Q&A: with Playwright and Dramaturg* Margot Melcon

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How did you meet Lauren Gunderson?

Lauren and I first met when I was working at Marin Theatre Company as their dramaturg – she was brought out in 2009 to work on a play of hers called Rock Hill. She ended up moving to the Bay Area, and she and I began collaborating as playwright-dramaturg. We worked on several pieces in development at Marin Theatre, as well as on the world premiere of her play I and You.

How did the two of you come up with the idea of writing a sequel to Pride and Prejudice?

In the summer of 2014, she was working at Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor on a one-woman show with banjo that was loosely based on King Lear. [That play became The Heath, which premieres here at MRT in February.] We decided to take a road trip up to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to see a production of Lear and on the six-hour car ride, we came up with the idea for Miss Bennet. The impulse came from both a practical place – all theater companies need good holiday shows to produce, and there just aren’t that many to choose from – and a place of desire to see a different kind of holiday story. Ours is rooted in the complications of being part of a family, one that is made up of very different and dynamic women, and what it means to support each other.

You are a highly regarded dramaturg. Had you written a play before?

Though I had read literally thousands of plays as a dramaturg and the director of new play development at Marin Theatre, I had never written a play. So, my only experience of writing has been as a co-writer, but it has been an incredibly gentle entry into the world of being a playwright. The process of writing can be very solitary, very much alone, even in the theater, which is ultimately a collaborative artform. The nice thing about being part of a writing team is that the collaboration starts early, from the inception of the idea, so you’re never staring down at a blank page by yourself. From the beginning, neither Lauren or myself were precious with the words we wrote, or took too much ownership. It was all in service of the story.

What do you think is the enduring appeal of Jane Austen is?

Jane Austen will never go out of style because of her incredible use of wit and comedy. It is never not fun to dive into a world of people with problems that are maybe a little superficial, but always serve to showcase great and complex characters, especially the women. What I love especially about Pride and Prejudice is that each of the sisters has such a unique personality – at different times in your life, when you read the novel, you’ll identify with a different one of the sisters. If you used to be more of a Lydia, you may evolve into a Lizzy. Or maybe you’ve always felt like a Mary at heart, until one day you wake up, and you’re relating to Jane. That’s the lovely thing about complicated characters: they resonate differently because each one of us has a little bit of each of them in us.

*What is a dramaturg?

A dramaturg is the most misunderstood position in the theatre because the work of a dramaturg varies widely from project to project. In a nutshell, a theatre dramaturg is a literary editor, who consults with authors and analyzes and edits texts. Further, dramaturgs assist playwrights in structuring new plays. Dramaturgs also work with various aspects of the production, including crafting educational materials, creating marketing copy, and facilitating artistic and community conversations.

 

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Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley runs November 28 – December 23, 2018.

mrt.org/missbennetatpemberley

Cohort Report: What is a Prompt Book?

This article is about the Prompt Book. There are two sections: the first describes the prompt book and its use, the second is a Q&A with Maegan Alyse Passafume, Stage Manager for Native Gardens, and Nicole Kutcher, Stage Manager for Murder for Two at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.

What is a Prompt Book?
The prompt book, or cueing script or calling script, is often referred to as “the bible” of the production. Books discussing the how-to’s of stage management very clearly emphasize the importance of this document. It is the official record of the production and is archived at the end of the run. It contains information necessary to recreate the production: the script marked up with blocking and cues; scenic design plan; costume design sketches; list of props; and lighting, sound, and special effects cues. During the production, the prompt book is in a three-ring binder.

If anything happens to the stage manager (SM), the prompt book can be used by another stage manager, or assistant stage manager (ASM), to run the show. I read where a stage manager became incapacitated during a show…we all know “the show must go on”…and it did.

During performances of Native Gardens at MRT from September 27 through 30, including the roll-out of open captioning, Nicole Kutcher filled in for Maegan Alyse Passafume, Stage Manager for Native Gardens. I was in the audience for the performance on September 27 and failed to notice any indication there was a substitute stage manager, and I was watching for it. See the comments on that transition in the Q&A below.

Photographs of pages from the prompt books for Native Gardens (final version) and Murder for Two (rehearsal version) accompany this article. In each photo, the page on the left is from the script (and/or the music for Murder for Two). The page on the right contains sections for notes on Blocking (movements of the actors), Scenic (layout of the stage), Lights, Props, Costumes, Sound, and Transitions/Miscellaneous/Other Reminders. To conserve space, abbreviations are used. The circled numbers, in pencil, on the lefthand page are references to the blocking notes with the same numbers on the facing page.

