Plan-B Theatre: One Big Union | Buzz Blog

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Plan-B Theatre: One Big Union

A look into the musical production about Joe Hill before opening night.

Posted By on November 10, 2016, 9:19 AM

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Tonight the Rose Wagner will host the opening of Plan-B Theatre Company's 2016-17 season with an amazing kickoff show: One Big Union. Focusing primarily on local historical figure and activist Joe Hill, the production blends history lesson with musical theater to present the events from more than a century ago, as Hill was convicted and executed for a murder that people still debate as to whether he committed it or not. Today we chat with playwright Debora Threedy and the actor playing Joe Hill, Roger Dunbar, about the world premiere before it opens. (All pictures provided courtesy of Plan-B.)

Debora Threedy & Roger Dunbar (front-center)
click to enlarge RICK POLLOCK
  • Rick Pollock

Hey Debora and Roger! First thing, tell us a bit about yourselves.

Roger: I'm originally from Southern Utah, having lived in several small towns: Kanab, Hurricane and Santa Clara. My family moved to Salt Lake City six years ago and we love it. My "day job" is as a data warehouse engineer, but I spend much of my time in the local theater scene, either watching plays or performing in them.

I’m a law professor on the cusp of retirement. I can’t wait until I get to move into this other career as a playwright full time.

click to enlarge April Fossen as Rae Wellman - RICK POLLOCK
  • Rick Pollock
  • April Fossen as Rae Wellman

What have both of you done over the past year before this production?

Roger: I performed in Art with Pinnacle Acting Company last winter, and then Doubt at Utah Rep in the spring. In the summer, I was involved with One Big Union down at the Utah Shakespeare Festival's New American Playwrights Project.

A year ago, we (myself and director Jason Bowcutt) did a week-long workshop of the play at Plan-B, with many of the actors who ended up in the final cast. Then of course in August, the play got another week-long workshop at the Utah Shakespeare Festival's New American Playwrights Project, with an almost completely different cast of actors (Roger Dunbar played Joe during both workshops). So basically I’ve been working on revising the play for the last year.

Debora, how did the concept for One Big Union come about?

Debora: Joe Hill was sort of floating around at the back of my mind as a result of reading Kenneth Lougee’s book—Pie in the Sky: How Joe Hill’s Lawyers Lost His Case, Got Him Shot, and Were Disbarred—which is a critical examination of Joe’s trial by a lawyer and legal historian. Then, a few years ago, Gibbs Smith asked me out to dinner and suggested I should write a play about Joe for the centennial commemoration of his execution, and then Gibbs and his wife gave a whole lot of moral support (as well as historical insights; Gibbs wrote the first scholarly treatment of Joe Hill’s case) as I started working on the project. The timing didn’t work out for the centennial, but the play is now playing on the 101 year anniversary of Joe’s execution, Nov. 19.

click to enlarge Jay Perry as Mr. Block and Roger Dubar as Joe Hill - RICK POLLOCK
  • Rick Pollock
  • Jay Perry as Mr. Block and Roger Dubar as Joe Hill

Considering how much has already been written and explored about Joe Hill and his music, what made you decide to take this kind of approach with the subject matter?

Debora: Like so much of "HIStory," the role of the women in Joe’s story has been largely ignored in earlier renditions. While researching the play, I was struck by the importance to Joe of his relationship with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and I knew early on that I wanted that relationship to have a pivotal role in this play. Moreover, a recent biography of Joe by Bill Adler revealed new information about Hilda Erickson, who claims to have been with Joe on the night of the murders for which he was executed, so I knew that had to be a part of the story, too. Then when I realized that all of Joe’s songs were now in the public domain, I decided the play needed to feature those as well.

What was the writing process like, making it both engaging while historically accurate?

Debora: It’s been a complicated process. In the beginning, I immerse myself in the historical record—and consequently, the first drafts are usually pretty wooden, because people don’t write like they speak. Then I think about what’s missing from the historical record and begin imagining what occurred during those “holes” in the record, which results in scenes that are more purely my composition. Then I give thought to how many characters I need to tell the story, which in this case meant making most of the characters composites of actual persons. And then finally I have to meld the historically-based parts with the imagined parts into a cohesive whole, usually focusing on one character at a time and trying to make them sound like a person instead of a historical figure or an amalgam of historical figures.

click to enlarge Carleton Bluford as Working Stiff - RICK POLLOCK
  • Rick Pollock
  • Carleton Bluford as Working Stiff

How was it for you taking this play to the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s New American Playwrights Project and the reception it received?

Roger: I've attended and admired the Utah Shakespeare Festival since I was a teenager, and it was an honor to be involved there this summer and act in their brand new facility. All of the other actors and staff were part of the festival, so I was a bit nervous being the "outsider." But they were very welcoming and made me feel at home. One of the highlights was to watch my fellow actors perform in their evening shows, and then work with them the next morning on One Big Union.

