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Gavin's Underground

Pygmalion Theatre Company: Cheat

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2013-02-21 - As the '12-'13 season started, Pygmalion Theatre Company kicked off its year with a favorite from a couple of years ago and saved the newer works for the second half. The first production on the bill will be Cheat, written by Julie Jensen, a period piece focusing on the end of World War II, when American culture was beginning to shift and women were starting to see their roles in society grow while also witnessing the end of a particular era in the late '40s. Today, I chat with the playwright, director Fran Pruyn and three of the actors about the play and their thoughts going into opening night. (Photos courtesy of Pygmalion.)

Julie Jensen, Cassandra Stokes-Wylie, Tracie Merrill, Lane Richins & Fran Pruyn
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Gavin: Hey, everyone. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Julie: I'm a native Utahn, grew up in southern Utah. I've been in Salt Lake City now for the last 12 years. Before that, I lived in every part of the country, taught playwriting at five different colleges and universities and ended up at UNLV, where I ran the graduate playwriting program. I care about the theater scene here and am gratified by the fact that it's so vital, that it does the work of so many local playwrights and that the work is of such high-quality.

Tracie: My name is Tracie Merrill, and I'm originally from New Jersey. I met my husband -- from SLC -- at a wedding back east in 2000 while I was living and working in NYC. After much long-distance dating, a year-long trial move here and then three years of grad school in Tennessee, I moved out here permanently in 2006. I have been in love and amazed by the local theater scene ever since.

Cassandra: I went to the U's actor training program and am the director of development at Salt Lake Acting Company. I grew up in New Mexico and have also lived in L.A. and Milwaukee. This is my third production with Pygmalion.

Lane: Hi, I'm Lane Richins. I've been doing theater throughout the valley for 15 years or so. This is my 10th year working with Pygmalion. Crazy. In Cheat, I play the role of D-Dubb.

Fran: I've been doing theater in SLC pretty much forever – well, at least for almost 30 years, mostly with The New Shakespeare Players, which turned into TheatreWorks West, which turned into Pygmalion Theatre Company.
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Gavin: What have all of you been doing in local theater over the past year?

Fran: My most recent directing project was In The Next Room (or The Vibrator Play). I also helped the Performing Arts Coalition with Rose Exposed, and worked with other directors on the PYG productions of Last Lists of My Mad Mother by Julie Jensen, Seven directed by Lane Richins, and Lady Day At Emerson's Bar & Grill.

Tracie: Last spring, I was in a production of Rare Bird at the U, and had the pleasure of performing in my third SLAM with Plan-B. In the fall, I took a trip down to southern Utah to be in a reading of one of Debora Threedy's plays.

Lane: I've been behind the boards for the majority of the past year, directing The Sunshine Boys for Pinnacle Acting Company, Chapter Two for Wasatch Theatre Compan, and Seven for Pygmalion, which was nominated for a City Weekly 2012 Arty for Best Production. In addition, The Mysterious, Happy Life of Brown Bag, which I originally directed in 2011, continues to tour.

Cassandra: The past year, I was Elizabeth Proctor in the Grand Theatre's production of The Crucible, and Mrs. Givings in Pygmalion's production of The Vibrator Play. I've also done some reading at SLAC.

Julie: Last season Pygmalion did a production of a play of mine, Last Lists of My Mad Mother -- wonderful experience and wonderful production. Last spring, Utah State University, the school from which I graduated, did a production of a play of mine, Two-Headed, and also produced an evening of scenes from other plays of mine. In addition, Two-Headed was produced last summer in London, a thrilling experience and a wonderful production. I also do a lot of guest teaching in the area and nationwide; this last year at Utah State University, University of Utah, Weber State University and Utah Valley University.

Gavin: Julie, how did the concept for Cheat come about, and what influenced you to write it as a play?

