Miranda Barnett on Learning the Banjo for ‘The Heath’

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Actress and classically trained musician Miranda Barnett arrived in Lowell for rehearsal last week with banjo in hand––a difficult instrument she must learn for the first time for her performance in The Heath. A South Carolina native, Miranda and her husband, Aaron, and their two-year-old son, Wilkes, reside in Greenville.

Had you ever played the banjo before?
I had never even held a banjo until six months ago. I have beginner- level experience with guitar, and took cello lessons for a few months, but primarily I am trained as a pianist and singer. So, this prospect was certainly intimidating, but because I began studying music when I was four years old, and music had been around me my whole life, the challenge has been exciting.

How did you acquire the banjo?
When I received the offer to do the play, I borrowed a banjo from a friend, so that I could start tinkering immediately. Then MRT allowed me to shop around for an instrument that I could learn on and carry into the production. I found a beautiful vintage banjo from the early 70s at a shop in South Carolina. It had one owner, who bought it from that same shop, and when he passed away, his family brought it back for consignment. I love it, and I am grateful that I could bond with it before taking it on stage.

How did you go about starting to learn the instrument and the songs?
My husband, Aaron Brakefield, who is also an actor and musician, plays a number of––I’m not sure if I should be proud of this or not, haha––YouTube has been my greatest resource. For the gospel tunes, I found tutorials of arrangements in a Scruggs’ style that I liked and learned by watching and reading the tablature. For Lauren’s original songs, I’ve just followed her lead sheets and listened to a recording of her playing them during a workshop. Peripherally, I’ve also listened to the great players. Lots of Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck, Noam Pikelny, etc.

And how is it going?
I would say I’m feeling pretty good right now! There’s only one song of Lauren’s that I’ve put on hold until we start rehearsals, because I’m just not sure what to do with it, but I think I have a good grasp on the others. I appreciate that she lets me off the hook by declaring right in the script that, “I don’t play that well.” There’s no expectation of virtuosic playing, thank God!

 

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The Heath runs February 13 – March 10, 2019.

mrt.org/theheath

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Q&A: Playwright Lauren Gunderson

“I felt like my PawPaw, even though he was physically there, was no longer really there.”

Lauren Gunderson_smWhat compelled you to write the script? 

I started the script before my PawPaw died as it occurred to me that the only reference I had for his condition was the literary figure of King Lear. My PawPaw was suffering from extreme dementia and could no longer recognize me. I lived in California, far away from him in South Carolina, which made that worse. When he died I was instantly regretful of all the time I didn’t get with him and started writing this play. It’s a love letter to him, an apology, and a reckoning, as well as a chance to discover a man I thought I knew so well.

What does your mother, PawPaw’s daughter, think of the play? 

Mom has seen me perform it! She was moved and, I think, a little nervous. But the point of the play is to come together, to honor her father, and to confront the darker instincts we have, to turn away from illness and death. But by confronting them (even laughing at them as The Heath does), we can digest and dispel them.

What was the most important thing you learned in researching and discovering your grandfather’s life after he died?

So much! His war history is truly profound to me. What he managed to survive was unreal. I had never read his letters that he wrote from inside a POW prison during the war, which were chilling. I also never knew he called my grandmother “sugar babe” when they were courting. 

How did the addition of the banjo and the songs come about?

I was inspired to add banjo to the play when I remembered how much PawPaw loved Flatt and Scrugg’s bluegrass music. It felt like a crazy challenge to myself. The songs are simple but full of emotion and heart. The big ending song, Storm Still, was the most cathartic to write. It really allows me to say, “I love you, I miss you, I’m proud of you,” to my grandfather.

How does the raging storm in King Lear figure into the story?

The storm represents the tumult and uncertainty of my grandfather’s Alzheimer’s disease, the damage that it can do to a family, the unpredictable sadness and ‘natural disaster’ of dementia. It also represents what I feel as my betrayal of my grandfather by not showing up for him enough when he was sick. His disease and death was a storm, and survivors like me are often left with the emotional wreckage afterwards.