Debora: It was my second time with NAPP at the Festival, so I basically knew what to expect. The chance to hear different actors read the script was invaluable. And the comments from the Festival audiences are always interesting. I was surprised by how many folks had never heard of Joe Hill, given the extensive coverage the press gave the centennial last year.

click to enlarge The Ensemble - Long-Haired Preachers - Sweet Bye & Bye - RICK POLLOCK
  • Rick Pollock
  • The Ensemble - Long-Haired Preachers - Sweet Bye & Bye

What's it been like working with the Plan-B crew to bring the play to life here?

Roger: This is my first production with Plan-B, and it has been a terrific experience. The company is very professional and organized, and the talent that has been recruited to work on this show is top-notch. It's humbling to work with so many great artists and designers.

Debora: This is my fourth production with Plan-B, and I’ve been part of The Lab (a monthly meeting of 12 playwrights sponsored by Plan-B) since it began in 2008, so I’m very comfortable working with the company. We share some basic philosophies about theater and what’s important about the art form. And Plan-B’s commitment to nurturing local playwrights is unmatched anywhere in this country. I’ve also worked with Jason and almost the whole cast in other productions, so knew what amazing talent I had to work with. Roger was the only one I hadn’t worked with before, but, of course, I’ve been working with him for over a year now on this play, so he’s no longer a stranger. I’ve been blessed with this unbelievably strong cast and couldn’t be more pleased with the work they are doing.

click to enlarge Daniel Beecher, Roger Dunbar, Jay Perry - RICK POLLOCK
  • Rick Pollock
  • Daniel Beecher, Roger Dunbar, Jay Perry

Roger, what were your first impressions of One Big Union?

Roger: I'm embarrassed to say that as a Utah native, I didn't know who Joe Hill was before working on this project. So my first impression was disbelief that I have been raised here for most of my life without knowing about such a historical figure. I was also impressed that the script wasn't really a narrative of Joe's life, but rather an examination of his fit with the IWW, his trial, the State of Utah and the environment of 1914-1915.

How was it for you to get into Joe both as a character and, to a degree, an embodiment of such a well-known historical character?

Roger: Creating the character of Joe Hill has been different from other characters I've worked on because he is not fictional. He was an actual person who was a key figure in the labor landscape of the early 1900's. Add to that the somber facts surrounding his imprisonment, trial, and execution, and I feel a deep responsibility to Joe and his memory. However, I've tried to not put him on a pedestal or pay him special reverence. Joe was a human being, and he definitely had his flaws and mistakes like the rest of us. But I've tried to do my research and develop a character that I hope can measure up to the life-spark of who he was, and the passion that he embodied.

click to enlarge Joe Hill's execution - RICK POLLOCK
  • Rick Pollock
  • Joe Hill's execution

What were the challenges as an actor taking it from the reading to this full production?

Roger: Many things evolve from page to stage, especially over such a long process and at different venues. It's been a challenge to remain flexible. Songs have been removed and others added. Speeches have been changed, and so forth. Also, a lot of life outside of the theater happens over a year, and it's a trick to stay focused on the end result.

What's your time like been with this cast bringing the play to life at Plan-B?

Debora: Great!

Roger: The Plan-B cast is terrific. Most of the actors play a multitude of roles, and I am daily delighted to see the variety and truth they are bringing to their performances.

click to enlarge The Ensemble - The Red Flag - RICK POLLOCK
  • Rick Pollock
  • The Ensemble - The Red Flag

What are your thoughts going into opening night?

Roger: There are always nerves, and I admit that they are acuter for this show than others. Playing the guitar and singing in front of an audience has me a bit on edge. Also, Joe Hill has become a legend over the years, and I wonder how performances will match up to expectations. But most of all I feel the excitement. Always excitement.

Debora: Oh the usual—complete confidence in the strength of the production alternating with moments of pure despair when I’m sure I’ve made a mess of the whole thing.

What can we expect from both of you after this play?

Roger: I am jumping right into an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Ivanov called Poor Bastard: A Triumphant Guide To Midlife Crisis.

Debora: I’m working on a children’s play for Plan-B, and I’m also working on a play about the real-life trial that was the inspiration for Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. Hellman left out one very provocative fact: the real-life schoolgirl who accused her two schoolmistresses of having a sexual relationship was the bastard child of a Scottish earl’s son and his East Indian mistress, and so considered black by the standards of the time. I want to see how restoring that fact to the story changes it. There’s also another play in its earliest stages—something to do with death by drowning in a slot canyon; don’t know yet where that one is going to take me. Oh, and I think I want to write a play about Clarence Darrow … so many ideas, so little time.

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