Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Salt Lake Acting Company: Too Much Memory

Posted By on February 3, 2010, 3:23 AM

Returning for the second half of the 2010 theatre season, an interesting array of plays are currently getting ready for production. And while some of the more predominant features have already come and gone, there's still plenty of interesting works to see from all the local companies.

--- The first to officially kick off is TOO MUCH MEMORY over at Salt Lake Acting Company. A retelling of the story of ANTIGONE adapted for more modern times, focused on the ideal of speaking out and protesting, weaving into the symbolic ties of honoring family above following law. I got a chance to chat with co-writer and director, Meg Gibson, along with four of the actors from the play about its formation and production as well as their thoughts toward its messages, plus thoughts on local theatre.

Austin Archer, Bijan Hosseini, Nicki Nixon, William Richardson and Meg Gibson

http://www.saltlakeactingcompany.org/

Gavin: Hello to all of you! First thing, tell us a little about yourselves.

Meg: I’ve been making my way as a theatre artist since I was 18. My parents were dead set against my being in the profession. They were terrified for me. I realize now they had every right to be. My mother said, “ the theatre is full of drug addicts and homosexuals!” I thought wow, that sounds interesting. And, it has been. I came to Utah to be out from under them. Went to the U and discovered SLAC and Theatre 138 and The Human Ensemble. I think I’m on the books as being the first woman to take her clothes on the legitimate stage in Salt Lake. We did Equus in 1977. It was a seminal moment for the Arts, here. Anyway, I needed to see the world and challenge myself, too, so I made my way to NYC which has been my base for the last 30 years. Do the math and you can figure out how old am. Yes, it’s true. I’ve mostly been an actress, but for the last ten years or so I’ve been directing as well. Too Much Memory is first piece I’ve created, albeit with the playwright Keith Reddin. The play is designed around my ideas and primarily his amazing writing. And, yes, we are married now too.

Bijan: A little about myself... Okay, I'm Bijan. I've been acting for a little while now, and hope to be for a long while more, in both theatre and film. I am represented by TMG. Little enough?

Nicki: I'm from Ogden, graduated from Weber State University about a year and half ago in Theatre. I moved to Salt Lake after that and have been living the actor's dream: serving tables and auditioning...

WIlliam: Hi, how’s it going? I’m Willie Richardson, I’m in the process of finishing up my degree up at Weber State. Umm…I like coffee and typing.

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

Austin: I have been performing on stage since I was four years old. It's just always been a huge part of my life.

Nicki: I always had an interest in theatre but never thought of it as a viable career move until I was in college. A professor of mine, Tracy Callahan, pulled me aside in a general's acting class and told me I should really think about it - so I've thought about it for the last five years. Theatre has proven to be one of a handful of things that I've been able to find in my life that helps me express and feel active about what it means to be alive.

WIlliam: I really started doing theatre pretty young, in school. It’s just always been going on. But I do remember thinking distinctly on opening night of my high school production of GUYS AND DOLLS that I wanted to do it for real – or for reals, as the case may be.

Bijan: I initially took an interest in theatre because the first two acting instructors I had, Frank Gerrish and Reb Fleming, are both huge advocates of theatre. Now, a few years later, I can say that I too believe theatre is the most effective training ground for any actor - even those who "only do film". I should specify that I think that "film training" is beneficial to the stage actor as well. Theatre gives me an unparalleled opportunity to be a part of great stories, play rich characters, and speak some of the most beautifully crafted words ever written from Shakespeare to Simon and Shaw. The same cannot be said about the vast majority of film work that passes through Utah - day player roles with generic descriptions like Clerk #2 and a few lines of dialogue that hardly match the tasty tapestry of sounds Shakespeare oozes. I hope to one day be a part of more significant films in a rewarding capacity - films that will pay all my bills and then some - but even then, I have no doubt that it will still be theatre that feeds my soul.

Meg: What inspired me to go into the theatre? That’s easy. Masterpiece Theatre. I watched Rosemary Harris play George Sand and Eileen Atkins do Christopher Fry’s, The Lady’s Not for Burning and I just knew that was for me. I also grew up when Hollywood was making some great movies. Chinatown and Five Easy Pieces, Diary of a Mad House Wife, great, wild stuff wonderfully inspiring. I felt I could have a place in all of it.

Gavin: Meg, how did the idea for TOO MUCH MEMORY come about?

