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Gavin's Underground

Pygmalion Theatre Company: In The Next Room

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2012-05-03 -
As Pygmalion Theatre Company wraps up its '11-'12 season, the final production to close it all out takes a look at the strange origins of a pleasing device. In The Next Room (or, The Vibrator Play) takes a quick journey back to the 1880s, where the original function of the sexual toy was used by doctors to treat hysteria in women. The play itself takes a look into the lives of Victorian women and medical practices at the time, while exploring the sexual frustrations and ignorance of the characters in a uniquely hilarious way.
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Today, we chat with two of the actors from the Pygmalion production, Joe Crnich and Cassandra Stokes-Wylie, as well as director and PYG's artistic director Fran Pruyn, about their thoughts on the play and the production itself before it kicks off tonight.

Fran Pruyn, Cassandra Stokes-Wylie & Joe Crnich
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Gavin: Hey, everyone. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Fran: Artistic director of PYGmalion Productions, artistic director of TheatreWorks West before that. Day job – senior principal of business development and marketing at CRSA, an architecture and planning firm. Taught some GLBT theatre at the U. Sat/sit on a bunch of boards and committees for nonprofits. Ride on the Aces Wild Mustang Drill Team. Directed and produced lots and lots of shows in SLC, because I have been around seemingly forever.

Joe: Have been doing theatre for about 30 years now acting, directing, designing, and building. I've been an educator for 23 years, teaching theater, video production, art history and English. Raised in San Diego and New Orleans primarily, with various stops in between. I am currently artistic director at Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts. Love good food and music, riding my bikes and hanging out with my kids.

Cassandra: I grew up in New Mexico and graduated from the University of Utah's actor training program.
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Gavin: What are some of the projects all of you have worked on in the past year?

Joe: Most recently, I was in Weber State University’s production of Romeo & Juliet, directed by the amazing Tracy Callahan, as the Prince; prior to that, I played Oberon in Davis Arts production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Played Big Stone in The Grand’s production of Eurydice, played Mac Daddy in that Scottish play at WSU, which also played at the Kennedy Center; that was pretty cool. Have done handfuls of staged readings at Salt Lake Acting Co. Oh, wait, you said the past year ... sorry.

Cassandra: Most recently, I played Elizabeth Proctor in The Grand Theatre's production of The Crucible, and before that I was in Pygmalion's production of The Good Body.

Fran: Let's see ... Madame X and Some Men I was directly involved with, I was involved with Seven and Last Lists of My Mad Mother on a production level. Madame X was terrific because I got to work with my lifelong friend Janice Hall, and Some Men was terrific because I got to hang around with Terrence McNalley and some other talented famous folk. Last Lists of My Mad Mother was Pygmalion's first production of a Julie Jensen play -- a true honor and a privilege to count this amazingly gifted playwright among my friends and colleagues. Seven is an important piece of theater; I'm not sure I'd call it a play. It really communicated information about the treatment of women that is not much known in the USA. Lane did a terrific job with it.

Gavin: Fran, how did you first come across In The Next Room, and what were your initial thoughts on it?

Fran: Teresa Sanderson mentioned the show to us when we were considering projects, then we read it and started lobbying to get it as soon as it became available. My first thoughts were that it was a smart, sexy, funny, poignant, beautiful piece of theater that would also sell tickets. Those were the same thoughts that I had about it tonight after rehearsal.6.jpg
Gavin: What made you decide to bring it to Pygmalion, and what made you take on directing for this one?

Fran: We decided to produce it for all of the above reasons, and because it fits our mission statement: "Producing plays that reflect the issues, concerns and shared experiences in the lives of women." As the artistic director, I get to hold on to a few projects to call my own – this was one that I really just wanted to direct. It is such a great piece of theater in terms of what it says about women and men and the evolution of the understanding of women as human beings and women's sexual satisfaction. Technically, it is hugely challenging with simultaneous action, and dressing and undressing in Victorian clothes, and then there are all the orgasms – how does one actually do them on stage tastefully and meaningfully?  It is a fabulous project, and I have a terrific cast to pull it off. Why wouldn't I want to do it?

