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Gavin's Underground

Plan-B Theatre: The Scarlet Letter

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2012-04-09 -
If you're a product of public education, and your school didn't at some point bow to public pressure to remove literature about adult situations, chances are at some time you've read The Scarlet Letter. Considered one of the greatest works of American fiction, Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece depicts a woman in a Puritan colony who has become pregnant out of wedlock and is forced to wear the letter “A” on her chest as a symbol of her sin. While she raises her daughter, her husband seeks revenge on the man responsible.
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Plan-B Theatre, with the skillful writing of Jenifer Nii and director Cheryl Cluff, has boiled down the classic novel down to an hour-long production, focusing on the four core characters and the message of the work. Before the play kicks off this Thursday, we chat with both women as well as the entire cast about the play and their thoughts going into opening night.

Jenifer Nii (pictured), Cheryl Cluff, David Fetzer, Mark Fossen, Lauren Noll & Claire Wilson
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Gavin: Hey, everyone. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Jenifer: Let’s see. I’m a dog fanatic/psychotic, especially pit bulls and dachshunds. I am getting over my fear of Chihuahuas. Writing is very difficult and intimidating for me, but I love it and feel completely overwhelmed and honored to know the wonderful people at Plan-B Theatre Company.

Cheryl: I accidentally co-founded Plan-B back in 1991, meaning I never intentionally set out to start a theater company. It just sort of happened ,and once I realized what was really going on, I grabbed hold and, fortunately, didn't let go. Plan-B used to be my hobby while I worked for Intermountain Healthcare for 18 years. After Plan-B became my full -time job about three and a half years ago, I accidentally became one of those "crafty" types I had scoffed at for many years -- the horror! Now in my spare time, I like to admire my bead collection and once in a while actually make a necklace or something. I'm also a bewildered wife, and mother of Charlie, 6 and Lydia, 4.

David: I'm probably not very good at football. I don't know, I haven't played since elementary school. But I have a feeling that I'm probably not very good.

Mark: I've acted in Plan-B's The Alienation Effekt, Exposed, and Amerigo plus many SLAM's and Script-In-Hand's. I’m married to local actress April Fossen, and father to two wonderful girls. I'm a Web programmer, and am currently at the University of Utah finishing my undergraduate degree in theater studies.

Lauren: I am a Tennessee native who’s been transplanted to Utah for eight and a half years, with the exception of a 10-month stint in Cincinnati. Graduate of BYU’s acting program. Lover of cats. Lifelong vegetarian.

Claire: I'm 15, I go to the Salt Lake School for Performing Arts, take classes through the Theatre Arts Conservatory and I play the ukulele.
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Gavin: What are some of the projects you all have worked on in the past year or so?

Jenifer: Wallace, which I co-wrote with amazing playwright Debora Threedy, was produced the season-before-last at Plan-B. I’ve also written for the company’s SLAM event for the past few years.

Cheryl: Most recently, I designed sound for The Third Crossing and Lady MacBeth and last season's Borderlands and She Was My Brother. I directed Mesa Verde last spring -- all at Plan-B.

David: I was in the last Plan-B show, The Third Crossing. Most notably, I created a portal to the Nether, where I defeated a blaze mob and combined his droppings with my collection of Ender Pearls to create 12 Eyes of Ender. I think I have a good idea as to where an underground stronghold might be, so I'm looking forward to fighting the Ender Dragon and collecting her egg as a trophy.

Mark: About a year ago, I played Odysseus in The Odyssey for Meat & Potato, and I just directed The Crucible at The Grand.

Lauren: In the past year, I’ve worked on The Glass Menagerie at The Grand, Sunset Boulevard at Pioneer Theatre Company, Gypsy at Dark Horse Company Theatre, A Doll House (Script-In-Hand Series) and Lady MacBeth at Plan-B Theatre Company. It was almost two years ago, but can I throw in Hair at the Egyptian, too? It was one of my favorites.

