Plan-B Theatre is taking a very bold direction this season. For just the second time in the company's history, the whole year is being devoted to a single playwright. --- Eric Samuelsen has put together four productions that will run at the Rose Wagner, starting with Nothing Personal, which kicks off Friday night, Oct. 25, running throughout the year with various works from the Provo-based playwright until the annual SLAM event.
Today, I chat with Samuelsen himself about the play and the upcoming season, along with Plan-B's director, Jerry Rapier, and the three cast from Nothing Personal: Kirt Bateman, Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin and April Fossen. (All pictures courtesy of Plan-B Theatre.)
Eric Samuelsen (pictured), Jerry Rapier, Kirt Bateman, Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin and April Fossen
Gavin: Hey, everyone. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.
Kirt: I'm 38, I'm an actor/director and the executive director of the Davis Arts Council; born and raised on a dairy farm in West Jordan. My first play was in 4th grade: I played Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream. I'm an insanely huge, Stephen Sondheim-crazed fan. I got to meet him; awkward -- for him, not me. As you may have guessed by now; I'm a big homo. I have been "married" to Jerry Rapier for more than 17 years, legally for over two. We have an amazing son named Oscar, who'll turn 1 shortly after this play closes.
Dee-Dee: Baltimore native, Salt Lake resident for 22 years. Married to an amazing spouse, mother of two lovely daughters. Empty nester. Having a great year.
April: I hate the sound of my own voice.
Jerry: I split my days between running Plan-B and chasing after Oscar -- my son with Kirt -- who seems to never run out of energy and is interested in everything!
Eric: I'm a playwright, director, critic and blogger. Married, with four children: two boys, two girls, all gone now, which makes my wife and I empty nesters. Baseball fan and movie buff. Active Mormon. Former college professor, had to retire early due to illness/disability. Polymyositis survivor. Progressive, obviously, but that sort of goes without saying; we're all theatre people. I've been writing for Plan-B for 10 years.
Gavin: What have you all been up to over the past year in local theater?
Kirt: Nothing. Seriously. Oh ... Plan-B's 10th anniversary SLAM back in May, but that's it!
April: Suffrage with Plan-B, The Righteous & Very Real Housewives Of Utah County with Alligator Press Productions and As You Like It with Davis Arts Council. I like to do all of my theater work during Daylight Saving time.
Dee-Dee: The last show I did was the revival of Lady Day At Emerson's Bar & Grill for Pygmalion.
Jerry: This year has been incredibly busy. For Plan-B, I directed Matthew Ivan Bennett's Erica(a) and took Matthew Greene's Adam & Steve And The Empty Sea to the New York International Fringe Festival. And earlier this month, my production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead closed at the University of Utah.
Eric: Well, basically, I've been preparing for the Season of Eric. I also directed Blithe Spirit for the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo.
Gavin: Jerry, what made you decide to stage a season devoted entirely to a single playwright's work?
Jerry: Eric writes with an enviable ease about Big Ideas. He can be Truthful with a capital T and Intellectual with a capital I and still guide his audience to a soulful place, a place of passion, a place where a true marriage of truth and intellect is possible, a place where you have no choice but to take pause, reexamine and choose how best to move forward. He has an uncanny ability to identify the gaps in the recorded history of historical figures and address the "what if?" without resorting to straightforward biography. Simply put, he makes the historical personal.
Gavin: You have done this once before with Matthew Ivan Bennett. How did that year turn out, and what made you decide on Eric Samuelsen as the playwright this time around?
Jerry: You're right, the 2008/09 season was devoted to the work of Matthew Ivan Bennett. It was an incredibly successful season. The purpose of that season was really to introduce the community to Matt as a playwright. In this case, Eric has been writing for us for 10 years and I wanted people to see just how diverse his work really is. I guarantee there will be nothing remotely similar to Nothing Personal onstage anywhere else in Utah this season!
Gavin: What was it like planning out the year in advance and figuring out how best to stack his plays in a season?
