Closing up the #SeasonOfEric, Plan-B Theatre Company is presenting the final world premier of the season with Eric Samuelsen's 3. --- The show is comprised of three short plays--all using the same cast of talented actresses taking on multiple roles--about Mormon women confronting their own culture through different aspects and hardships. Today we chat with playwright Eric Samuelsen, director Cheryl Cluff and all three actresses (Stephanie Howell, Teresa Sanderson and Christy Summerhays) about the production and their thoughts on the play, headed into the debut night starting March 27 and running through April 6. (All pictures courtesy of Plan-B Theatre.)
Stephanie Howell, Teresa Sanderson, Christy Summerhays (below), Eric Samuelsen & Cheryl Cluff.
Gavin: Hey everyone! First thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.
Cheryl: I co-founded Plan-B in 1991, I’m the company’s Managing Director, and I do sound design for most Plan-B shows. I’m also a bewildered mother of two kids (ages 6 and 8).
Stephanie: I grew up in L.A. and went to college in Chicago (Northwestern), where I studied theater. After college, I thought it would be fun to move to Park City for a couple of months to ski. It’s been a loooong “couple of months.” %uFFFDI have an incredible husband and two awesome kids. I am constantly cultivating new and totally random interests--I spent a summer jumping out of airplanes, for a time I was immersed in circus skills, right now I’m learning American Sign Language.
Eric: Not much to say. I'm still writing, blogging, getting excited for baseball season. I Read whenever possible, and see way too many movies. Same old same old.
Teresa: I have been busy with family matters, we have two new grandsons! It really is the greatest thing in the world.
Christy: I grew up in a large happy Mormon family in the Avenues in Salt Lake City – relevant for my ability to relate to the subject matter of this particular play. I Knew from the time I was about four years old that I wanted to be an actor. After high school, I auditioned for The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York – at 19, I went to said school and loved every minute of it. Later, I spent another three years in New York where I did some theater and some more training and grew up a little more. Most of my professional work has been in Salt Lake with our great theater companies and in film productions. I also love to direct and will be directing a Plan-B play next season!
Gavin: What have you all been up to over the past year in local theater?
Cheryl: I directed Eric Samuelsen's Radio Hour Episode 8: Fairyana for Plan-B last December.
Stephanie: It’s been an exciting year with some great highlights. Most recently, I played Jean in Good People at Salt Lake Acting Company. Before that was The Rose Exposed, where I had a blast representing Plan-B, performing with Matt Bennett in his piece "Get Up Again" (part of Plan-B’s educational touring show Different=Amazing). Also, Plan-B’s 10th anniversary SLAM. And last spring, I was busy working with Repertory Dance Theatre on their concert Women Of Valor.
Eric: Ha! The #SeasonOEric keeps me plenty busy!
Teresa: I have been busy theatrically too. Most recently Plan-B's Radio Hour Episode 8: Fairyana with Cheryl and Eric in December. And I started the year wrapping up Plan-B's tour of Eric(a) at Theatre Out in Santa Ana, Calif. I have also been busy producing for Pygmalion Theatre Company. Still working with the Davis Arts Council too. And babies!
Christy: I’ve been mostly directing – some for Plan-B's SLAM, the reading of Eric's play Miasma, the Peter & The Wolf tour and A Soldier's Tale, that was a co-production with NOVA. And I was in the Script-In-Hand Series reading of Eric's translation of Ibsen's Ghosts that launched the #SeasonOfEric!
Gavin: Eric, how did the idea for the stories that made up 3 come about?
Eric: It's hard even to remember. Although the three short plays that comprise 3 are similar in approach, tone and subject matter, they were written 15 years apart. "Bar & Kell" came from observing my old ward, and the way some of the women responded when a single woman (similar to Brandie) moved in. "Community Standard" came from an actual trial 13 years ago. "Duets," meanwhile, is quite recent, around a year old. It's based on the lives of a number of my former students.
Gavin: What was it like putting them together and formulating how they would flow as a single play?
