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Gavin's Underground

SLAC: How To Make A Rope Swing

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2013-02-05 - Tomorrow night, Salt Lake Acting Company will play host to a world premiere in its latest production, How To Make A Rope Swing. The play focuses on racism through the eyes of a teacher and her views on the changing world around her, as the two come into open conflict with an African-American janitor tied to her past. Today, I chat with playwright Shawn Fisher, actor Jayne Luke and director Adrianne Moore about the production and their thoughts on the message it presents. (All pictures courtesy of SLAC.)

Shawn Fisher, Jayne Luke & Adrianne Moore
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Gavin: Hey, everyon. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Shawn: I'm Shawn Fisher, the playwright. I am from the Jersey Shore in South Jersey near where the play is set. I now live in Utah and teach theater design and playwriting at Utah State University. I grew up on farms and boats and playing baseball and smashing old junked cars -- all of which are recurring motifs in the play.

Adrianne: I’m a freelance director and dialect coach and I also teach at Utah State University. I’m from New Zealand originally and lived and worked in England and a few other places before I wound up in the U.S.
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Gavin: What have all of you been doing in local theater over the past year?

Jayne: I choreographed the English country dances for Pioneer Theatre Company's production of Emma. I also had the opportunity to participate in Chuck Morey's final production as artistic director at PTC. I staged the musical numbers for his production of Man Of La Mancha. Chuck and I worked on many shows together since our first collaboration of Big River in 1990. This was the first musical he ever directed. He made it possible for me to make a living as a theater professional for the past 25 years. He gave me many choreography and acting contracts at Pioneer Theatre Company and I am very, very grateful. This past fall, I acted in Arsenic & Old Lace and A Christmas Carol at the Hale Center Theater in Orem, another place I love to work.

Adrianne: Well, we did a reading of this play at SLAC about a year ago. I’ve also been dialect coaching and doing some voice-over work -- I coached dialects for Red and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson for SLAC.

Shawn: Most of my professional work is done on the East Coast (NY/NJ). Locally, I have designed scenery for Utah Festival Opera's production of Faust, and I also designed scenery for Old Lyric Repertory Company's production of Big River. In NY, I had a staged reading of my play How To Make A Rope Swing Off-Broadway at Urban Stages, and I designed Time Stands Still at Cape May Stage in NJ. Rope Swing is also in production there and will open in May.
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Gavin: Shawn, how did the concept for Rope Swing first come about, and what pushed you to turn it into a play?

Shawn: The play was largely inspired by two things. First was a very old live oak tree that I came across about 20 years ago. It had been blown down by a hurricane in South Carolina and then its rare and valuable wood was shipped up north for use on old boats. On the side of the tree was a large, black, fire scar. I was told that it was the result of cooking fires that had been built by plantation slaves centuries ago. I noticed that the tree had grown much larger over the years since that time and the scar had become mostly grown-over by the expanding trunk. The scar itself had become deeper yet harder to see. I found this to be a fascinating metaphor. It inspired me to write something that looked at race through the lens of our evolving culture and acknowledging the effects that aging, time and new generations have on our perspectives. The second influence was a woman named Cora Fisher, my grandmother. She was a beloved educator who was mandated to integrate the schools in Bridgeton, New Jersey, which, although in a Northern state, was one of many rural northern towns that had segregated schools well into the 20th century. Although she was at the leading edge of the end of segregation, she did so even though she privately held some racist attitudes. She is the inspiration for the character of Mrs. Wright.
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Gavin: What was your time like writing it, and what made you decide on SLAC for its debut?

Shawn: Writing is always a bittersweet experience mixed with blissful discoveries and maddening failures. The first draft took one year and then the revisions took another year and a half. Many people contributed to its development as I wrote it, including the artists at SLAC and Cape May Stage. Adrianne Moore, my frequent collaborator and friend, has worked with me since early in the process and is an excellent voice of reason. As to why I decided on SLAC: They actually selected the play after seeing it staged there in reading form. I submitted it to them for consideration and they expressed interest in the piece.

Gavin: Adrianne, when did you first come across Rope Swing and what were your initial thoughts on it?

