Plan-B Theatre's current season has already turned out to be one of its most talked about, and looking to become one of its most successful. And with a few more productions still left of the bill, the next one takes a particular subject near to most of us. Our own country's existence.
The newest play Amerigo (April 8-18 in the Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner) enters a discussion of the history and value of the "new world" from several viewpoints of historical figures, in an attempt to define what exactly we are as Americans and what we could become. Taking its own unique turn into the interactions and thoughts, the four characters at hand (Columbus, Amerigo, Machiavelli and Ines de la Cruz) explore the merits and disadvantages, all with a twist of humor and deprecation along the way. I got a chance to chat with playwright Eric Samuelsen, as well as old friends of the blog Deena Marie Manzanares and Matthew Ivan Bennett about the play's creation and production, plus a few thoughts on local theatre.
Eric Samuelsen, Deena Marie Manzanares & Matthew Ivan Bennett
Gavin: Hey everyone. First first off, tell us a bit about yourselves.
Eric: I teach playwriting at BYU. I've been on the BYU faculty since 1992. Before that, I taught at Wright State in Ohio, and before that, at Indiana. I've always loved history, though: my PhD is in Theatre History and Dramatic Literature. I don't have an MFA in playwriting, like most university playwriting teachers. I used to be an actor, I'm a director, I'm an Ibsen scholar and an Ibsen translator--in fact, my translation of A Doll House is being done at UVU right now, running concurrently with Amerigo. So I'm sort of a jack of all trades. I'm a Mormon, and an active one. Married, four children. Politically liberal, so, yeah, Mormon liberal living in Provo. I guess locally I'm sort of known for my letters to the editor of Deseret News. I've been pointing out what seems completely obvious: Glenn Beck's a nincompoop. So that's sort of my hobby: pissing off Utah conservatives.
Deena: Well you know me as a local actress, model, BeanerLaRue on YouTube and City Weekly videographer!
Matt: As a kid I once flooded a cow pasture on purpose. Actually, I was trying to create a pond by damming an irrigation ditch and the water just happened to spill into the adjacent pasture. The farmer was pissed. I knew that damming the ditch was wrong and stupid, but I wanted a little pond! It seems I recall this story whenever I'm about to say or write something I think will make me sound good (like when I'm asked to write about myself for a blog...) What the story says about me is that my curiosity is sometimes more muscular than my reason.
Gavin: What inspired all you to take an interest in theater?
Matt: My realistic answer: All the attention I got doing it as a young person. My cynical answer: I became interested in theatre when I realized I could lie and get away with it. My geeky answer: Reading Shakespeare until my eyes hurt in my bedroom at 14, under a blue light bulb, and imagining Rosemary Tonge (a crush) as Juliet got me interested in it. (Note: I saw myself as Romeo, yes, but in my imagination I had no dandruff and larger pectorals.)
Deena: I always have been and always will be in love with the stage, first and foremost. It's what I crave and where I get to dress up, play pretend and escape awhile. Where I get my emotion out. Where I feel beautiful and confident. Where I get a chance to tell a story to others and perhaps have the kind of affect on a person or two that seeing theatre had on me when I was little. A chance to leave a mark. To change a life. It's what gets me. Down to my bones.
Eric: My father's an opera singer, so I grew up with opera and theatre and music, and I had small kid's roles in operas with my Dad--I was six when I had a tiny walk-on in Peter Grimes, I remember. So in high school in Indiana, I was a weird nerdy kid without any friends, but a couple of teachers took an interest in me--my typing teacher (I wanted to be a writer and back then, you took a typing class), was an opera buff, got me into the school choir. My high school drama teacher was this amazing alcoholic force of nature named Mary Forester, who directed five plays a year and trolled the hallways of the school looking for misfits and weirdos and putting them in shows. She scooped me up in her net, cast me as Velasco in Barefoot in the Park. And I fell in love. I've been a theatre geek ever since.
Gavin: Eric, how did the idea come about for this particular play?