Eric: I just had these old one-acts sitting around, and I pulled 'em out and thought they were pretty good. So when we were talking about the #SeasonOfEric, I mentioned them and did a quick polish, and Jerry and Cheryl thought they had some real possibilities. I had to rewrite them extensively, especially "Community Standard," which needed the most work (but which I really love too). But it's interesting; they have so many stylistic similarities. They're all plays with casts of three women, but the women also play multiple roles. They're plays that suggest larger communities. One thing that struck me about all three plays is how often they refer to other people who never appear onstage. Mark, the husband in "Duets" is the best example, but we hear about other jurors in "Community Standard," and "Bar & Kell" has all these names of other people in their ward; Sophie Arguello, Rachel Fessmacher, etc. I wanted the plays to feel populated. So we have three women in the plays, but they also suggest a much larger context. That's one of the stylistic similarities between them. What's been interesting is how current these plays feel today, given the cultural conversation within Mormonism right now. Serendipity.
Gavin: Cheryl, what were your first thoughts on 3 and what made you decide to direct it?
Cheryl: My first thoughts were about my own childhood and experiences in the predominant Utah culture. One of the greatest things my Mom taught me was how to be kind to others – especially the underdogs. She didn’t just say it, she lived it – she showed me kindness and compassion. She really did a great job with that and I think it’s one of the greatest things I could ever teach my own kids. And so kindness and compassion is often conditional. And I think when it is conditional, that condition is based in fear. I wish there was less fear in this world. That’s why I wanted to direct this show. All of this sounds pretty heavy – like this show is a big downer. %uFFFDActually, it’s very funny in many places. That’s another reason I wanted to direct it. It has an interesting blend of humor and sadness.
Gavin: How has it been staging three one-act plays on one set?
Cheryl: It’s been more of a challenge than I thought it was going to be, but challenge is a really great thing. We’re telling three different stories, but each of them is connected to the larger story we’re telling. Eric has done a brilliant job writing the script that way and as a director I have to keep up with that and make sure everything in the play supports that.
Gavin: For the cast, what were your initial thoughts on 3 after you first read it?
Stephanie: I thought, “Eric’s done it again. Another wonderful, funny and thought-provoking play.” My next thought was, “I reeeeeally hope I’m being asked to read this because I’m going to be asked to be in it.”
Teresa: I was glad to see stories featuring women. Mormon women. It is interesting to examine these stories through their eyes. And honestly, working with these amazing women is just a blast!
Christy: I thought it was funny and moving and took an interesting look at the Mormon culture – and that it would be a challenge to act in.
Gavin: What were your thoughts when you were asked to play your string of roles?
Stephanie: The women Eric has written are complex and funny and flawed and human. I think any of us could have played any of the roles, but from the beginning my “string” of roles – Brandie, Janeal and Sherilynn – felt right to me somehow.
Teresa: I adore playing multiple roles.
Christy: I always have a string of conflicting emotions when I know I’m going to take on a project – such as, great! Fun! And then – oh no! what have I gotten myself into! Mostly with this one, I thought I better start as early as I can memorizing and doing all the character work because I could see the mountain I had in front of me. And ... well ... I was right! What a wonderful challenge!
Gavin: How has it been figuring out all the different roles?
Stephanie: I’m so enjoying discovering who these women are – physically, vocally, emotionally, psychologically. Bit by bit. Brandie and Janeal and Sherilynn are in many ways polar opposites (Can you have three polar opposites? I think not. Anyway...) but they share some remarkably similar struggles. And I’m genuinely %uFFFDthrilled about the ensemble nature of this rehearsal process and the experience of working with Teresa and Christy and Cheryl.
Teresa: I always start with text. Eric gives very clear clues about the women we are playing. Then it is just a big exploration – what does Cheryl want, what do my fellow actors need, how can I most effectively tell these stories.
Christy: It’s been an exercise of getting in touch with the inner child! You really have to be willing to do a lot of experimenting and letting go of any inhibitions – trying out different voices, different dialects, speech patterns, not to mention different ways of seeing the world. It’s been fun and frustrating and exhilarating.
Gavin: How have these stories affected each of you?
Cheryl: It has really highlighted for me that even though women have made progress within the LDS Church and on a national level, there is still a long way to go – especially in our own minds as women. I struggle with the popular feminist phrase, “you can have it all” or the unspoken phrase, “be it all and do it all” that a lot of women seem to be internalizing. And I have developed more empathy for those who are stuck in this perception of how women should be – those who take it to heart and try to do it all – or at least appear that they’re doing it all. I think I have a greater understanding as to why that happens. How our culture supports that kind of thinking.