Claire: Most recently, I was in The Mill and The Floss at school.
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Gavin: Seeing how The Scarlet Letter is a classroom standard, what are you thoughts on the book, and what kind of an impression did it leave with you the first time you read it?

Jenifer: I’m embarrassed to say that before I started working on this project, I hadn’t read the novel. When I asked friends and colleagues about it, though, it seemed that many were introduced to it as teenagers and were ... perhaps not of an age to understand the issues or importance of Hawthorne’s work. There were stories of naps and agony. But they didn’t deter me. I dove into Hawthorne’s world and there found terrain that was utterly new. And yet not -- replete with characters strong and weak entwined in a story that was -- is -- compelling and evocative and remarkably, painfully relevant.

Cheryl: I first read it in high school. I didn't appreciate it back then; found it boring and very wordy. I didn't really grasp the whole hypocrisy theme and what Hawthorne was really saying. I thought it was a book about people who did the nasty when they weren't supposed to and, boy, were they really unhappy because of it -- yawn. Which is interesting, because right around the time I must have been reading it, age of 16 or 17, one of my best childhood friends got pregnant and was being "Scarlet Lettered" in our ward. By that time we had grown apart, but I remember thinking and feeling that something was kind of off about the way she was being treated and alienated. However, I didn't make the connection between her and Hester. It didn't sink in until later.

David: I remember not liking it in high school, but that's probably because I made it a point not to like anything that was required reading. I like it much better this time around, though. I still hate Jane Eyre.

Mark: The first time I read it in high school I think I was overwhelmed by the density of the language and the density of the experience. Reading it again recently, I'm shocked at the depth of the emotion and the psychology. The characters are so complex and, especially in Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, very modern and relatable and flawed.

Lauren: I didn’t read it in high school. And it’s not just because I skipped the assignment, either. It wasn’t assigned to me. Not sure how I got away with that. So, I’ve read it entirely with this project in mind. I didn’t have an experience with it that wasn’t attached to this.

Claire: I remember seeing my sister struggle through several essays on it, so I was pleasantly surprised to find I wasn't ever bored by it. I think it's a book that everyone needs to read and understand at some point.
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Gavin: Jenifer, how did the idea come about to do an adaptation of the novel, and what has it been like for you writing it?

Jenifer: Jerry Rapier -- producing director at Plan-B -- asked me if I’d be interested in giving it a go. I’d have been insane to turn down such an opportunity. Writing it was one of the most challenging experiences I’ve had as a writer. The novel is chock-full of events, issues, and characters, and to pare it down to a single set and four characters was enough to make my brain explode. That said, it has been incredibly fun.

Gavin: Those familiar with the novel may notice that a number of events didn't make their way into your play, while others are expanded upon. How did you decide what stayed and what went?

Jenifer: That was by far the greatest challenge of writing this project, and I think that it’s what makes adapting an existing work so hard to get right. I had to remember that that was exactly what it was: an adaptation, my adaptation. So I immersed myself in the novel, tried to identify key events and themes and find a way to dramatize them in a way that was faithful to the original work while being appropriate for the medium. That entailed combining some scenes described in the novel, dramatizing character traits that Hawthorne described, and finding ways to give voice to an entire town through four characters.
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Gavin: Cheryl, what did you think of the play on first reading, and how did you come to direct it?

Cheryl: I thought Jenifer had done a really wonderful job condensing all the major themes/events of the novel into four characters. For the last several years, Jerry has been directing two of the main shows and I direct one. We drew straws and this one was my straw. Just kidding. I've always loved literary adaptations; hypocrisy is a major pet peeve of mine, and I thought it was a nice opportunity to rediscover the novel.

Gavin: The set is almost its own character with its many layers designed to look like so much in one. How did it come to be? What are the challenges of making it suitable for multiple scenes?