What goes through your mind when you realize that someone you’ve loved and known your whole life no longer remembers you?

It’s pretty shocking and terrible. I felt like my PawPaw, even though he was physically there, was no longer really there. He wasn’t the same man any more. In many ways I felt terrible for him because I know he’d not want to be remembered in such a state. It’s heartbreaking. This is the reality and urgency of Alzheimer’s and dementia research. If we could find a solution to these deteriorating diseases of the mind, it would be such a gift to the world. It would give dignity back to so many. It would save so many lives and families.

What advice would you offer a friend if she told you today that her grandfather had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s?

Show up. Be present. Play music. Tell stories. Get them talking and record it. Say I love you. Take care of yourself.

 

 

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The Heath runs February 13 – March 10, 2019.

mrt.org/theheath

COHORT REPORT: Slow Food

Pictured: Daina Griffith, Joel Van Liew, and Brian Beacock. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Comedy. It often seems like the poor cousin of the theater world, relegated to a position below serious drama and musicals. When was the last time a true comedy (even a bittersweet one) won the Pulitzer Prize? That would be Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers in 1991. At best, you might get “black comedy,” which is basically humor that no one thinks is funny. But Simon, Christopher Durang, and Alan Ayckbourn seem like anachronisms – okay maybe Ayckbourn should be an anachronism – in a world where theater companies favor plays about identity and personal crisis. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with plays that have real meaning, just as there is nothing wrong with wanting to laugh out loud and forget all your troubles.

Under Sean Daniels, Merrimack Repertory Theatre has been bucking this trend by presenting a number of indisputable comedies, most of them, interestingly, written by women. Because maybe we have we sold comedy short. Not only does it allow the audience to experience what Wendy MacLeod, the author of Slow Food, calls the “joy of shared laughter,” it shows that the best time to deliver a message is when the receiver isn’t looking.

Think about the satirization of American politics in Lila Rose Kaplan’s Home of the Brave or her attack on gender roles in the workplace and in comics (!) in Villians’ Supper Club. And while we were chuckling at the antics of the acrimonious neighbors in Native Gardens by Karen Zacarías, we were also immersed in a struggle between the “haves” and the “have nots,” the young and the old, the established and the immigrant – and pondering where we fit in. Comedy gives us permission to laugh at ourselves – and see the humanity in the other side.

And so in MacLeod’s Slow Food, as we howl in cathartic frustration, it doesn’t matter whether you identify with the hungry couple or with the put-upon waiter, you see yourself. For when the laughter dies down (and the food is finally served) the play reveals itself to be a cautionary tale, as the three characters take stock of their lives at the midway point, with lots of regrets but still many possibilities ahead. Carpe diem, the play seems to say, or you may end up an over-stressed man with a drinking problem (maybe), a woman who never reached her potential, or a waiter who is all he is ever going to be.

 

–Karla Sorenson, Cohort

 

 

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Slow Food runs January 9 – February 3

mrt.org/slowfood

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COHORT REPORT: Food, Love, and Respect

Pictured: Joel Van Liew, Brian Beacock, and Daina Griffith. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Merrimack Repertory Theatre continues its focus on new works with the World Premiere of Slow Food . . .

“World’s worst waiter,” says the ad – to which we all reply, “No way. One time . . .” But that’s the appeal of the play, the universality of being at the mercy of someone with passive-aggressive tendencies, who seems to be on “island time” while you’re in New York. So when the waiter in Slow Food introduces himself as “Stephen with a PH,” we all think we know what’s coming.

But there’s always another side, no? And if you’ve ever “worked food,” or know someone who has, you know that dealing with volatile chefs, hand-sy bosses, and the ever-capricious American public is its own special brand of hell.

