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She’s Standing Next to Herself

And I and Silence

Samantha Soule and Rachel Nicks

Samantha Soule is one of two people playing her character in  And I and Silence

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

Crafting a character is always a collaborative process, with the performer, playwright, director, and designers all informing how a person moves from the page to the stage. But in Naomi Wallace’s intimate drama And I and Silence there’s an additional variable: a second actor.

Named for a line in Emily Dickinson’s poem “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain,” the ’50s-set play, now at Signature Theatre, traces the risky relationship between two imprisoned female teens and their valiant attempt to forge a life together after they’re released. Two sets of performers portray the African-American Jamie (Trae Harris and Rachel Nicks) and Caucasian Dee (Emily Skeggs and Samantha Soule) in 1950 and 1959 respectively, and though they’re far from dead ringers, their performances are similar enough to suggest you’re watching the same characters at different ages.

While it’s rare to have two actors tackle the same part in one show, Soule has actually done it before. “Karen Allen and I did a play called A Summer Day about two years ago at the Cherry Lane,” she remembers. “I played her younger self. It was about a woman who was stuck in the remembrance of one particular day and was more of a classic memory play. Naomi specifically didn’t want And I and Silence to be a memory play. Both realities are living simultaneously.” Though they start out as distinct, the two eras begin to bleed together à la Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, with all four actors inhabiting the stage simultaneously. So the pairs needed to be in sync in order to maintain the illusion of being one woman.

To that end, “Emily and I worked a bunch together in terms of crafting this person,” Soule says. “I think Caitlin [McLeod, the director] picked us because we inherently echoed each other. In rehearsal, we did a fair amount of mirroring exercises and improv. Caitlin would let us play for 20 minutes at a time and at the end she’d say, ‘This is what I saw you both instinctively choose to do.’ She had us hone in on places where we interpreted the character in the same way.”

But being identical was never the goal. “There’s definitely a distance between the younger and older selves,” Soule says. “As much as the core of who you are can remain the same, incarceration changes you. That gave us permission to be different. As Dee, Emily has a vivaciousness and openness and wit. I have more of what I call the ‘avocadoness:’ my exterior is a little tougher and the softness is held back.”

[Read more →]

August 19, 2014   No Comments

When Do You Stop Seeing the Barbed Wire?

Saul Reichen

Saul Reichlin

The startling set design of a new Holocaust play

It’s always there, stretched across the stage. For the entire 70 minutes of The Good and the True, a play based on the recollections of Holocaust survivors Hana Pravda and Milos Dobry, barbed wire hangs between us and the actors. Even after the characters survive Auschwitz and death marches, the wire is there. Even when they go on to have families and celebrated careers—Dobry was a rugby star and Pravda a renowned actress—the barrier stays in place.

“We’re standing there with it an inch away from our faces,” says Saul Reichlin, who plays Dobry. “It’s very powerful as something for an actor to work behind.”

But here’s the thing: Eventually, audiences at the DR2 Theatre, where The Good and the True will play through mid-September, may stop noticing the fence is even there. After all, we’re experiencing a fascinating story about people who survived a nightmare and went on to thrive. Milos and Hana’s humanity pushes past the wire. (Which is really just string, by the way. It’s part of the set design by Daniel Hrbek, who also directs and helped compile Milos and Hana’s testimonies.)

The actors have the same response. “You get so used to it that you stop noticing it after a while unless you’re standing right up close to it,” says Reichlin, speaking during a recent phone call. “You get used to the dangers of life. They just become facts.”

At that, Reichlin’s co-star, Isobel Pravda, interjects: “I think that’s an excellent point, and I think you can make it even wider. These two people lived with the fact of the Holocaust. Not that they ever accepted it as being okay, but they got on with things. They lost their families and continued to live and love and live again.”

Isobel can speak about her character’s mindset with rare certainty, since Hana Pravda was her real-life grandmother. [Read more →]

August 18, 2014   2 Comments

WATCH: Meet New Jersey Repertory Company

From time to time, TDF Stages will highlight exciting Off and Off-Off Broadway theatre companies with exclusive “getting to know you” videos. Today we’re featuring New Jersey Repertory Company, where new plays are a calling.

Through August 31, New Jersey Rep presents its latest world premiere, Robert Caisley’s Lucky Me. Later this season, it will produce Dan Lauria’s Dinner With the Boys and Elaine Smith’s  Angels and Ministers of Grace.

This video features actors Ames Adamson, Wendy Peace, and Michael Irvin Pollard, as well as stage manger Jennifer Tardibuono.and executive director Gabor Barabas.

Meet more theatres!

