. Kicking off on Oct. 12, this adaptation of Robeck tells the story of an aging couple who have decided that, as they've started to reach a certain point in life, they're determined to leave on their own terms. Today we chat with playwright Julie Jensen and actress Anne Cullimore Decker about the production and its world premiere before opening tomorrow night. (All pictures provided courtesy of SLAC.
Director Tracy Callahan & playwright Julie Jensen
Gavin: Hey Anne and Julie! First thing, tell us a bit about yourselves.
I am an actor, educator, and arts advocate. Have lived in Utah all my life. Happily married for 58 years to the same devoted man; three incredible sons with equally wonderful spouses, and 3 absolutely delightful grandchildren. It's a good life.
I've been writing plays for over 30 years and won a dozen awards. Among them are The Joseph Jefferson Award in Chicago for best new work, the LA Weekly
Award for best new play, and The David Mark Cohen National Playwriting Award. I've been commissioned by a dozen theatres including Kennedy Center (twice) and Actors Theatre of Louisville (twice) and Salt Lake Acting Company (twice); and received grants from NEA, TCG, Pew Charitable Trusts, among others.
What got each of you involved with theater in general?
I wrote assemblies for various high school groups when I was a student, then I was an actor in college. By then I had been bitten. But this is probably the real reason I've spent my life in theater: If the theater works, it's the finest experience for either an audience member or an artist. If it doesn't work, it's terrifying. Either way, it's an exciting way to live. And the promise is always there that we might be making one of the finest experiences.
I took a class my senior year in high school, and was encouraged by the teacher to pursue a career in the field, either professionally or as an educator. I took him up on it.
What had both of you done over the past year before this production?
Besides performing in another production, Sarah Ruhl's Stage Kiss
at Wasatch Theatre in the spring, I have been involved in the workshop process of this play from the very beginning. I also performed with Gina Bachauer's Babar
performance this year.
A play of mine called Mockingbird
, commissioned by Kennedy Center and produced there, was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for best new work and best production. That play was produced in Salt Lake at Pygmalion Theatre and has six professional productions coming up this season.
Julie, how did the concept for Winter come about for you?
Anne Decker brought me a story written by Peggy Battin. She wanted to know if I thought it would make a good play. I was dubious about it, because there were so many settings. Then I figured out how to do it with a single set. As soon as I could imagine that, I was off and running.
What appealed to you most about Ending Life that you felt like it could be adaptable for a play?
I have long been interested in this subject, and think we each have an absolute responsibility to figure out how to get out of here,
before we lose our dignity or become a burden to others. We're in great danger of going broke taking care of people without conscious awareness. We absolutely must think about this issue as it applies to ourselves. And so I had an interesting character in Annis, a retired professor
and poet, who's losing her moorings. What does she do? What would we do? I think it's a most compelling subject for a play.
What was the process like in writing it and getting what you wanted to convey out of these characters?
I worked with actors, a director and a dramaturg for the whole process. I got input from all of these people and others. I wanted the play to reflect the values and experience of as many people as possible. That was a different way of working for me. But I think it made the product richer.
Anne, what did you first think of the play when you read it?
I was approached by Peggy Battin with the idea that her short story, Robeck
, could be adapted into a play. I loved the story. So I approached Julie Jensen with the idea. That was a beginning of an incredible creative experience watching this evolve. The play has taken many turns and directions. It now stands by itself as a play, not a short story. Julie continues to tweak it, to add, to delete, to make it more concise, poignant and effective as a theatrical piece. I'm very attached to it.
How has it been for you fitting into the role of Annis?
I am deeply honored and overwhelmed with the responsibility of breathing life into this character. She is an incredibly complex and challenging character. I understand Annis on many levels. The main advantage I have is that I am the appropriate age for the character and I understand her fears and frustrations of aging and losing control of life's choices.
How has it been for everyone working together and bringing this play to life?
Not only working with a very fine cast and crew, it is most comforting and reassuring to be in the hands of an extremely capable and intuitive director, Tracy Callahan. This is my first experience working with Tracy, but I would jump at the opportunity to do it again and again if possible. The importance of the director's vision, sensitivity and understanding of the play and its topic is vital. I love the creative process, and this has indeed been a very meaningful journey with a remarkable group of artists.
It's a very interesting group of people. All different, all committed, all gifted. I think we're all lucky to be working together on this piece.
What are both your thoughts going into opening night?
Of course, it's nervous-making. But I look forward to great production.
One of terror, and anticipation. It is a most important topic and I think the potential for a rare evening in the theater is all waiting to happen.
What can we expect from both of you after this play?
A good long rest. I have some other commitments in 2017, but that is a whole year away.
I'm looking at writing a play about Maude Adams, the most famous actress of her time (the late 19th and early 20th century) who was from Utah and also a lesbian!
Salt Lake Acting Company's season continues with their next production,