Jerry: About 18 months ago, I invited Eric to be a resident playwright alongside Matt. And then, I did something else I had been considering for quite some time: I asked if Plan-B could stage an entire season of his work. I wanted to celebrate his range as a playwright and let some of that been-under-a-bushel-far-too-long work see the light of day. From there, I told him the play that mattered most to me of the dozen of so plays/outlines he shared with me was Nothing Personal. We then built a season of four world premieres around it.
Gavin: Eric, how did you come to have four plays ready to go for this season, and what were your thoughts on having a season dedicated to you?
Eric: Well, it is an incredible honor. I've been writing and producing plays for 30 years now, and I've always got a new script I'm working on. In this case, Nothing Personal was a play I wrote with Plan-B in mind six years ago; so, that became the first play chosen. Then, I was working on my play Clearing Bombs about Keynes and Hayek. And Jerry wanted to also celebrate some of my Mormon stuff, so 3 became the play we settled on. Fairyana was a piece I'd been working on off and on for years; so goofy, I wasn't sure if it would ever find an audience. So, when Jerry suggested it might make a good radio drama, I jumped at it.
Gavin: How did the idea for Nothing Personal come about?
Eric: Well, I started off just writing a play about Kenneth Starr and Susan McDougal. But it was in the middle of the War on Terror, and the Abu Graib photos were coming to light. I thought I should expand it, imaginatively, move beyond Susan's specific issues and aim for something more universal.
Gavin: Considering how it was originally based on real-life events and people, what kind of a challenge was it for you to restructure it into a more modern piece and update it for today's issues?
Eric: It was incredibly liberating, to be honest. It just felt like the right direction for this play. I liked the edginess I had to find expression for. That's not usually me, but it was a wonderful thing, to explore another side of my craft.
Gavin: For the cast, what were your initial thoughts on the play when you first read it?
Kirt: Wow, Eric, um ...
Dee-Dee: Honestly, I wasn't drawn to it initially. I didn't feel a personal connection to any of the characters until the rehearsal process began.
April: When I first read the current draft, I felt terrified and exhilarated by the possibility of acting in it. Both feelings have turned out to be justified.
Jerry: I can't wait for our audience to see this play and the work of everyone involved in the production: designers, actors and, especially, Eric.
Eric: I finished the play, and I thought, "What would be the ideal cast. I mean, if I could get anyone, who would I pick? Meryl Streep? Anthony Hopkins? Who?" And I thought, "April Fossen and Kirt Bateman. I would rather have those two actors than any other actors I can even imagine." Perfect casting. And adding Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin to the mix has just been icing on the cake.
Gavin: How has it been for each of you fitting into these roles and discovering these characters?
Kirt: It's been difficult for me because the character of Kenneth is unlike me in almost every way -- I hope! I enjoy playing the lovable guy; see my last three Plan-B shows: Borderlands, Gutenberg! The Musical!, Lady MacBeth. It's not easy to get into the head of someone who I would pretty much despise if I were to meet him on the street. His humanity comes in his unwavering belief in right and wrong, but that's also what allows Kenneth to do inhumane things.
Dee-Dee: For me, it has been challenging because I had to channel the type of person who sees injustice and wrongdoing and yet remains steadfastly silent because of duty or religion. My internal dialogue would like to believe that I would intervene.
April: I know this: The real Susan McDougal is a much stronger, braver, and more resilient person than I am. Fitting into the skin of this semi-fictional version of her has been complicated. It's easy, to a certain extent, to play her as a victim. What's more difficult is figuring out in what ways she is implicated in her own situation. And then playing that.
Gavin: What's it been like interacting with each other and putting the play together as a group?
Kirt: This is my first play with DeeDee Darby-Duffin -- uh, hilarious in rehearsal; totally love her. It's my second play with April Fossen -- uh, can't keep up with her brilliance. This is my who-knows-how-many plays with Jerry Rapier -- I kind of think he's pretty awesome.