Eric: I've always been interested in Columbus, way back in '92 when everyone was doing 500 year anniversary stuff, and there was this huge debate about whether we should celebrate him as a great explorer or attack him as a genocidist. I'd read a lot about him, and what always interested me were his religious views, which were idiosyncratic even by the standards of the 15th century. Plus he liked a lot of the same scriptures Mormons tend to like. But I could never figure out a way to write about him. A few years ago, I got to thinking about Amerigo Vespucci, and I realized I didn't know very much about the guy our two continents are named after, so I bought a couple of books, and read them, and thought he was, if anything, more interesting than Columbus. So I got the idea of putting the two of them in a play. I took a couple of shots at it; wrote a draft, set in the 15th century, but it wasn't very good. I do have two short scenes from that play in this one, one in which Amerigo tries to talk Columbus into going with him on his third voyage, and one between Queen Isabella and one of her advisors. Meanwhile I saw Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen in London, and then directed it at BYU, and fell in love with that whole idea of building a play around an historical debate. So I got the idea of doing this debate, Amerigo vs. Columbus over who discovered America. Who should mediate? I love Machiavelli, esp. when I read that Karl Rove reads The Prince annually. And Machiavelli was a playwright--in fact, one draft of Amerigo includes an excerpt from Machiavelli's The Mandrake--too cumbersome to keep, but I still wish I could have made it work. But what kept nagging at me was the need to include another perspective, the perspective of native Americans. I thought of including Bartolome de las Casas, the great preacher who argued against Columbus and the entire conquest of the Americas. But I wanted the play to stay sort of light in tone, and de las Casas, was too passionate to really work. I also thought of including Montezuma, but I wanted the play to read like a Renaissance debate, I wanted the characters to be Europeans. Then I read Clive James wonderful book Cultural Amnesia, and he has a chapter on Sor Juana and Octavio Paz. I'd read quite a bit of Paz, but I didn't know his book about Sor Juana. So I was able to find that and it really intrigued me, so I bought a book of her poetry, and read her play, The Divine Narcissus. The Loa to that play (a kind of introduction) included some lines she's translated from Nahuatal, and they fit perfectly into what I wanted to do. So I had my fourth character. I think in most respects, she's the most important--she's the moral center of the play, certainly, and yet she's also compromised, she's also a cultural imperialist, she learns. That's the sin that's kept her in Purgatory. Why Purgatory? I just love it, this half-way house, this interim place where you get to spend thousands of years in penance. So I ended up with a play that's pretty funny, I think, but also that deals with serious issues. Plus, remember the Columbus debate: hero v. villain? Well, that got politicized, with the right arguing for Columbus as a good guy who did good things. Glenn Beck's really there; he's argued that manifest destiny is an idea we need to revive, for example. So indirectly, the play's kind of inspired by Glenn Beck. Just in the sense that he's always trying to bring history in to support his argument, but his version of history is really just a kind of hard core American exceptionalism. To which, as an historian, I take exception. Plus, dude, Glenn Beck's HILARIOUS. Especially when he cries; I love it when he cries. I'm always reminded of Bill Murray in "The Man Who Knew Too Little". "My dog . . . just died!" Bad acting is always funny, and Beck is, first and foremost, a terrible actor.
Gavin: Considering the four people you chose to include from history, what was it about each one that drew your attention and made you want to include them as characters?
Eric: They each represent something, a point of view about America. Columbus represents America as an essentially religious construct, as Zion, as Eden, as the shining city on a hill. Amerigo represents America as primarily a land of commerce, a land where Adam Smith rules. Machiavelli represents America as a political empire, as a pragmatic superpower that has to do terrible things from time to time to continue to hold onto power. And Sor Juana represents multicultural America, tragic America, where great civilizations were wiped out, where empires were built on slavery, but where there's still some beauty in the new civilizations that rose from the ashes of those that were destroyed. I do see them a bit as types more than fully rounded characters. But I love Amerigo's wit, I love Columbus' bullying ambition, I love Machiavelli's cool detached pragmatism, and above all, I love Sor Juana's passion and moral centeredness.
Gavin: What was it like for you researching the material on these figures and creating their personalities for the roles?
Eric: The research was just pure joy. I loved every second of it. I read some twenty five or thirty books as research for this, and every single one was wonderful--they were all well written, they were all engaging. Something about American history leads to good writing, I've decided. The writing of this play was really fun too--I kept going back to it, just because it was so much fun. There were times it was a little heart breaking: the Michele Cuneo part, where Columbus' lieutenant describes his first encounter with a native woman, and how he enjoyed raping and torturing her, that always gets to me. But I got to write lyrically, I got to write comically, I got to write tragically, and I got to quote some of my favorite plays from ancient Greece. So the whole thing was just a ball.
Gavin: Matt and Deena, what was it about this particular play that caught your eye to audition for it?
Deena: I love words. The beauty and power of words. When I was asked to read for it and had the script in my hand I fell in love with the writing. I was in awe of Sor Juana, so flattered to be considered to portray such a woman. What an opportunity it would be to speak these lovely words as such a powerful and revered woman. Plus my dad is Spanish, my mom Mexican... so my whole family is excited for this one!
Matt: Well, the role of Amerigo. He's a combination of snake oil and Han Solo. He's the Han Solo of the late 15th Century. What self-respecting nerd would pass on the opportunity to audition?
Gavin: What has it been like fitting into these unique roles, and what challenges have you met in bringing out the character and perfecting your performance?
Matt: The biggest challenge, so far, has been tempering the snake oil with genuineness. The most interesting thing to me in getting into the role has been actually agreeing with his point of view. The more I try on his unapologetic capitalism, the less crazy I think the political right is -- and that's disturbing to me because I'm so Communist I shit red. Just kidding. I just wanted to write that. But seriously, as I play the part, the saying "It's just business" makes more and more sense to me.
Deena: I have never played someone who really lived before. I wanted to come in with a clean slate, let my version of Sor Juna find me, rather than play an idea of her. And of course, wanting to do her great justice.
Gavin: How is the interaction between each other, along with Kirt and Mark, and bringing this play to life?
