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Dearly Departed: A Postmortem on Directing a Delightfully Dark Comedy

In June of 2014, I directed (and also designed sound, costumes, and publicity for) Dearly Departed at High Springs Playhouse in High Springs Florida.

I was invited to direct this show by talented Gainesville playwright-director Leroy Clark, with whom I had worked on his challenging and emotional play Outburst, based on the experiences of gay rights advocate Rodney Wilson. At the time it was offered to me, I had no idea how many personal challenges I would experience in the year between my accepting the offer and beginning work on this show. This tale of a dysfunctional family dealing with their patriarch’s death is surprisingly realsitic, but laced with dark humor and darkly situational comedy. Authors Jessie Jones and David Bottrell satirize Southern hospitality and modern materialism while tapping into the deep-seated fears and taaumas associated with death.

The play was produced at High Springs Playhouse, which I had worked at previously, but I knew very few of the regulars, and had to cast a show with ages spanning 20 to 90 and persoanlities as different as night and day. I was thrilled to have a splendidly ethnusiastic group of women audition, and as usual, it was difficult to say no to any of them. Yet the ones who landed the roles were so breathtakingly similar to how I imagined the characters when they read, that the show basically cast itself.

The rehearsal process was driven by my Pirandello-influenced approach to character creation as a feedback between a living character and a living actor. I asked the actors to share what they thought abut their characters, and to tell me what the important things were that they said and did. I discovered this process somewhat organically, as I felt very invested in the play and very fond of both the characters and the actors. After the first couple of rehearsals, I received these emails from a couple of cast members:
“I really enjoyed the practice today. Thank you so much for your input and your direction. I’m certain that you are aware I have never done this before, and I am open and certainly appreciative of anything that you can tell me, and any advice that you can give me to make this production be what you want it to be. Since I am the new kid on the block, I am honestly open to whatever I need to do, and what things I need to do to be a good actor.”
“I was telling [folks] tonight how much I liked the rehearsal today: the direction you gave, the chance to discuss my thoughts about my character, and the food for thought you gave me. I think it’s going to be a fun run.”

As part of my philosophy for CerridwenWorks, I wanted to add a dimension of social consciousness to the production that had a real-world effect. So I recommended to the Board of the theatre that the show proceeds go to benefit a hospice, and to offer talkbacks after each Sunday matinee. We ended up raising several hundred dollars for Hospice of the Nature Coast.

I met several challenges through this process that were essential to my learning, if painful to deal with. I had a cast member take offense to some of the textual content given by the playwrights, and had to balance my desire to do right by the playwirght with my concern for the actor’s comfort. In the end, I changed a couple of curse words but did not change a racist comment; you can adjust the language more than you can adjust the character.

I had spite and jealousy emerge among some members of the theatre, and found it more heartbreaking than the usual clash of egos. While sarcastically appropriate for a show with dialogue that is primarily bickering and passive aggression, there was a certain weight to these incidents that reminded me that the otherwise magical theatre cannot solve these human foibles simply by its inspiration to get along. I very much learned to not “take it personally”—even if it was at times.

I was very grateful to have a pleasant production team that got along…however, I could not find a costume designer or sound designer, or marketing director, so had to wear all those hats. Previously, I had cherished the opportunity to show all that I could do, and gladly wore multiple hats. In this case, doing all that while directing and feeling both internal and external pressure to prove myself was exhausting, and put me in the uncomfortable position in which, as all the productivity and entrepreneurship bloggers note, I appeared to be more of a big-hat director than a team player. Even though the show turned out beautifully and I did get “all my stuff done,” I knew I would never again be able to simply take on an extra role if I couldn’t find anyone else. Volunteer-run theatre should not have to impose such demands on any one person (nor should any theatre).

All the same, I wept with happiness at both opening and closing, and at each of our (many) full houses). I don’t plan to direct another show soon, as I want to develop the applied, multi-genre, and educational aspects of my artistic endeavors, and at this time, I am more interested in avant garde or experimental theatre, cabaret-style shows, and new play workshops.

 

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Summer o’ Theatre

This summer was a particularly fertile one for theatre in Gainesville, and proved to be a major portfolio boost.