In place of a single script, musical theater has two documents: “Book & Lyrics” (the full script) and a “Book & Music” (all the music). The “Book” (script), “Lyrics”, and “Music” may each be written by a single person or a by a collaboration. The prompt book contains an interleaving of pages taken from the “Book & Lyrics” and the “Book & Music”. The interleaving of pages is crucial. During the read through for Murder for Two, I tried to follow along using the two as separate documents and had trouble on a few occasions, as did others including the actors.

There are three stages of production at MRT: rehearsals, previews, and the run. During rehearsals the prompt book is annotated in pencil by the stage manager. During the run, when the play is being performed for an audience, the stage manager uses the prompt book to call cues and monitor for performance issues. Previews are the transition between rehearsals and the final run; the stage manager is calling the cues but the director may make minor revisions based on the audience reaction and their own observations.

By opening night, the director has settled on the blocking and cueing to be used throughout the run. Small adjustments were still being made for Native Gardens on the afternoon of the opening night.

After opening night, no further changes are made and the stage manager finalizes the prompt book, as shown in the example for Native Gardens. Later in the season there will be three world premieres, so we’ll see whether there are any changes following opening night for those productions.

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Q&A with Nicole Kutcher (NK), Stage Manager for Murder for Two and Maegan Alyse Passafume (MP), Stage Manager for Native Gardens.

Q: During the run of Native Gardens, Nicole Kutcher (NK) filled in for Maegan Alyse Passafume (MP) for five shows. Can you comment on this transition, in particular with respect to use of the prompt book, or calling script?

MP: All stage managers are taught early on that your paperwork and your book need to be clean and legible enough for someone to come in and call the show without ever having seen it. Obviously this is only in case of emergency, which does happen. But I told MRT when I was offered Native Gardens that I would need that weekend off and they would have to find me a sub. Because every stage manager sets up their book in different ways, anyone coming into sub will usually watch that stage manager call the show before they try to call it themselves. That way they can see how the book is set up, and ask any questions they might have.

NK: As Maegan mentioned, every stage manager has their own method of setting up their prompt book—they all contain the same essential information, just set up in different ways according to what works best for them. Knowing this and knowing that I would be covering for her, Maegan sent me a digital copy of her calling script ahead of time to give me the opportunity to study her system and be prepared for when I stepped in. I was able to watch the archival video of the show and follow along with the calling script to ensure that I was familiar with the show itself and how the cues fit in.

[Ed. Note: MRT makes a single archival recording of each play. For Native Gardens and Murder for Two that archival video was recorded on opening night. This video is for archival purposes only and, for contractual reasons, is not publicly available.]

Q: Have you experienced a time where the stage manager became incapacitated during the show? Was the audience aware of the issue while it was happening?

MP: The only time I’ve ever seen someone incapacitated was an ASM I was working with backstage about 6 years ago. Thankfully we were in tech and not performances, so we were able to stop and take care of her.

NK: Fortunately I have not had this experience during a public performance. I did, however, have an experience during a tech rehearsal where the stage manager became ill and as the ASM, I was asked to step in to keep the rehearsal moving while the stage manager received medical attention. At this point, the cues were still being written into her prompt book so after a quick crash course on her particular process for marking them, I jumped in.

Q: Maegan, you are listed as one of two stage managers for the 2017 production of Chill by Eleanor Burgess at MRT. How did that transition play out?

MP: Casey needed someone to take over for her on Chill so she could move on to her next production. So over the course of three days I saw the show, I watched her call the show, and then she watched me call the show to make sure I understood it. Then she stepped away and I took over for her.

Nicole Kutcher was the stage manager for last year’s world premiere of Little Orphan Danny at MRT. For Little Orphan Danny, the “Book, Music, & Lyrics” were all authored by Dan Finnerty.

Q: Was there a “Book & Lyrics” and “Book & Music” for Little Orphan Danny during the MRT production?

NK: There were both “Book & Lyrics” and “Book & Music” for Little Orphan Danny. However, because it was a brand new musical, the script and the music were constantly changing and new edits passed out to the cast & band members almost every day. In the end, those final versions were preserved to be passed on to future versions of the show. For a musical, it is essential to have both a script and music so that the band can smoothly follow along with what is happening onstage without missing a beat.

Q: What changes were made to Little Orphan Danny after opening night?