Meg: I talk about the inception of the play on the SLAC blog, so I’ll keep this brief. It was an assignment for school. I’d gone back to Yale to study design and this was my chosen project. Antigone has always been hanging in the back of my mind all these years. I thought I just wanted to do a new translation. This was 2004. But, in February of 2003 I’d watched my 19 year old niece Sabrina come down from college with her friends to protest the pending Iraq invasion. The protest took place near the UN in NYC but, they were put in a pen so far away from the UN that nobody could see or hear them. When they stepped outside the pen they were arrested, taken to a bus on the Westside Highway and held in the cold all night. No food, no water, darkness. At dawn they drove them to City Hall, processed them like common criminals, charged them with disorderly conduct and released them. These kids were so freaked out by how they were treated the government had effectively silenced them. Why would they ever want to protest again if this was what happened? Not everyone can be a Joan Baez. My niece was not arrested but she spent the night in lobbies near City Hall waiting for her friends to be released. They all piled into my apartment until they recuperated and could go back to school. Now, I grew up in the sixties and seventies and protest was a given back then. You took to the streets and said what you had to say. All of the sudden I realized this insidious thing had come about where the laws had made it impossible to protest in any effective manor. This was a terrifying realization. I was naive enough to think that what had been hard fought for and won in the sixties and seventies would be our rights. Not so anymore. I mean, I was aware of how fragile democracy was and how much the Bush Administration was stretching the truth, using Home Land Security as a way to spy on anyone for any reason. I was aware too of how much the voice of the liberal was being maligned. The classic battle in America has always been the Capitalist against the Enlighted, those that favor a lean life rather than the gathering of power and possessions at the expense of others. I also knew I was so fed up with being silenced that I had to speak up through my work even if I ran the risk of seeming old-fashioned or earnest. Keith was trying to date me since we’d met at the O’Neill Conference and he offered to help me write the piece. I said, “you can’t do that, you’re Keith Reddin!” But, he was smitten. So, I’d go down to his apartment in Tribeca and give him all these essays and transcripts and he’d hand me poems and we’d read and talk and we came up with the piece. And, then, yeah, we realized we were totally in love with each other, too. Sabrina loved that all this happened because of her wild adventure with her friends, her passion to have a voice even though the police were allowed to behave the way they did. All of this because of insisting on a right to protest against a completely trumped up, illegal war.

Gavin: Was the process in adapting the play difficult for both you and Keith to take on?

Meg: The process wasn’t difficult because Keith was so smitten. It’s the only time in his writing career he’s ever said okay so willingly. It’ll never happen again. Of course, we had too much material and had to cut. And we wanted to keep it Greek and thereby all over in around an hours. They liked their catharsis sharp and fast. So, we had to be tough with ourselves and carve that out of our collaged texts. Also, he’s completely result oriented and loathes my process with the actors. I drive him crazy the way I work. Ah, well.

Gavin: Prior to putting it on at SLAC, the play had a run in New York. How was that experience for you, and what did you think of the response it got from the press?

Meg: This play was read by every major not for profit theatre in America. We had letter after letter from literary managers telling us how much they loved the play, but we couldn’t find an artistic director who would dare do it. This kind of theatre is thought to be a hard sell. And, it has 8 actors which makes for an expensive payroll. So, Keith decided we should produce it in The Fringe Festival in NYC. Our friends at Rising Phoenix had produced in the Fringe before and knew what it took, so with their leadership and our play we applied, were accepted and we took the plunge. We asked our friends, who just had happen to be amazing actors to work for a small stipend and because they loved the play so much they said yes. We raised the money and got to work. Now, in the Fringe you have 15 minutes to get in and 15 minutes to get out. So, our set design had to be something that could be up an down that fast. I found myself remembering what Susan Sontag had done during the Bosnian War: going into bombed cities and putting on Beckett plays for the folks living under siege. It seemed that way for us, too. Under siege from Bush, from 911, from a rising industrialization of the arts. So, we took on that crisis style and based our design on that. It worked perfectly. Our set designer Ola Maslik was just brilliant. She was the one who said tape and chalk. The response from the public and the press was so amazing. We’d worked hard and were tough on ourselves to keep it spare and loose, a rock and roll style of acting. A feeling of having thrown the whole thing together out of a collective necessity to speak out through this classic form. The press was more than I ever could have anticipated. I’ll never forget waking up and finding out we’d won. And then we got to move to New York Theatre Workshop. I was floating.

Gavin: Did you figure you'd be directing it from the start or were you looking for someone to take charge of it?