Stephanie: Well, first off, working on this play has made me very, very grateful for my incredible husband and marriage. I’ve also been thinking a lot about perfectionism. And how we define ourselves or let ourselves be defined by others. And friendship.
Teresa: I live in a very LDS community. I love my neighbors and feel honored to examine stories about their lives and culture.
Christy: Well... they’ve made me ask myself questions about what motivates people.What motivates me. Looking deep inside to try to understand why we do what we do. I think what I’ve found is that everyone is looking for basically the same thing and going about it in our various clumsy ways. We all want connection and acceptance and love – and sometimes we let our fears get in the way and that always ends badly.
Gavin: What do you hope audiences will take home from watching 3?
Cheryl: I hope people talk about how they might be doing what some of the women do in the play, consciously or subconsciously, regardless of what religion they subscribe to. I hope more people think about giving themselves a break from how the world says they should be and just try to find happiness on their own terms.
Stephanie: I try not to think about what an audience will take away from a play. Our job as actors is to tell the story, or in this case stories. These particular stories are humorous and heartbreaking and, above all, I think, honest. I guess what I most hope is that the play inspires conversations. I look forward to hearing about those conversations and seeing the direction they take.
Eric: I really like plays that start conversations. When I go to the theater, I want to experience worlds I don't currently inhabit, but I also want to learn more about the world I do inhabit. I love it when we go see a play and talk about it endlessly afterwards. So that's my biggest wish. I want these plays to generate further discussion.
Teresa: I think everyone will take away something different. One of my favorite things about sharing more than one story in an evening.
Christy: I hope audiences will take home a better sense of our humanity and look at themselves more honestly – and I hope they’ll have compassion towards each other and be kinder.
Gavin: What are all your thoughts going into opening night?
Cheryl: I’m looking forward to seeing how the audience reacts to the really great, funny moments, along with the sad moments. Some of them are funny and sad at the same time. And I think everyone will recognize bits of themselves in each of the characters. So I’m curious to hear some of the audience's opinions of the characters.
Stephanie: I’m excited for opening night, but more excited to see how the characters will continue to grow through the run. That’s one of the great things about live theater. You strive for consistency during a run, but at the same time, a play is a living, growing thing. It changes – though usually in very subtle ways. A tiny new layer. A small discovery. A moment realized.
Eric: Oh, usual things. Sheer unreasoning terror. In this case, I'm mostly scared about the thought that women will see these plays and go "These things were obviously written by a dude. He doesn't understand women at all."
Teresa: Lines, lines, lines. Then we are just going to have some serious fun.
Christy: They boil down to this – Man, I hope I don’t %uFFFDf-up.
Gavin: What can we expect from all of you over the rest of the year?
Cheryl: In October, I’m directing Matt Bennett's Radio Hour Episode 9: Grimm and then Julie Jensen's Christmas With Misfits in December, both for Plan-B.
Stephanie: Well, next month I’m looking at a beach vacation and a new puppy. After that, we’ll see...
Teresa: After 3, I go into rehearsal for Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf for Pinnacle Acting Company and then August Osage County for Utah Repertory Theater/Silver Summit Theatre Company. And I will be stage managing when I can at the Davis Arts Council this summer.
Eric: Well, I just finished the first draft of a new play. So that's exciting. Eleventh century papal politics, the obvious next topic after macroeconomics and feminism. And... I'm excited about working with Plan-B honoring marriage equality in Utah – it's a piece for the Script-In-Hand Series called Marry Christmas, which will be Plan-B's fundraiser for Restore Our Humanity in December.
Christy: Good question! %uFFFDUm... well what I hope is that I’ll keep working as an actor and get a short film produced that I’ve been working on – and, of course lose those last 10 pounds.
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Cheryl: The women in this show are fantastic. They have inspired me throughout the entire process. I am in awe of them. And Plan-B's latest eBook, #SeasonOfEric, will be available beginning May 3 at And The Banned Played On!
Stephanie: Go see live theater!
Eric: Just my blog!
Christy: Besides the play? %uFFFDYes – peace.
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