Gavin: Joe and Cassie, how did you first find out about the play, and what were your thoughts about it after first reading it?

Cassandra: A friend of mine told me about the play before I knew Pygmalion was going to produce it because he thought it was something I would be interested in doing if I ever had the chance, so when Pygmalion announced it was going to be part of their 2011/2012 season I was excited to read it. After I read it I was in love. The play is wonderfully spirited, funny, and fresh.

Joe: I first heard about it on NPR and thought it sounded provocative. I wondered about staging. I remember hearing that the play was up for the Pulitzer and Tony for Best Play. That was about two years ago. Since then, I was cast in Eurydice and was exposed to the worlds of Sara Ruhl and became smitten.
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Gavin: What was it like for each of you during auditions and eventually getting your parts?

Joe: By chance, I heard about auditions at PYG from my Queen Titania, April Fossen, when we were doing MSND together and she suggested I call Fran and read. So I did, and Fran said come on down that afternoon and read. I think she already had auditions. I had just started my job at SPA, and was doing a lot of work outside, and this was August and I did not have my headshot or resume and was dressed in shorts and T-shirt and smelled pretty bad and had only read the first scene of the play the night before. And I was in techs for MSND at the same time. So, I was the most unprepared for an audition as I had ever been. But I love Sara Ruhl’s work and what I read was amazing. So I headed down to The Rose and in walks Cassie and she looks beautiful and is uber-prepared and we go through a couple of scenes and she sings and just nails it and Fran had us read the ending, which is just beautiful. I apologized profusely to Fran and Cassie and I thought that was it ... I am never going to land this part. And so, I went to MSND techs and then home and read the play and fell in love with it. Then I started hoping -- I love Sara Ruhl’s work. She has such a unique voice and her use of text is brilliant. Her writing is magical, very rare in the theater these days. A few days, later Fran called me to ask if I would like to play Dr. Givings. And then it hit me -- holy crap, I am going to have do all these "procedures" and get partially naked while on stage. And then I got very scared. And then I thought, "What the hell, do what scares you the most." And here we are.

Cassandra: The audition was a lot of fun. We got to pick our own monologues and scenes from the show and then read with other people. I was thrilled and happily surprised when I was cast.

Gavin: What are your thoughts on your specific characters, and how has it been getting into those roles?

Cassandra: I love this character. Her outspoken and curious nature are especially fun to play. She says whatever's in her head and I love that, especially considering she's living in a time when that is not what women do.

Joe: Dr. Giving’s is wound pretty tight. He is a product of his times, 1880s, and at the same time extremely progressive. He is like a vast majority of men: He is terrified of intimacy, cannot communicate with the person he loves the most, does not see the person he loves the most until it is almost too late. He is passionately in love with his wife but is unable to express this. He is obsessed with his work. He loves to tinker and invent. He is fascinated with technology and with the dawn of electricity. He is extremely analytical. Even as he hears that his wife is in love with another man, he describes his own symptoms of jealousy as he is experiences them, as opposed to just feeling them. Stylistically, the period is very strict, in movement and speech; the costumes help tremendously. Teresa Sanderson and Michael Nielsen have done an amazing job designing the show. I see Dr. Givings as a spring, an electric spring. He is wrapped up tight, so I try and play with that.
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Gavin: Looking over the content of the play, do you view this more as a shocking look into medicine, or more of a revealing look into sexual history?