Julie: I have always been fascinated by the World War II period of our history, particularly what happened on the home front. My mother's generation was profoundly affected by it. During the war, women were told they should go to work, in spite of children or whatever other responsibilities they had. As soon as the war was over, they lost those jobs and were told to return to their families. Such radical changes in the expectations for women were disturbing. I'm dealing with a gay relationship in this play, too. It's symptomatic of what happened to women during that era: They were cheated.
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Gavin: What was your time like writing it, and what did you think of the initial reviews and reactions when it was first being produced?

Julie: It's a radical play in some ways. Yet it is also a brave play. I've been pleased that people have been interested in it and moved by it. But I have to say that the production at Pygmalion is better than any of the others, including one in New York. The performers in this production are excellent, the direction wonderful.

Gavin: Fran, when did you first read Cheat, and what were your initial thoughts on it?

Fran: PYG's board read Cheat and Last Lists of My Mad Mother about two or three years ago, and couldn't decide which one to do because we liked them both so much. So, we decided to do both of them. I, personally, was very attracted to Cheat because of its WWII setting, the sparsity of the language and the ambiguity of characters. There are a lot of right ways to interpret the situation and characters, but given my own life experience, I wanted to work with actors to create a world where there are no bad guys, but no real winners, either.
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Gavin: What made you decide to take on the director's role for Cheat this year?

Fran: As artistic director, I generally am allowed to choose the show that I feel I can best serve as director. This year, I was convinced this was the show that played best to my strengths: It is small, relationship-driven, complicated emotionally but not necessarily in its staging, and depicts the intensity of first love, as well as the futility of some couplings. At the heart of directing any show is a basic understanding of what the playwright is trying to say, and trying to communicate that through the playwright's words and with the enormous gifts that actors bring.

Gavin: How has it been for both of you working somewhat together on the production to bring it to Pygmalion?

Julie: I've known Fran for years as a theater person, as a director, as the artistic director of a theatre I respect. But I had never worked with her. She really is a first-rate director, very disciplined, organized and, most important of all, insightful about the play. I've loved working with her. Loved it!
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Gavin: For the cast, when did you all first find out about the play, and what were your thoughts after reading it?

Cassandra: I loved this play was about women during World War II. I have never read anything like it before.

Lane: I sit on the board of directors for Pygmalion, and was part of the group who chose this show to be part of the season. I'm drawn to it because of the way it approaches relationships. It's all about what's not being said, the subtext. I think that's very interesting, as an actor and and audience member.

Tracie: When auditions were announced late last summer, all I needed to know was that it was a play by Julie Jensen — I was interested. And reading the play only further confirmed those feelings. As per usual with Julie's work, the characters are incredibly rich and complex.

Fran: Terrific. Julie has been been generous and insightful. She has helped me understand what she was saying in the script, but given me the freedom to put our own stamp on the project. I cannot have wished for a better dynamic. Julie is fierce and brave and so is her script. We are trying to do that justice.

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

Lane: For me, much of the joy of this process has come through working with these actors. All my scenes are with Cassie and she's just brilliant; I've wanted to act with her for years. I've directed her a few times, but this is my first time sharing the stage with her. It's a treat. And I could just watch Tracie act for days. She's incredible.

Tracie: Auditioning is always a nerve-wracking process, but if you're lucky, you'll have a director in the room who wants to work with you on the spot, offering feedback and asking for specific adjustments, giving you a chance to relax and play. Fran is definitely one of those directors. Actually getting the part is a high that is hard to describe.

Cassandra: Auditions are always a gamble. I think the best you can do is makes some choices and have fun playing with the other actors.
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Gavin: How has it been for all of you fitting into these roles and interacting with each other?

Cassandra: This cast is great. I've known Lane and Tracie for a while and have wanted to act with both of them, so I'm thrilled I finally have the chance. Getting to know and work with Madeline has a been great, too. I think we've all worked hard to find where these characters live, and sometimes it's been a bit of a challenge. These are complex people who spend a lot of time not saying what they really want to because of the time they are living in. It was great to have the playwright there when we had questions, though.