Cheryl: I told Randy Rasmussen, our set designer, that I absolutely HAD to have a scaffold and a cross, and it grew from there. There's a lot going on with the people in the play, a lot of stuff that's underneath that you never fully see and the set reflects that beautifully. It's tempting to play all the characters as one dimensional, classic "types" or whatever. The set is EXTREMELY three dimensional, which is a good reminder for me that they need to be more than just the "weird, mature-beyond-her-years kid," the "heroine" or "villain" or "wussy preacher guy who needs to get some balls." Determining which part of the set is included in each scene has definitely been a discovery process. And finding out how to take advantage and really use the entire set in ways you might not expect has also been interesting. I see the play as a pretty straight up gothic romance, so I've been trying to find ways to use the set to be a little more overly dramatic and heightened.
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Gavin: For the cast, how did each of you first find out about the play and what were your thoughts after reading it?

David: I'm tempted to make up an answer for this question, but in all honesty, it was so long ago that I don't remember. Plan-B always has their ducks lined up in a row so well in advance ...

Mark: I attended a staged reading of the work that Plan-B had about a year and a half ago. I was immediately drawn to the language of the piece. Jenifer is an amazing writer, and she retained the richness of Hawthorne's tortured prose while also simplifying it considerably. Even at that reading, I knew I wanted to get my hands on that language and play with it.

Lauren: I saw the reading in the fall of 2010. At that point, it was still in progress. I read the play when Jerry asked me to come read for it. I found it to be very rich, and it has only become richer with a further development in my understanding of the story and the language.

Claire: I found out through an acting teacher of mine who had been contacted by Jerry Rapier, saying that they needed some kids to audition for the part. After reading the play, I decided that I really, really wanted to be a part of it.
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Gavin: What was the audition process like for each of you, and what was your reaction when you found out you were cast?

David: I remember them being pretty fun. We were auditioning for the whole Plan-B season, so we were reading for multiple roles for multiple plays. I remember The Scarlet Letter being particularly fun. Cheryl was pushing everybody to see how far they could go, and in the context of an audition, that can be pretty far. My reaction to being cast was, as it is always, a mixture of excitement and dread. I'm always excited to do a play, and always equally terrified.

Mark: I was cast off my initial audition before callbacks so it gave me a wonderful opportunity to go in on the callback day and play with all the Dimmesdales with no pressure. It was a delight to read with each actor, and to watch the process as Cheryl worked with everybody in turn. An actor is always happy to be cast, but the knowledge that I'd get to work with my Plan-B family again was especially exciting.

Lauren: When the season auditions came around, I was pre-cast in the fall show and had a rehearsal that conflicted with the scheduled auditions, so I wasn’t planning on going in. Fortunately, Jerry allowed me to come in earlier to read with some young girls who were auditioning for Pearl, and then I was able to find an open chunk of time on the day of callbacks to come in and read again with the male actors. When I saw the callback list for the role, I really didn’t imagine I would ever get it. It was filled with actresses I think a great deal of. The callback experience made me really excited for what we could find in this script, and so I was thrilled when Jerry let me know Cheryl had chosen me.

Claire: The audition process was nerve-racking. When I found out I was cast last spring, I was excited, but the reality that I was actually going to do the show didn't really sink for about 10 months. Then I got even more excited.
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Gavin: What are your thoughts on playing these timeless characters and bringing them to life?

David: Dimmesdale is not a very happy character, nor is he very sympathetic, in my opinion. I wouldn't even really qualify him as being necessarily "timeless." Playing him is a huge challenge, and he serves an important function in the big picture. The Scarlet Letter is proving to be a really fun story to tell.

Mark: I find myself playing "the bad guy" ... but I immediately try to find Chillingworth's side of the story. Bad guys are always the hero of their own play, and are doing what they think is right. Chillingworth's wife had betrayed him, and while she is suffering publicly, he doesn't think it fair that the man should get away with it. He wants to find the man who wronged them both and make him pay. That revenge ends up consuming him, but it's hard to fault him for wanting it.