Fran: Some audience members might find the late 19th-century medical profession's understanding of women's sexuality shocking, and most will probably find it amusing. Still, I can't say it is surprising, either. Western civilization's understanding of human sexuality was completely male-centric until well into the 20th century. As female orgasms can be stimulated without penetration, doctors simply did not consider the "paroxysm" part of a woman's sexual experience. Rather, it was a release of a build-up of fluids -- an illness. What's more shocking is that this diagnosis of "hysteria" covered every ailment from anorexia, headache and sleeplessness, and often included the classical symptoms of sexual arousal – lubrication and erotic fantasy -- sad to consider arousal a symptom of illness, isn't it? Doctors honestly considered stimulating a paroxysm a drudgery. They often left the job to nurses and midwives. Doctors were excited to have an electrical machine, the vibrator, to do it quickly and efficiently. And, since so many ailments were considered hysteria, and a paroxysm was the treatment for hysteria, imagine the financial benefits of being quick and efficient!

Joe: I would say both and neither. I see the play as a love story. It is a comedy with very raw emotional intimacy. There is a glorious amount of humor. The last scene of act one is just pure joy. Cassie and Hollie Fowers, who is playing Mrs. Daldry, are just perfect together. This piece touches us on so many levels. One minute you are laughing your head off, and then the playwright shifts gears and, wham! -- you are tearing up. She is such a truthful writer. All the characters of this world speak their truths; they all have their moments to be totally honest. Which, for an actor, is so much fun.

Cassandra: I think it's more of a revealing look at sexual history, but certainly I think there is an element of surprise when you realize what doctors were doing to treat hysteria. Ultimately, I think this play is about the sexual repression of women of the time and throughout history. Doctors who treated hysteria with vibrators did not view the act as sexual because it wasn't really an option for a woman to even be sexual.
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Gavin: How has it been during rehearsals, interacting with each other and bringing the play to life?

Joe: Rehearsals have been a blast. I have never worked with any of the cast before, but I knew many of them. This play can be a very daunting task for an actor. The material requires a lot of depth and commitment; it is a leap of faith. I very much trust everyone I am onstage with -- they are a very fun group to play with. I love watching these actors work. Not only are you focusing on what you're doing as an actor, but you can step back and watch and learn.

Cassandra: Rehearsals have been so much fun. It's not often you get to step into a world like this and explore it. Fran cast smart strong actors who are willing to take risks and have fun. One of the unique things about this play is that the action takes place simultaneously in two rooms at once, so playing with that and figuring out how that works was an interesting challenge. There's also a lot of dressing and undressing in this play, which has to time out right with what is happening in the next room, and these people wore A LOT of clothes so pulling that off took some work, as well.

Fran: Wonderful and weird. You would think that the hardest part of putting this show up would be staging the eight orgasms. Oh, but no: It is the getting in and out of ALL the clothes. Fortunately, I have a very gifted cast who were able to tap into the intentions of these complex characters, so that I didn't have to much worry as much about the acting, and spend a great deal of time figuring out when and where they are going to shed their corsets.1.jpg
Gavin: What are all of your thoughts going into opening night?

Cassandra: I'm nervous about opening, but I always am. I think like with all plays you do come to a place when you really need the audience. I think we're there, so I'm excited.

Fran: That it is amazing that the human race survived through the Victorian period. What with doctors thinking that women were sick when they were aroused, and with all the petticoats and stays and buttons and garters and whatnot to slow them down, it is incredible babies were every made ... but then, testosterone is a very powerful drug. I also feel very blessed to be able to work on this show.

Joe: This play is a good story. We are storytellers and we hope people like our story. Opening night is eagerly awaited. You work very long and hard and invest so much of yourselves and just have to put it out there. May 3 is also Teresa Sanderson’s birthday and my son’s Cal birthday, so it is a big night on many levels.

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

Joe: I am looking forward to summer watching Bees and Raptors games and going to Red Butte shows, the Jazz Festival, etc. Kind've fallen in love with Epic Beers, so I might do some experimenting with them. Am on the lookout for new projects. Any ideas? Look me up. Feeling an itch to direct something.

Fran: I am performing at the Utah Wild Horse and Burro Festival in June ... oh, and directing Julie Jensen's wonderful show, Cheat, next season for PYGmalion.
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Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?

Joe: Come see PYG’s In The Next Room -- oh, wait, that’s the obvious. Get out and support live theater, all live theater and live music.


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