The cleverness of Wendy MacLeod’s new play is not in the power plays that go on – although wildly entertaining. Denied sustenance, Irene and Peter descend into a primal state, where it’s every man or woman (or waiter) for themselves. It’s soon apparent that food is not the only thing missing from the couple’s lives, for this is a play about survival and what it takes to have our most essential needs – food, love, respect – fulfilled.

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–Karla Sorenson, Cohort

 

 

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Slow Food runs January 9 – February 3

mrt.org/slowfood

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Q&A: with Playwright Wendy MacLeod

“A Metaphor for Marriage”

wendy macleodPlaywright Wendy MacLeod is best known as the author of Women in Jeopardy! (an MRT audience favorite from the 2016-17 Season) and as a writer for the TV cult sensation “Popular.” She has also earned acclaim and awards for the plays Schoolgirl Figure, The House of Yes, The Water Children, and Juvenilia. The film version of The House of Yes, starring Parker Posey, won the Sundance Award and international acclaim. A professor at Kenyon College and Northwestern University, MacLeod regularly writes for The New York Times, Salon, McSweeney’s, The Washington Post, and “All Things Considered.”

What inspired you to write Slow Food?

The play was inspired by a family trip to Palm Springs, where we found ourselves waiting endlessly for dinner late at night in a Greek restaurant, trapped there because it was the only restaurant still open. Our waiter was maddening, and yet his need to be king of this very small kingdom was fascinating. I was reminded of how we become our best selves once we’ve been fed.

Is there a message you hope to impart to audiences?

As far as a “message,” I’m with George S. Kaufmann, that “if you want to send a message, call Western Union.”  A comedy
should entertain, and it does that by being recognizable—the audience needs to see themselves in the characters or the situation. I don’t pretend that I’m communicating “important ideas.” Rather,
I’m creating opportunities for gifted comic actors and allowing an audience to experience the joy of shared laughter.

How would you describe Slow Food?

This play is very much about middle-age and mortality. I call them Woman and Man because the play can’t just be about one couple trying to figure out how to be lovers again after being parents for so long. Over the course of a marriage we all can find ourselves careening between being lovers, co-conspirators, parents, friends, rivals, and adversaries. Being trapped in a restaurant, waiting to be fed, is a metaphor for marriage.

 

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Slow Food runs January 9 – February 3, 2019.

mrt.org/slowfood

COHORT REPORT: The Art of Blocking

Pictured: Shawn K. Jain, Vichet Chum, and Jesse Hinson. Photo by Meghan Moore.

If your holiday dance card is not completely full, and you are looking for a show that evokes the best of the season – the importance of friends and family – consider Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, in its final week at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Not content with being a daring sequel to Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice – the show also represents a fine example of an overlooked directorial skill: blocking, or the art of making actors appear real. Because real people do stuff, the stuff one would normally do if you weren’t confined to a stage, waiting to deliver your next line or make a dramatic exit.

Some blocking is explicitly written into the text. Think of the stylized fight scenes in The Royale. (Whether a director is obligated to follow these instructions is always contentious.) But typically, “business,” as it’s called, is left to the director and actors. And it can be a lot of fun. Consider the subtle jabs in Native Gardens, like when Virginia Butley dashes her cigarette ashes in the neighbor’s yard as a way of protest. Or the entertaining antics of the landscapers. Good blocking is the foundation of comedy. The scions of silent film can tell you that.

The key is being truthful to the character. The actions should be so natural, the audience doesn’t notice them, but they contribute to the sense of reality constructed on stage. An actor in a play of mine complained that she felt like she had washed a single glass a hundred times. She did. But to each audience, it was the first time.