NK: Usually the show is “frozen” after opening night for shows that have been previously licensed, printed and copywritten. In this particular case, Little Orphan Danny was the world premiere of a show that was still in the workshop process. This, combined with the fact that the lead performer was also the creator/playwright meant that he continued to tweak lines here and there, trying out new jokes and maximizing his time in front of an audience to see what worked. Most of the changes he made fit within the technical elements that had already been established before opening.

[Ed. Note: In Murder for Two, Joe Kinosian, the actor playing The Suspects, is also one of the original authors and performers. As a result, there was additional flexibility during rehearsals, a couple of lines were removed from and added to the script, but the show was still “frozen” after opening night. One of the characters presents differently every performance but that is explicitly allowed in the script.]

Q: Were there differences in how you developed and used the prompt book for Little Orphan Danny and for Murder for Two?

NK: Yes, in fact. My personal philosophy is to constantly adapt my system for what will best serve my current production. In this case, the hyper-specific nature of the Murder for Two blocking, and subsequently the cueing, lead me to adapt my method to allow for the notation those elements in a more detailed manner. It meant tweaking the way the book was set up, the symbols used for notations and layout of the cues in the finalized calling script.

Q: JC Clementz, Director for the MRT production of Murder for Two, also directed the production at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. Was the prompt book for the Milwaukee Rep production used at all for developing the MRT production?

NK: It was not. Because JC and the cast had just recently completed the same production, they did occasionally reference what they had done before. However, when you’re putting up the same show in a new space, inevitably things will be need to be adjusted to better suit the new space, new ideas will be discovered and improvements will be made. In this case, it best suited to production to pull together a new prompt book from scratch.

Q: Any other things you want to share about the prompt book, or calling script?

MP: Once the calling script gets to the theatre for tech, it never leaves. It doesn’t go home with you, it doesn’t stay in your car, it’s left somewhere in the theatre until closing. That way if something happens to you, your replacement knows where to find it.

NK: When you’re putting together the calling script for a musical, it can end up as a combination of script pages, pages of music and sometimes lists of step-by-steps of actions (used most often for sections involving movement/dancing without spoken lines). This is all determined by what allows for the clearest and specific documentation, as well as the needs of the stage manager.

–Cynthia McLain, Cohort

 

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Murder for Two runs October 17 – November 11, 2018.

mrt.org/murderfortwo

Q&A: Joe Kinosian (Actor, Composer, and Book Writer)

Joe Kinosian-smJoe Kinosian, the original star of Murder for Two, as well as the composer and book writer of the musical-comedy-mystery, makes his Boston-area debut as The Suspects. After the original production at the Chicago Shakespeare Festival, Kinosian was nominated for the prestigious Jefferson Award for Best Actor in a Musical, and he and co-creator Kellen Blair won the award for Best New Musical. The show ran for nearly two years Off-Broadway in New York City.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Kinosian dazzles “with a plethora of talents and eye-popping energy,” and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said, “Kinosian absolutely nails his performances as a variety of quirky characters.”

Theatre writers note the influence of The Marx Brothers, Agatha Christie, “Murder She Wrote,” and Vaudeville in Murder for Two. Were any of these genres especially influential for you growing up? 

Absolutely. I became an old movie fan at a very early age, largely the result of time spent with my grandma, the consummate fan of 1930s and 40s Hollywood. She first showed me The Marx Brothers’ films, and something about their anarchic combination of intellectual screwball wordplay and physical zaniness has never stopped appealing to me. I was also a fan at a young age (too young?) of murder mysteries, Agatha Christie in particular. When Kellen and I first came up with the idea for Murder for Two, we framed it as “what if The Marx Brothers put on an Agatha Christie story?” (I must pay tribute to The Thin Man films as well, which remain the ultra-classy gold standard of blending comedy and mystery.) As far as vaudeville is concerned, we definitely wanted to channel that comedically broad, “anything for a laugh” approach. All of that formed the basis of Murder for Two‘s style.

Audiences and critics rave about how each of your characters are so distinct. What was the process for creating a host of suspects with such unique mannerisms and voices? How difficult was the creation of so many characters? Do you have a favorite? 

That is very nice of those audiences and critics to say! In developing my performance(s) of The Suspects, I began with an aspect of each of the characters that I connected to, be it an accent or an aspect of their physical vocabulary or whatever. From there, they all took on a life of their own. Over the years, they’ve all continued to change and develop, and I always look forward to diving in again and seeing where they’re at now. Being the co-writer of the book gave me insight as to why the characters were the way they were and what inspired their creation, so in that regard, it was less difficult than it might have been had I not served in the role (no pun intended) of writer as well. My favorite character (and the favorite of most actors who’ve played The Suspects, too, I’m pretty sure) is Dahlia Whitney, the daffy widow of the deceased. Her penchant for saying what she’s thinking and not feeling the way she’s supposed to feel is a beautiful, liberating thing to play.