Adrianne: Well, Shawn and I had worked on other projects together. I directed his play Do Not Hit Golf Balls Into Mexico – a reading in New York and a production of it here at SLAC as part of their Fearless Fringe Festival. I first read a copy of Rope Swing around 18 months ago and was really drawn to the characters and to the untold story that is revealed during the play. Like all strong writing, it’s going to give you a lot to ponder. The themes of loss and the search for redemption are there; I guess the difficulty with assessing someone’s true nature, our desire to judge, to take the moral high ground. The stories told by the central characters highlight the racism of mid-century America and the struggles particularly around school integration. I then read a few more drafts as he developed it further and directed the reading at SLAC.
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Gavin: What did you think of the play coming to SLAC, and what was it like for you taking on the director's role?

Adrianne: Well, by the time SLAC selected it for their season I already had a real connection to the play. And I have been working at SLAC, either as a director or a dialect coach, for about 10 years and just love working there – it’s such a creative and supportive work environment.

Gavin: Considering this is a world premiere for the play, what kind of pressure is there on you as a director to set the bar, so to speak, and get it right on its initial run?

Adrianne: The responsibility of directing a new play feels immense. You always want to be true to the author’s work, whatever you believe that truth to be, but the responsibility feels magnified when it’s the first time the play has been produced. A play is meant to be seen and heard, obviously, but more than that, it was envisaged by the playwright as this 3-D flesh-and-blood experience with current zapping between actors and between actors and audience. And this is the first opportunity for that to be realized, so that’s very exciting for a director. If you’ve spent a lot of time with the play on paper, as I have with this one, it always feels rather miraculous that eventually it feels like a living thing that an audience will get to experience.
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Gavin: Jayne, when did you first find out about the play, and what were your thoughts on it after reading it?

Jayne: I was grocery shopping at Smith's and my cell phone rang; it rarely rings. It was Keven Myrhe, telling me about the play and asking me to audition.

Gavin: What was it like for you auditioning and eventually getting your parts?

Jayne: I have auditioned for many shows at SLA;. I win some, I lose some. I love to work there so I am always glad when I get cast.
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Gavin: How has it been for you fitting into this role and interacting with your fellow actors?

Jayne: Working on a new play is always interesting. We are three very different people, just as the three characters in the play are very different. For me, one of the best reasons for working in theater is that I get to meet and work with people who would otherwise never be a part of my life. I like Lucus and Glenn very much and admire their work on this play.

Gavin: Considering this play is having a world premiere and there's no president to fall back on, how engaging has it been for you to help bring this character to life for the first time?

Jayne: There is a lot of discussion in rehearsal. Shawn has very strong opinions about the three people he has created. As actors, we are also very opinionated about how the characters feel from the inside. Adrianne is masterful at listening to us all and then guiding us towards a unified production. She honors Shawn's words, and because she has worked with him so often she is able to clarify a lot of his intention for us. She is a gracious and also a very strong director. It is a pleasure to work for her.
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Gavin: What are all of your thoughts going into opening night?

Shawn: Opening night is always a mixture of excitement, confidence and fear. By the time we get to that point, we are all so close to the piece that we are, perhaps, too subjective to assess the work with complete accuracy. We very much rely on the responses of the audience to help us recognize the value in our work. I love opening nights, but I always have a get-away car warming up outside in case things go sour.

Jayne: I have done this for 40 years. Opening night is no different for me than any other night. I just like to do the work for whoever comes to see the show.

Gavin: What can we expect from all of you over the rest of the year and going into next?

Jayne: As an actor, I am used to being "out of work." When this one is over, I start looking for another one.

Shawn: This play will open in NJ in May at Cape May Stage featuring Lynn Cohen (Munich, Hunger Games, Sex and the City). I will also be running the National Playwrights Symposium there featuring Pulitzer nominees Arthur Kopit and Lee Blessing. I have a new play in the works that is being produced by the Fusion Theatre Project at Utah State University and will open in April. I will also continue to design including an East Coast production of Lee Blessing's A Walk In The Woods.


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