre Company

Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?

Next up at Plan-B is WALLACE.


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