After five years, how do you keep your performance fresh? 

I’m really lucky to be able to do a production of Murder For Two, step away for weeks or months, and then go back in to a new production. Since each production differs in terms of creative team, theater, co-star, etc., nothing ever gets too routine. But even more than that, I rely on the audience to keep it fresh. Since they haven’t heard this story before (or have, and are hopefully looking forward to hearing it again), I try to see it a little bit through their eyes, and let the comedy and clues unfold as though for the first time.

 

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Murder for Two runs October 17 – November 11, 2018.

mrt.org/murderfortwo

Q&A: Karen Zacarías (Playwright)

Karen Zacarias headshotKaren Zacarías’ plays include the recent, critically acclaimed Destiny of DesireA Brechtian Telenovela, Mariela in the Desert (Susan Smith Blackburn finalist, Francesca Primus Award), The Sins of Sor Juana (Helen Hayes Award, Outstanding Play), The Book Club Play, Just Like Us, Legacy of Light, and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.

Founder of Washington, D.C.’s Young Playwrights’ Theatre, she regularly writes musicals (Jane of the Jungle, Cinderella Eats Rice and Beans) for young audiences with composer Debbie Wicks la Puma. Her musical Chasing George Washington at The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts toured nationally, and when published, included a foreword by First Lady Michelle Obama.

Recent projects include a new stage adaptation of The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the libretto for the Washington Ballet’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and a Brazilian-themed musical version of the Oliver Twist story. She resides in D.C. with her husband and three children.

You tackle a lot of dark issues with outright hilarity. Why is humor an important part of your storytelling? 

I think humor can be “disarming”. Especially if it’s not mean . . . and it brings light to personal foibles.  If you laugh, you usually have to uncross your arms . . . and open up . . . and that allows other ideas and perspectives to come in.  What people have told me about Native Gardens is that even though you side with different sides of the fence in different scenes, the person you end up judging is yourself.

Did a specific incident prompt you to write Native Gardens? 

I was at a dinner party looking for an idea for a play, and someone suggested I write about the fight they were having with a neighbor.  Then someone else recounted a neighbor story and so on. I was struck by how common, how primal, and poetic, and somewhat absurd all these epic battles can be and decided to explore the thorny issues of feuds through a biting comedic play.

Are you a gardener yourself?

No.  But I learned a lot about gardening researching this play. Who would have known that plants could be so political?!

What has most shaped your perspective?  

Being born in Mexico has shaped my perspective. Moving from Mexico to Boston when I was 10 shaped my perspective. Being an immigrant with immigrant parents shaped my perspective, and writing and art is the way I reconciled the bridges . . . and walls that I’ve encountered in my path. Art is a map for navigating the world, and a tool for making sense of the insensible.

What does Native Gardensmean to you personally? 

I think there are over 12 productions of Native Gardens scheduled for this next year.  I am so grateful that a play written by a Latinx artist, giving voice to characters we don’t often see on stage, is getting to interact with so many people from across the country.  It means to me that plays like this are part of the American cannon, and our stories are part of the mainstage of the American story.

 

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Native Gardens runs September 12 – October 7, 2018.

mrt.org/nativegardens

Q&A: Lila Rose Kaplan (Playwright)

Playwright Lila Rose Kaplan answers questions about her new play The Villains’ Supper Club.

Tell us about when you first started to think about writing this play. What was the inspiration behind The Villains’ Supper Club?

I started imagining The Villains’ Supper Club during the first year of my daughter’s life. The first image I had for the play was Galactic Girl pumping in a phone booth while still wearing her cape. I wanted to write a comedy about what it’s like to keep a brand new little person alive on no sleep, while also going back to work. I had several productions back-to-back that first year, which meant I was pumping all the time, traveling across the country with a tiny infant, calling the pediatrician from numerous time zones, while also doing rewrites—and did I mention not sleeping? I learned very quickly that new moms are true superheroes. My plays shine light on the stories we don’t tell about women. New moms are crucial to our species’ survival and yet new moms are invisible until you are one. The Villains’ Supper Club is a comic love letter to all the new moms out there.

What special challenges does Galactic Girl have as new mom and an actual superhero?