Dee-Dee: FUN! I said yes to this piece because I wanted to work with April and I had already worked with Kirt. For me, it was as if I got to attend a master class and get paid. I love watching what other actors do to master their craft; watching the transition of people I know and genuinely like become these tortured, vile and viscous creatures, yet still managing to portray a level of humanness is an amazing process to observe.
April: It's been the same as it is with all Plan-B shows: ensemble effort, incredible support system, like working with family -- the ones you enjoy being around.
Jerry: I have beyond-full faith in these three actors, so it's a joy to watch them work together.
Gavin: Considering the subject matter, how important is it for audiences to see this side of domestic terror and how people use it to get what they want?
Kirt: Working where I do, in an area of the Wasatch Front that's sustained by a military base, I've been wondering how people there will react to such a scathing portrayal of American torture. I don't know, but I wonder if they'd actually find the play itself un-American, rather than looking at the situations in the play and seeing that THAT'S what's truly un-American. Or, maybe these situations are more "American" than any of us want to admit.
Dee-Dee: In this day and age, we act as if we are still shocked, but I think we are not shocked enough. Shocked people act more like revolutionaries. We need to see more so we are shocked into revolt.
April: I think seeing it up close and personal -- ha -- gives it a different face than we're used to seeing. We can ignore the images we see on the Internet, for a multitude of reasons. But when you're in the room with it, it's harder to turn away and pretend it isn't happening. And it becomes clear how "effective" it is as a tool.
Jerry: It is essential, given the state of our world.
Eric: Torture is all over the place in pop culture: in shows like Homeland and 24, in Zero Dark Thirty and the recent prisoners. Those all have two things in common. First, they perpetuate the atavistic myth that torture works, that it's an effective tool, that, though deplorable, you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, so it's maybe a little bit okay. I thought it was important to write a play about torture that shows it doesn't work, it's totally ineffective, it's not just barbaric, it's stupid. Also, people who are tortured are Other. They're "terrorists." They're not our kind of people, not like us fundamentally. By making ordinary housewife Susan the object of torture, I'm trying to say "she's like you, she's a person." And we say that the historic Susan McDougal was not tortured, and she wasn't, in the sensory deprivation/waterboarding sense. But she was denied medical care for her aching back. She was placed in isolation -- for "contempt of court"; incredible. So, I want to give audiences a taste of the subjective experience of what it feels like to be deprived of civil liberties. It's not something that happens to "them."
Gavin: What are all of your thoughts going into opening night?
Kirt: Holy shit!
Dee-Dee: Hoping that I remember each one of my twelve props.
April: I'm not thinking about it.
Jerry: Bring it on!
Eric: I have perfect faith in this cast and this production staff and these designers and this director. If this fails, it's on me.
Gavin: What can we expect from all of you over the rest of the year?
Kirt: My next play is also with Plan-B as part of the #SeasonOfEric: Clearing Bombs, which Eric is also directing. I'll be playing a lovable, working-class everyman, trying to help solve the question that we've ALL got on our minds: Keynes or Hayek? I know, it's an unsolvable riddle. Looking forward to it.
Dee-Dee: This is a busy year for me in terms of acting. After Nothing Personal, I play Rose in August Wilson's Fences for Good Company Theatre in Ogden Dec. 5-15. I also am excited about the Women Of Lockerbie for Pygmalion Theatre Company March 6-22.
April: The only thing I know for sure is that I'll be making pie in November.
Jerry: Eric(a) will touring to New York in November and California in January.
Eric: Still blogging! MormonIconoclast.com. Also excited about two new plays; not sure which one I'll finish first, but I like 'em both a lot.
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Kirt: Ring in the holidays with Davis Arts Council's 4th annual DAC The Halls concert with Peter Breinholt & Mindy Gledhill on Nov. 30.
Jerry: Next up at Plan-B is Eric Samuelsen's first stab at radio drama, Radio Hour Episode 8: Fairyana on Dec. 3: it's a sweet little holiday show about a holiday show -- performed as a radio show -- about the writers of a children's TV show possessed by their own characters.
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