Tracie: This part is by far one of the greatest acting challenges I have faced, but with one of the most supportive, easygoing groups of people I could hope to work with. It's hard not to be inspired and learn when working with and watching such a talented group of artists.

Gavin: Considering the content of the play and the period it takes place in, what are your thoughts on how much the culture has changed and how far we still have to go?

Julie: Well, we've come a long way, yes. This play would never have been either written or produced even 40 years ago. But, we still have miles to go before we sleep. I remember when I was developing this play, I had a reading at a theater in New Jersey. At the talk-back afterward, one woman said, "This play is about lesbians and that would be fine now, but back then it had not been invented." Enough said!

Fran: Women have much more opportunity and freedom than they did during this period. This was a period of awakening and nothing was ever the same for women after it — although many women and men tried to go back to the way things were before the war. Now, women can aspire to work and love whom they want, and often succeed at doing so. Nonetheless, romantic relationships are still very hard, and frequently they don't play out the way we want them to. That is a constant, and that is not likely to change. We find each other when we want and need the same things. That can be for a moment, a year, a decade, and sometimes for the very lucky, a lifetime. What we want and need rarely stays the same, and life conspires to make growing together in the same direction enormously challenging. This script plays out on both the large changing-culture stage, as well as the small personal-interrelationship stage; and that is its genius.

Tracie: That's a great question, but a hard one to answer without giving too much away. I think it's fair to say that there have been forward strides, but equality and acceptance are not universal.

Lane: Change takes time. We will always have further to go. But, we've made great strides, and we shouldn't forget that.

Cassandra: This period in history is fascinating to me. I think we've come a long way, but clearly there are still issues with women in the workforce that need to be addressed. Women still struggle to find their equal footing with men in many regards. I commend the women who stepped into these roles and proved they were capable of doing any job a man could do. It's been particularly interesting in researching this play to hear how individual women felt as they were forced to step down from the jobs they had done so well. I think in Cheat the audience will get to see some different perspectives in regard to this issue.
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Gavin: What are all of your thoughts going into opening night?

Fran: I hope we can get the set changes moving faster. That seems to be always the problem with modern theatrer, and somehow it generally works out.

Tracie: Don't let me fuck up. Pretty standard opening night thought. Plus, the excitement of sharing this beautiful story.

Cassandra: I'm excited to open the show. I hope my quick changes go off without a hitch!

Julie: I'm usually very nervous and weirdly apprehensive. But I feel very confident about this production. The work is excellent, just first-rate. The performances are as good as you'll see anywhere. And I mean that!

Lane: I'm excited. I think it's a great show.

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

Cassandra: After Cheat, I will be Actress 2, a variety of characters, in Salt Lake Acting Company's production of The Exit Interview, which runs April 10 through May 5. After that, hopefully, the theater gods will continue to smile on me.

Julie: I've just finished a new play about Christmas, of all things. I hate that holiday, and I've written a play for adults about not fitting into the coercive activities. I also have a commission from Kennedy Center to adapt a novel for young adults about a girl with autism. The play will be developed by the theater department at Weber State University.

Lane: My next project is A Night With The Family, by Matthew Ivan Bennett. I'll be co-directing, along with Laurie Mecham, for Pygmalion. It opens April 25 at the Rose Wagner.

Tracie: We shall see ...

Fran: I'll be doing the usual community activities and supporting Pygmalion with its next show – and searching for my next directing project.
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Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?

Fran: A Night With The Family, by Matthew Ivan Bennett – up next at PYG in April.

Lane: Assassins at Dark Horse Theatre Company, The Exit Interview at Salt Lake Acting Company, A Behanding In Spokane at The Hive Theatre Company, Eric(a) at Plan B Theatre Company and A Night With The Family at Pygmalion.

Tracie: Just an earnest plea for anyone interested in theater to mark your calendars and come out to support some amazing, upcoming, local productions: Cheat, Eric[a], Death Of A Salesman, How To Build A Rope Swing, Clybourne Park, The Righteous & Very Real Wives Of Utah County, A Night With The Family, Suffrage, etc.


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