Galactic Girl is the only superhero left in the world. Even before she had a baby, her plate was pretty full keeping everyone safe from the Villains. Now, as a new Mom, she is also breastfeeding, pumping, hungry all the time, tired all the time, finding childcare for when she’s working, and fending off unwanted child-rearing opinions from everyone she meets. She fights villains daily while finding time to pump, writes newspaper stories for her day job, and fields calls from her babysitter, aka her mother, who doesn’t approve of her working. That’s a typical day. 

What did you learn about and love about comic books–and how did you turn that on its head for this play?

I did a deep dive into comic books, graphic novels, and superhero movies as research for this play. We’re living in a distressing moment and superheroes are tremendously appealing right now. While immersing myself in superhero stories, I loved the big worlds, the mythology behind the characters, the fights between good and evil, and the tremendous heart. However,  I was pretty distressed by the way women are treated. Why is Lois Lane clumsy and a terrible speller? Why are female superheroes naked and fragile just when they need to be strong? Why are 99% of the heroes men?  The deeper I dug, the madder I got. Here was this vast new genre I wanted to love, but most representations of me were degrading or non-existent. Toni Morrison once said that she started writing because she didn’t see the books she wanted to read on the shelf. So, I took her advice and wrote a feminist superhero farce about a new mom. And I used my secret weapon, heartfelt comedy, to challenge the misogyny and sexualization of women in comics. I believe stories are powerful. So, I wrote a new one.

It’s such fun to have a large cast of actors with such comic chops. How is it to see your characters come to life for the first time with this cast? 

It’s exhilarating. All the characters have leapt to life in the hands of these actors. Sean and I create epic comedies that are highly physical and deeply heartfelt. These actors are wonderfully game for all of it.

Who are your favorite superheroes and why are they?

My favorite two superheroes are Ms. Marvel and the new Spider Woman. Ms. Marvel, aka Kamala Khan, is a Pakistani-American teenager in New Jersey, who accidentally gets superpowers. She grapples with being different from her family, facing racism, falling in love, and saving the world on a daily basis. It’s heartfelt, funny and pretty poignant at times. 

The new Spider-Woman has a fabulous twist—Spider-Woman is pregnant in the first issue and has a newborn baby in the second issue. She grapples with how to be a superhero and new mom at the same time. I discovered this Spider-Woman after I started writing The Villains’ Supper Club and it was inspiring for me to see a world linked to the one I was imagining.

If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?

I have always wanted to fly. It would be handy to be able to stop time. But the best superpower of all would be give everyone empathy.

Why do you write for the stage?

I am in love with live theatre. It’s a gorgeous communal ritual of coming together to receive a story with other people. I believe laughing together is healing. I believe crying together is healing. I believe practicing empathy together is the only way to change the world.

Coffee or tea: Tea. Moroccan Mint.  

Favorite way to relax: I love reading. I love watching well-written TV. I love swimming. I love dancing. I love taking walks at the Arboretum.  

Favorite guilty pleasure food: Anything mint chocolate. 

Favorite activity with your kid: Dancing in the kitchen is pretty great. 

 

 

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The Villain’s Supper Club runs April 25 – May 20, 2018.

mrt.org/villains

Q&A: Dan Finnerty (Co-Creator & Performer)

Co-Creator and Performer Dan Finnerty (Frontman of The Dan Band) answers questions about his new play Little Orphan Danny.

How did you approach telling not only your story but also both of your mothers’ sides of the story?

This was all a mistake.  I’d been invited by New York Stage and Film to try and develop a  new show based on my comedy band, The Dan Band. I met Sean Daniels and invited him to go with me and we sat in a room for five hours and I told him every funny story I have.  I briefly mentioned I was adopted and found my birthmother and then went on to my next funny story and he was like “Wait … go back to the adopted part.”  So here we are.  It’s been a long process of me figuring out how to tell this story from my point of view and then making sure my mom and birthmother were also cool with it being told.  I hope I remembered to ask them.

You’re the lead singer in a band where you make all the decisions. What’s it like working with a director for a musical show?

I’ve actually really enjoyed it.  After so many years of cranking out ideas for my band, I like having someone else be in charge. Sean has been great about letting me still at least think I have the final word.  But I think that comes with the territory when it’s a show you’re writing about your life and your people.  And he’s been very patient as I struggle daily with wanting to be involved in every little aspect of the production.  Even now I want to ask you what font this will be displayed in.

You’re known for hilarious impro-visational moments on stage and in film. Will there be improv in Little Orphan Danny?