Deena: There's something different, again, that we're playing real people. Speaking to Columbus one minute and Amerigo the next, while sharing a glance with Machiavelli, it's very cool. Give me chills.
Matt: We all seem to be in some way tailored to the play. Mark Fossen is naturally eloquent and impassioned (like Columbus). Deena Marie is, I think, naturally dignified and caring, and she's certainly gorgeous (all like Sor Juana). Kirt Bateman is a natural mediator: he's merry, to-the-point, and always practical (like Samuelsen's Machiavelli). And it turns out Amerigo had exactly the same hair as me. So bringing it to life, for all of us, has been pretty effortless.
Gavin: Going into opening night, what are your overall thoughts on the production?
Eric: I've got a great cast, great designers, a great director. So if the play doesn't work, it's my fault. So I'm scared shitless.
Deena: To savor each performance. The run is short, so get your tickets ASAP!
Matt: Overall I'm thinking: the production is kismet. We all seem to be learning something personal from the experience. That's my favorite kind of theatre to do. I'm also thinking that Kirt Bateman is going to make me snicker, and possibly totally break character, at least once in the run.
Gavin: A bit state-wide, what are your thoughts on local theater, both good and bad?
Matt: Salt Lake theatre, it feels, has gotten better and better in my lifetime in terms of diversity of voices and its contribution to social discourse. The pure entertainment aspect of it has improved too, it seems. What's missing, to me, in the Salt Lake theatre scene is camaraderie. It's somewhat clique-ish, which I find unfortunate. I've been saying that for a few years now and I haven't really seen an improvement. But that doesn't seem to be in the way of new companies striking out or brilliant work being done.
Deena: It's small. So that's either a blessing or a curse. Knock on wood, I've been very lucky to be able to do what I love professionally on a regular basis.
Eric: I think there's a lot of really good theatre being done in this state, but mostly not in the big venues. I love SLAC, though I don't get there for everything and should. In Provo, the best theatre that's happening is being done by little groups like the New Play Project. They just did a show, Little Happy Secrets, that's as good as I've seen in years. And Scott Bronson has this tiny little space tucked into a converted closet at the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo, and he does these fantastic little shows, great work time and time again. Even the Hale Center-Orem's improved a lot; I loved their Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Plan-B is best - I love Jerry's passionate commitment to new plays. Bravo! I should also mention college theatre. BYU does good work, and right now UVU's kicking our ass. Chris Clark and John Graham and Dave Tinney are amazing directors.
Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to improve it?
Eric: Publicity! I mean, I want to know what's happening in those little 100-seat black boxes. That's when theatre REALLY gets exciting.
Deena: It would be great if there was more professional theatre in town so more of SLC's equity actors could have consistent work.
Gavin: What's your take on the recent push to bring “Broadway to Utah”?
Matt: Meh. I'm glad for it, I guess. "Broadway" in "Broadway to Utah" mostly means producing big-butt, PG musical spectacles that both the Quorum of the Twelve and volunteers at the Pride Center will buy a ticket to. I usually want to see about 1 in 4 of the Broadway plays that come here, but usually don't see unless I'm offered a free ticket. Don't get me wrong though, my spine tingles as much as the next person in response to tap shoes.
Eric: I'm pretty indifferent. Big touring companies doing tired old Broadway standards? Ho. Hum.
Gavin: What can we expect from all of you over the rest of the year?
Deena: As far as theatre goes, And The Banned Slammed On at Plan-B on May 1st; a staged reading of Persian Quarter at SLAC on April 26; and Hair this summer at the Egyptian Theatre.
Matt: Mostly you can expect me to cloistered with a jar of almond butter and carrots, writing my next two plays. On June 2nd there's a reading of a one-act of mine at Plan-B. I'll probably have a one-act produced with the Theatre Arts Conservatory later in the year. Oh yeah, and there's And The Banned Slammed On.
Eric: Gosh, well. I'm directing a children's show, Mysteries Of Monster Grove, at BYU in May. Love it, we adapted it from some stories by Rick Walton, and it's terrific fun. Scott Bronson's little theatre is doing my play The Plan sometime next year; they've committed to doing it, but it's still TBA. New Play Project is doing a play of mine, Mess Of Pottage, again TBA. Of course, I'm really excited about Borderlands at Plan-B, same time next year as Amerigo. UVU's doing my translation of A Doll's House. Colleen Lewis' Theatre Arts Conservatory will be doing my play Bumps. And I'm just finishing a novel.
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Eric: Mysteries Of Monster Grove. It's really just pure fun. A lot of children's theatre is messagy, didactic. I hated that when I was a kid, and we're not doing it now. It's just a fun play about a family who moves to Monster Grove.
Deena: Visit my website for current projects, photos, buzz, links and more. Also, I just shot my first centerfold for a pinup magazine, Sunday Slacker. Get a copy!
Matt: I'd like to take this opportunity to promote Kirt Bateman's utter lack of believability as a jailer in Amerigo. On the surface that sounds like a dig, but it's actually a high compliment, you'll see.