Stage Manager

On May 24, 25, and 26, the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre hosted the new Gainesville Shaw Society‘s production of George Bernard Shaw’s Geneva. My friend Krsnaa Fitch loves Shaw’s works and asked me to be her stage manager. The particular demands of the piece—even an abridged form, as we did—included furniture and costumes appropriate to the late 1930s and an approximation of three major political leaders of the era: Adolf Hitler (fictionalized as Battler), Francisco Franco (fictionalized as Flanco), Benito Mussolini (fictionalized as Bombardone), and Neville Chamberlain (fictionalized as Sir Orpheus). We partnered with the Hippodrome Theatre again and also enlisted the talents of Gainesville costume Jason Bendure to develop the costumes. Ken Brown of the Hipp worked on our set, and under short notice.

Once again, I found myself on stage as well as managing the show. In a delightfully meta twist, I assumed the role of the Secretary to the League of Nations, who is revealed to have conned the assembled dictators and plaintiffs in the final act. Calling the shots in the plot and backstage!

The most important aspect of the Geneva experience was that it revealed my capability as a production manager (and my ability to do a Swiss-French accent), especially under a short deadline. I am an excellent stage manager, but sometimes, due to a busy calendar, it’s better for me to coordinate a production team than to record rehearsals or be on-book. And I have increasingly more professional connections to get the supplies, loans, and donations that the designers need.

As such, my initial role on the Acrosstown board as Design Manager (aka master of the Props/Costume dungeon that no one else braves) was combined with this new role, as Production Manager. I also was encouraged to take on the role of Board Secretary, since I instinctively take copious notes.

Perhaps the most important role is the development of ARTiS, which I will discuss in a post to come.

Then, I partnered with George Steven O’Brien to develop the set for A.R. Gurney’s A Perfect Party, which played June 14-30. The set, a den-turned-family-room-turned-study, as described in the set, required a specific combination of swank, comfort, disillusionment, education, and artifice. You can see photos of the work here. As the theatre’s Production Manager, I agreed to serve as Production Stage Manager, but ended up getting more than I bargained for when one of our actors had to take medical leave and your trusty stage manager, the eternal understudy, had to take the stage! Now I’m experiencing a resurgence of the acting bug, and will appear in adaptations of W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw ” and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” as part of the ART’s Fright Night play festival.

Producer

It has long been my dream to run an agency that combines the production & distribution of documentary films and socially activist plays with the development of workshops and curricula that use audiovisual media. This idea first germinated when I was considering career options and asked myself what my ideal job was. When my keyword searches ceased to generate results, my collage mind saw the potential in such an agency, and I began developing its model and mission statement.

However, I had never produced a show or handled any business aspects of a production. As fortune would have it, Mr. O’Brien’s company, TigerMonkey Creations, needed a boost, and I had met many talented people who I believed to deserve exposure. With the help of the Alachua County Rapscallions, I organized 14 performers and 5 artists for a multimedia variety and art show, with a silent auction and raffle, to benefit TigerMonkey Creations.  Along the way, I adopted Dragon*Con’s model of providing short parody skits to entertain the audience as performers set up; to do this, I, with four other people, created SketchyYeti, an improv and sketchy comedy troupe that parodied infomercials, drug commercials, and reality shows. We also performed a couple of live skits.

The show was a relative success, although I had stretched myself too thin. The show launched SketchyYeti and gave Gainesville poet Charles Ely an opportunity to demonstrate his choreography (with yours truly). It raised about $270 for TigerMonkey Creations. I was thrilled with the outcome and realized I had successfully organized over two dozen people (including organizers and staff) to create a socially engaging multimedia event! I was a producer, and I could make the agency happen.

Costumes and Makeup

And finally, I returned to the Hippodrome for their production of Avenue Q, as wardrobe manager. Needless to say, it was an unusual experience to be dressing both puppets and humans. The show is a particularly ripe combination of satire of American society, parody of children’s edutainment, and musical delights, and was a joy to work on. The songs, however, were quite infectious.

To bring the design work full circle, I did skull makeup on the lead singer of Braineaters A-Go Go, a Misfits tribute band, for their debut performance at the 1982 Bar in Gainesville. Considering the aesthetic of Teatro de los Muertos, this seemed a good sign of things to come.