I love improv and always try and sneak it into any project I’m working on. Probably because I never want to learn my lines.  I’d hoped to continue my long tradition of planning nothing and just jumping into the crowd to see what happens for this show, but luckily for you, Sean is a professional and made me write actual lines to memorize.  But I’m told the director usually takes off after opening night, so it’ll be a free-for-all once he’s outta here.

The music and lyrics in this show are incredibly moving. How did it all come together with your musical collaborators?

Thanks.  As a guy who is mainly known for singing comedy covers, that makes me like you.  Once we’d locked into which stories I was going to tell, I would go off and write lyrics and melodies for the songs and then come and sing them to Dan Lipton.  He’d arrange them into something that would sound better than just me singing and playing a pair of spoons.  He also composed a lot of the great incidental music that happens throughout the show.

Some audiences will know you from your film and television roles, along with The Dan Band. What’s it like being on a theatre stage and telling such a personal story?

I actually did a show in this very theater back when I was at Emerson College in Boston.  It was a summer show called Lowell: An American Patchwork.  I played an Irishman who worked on the Pawtucket Canal and was in love with a Mill Worker named …Millie.   So it’s crazy to be back on the same stage, all these years later.  As far as telling such a personal story, it’s pretty intense. I’m not really a “share your feelings” kind of guy, so this is all new to me.  And I care a lot about honoring these people I’m talking about in the show.  It’s tricky when they’re real people in your life and actually might be sitting in the audience at some point.  I still can’t even believe I’m doing it. I still know my lines from the Lowell show if it’s not too late to do that one instead?

The show is relevant for every mom and child, but it’s especially relevant for adopted kids and their parents. What do you want them to take away from this show?

I guess just the understanding that most adopted kids have a basic human desire to find out the answer to the secret they’ve been told exists about them, but it’s completely separate from how they feel about their parents who raised them.

Coffee order: I quit coffee after a 10-year Frappuccino addiction that caused a 10lb face-fat addition.

Dog or cat: Dogs forever.  Cats are losers.

Favorite guilty pleasure song: “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go”

Favorite way to relieve stress: Cats.

Dinner with one person, dead or alive: Charo

For more Dan Finnerty hilarity, check out The Dan Band on
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram: @TheDanBand.

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Little Orphan Danny runs March 21 – April 15, 2018.

mrt.org/danny

Playwright Q&A: Aaron Muñoz

Artistic director Sean Daniels sat down with playwright and performer Aaron Muñoz to talk about his new play Lost Laughs: The Slapstick Tragedy of Fatty Arbuckle.

Can you give us a little bit of history? First of all, who was Fatty Arbuckle? Why does he get his own play?

The reason why he gets his own play is because it’s a really cool story. He was pretty much a rival to Charlie Chaplin in the teens and 1920s. At one point, he was the highest paid movie star; he signed a three-year, three million dollar contract, which by today’s standards would just be insane, as far as money, at that time. He was really beloved by kids and families, and people just loved his character of Fatty Arbuckle, and his comedy. And like Chaplin and like Buster Keaton, he directed, he wrote, he starred, he had his own studio; it was a huge thing! That alone is like, “Wow!”

Imagine Paramount/ Arbuckle studios! Who could imagine Paramount, today, working with one guy?

Totally! That alone is interesting. The other interesting thing is that people are like: “Who?” So, to have someone with all of that clout and all of that creative output, and then a hundred years later, we’re like: “Wait, I don’t even know who this dude is.” And the reason is that there was a scandal; it was the first big Hollywood scandal, and he was charged for murder. It was kind of like if Kevin Hart or Will Ferrell was charged for murder. It was pretty crazy! You know, this really funny dude, who everyone really loves, and is genuinely a pretty cool guy, and gets run up on murder charges. To this day…in his story, nobody really knows what happened. That’s kind of the nature of it. There were two people in the room: one of them died and one of them didn’t.

I’m fascinated with the idea that, in America, we have such a complicated relationship with celebrities. We raise them up; we tear them down; we love nothing more than for child stars to become crack addicts later in life. This was kind of the first time that America did this: it raised somebody up and then tore them down and then felt bad about themselves. And then didn’t know what to do afterwards. Now, we do that all the time, right?

Yea, it’s the news cycle every day.

That’s right, what YouTube star must we crush today, for doing something we don’t agree with. Which I think is fascinating. We have a reality TV show host as a President. So, the question is: How did we get here? How did our relationship with celebrities and raising people up and putting all of our expectations or disappointments on them…where did that start?