Lauren: Well, if I think of it that way, it makes me a little nervous. I can only bring to Hester what I personally have to offer her. I just try to give and take with the other actors -- and they all give tremendously -- and be as truthful as I possibly can be to her journey. If I think of her as a great moral symbol, then I can’t humanize her. She’s a human. Let the audience make the symbol out of her. Let them determine what they can learn from her. I do certainly believe there are plenty of parallels to current events, and I hope people make those connections.

Claire: It's sort of intimidating. When you read a book, you get a mental picture of how you think the character is supposed to look and act. So what I think of Pearl is probably not going to be exactly the same as what everyone else sees in her. Hopefully, our perspectives will line up more often than not.
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Gavin: How has it been interacting with each other in a small cast such as this and feeding off these characters and the passion in the words of both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Jenifer Nii?

David: Mark and Claire and Lauren are all gung-ho in their portrayals. Everybody is very committed, which, coupled with Hawthorne's story and Nii's language, has led to some very fun and exhausting rehearsals.

Mark: It's a delightful cast. I've watched Claire's work for years with the Theatre Arts Conservatory, and I'm thrilled to share the stage with her. I wish I was that good that young. I'm a card-carrying member of the David Fetzer fan club; he's consistently one of Salt Lake's most honest and engaging actors and it's great to finally work with him. And I directed Lauren in The Glass Menagerie about a year ago, and it's very special to now turn around and be on stage with her.

Lauren: It starts with the beautiful script Jenifer gave us. She’s given us a framework that is incredibly supportive of our success as actors. Really, we just need to trust the words she’s given us because they are rich. The whole group is great. As I mentioned earlier, I’m working with very giving actors. They don’t make this difficult at all.

Claire: Working with such a small cast is great, and the words I have to say make it so easy to play off the other actors.
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Gavin: What are your thoughts going into opening night?

Jenifer: I just hope the play is worthy of this amazing novel, and this wonderfully talented company and cast.

Cheryl: Stop asking me about opening night. I’ll freak myself right out!

David: I'm very curious how the audience will receive the show, whether they'll engage on an emotional level or whether they'll be more inclined to observe it more cerebrally. We're in it so deep at this point that I honestly have no idea.

Mark: I am looking forward to sharing Jenifer's amazing work on this adaptation with our audiences, especially our student matinee. She's made a somewhat unapproachable novel direct and clean, and I think it's going to surprise people.

Lauren: It’s just about continuing to ramp up to that night, and layering the scenes with more and more undertones -- taking all of the individual scene work and now fleshing out the arc and the smoothness in the journey of the play as a whole. I’m excited.

Claire: Really nervous, but definitely excited, as well.

Gavin: What can we expect from each of you over the rest of the year?

Jenifer: I’m working on a few things, including a new play for Plan-B’s 2012/13 season!

Cheryl: Plan-B's SLAM on May 12, which is always a fun day, 8 and all of the other events planned for next season, including directing a new play by Jenifer Nii next spring.

David: I'll be back in LA co-producing a series of short films with cinematographer Michael Gioulakis.

Mark: I will be performing in SLAM on May 12, and 8 in August. And I'm putting my directing hat back on this summer for Davis Arts Council's Shakespeare in the Park for Romeo & Juliet.

Lauren: You can expect to see me in SLAM and SLAC’s Saturday's Voyeur, then I’m heading to New York mid-September -- one-way ticket, booked and all. That doesn’t mean I’m not hoping to be working on projects back in Salt Lake City once in a while. I’m really in awe of the people I’ve met and worked with here.

Claire: Probably something at school.
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Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?

Jenifer: SLAM will be raucous, dangerous, terrifying fun.

David: Here's an online petition to bring back pogs.

Mark: As a producing associate at Pinnacle Acting Company, I'm really looking forward to our production of Harold Pinter's Betrayal, which opens May 3.


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