Meg: The play has always been my baby. I had some advice from Mary Zimmerman. She said, ”you want to get started as a director make your own piece.” So, I did. It’s also way tough to be taken seriously when folks know me as actress. I’m very proud of my work as a performer, but it wasn’t enough any more. I needed to stretch out. Too Much Memory is my first stretch in this direction.

Gavin: For the actors, what was it about this particular play that caught your eye to audition for it?

WIlliam: For brevity’s sake, I thought it was really cool. It’s very powerful, it resonates. It’s very poetic and very immediate at the same time. There are great roles for young people, which you don’t always see.

Bijan: I played Jason in MEDEA about a year previous, so I felt very comfortable in a broad thematically sense as far as the script went, but honestly, there was nothing specifically about this show that "caught my eye to audition for it" - it was just timing. Very lucky timing. I wanted to spread my wings, to play in the big kid pool - SLAC was auditioning, and fortunately Meg and SLAC felt that I was ready to jump in too.

Austin: I knew very little about the play going into auditions. I knew that it was a regional premier, and I knew that at least one of the playwrights was involved with the process. I also knew that I wanted to work at SLAC, which is something that every smart actor in Utah can get on board with. They rock!

Nicki: The fact that SLAC was producing it was pretty much all I needed to pique my interest. After I read the script, I remember just being impressed by each character's raw and honest emotional journey through such a†brutal world and the huge life-consuming questions that are imposed by each of them.

Meg: I haven’t had time to go see anything since I’ve been here. I will say I’m way excited with the level of commitment this company has brought to the rehearsal process. It’s not an easy piece, but people come prepared and jump into anything. This Weber State training program produced some fine actors. I love working with talent that chooses to live in Utah. It’s an amazing place to live. Maybe I can figure out a way to live here...?

Gavin: How was the audition process like for you and what was it like getting the part?

Meg: Next I’m doing Charm for SLAC. Can’t wait. It’s a fabulous new play by a writer who has recently moved to Utah. It’s profound and whimsical all at once, deeply funny and exhilarating. It’s quite an opportunity for me to direct it’s premiere. I’ll have a few weeks off between gigs, do some skiing, some more reading and jump back into the work.

Nicki: Auditions are always hard for actors. These auditions were particularly high-tension for me because the material sparked†so much†in me and it had been a while since I had done any really fulfilling work, so it felt like the stakes had been raised. Getting the part was just a huge exhale - followed by a moment of panic, like "what have I done?" panic. Haha.

Austin: I had probably one of the best auditions of my life for TOO MUCH MEMORY, which is rare because I do NOT audition well typically. It was nerve-racking at times, but mostly I just felt good about it. I felt good about the other actors I saw at call-backs and I felt great about the director.

Bijan: Oh, wow - it's sooo long ago now, it's hard to remember how I felt about the auditioning process in a way that's accurate, fair, relevant, or that I'm willing to share. I can definitively say that this was my very first audition for SLAC, or any major / "real" company for that matter. I got the callback and quite literally had to have it explained to me how big a deal that was, especially on my first ever read for SLAC, and more incredibly getting called-back for two parts when a ton of people apparently didn't called back at all. How'd I feel about getting cast? Take a guess. I will say this, it was a little surreal - and it's a weird type of excitement when the show was still 5-6 months away.

Gavin: What's the process been fitting into these roles for each of you, and what challenges have you met in perfecting your performance?

Nicki: It's been one hell of a ride with plenty of the usual challenges. Acting is a craft that is forever changing and adapting to life. As soon as one challenge is conquered, another presents itself. I just intend on continuing to move forward and finding what it is that makes theatre the spiritual experience that it has been for so many centuries.

Austin: I've had to call on a lot of sense-memory throughout this process. The character I play is experiencing a lot that I relate to from my past, but not necessarily things that I relate to in the immediate sense. The stakes are also higher than anything I've ever been faced with in my personal life, which requires a certain portion of creativity and emotional speculation, all the while trying to keep my choices honest and personal so that they stay grounded in reality.

Bijan: The process of "fitting into this role" has been about the same as any other role I've approached in the broad sense. The basics, fundamentals, core truths of acting are controls that don't change. The show, and your role within it - in every way, shape, and form are the variables. How do you utilize the same skill set to meet the different sets of demands? "An actor's genius lies in his/her choices." The challenge has been and will continue to be getting my performance anywhere near "perfect". Harrison Ford said as actors that we're all "assistant storytellers". So long as Meg and Keith are happy with what I'm doing, then I'll be happy with it. Though, it would be nice if people aren't saying things like the following: "Hey, that play was great - except for that one guy." "The one who played Barnes?" "Yeah, he sucked.