I think so much of that is also connected to media. Not just journalistic media, but media as a whole; this was the beginning of film. You know, the first time people went to a theatre and saw a film of the ocean, they ran, because they thought the ocean was going to come and get them! That’s how real it was; that’s how mind blowing it was to see moving pictures on a screen. So, now, to see people up there on a screen and then to see them in real life, it’s the adulation! The kind of hero worship of celebrity and the connection to seeing them on a big screen is directly related to how we relate to celebrities today. I mean, our President, not withstanding other Presidents, have to be good on TV. That’s just a requirement of the job. It’s arguable if FDR would be okay right now because he was in a wheelchair. There is a lot of public perception that goes into being leaders and celebrities.

How long have you been working on this?

In earnest, I applied for a grant almost 10 years ago. Before that, I had read biographies, watched films, and stuff like that, but, then when I applied for the grant, I really started to just dig-in, research wise. So, it’s been about a decade of learning about Roscoe Arbuckle and the time. Then once this really kicked into gear, a little over a year ago, I delved deeper and found a lot more stuff, not only about him but about the people in his life. A lot of the play has some direct quotes but also some things that are pretty much what they said about Roscoe, and this is what they said at the time, about things. It’s really cool to unearth that and to find that, and then to put that into a piece of art.

Who are the other people involved? Your co-star? Your director?

Awesome co-star, Kristen Mengelkoch. We all worked together on a play at Geva Theatre [Center] called The Book Club Play, by Karen Zacarias. It was an awesome experience and Kristen and I remained friends. The development for this is interesting, because there was another actor named, John Gregorio, who is an amazing guy and an MRT Patriot, who we were originally working with. But as the story unfolded, it became very clear that we needed another voice and we needed an actress in the role. Both Andy, the other playwright, and I, and Nathan, the director, and John, were like, “Yeah, I think that’s the way to go.” Then we found Kristen and that’s when a lot of the play kind of opened up, in a way, and the story opened up. So, that’s who I’m working with on stage.

Who is Nathan Keepers?

Nathan and I worked together on A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Actors Theatre of Louisville, almost 10 years ago. We kept in touch and continually touched base, and talked with each other about various projects. Nothing has really lined up until this. Nathan is an awesome theatre maker. He has spent most of his career acting and is now segueing a little bit into directing and adding that to his theatre-maker palette. He was one of the first people that we thought of when thinking about a director; for someone who could do comedy, but also, we’re making a new play, we’re building something from scratch. So, to have someone with his experience, and his company, The Moving Company (that is what he does, and he was with Theatre de la Jeune Lune, in Minnesota), he has a lot of experience in building new work. Also, he is just a pretty crazy, awesome, human being.

Andy, my co-writer, Andy Bayiates, is a native of this area [he was born at Lowell General Hospital], and he still has family in this area, and went to school at Fitchburg. Andy was one of the writers for 45 Plays for 45 Presidents. He and I have known each other for awhile (and you, Sean, have known him for awhile, working with The Neo-Futurists, in Chicago). We were looking at good people to collaborate and his name really kind of popped to the list. Of course, my wife, who is always the smart one in the relationship, said, “Hey, why don’t you think about one of the 45 Plays peeps?” He and I started talking, and, I shared with him my thoughts about the play and he shared his thoughts, a lot of stuff lined up. And we have just been working, pretty much for the past year to get a solid script together to go into rehearsal and then continue to evolve and make something.

Will you do a little something for us, perhaps a hat piece?

Sure! [Aaron demonstrates several hat tricks.] I’ve been doing some hat stuff…there are some YouTube tutorials that are very good, about hat tossing and flipping. We’re incorporating a little bit of that because we have some vaudeville-type aspect to what we’re doing. It is also about the props, it’s about finding the right hat…what is the right hat that you can manipulate and make something that you can toss around? As you can see [laughing], we’re still in rehearsal; the show doesn’t open for two weeks. There are some old school hat-and-cane routines. A lot of Fatty Arbuckle’s genius was his ability to throw himself around, and to do some classic comedy bits. We have that in the play, as well, because his work was so important and a lot of people haven’t seen that, so, just trying to get that spirit of that and recreate it, is a good challenge to try to live up to.

To view the interview video, visit facebook.com/MerrimackRepertoryTheatre.

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Lost Laughs… runs February 14 – March 11, 2018.

mrt.org/lostlaughs

Playwright Q&A: Vichet Chum

We sat down with playwright and performer Vichet Chum to talk about his journey of writing KNYUM.

What initially inspired you to begin working on KNYUM?