This video was directed by Mark Blankenship, TDF’s online content editor, and shot and edited by Nicholas Guldner.

August 15, 2014   No Comments

Write in Plain Sight

Write Out Front at the Drama Book Shop

Write Out Front at the Drama Book Shop

One dramatist’s tale of writing in front of an audience

Our special guest contributor, playwright Jenny Lyn Bader, shares her experiences as part of the month-long installation Write Out Front: A Playwright Happening, featuring more than 125 theatre writers working in the window of the Drama Book Shop through the end of August.

Last Friday, I found myself sitting in the window of the Drama Book Shop writing plays. Pedestrians on 40th Street could see me in the window, and whatever I wrote streamed on a large screen.

No, this was not an eccentric personal choice. I was participating in Write Out Front, invented by playwright Micheline Auger. In case there is any question about what’s going on, a sign reading “Playwright working” hangs above the desk, a red arrow pointing down at the author.

We live in an era of perpetual distraction. Perhaps that’s why I was looking forward to two uninterrupted hours of writing, even if it was in full view of the general public.

Of course I had questions: What would I write? Would pedestrians shout dramaturgical suggestions? Would we be working on the antique typewriter pictured on the Write Out Front flyers? When Micheline suggested I bring a flash drive, I figured the typewriter was out.

On my way to the bookstore, I felt a new mosquito bite on my leg. Uh-oh. I didn’t want to be the playwright who spent most of her shift scratching instead of writing. (Just thinking about it made me much itchier.) The mosquito bite loomed large, not only because it was swelling, but as a metaphor for the fear all writers harbor that the words will not arrive when we need them.

Sitting in the storefront, navigating the official Write Out Front laptop, I found my files and considered my options. My verse play, In Flight, had received a reading the night before and I was eager to revise it while it was fresh in my mind. Then again, it might be fun to write something entirely new, inspired by the gestalt of the bookstore and the light of the morning sun. But I had a deadline. The very next day we were holding the first read-through of I Like to Be Here: Jackson Heights Revisited, Or, This is a Mango, a play I was collaborating on with a few other writers scheduled to open at the New Ohio Theatre in September—and we didn’t yet have a full script. I knew I had to tackle a missing scene, though I had no idea what would happen in it. So I started drafting dialogue.

Typically, when people come up behind me and try to read a scene I’m writing, I cover the screen. Here was my chance to do the opposite. There’s an old adage in the theatre: “Don’t worry about the audience.” But I worried about them. A few of them were standing right outside, watching a very rough draft of the scene emerge. I resolved to write stream of consciousness to try to keep up with those who were reading.

Micheline came in and asked me to maximize my screen so everyone could see my script more clearly. Then I heard a noise. J.Stephen Brantley—one of my I Like to Be Here co-authors and fellow Write Out Front participant—was knocking on the window and peering in, his eye framed by one of the “Os” in the word “Book.” I smiled. He took a picture. That’s when it occurred to me that I don’t always smile when writing. I made an effort to look less pained. [Read more →]

August 14, 2014   No Comments

The Muffins Are There for a Reason

Katie Kreisler & Brian Avers

Katie Kreisler & Brian Avers

Props and set dressing tell a specific story in Theresa Rebeck’s Poor Behavior

The country home set for Theresa Rebeck’s Poor Behavior, now in its New York premiere from Primary Stages, looks really lived in, with coats and scarves hanging in the doorway and bottles stacked in the recycling bins. But even though the room seems casually domestic, everything was placed with incredible care. All those objects are the handiwork of Faye Armon-Troncoso, credited with props/set dressing.

Armon-Troncoso added set dressing to her title in the program because props people often populate the set with objects but don’t get credit for it. “My hat goes off to Primary Stages because they let me have a bio,” she says. “I never get bios in programs.”

Poor Behavior is Armon-Troncoso’s 14th collaboration with set designer Lauren Helpern and her sixth with director Evan Cabnet, and she says all three of them have worked together closely to give this show the look it needs. For example, Cabnet wanted a refrigerator that would open vertically because of a scene late in the play, so Armon-Troncoso shopped around until she found one. “What I do try to do is serve the play the best that I can,” she says.

Rebeck’s script follows two couples having a fraught weekend in the country, debating questions of morality, fidelity, and goodness with increasingly drunken intensity. The house they’re in belongs to Ella (Katie Kreisler) and Peter (Jeff Biehl), and one of the first things Armon-Troncoso found for it was a rustic farmhouse table which dictated the rest of the decor. She considered how much money the characters put into their place as well as their taste. Since Ella gets teased for her idealism, for instance, she didn’t want her to seem too sophisticated. [Read more →]

August 13, 2014   1 Comment