William: My character in the show does some pretty violent things. Trying to take those actions and make the source of them real, and exploring all that has been kind of crazy. It’s just exhausting trying to decide how you’d hit someone or in any other way terrorize them. It’s not fun, but y’know, it’s a tragedy. The idea is that we learn from these people, these characters we watch. The hardest part is trying to find subjectivity, but isn’t that always the way?

Meg: I hope folks read this and out of pure curiosity they buy a ticket, make their way to SLAC and come check out Too Much Memory. It’s sexy and funny and fierce and puts the question how do we live with each other right smack in our laps.

Gavin: Going into opening night, what are your overall thoughts on the production?

Bijan: Opening night? Let's just take it one day at a time shall we... Seriously though - this is a fantastic cast with great material being molded by a very unique and seasoned director. It's gonna be great, except for that guy who plays Barnes.

Nicki: It's a really beautiful and engaging piece of theatre and I'm so excited to give it away to audiences.

Austin: The show is ready to open. Bring on the people and, "let everyone hear"!

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

Austin: I feel good about the theater scene in Utah. There is a ridiculously large pool of talent in this state. There are people everywhere trying to do new things, and trying to keep theater alive and thriving in our communities. I applaud new companies that fight to stay alive in a tough economy and do what I can to support them.

William: I think that the theatre scene in Salt Lake and Utah in general is thriving. There’s really a venue for most every taste. There are lots of great, exciting things happening locally; meanwhile our resident theatre companies continue to put us in the regional and national scenes. We really have a broad spectrum of art happening here. I think as long as we keep cultivating that, finding new places for new voices and all that, we’re in good shape.

Bijan: I don't see enough local theatre. It's expensive, and I'm poor. Even student discounts and matinees can still run pretty high here. If a friend's in it, chances are I'll find a way to make it, but that's about it at the moment.

Nicki: Having just moved to Salt Lake City last year, I'm still getting my bearings in the theatre world in Utah. I've met some wonderful people, seen some wonderful shows, MASTER CLASS was brilliant, and can't wait to get more involved.

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

Nicki: Oh, I'm hardly the person to ask. I guess I would just say any theatre that has real guts and soul†is a push in the right direction. Theatre that is spontaneous and full of life and meaning†will never be "too much" or "not enough."

Bijan: I'd love to see the local theaters offer an actor's night preview or matinee. Bring your headshot, get in free. They get to see and meet more talent to keep on their files, and we get to see more shows. I think it would be great for my wallet, the theaters, my wallet, the acting community at large, and my wallet.

Austin: People just need to believe that it matters. And if you do believe that it matters, support it!

Gavin: What's your take on the recent push to bring “Broadway to Utah”?

Austin: Go Baby Go!

Nicki: I completely understand theatre-goer's desire to have Broadway theatre in Utah, but it's kind of a conflict of interest for me. For lack of a more sensitive analogy, it feels a lot like being part of a small business that is being threatened because All-Mart is moving in next door. If nothing else, I'm sure it would be entertaining.

Gavin: What can we expect from all of you the rest of the year and going into next?

Bijan: I would say expect the worst, and hope for the best. If the guy playing Barnes doesn't suck, maybe you'll be seeing a lot more him around - I'd like that.

Austin: I'm in a production of OUR TOWN at Weber State University in the Spring.

Nicki: ...Haven't quite gotten that far yet. To be announced! Ha.

William: Next, I’ll be in Utah Theatre Artists Company’s production of BURN THIS in late-April, early May. From there, I’ll be makin’ art somewhere!

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

Austin: Go see OUR TOWN if you can stand me in TOO MUCH MEMORY first!

Nicki: Support your local theatre. There's a heart-felt production of 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE opening in a couple weeks from Pinnacle Acting Company, Plan-B's WALLACE opens in about a month, a couple actors from our cast are going to be in UTAC's BURN THIS....just to get you started.

Bijan: Lane will try to hurt me, which will end badly for him - but then I'll feel guilty about it, if I don't mention Utah Theatre Artist's Company (founded by Rebecca Johnson and Lane Richins). They're an amazing company that has done nothing but great work - so far... So, look for UTAC's presentation of Langford Wilson's BURN THIS in the spring.

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