In a way, blocking is the “lagniappe” of acting – a little something extra, as they say in New Orleans. It’s what takes the character beyond the text, adding complexity and depth – an “under-script,” perhaps. With a large-cast play such as Pemberley, not everyone can talk at once, so good blocking is a necessity; you don’t want people just standing around. Director Sean Daniels and Associate Director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary excel at augmenting the script with so much clever and illustrative business, it is as entertaining as the witty dialogue. From the hanging of ornaments to Lydia’s shadowing of Arthur de Bourgh, these simple actions (everything on stage is deliberate) grow organically from the script, until each actor not just occupies space and delivers lines but becomes – well – real.

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–Karla Sorenson, Cohort

 

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Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley runs November 28 – December 23

mrt.org/missbennet

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COHORT REPORT: The Role of the Producer

Pictured: Vichet Chum, Amanda Collins, Alexis Bronkovic, Katie Grindeland, and Victorida Grace. Photo by Meghan Moore.

In this article we look at the role of the producer at Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MRT), followed by a Q&A with Peter Crewe, the Producer at MRT.

Since Sean Daniels became Artistic Director at MRT playbills have listed a “Producer” on the credits page and under “Who’s Who”. One obvious question is: Why is a producer needed now under Sean Daniels but wasn’t needed under Charles Towers? Another is: What does the Producer do?

Clearly, the comedy The Producers can’t be used as a reference for the role of Producer at MRT –– it’s about Broadway, not regional theater after all. So I checked some books and online. That was little help because the role of producer in different organizations is pretty varied. Apparently at one theater, even the artistic director and producer had different ideas about the responsibilities of the producer… So I asked Sean Daniels (Artistic Director), Bonnie Butkas (Executive Director), and Peter Crewe (Producer) how things work at MRT.

For the answer to the first question, it turns out that there was a producer under Charles Towers. Just not as a dedicated role. Another page in the MRT playbill lists the MRT Staff –– finding that page is a little like playing “Where’s Waldo”. Under Charles Towers, the “Director of Production” performed the roles of Producer and Production Manager. Under Sean Daniels, the roles of Producer and Production Manager are separated because, as Sean says, “we’re doing more now.” (We’ll look at what the Production Manager, Lee Viliesis, does some other time). Bonnie Butkas notes MRT is the first theater where she’s worked that has a full-time producer. She finds it helpful to have the work consolidated in this way.

For the answer to the second question, wherever you see the words “by special arrangement” or “under agreements between” or “courtesy of” or “used with permission” or something similar on the credits page of the MRT playbill, the producer was at work. But there’s more…

The life of single play at MRT, from selection to closing, is 2 or more years. There are seven plays at MRT per season, and under Sean Daniels, several workshops. The producer is involved in each and every production almost from the beginning, starting during play selection. The producer is also involved in workshops for new plays, which include staged readings. Many of these at the same time. As a result, Peter Crewe ends up being pretty much ubiquitous.

The “Nuts & Bolts”:
• Budgets (season, individual productions, workshops)
• Auditions and interviews
• Licenses and contracts (see also: budgets and auditions/interviews)
• Coordinating involvement in workshops (Middlesex Community College, UMASS Lowell)
• Communication (Stage Manager, House Manager, Company Manager & Artistic Administrator, production staff, Artistic Director, Executive Director, artists)
• Calendar and scheduling
• Facilitating cost-effective creative solutions (see also: everything above)

The Producer must excel at managing a budget and being creative: forecasting costs, finding savings, and handling shortfalls. Shortfalls can be due to additional work calls or decreased revenues. (Did you know by buying artwork displayed in the MRT lobby, you help the fund the plays?) Challenges for the producer so far this season: Native Gardens –– replacement actor needed two weeks before rehearsals; Murder for Two –– turntable for piano; and Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley –– elaborate scenic design.

Regarding the last, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is a large production (eight actors) with a large (fills the stage area) and elaborate (custom text wallpaper) set. The scenic design exceeded the production budget. Rather than scale back the design (because it’s amazing), Peter brought in additional support. Of which Bonnie Butkas said, “The Producer doesn’t normally do fundraising at MRT. We do really appreciate that Peter did that.” (Also, Peter has been very kind facilitating access for this MRT Cohort, and that is also very much appreciated).
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Q&A with Peter Crewe (PC), the Producer at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.