The genesis of the story actually came from an experience I had between my first and second year of grad school at Brown/Trinity. That summer, I attended a language intensive to learn Khmer at a Southeast Asian language institute. It was my first time formally learning my family’s language, and from day one, I knew it was a unique experience. I journaled everyday – trying best to capture my vulnerabilities and my anxieties learning this language that felt so familiar and foreign at the same time. Then, in my last year of grad school, all the students were asked to perform 30-40 minutes of anything as their final culminating recital. I began to put the pieces together for this story and found out I had something special there. I’ll never forget the first time I performed it in its initial iteration – it was perplexing and scary and rapturous. I felt like I had to keep going… and I did!

The play is inspired by your own life experience, but isn’t entirely non-fictional. How do you meld together fact and fiction and choose which moments to root in your real life and which to invent?

I don’t know! That’s why this play is so challenging to do. I began this process by wanting to give voice to my family’s story with as much truth and accuracy as possible. But at the end of the day, it is a play and there are already theatrical conventions at play that are artificial. I’m not really in a hotel. I’m on a theater set that indicates a hotel. There was a point in the process where I had to give myself the permission to really distance myself from the character of Guy to give him freedom. It was a huge turning point. After all, this play does not intend to be journalism. It intends to share a story that is based on real events. I’ve tried my very best to craft a story that has integrity, one that remains celebratory to my family and is authentic to my own story.

You get to experience the show both during the writing process and as an actor. How does also being the star of the show help you in the shaping of it — or make it more difficult?

Being both the writer and actor is simultaneously wonderful and maddening. It’s wonderful because I know where the words come from: me. I don’t have to think too hard about the intention of the words. At the same time, as the writer, I have to fight the impulse to constantly rewrite what I’ve done. In a play that isn’t your own, you have to dig for meaning and wrestle with the words you’ve been given. In a play that is your own, you just hate it all and want to rewrite what you’ve done. I’ve had to stop and allow my actor brain to take over the words and do the work of filling each word, sentence, and paragraph with meaning. I enjoy working with both hats – I just have to know when to put which one on.

Where have you drawn inspiration from in the writing of KNYUM, be it particular playwrights, plays, or anything else?

I guess this play has a little bit of Julia Cho, Will Eno, Tennessee Williams, Amy Tan, Billy Collins, John Leguizamo, Chet Baker, Lee Morgan, and so much of the poetic musings and downright truths of the Chums.

The play follows Guy’s journey to discover and connect with his family’s history and heritage, and it’s a reflection of your own journey. How has the actual process of writing KNYUM enhanced or directed that journey for you?

KNYUM has allowed me to interrogate my family’s history in a way that I may have taken for granted to begin with. All of our families have complicated, rich stories that deserve to be told. As a writer and a performer, I’ve always known that I’ve been endowed with a responsibility to share my family’s stories. When I began this play, I had not yet gone to Cambodia for the first time. You could say that my work on this play accelerated the process and the immediate need to go to Cambodia. And once I went, I found my ending. So, the play has been utterly precious to me. It’s pushed me along as much as I’ve pushed it along.

The play has a very gentle quality for it, even while delving into some extremely difficult topics. How did you balance the weighty nature of historical events with the tone you wanted for the play?

The story certainly tackles difficult things like the Cambodian genocide, but it’s balanced with me, the narrator, standing before an audience sharing this story because my parents did indeed survive. That proof of life should give relief and reason to celebrate for the audience. I don’t think you can write tone, I think it’s just about writing as honestly as possible. But that being said, I did want the play to be funny… and I think it is! There are family quirks, there is the awkwardness of learning a new language, there are plenty of miscommunications. I think you just have to find a balance between being convicted and making the story a shared experience.

What has the response been like from the Cambodian community?

The Cambodian community in Lowell has been very responsive so far. I’ve come into town a couple of times to meet with the wonderful people at the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, the Angkor Wat Dance Troupe, and KhmerPost USA. Each time, I’m reminded of how familial the interactions are. It is like being home. After all, I think this story is not just mine, but it belongs to all Cambodians and Cambodian Americans. We share the struggle of inheriting a legacy of tragedy and survival, and honoring that complex history. I’m thrilled to share with Cambodians of all generations. This story honors their sacrifice.

How do your parents feel about the play?

My parents know that I wrote this play, that it’s happening and that I might be making fun of them… just a little. They have never seen a draft or a version of the play, but they’ve certainly been following the evolution of it. Ask me this question after they see it…

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KNYUM runs January 10 – February 4, 2018.

mrt.org/knyum