Peter Crewe has been on the full-time staff at MRT since 2008, when Charles Towers was the Artistic Director. Peter first worked at MRT as a “Stage/Company Management Intern” in 2004. He earned his BFA in Stage Management from Salem State College that same year and went on to work at other theaters in the area. In 2008, he returned to MRT as the Company Manager, handling negotiations and contracts. He was also the Assistant Stage Manager (ASM) for every production, calling cues after opening night. Under Charles Towers, stage managers were part of the MRT staff. The ASM called cues during the run so the Production Stage Manager could begin work on the next play in repertory. Under Sean Daniels, Peter transitioned into the role of Producer.

Q: When Sean Daniels first became Artistic Director at MRT, he brought in Emily Ruddock as “Artistic Producer” and you became “Producer & Director of Company Management”. Can you describe your transition to becoming the only Producer on staff at MRT in terms of the changes in your responsibilities?

PC: This meant transitioning from Producing 3-4 shows per season, which had been the case the past two seasons, to producing all seven. As part of this transition we were able to hire one of my former apprentices, Alexis Garcia, as MRT’s new Company Manager. Bringing Alexis onboard meant less of my time had to be spent on the day-to-day management of the artistic company and allowed me to focus more on things like season planning, budgeting, working with our collegiate partners on play development.

Q: What is the most challenging aspect of producing a play at MRT?

PC: MRT has built up a reputation over the years for our exceptional production values and as a place where artists from across the country want to come work. Maintaining that reputation, while we also try to expand the scope of our endeavors with our limited resources, is certainly the most challenging aspect for me.

Q: What has been your favorite play to produce so far and why?

PC: I would say the show I am most proud of producing is KNYUM, producing world premieres is always interesting but producing someone’s first premiere is a privilege.

[Ed.: KNYUM was written and performed by Vichet Chum, who plays Lord Arthur de Bourgh in the current production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Vichet Chum is also a member of the MRT Patriot Program.]

Q: What do you like most about the job of producer?

PC: Primarily that there are constantly new challenges and supporting an incredibly talented production team.

Q: Is there a creative solution that you found particularly interesting or gratifying?

PC: During my first season as a Producer for MRT, I was tasked with producing Tinker to Evers to Chance and Home of Brave. I suggested a Scenic Designer who had worked with MRT before to design both shows. In so doing he was able to recycle parts of one set into the next, bringing [down] the cost and making what otherwise might not have been achievable, affordable.

[Ed.: The Scenic Designer for Tinkers to Evers to Chance and Home of the Brave was Randal Parsons. He had previously designed Year Zero, Talley’s Folly, God of Carnage, and Half ’n Half ’n Half at MRT.]

Q: Sean Daniels has stated a goal for MRT to be a premiere location for new play production. What does that entail for you as the producer?

PC: For me that means building strong relationships with our collegiate partners as they have proven vital in expanding our play development efforts; as well as coming up with creative solutions to maximize our abilities to tackle multiple projects simultaneously.

[Ed.: MRT partners with UMASS Lowell and Middlesex Community College. New play workshops and staged readings are conducted in conjunction with those schools.]

Q: What are “Honorary Producers” at MRT and how do they interact with you?

PC: Our Honorary Producers are a fantastic group of theatre lovers who contribute generously to MRT. In appreciation of their support, Honorary Producers get exclusive behind the scenes access to productions as they develop and while they are in production. I serve as one of the primary liaisons between the Honorary Producers and production staff and visiting artists.

[Ed.: Peter also serves as one of the primary liaisons for the MRT Cohorts (thank you, Peter!)]

 

–Cynthia McLain, Cohort

 

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Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley runs November 28 – December 23

mrt.org/missbennet

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