Young Man From Atlanta: Reflections on Time Period & Race

by Eva Abram

Young Man From Atlanta Cast Member (Etta Doris Menifree)

Eva Abram as Etta Doris Menifree (Photo by Armen Stein)

Preparing for the role of Etta Doris took me on a journey back into our nation’s history – 1950’s in the south.  It was a time when Negroes were restricted to the amount of schooling one could get and the types of jobs available to them.  They cooked meals to nourish their employers while at the same time providing their own families with less nourishing meals and less “quality” time.  Somehow they managed to keep their dignity and remain hopeful.  I was reminded of the resilience of my ancestors and of the strength it took just to survive the daily assaults and insults on their humanity.  This knowledge I built into the character of Etta Doris.  How did she feel about the mistreatment?  How did she cope with it?  And what of her own family?

Etta Doris, a woman who suffered the laws of Jim Crow on a daily basis, had to be portrayed without bitterness and with the dignity and the love she presented to those around her.  Knowing what I do of American historic events regarding race that has happened since Etta Doris’ time, such as the Civil Rights struggle, I too have reasons to be resentful.  Making the transformation back to her time required that I be careful to avoid anger that could arise given those circumstances.  I also worked with the intention of portraying my character with a depth of integrity, dignity and truth, which she deserves.

Upon visiting Lily Dale, Etta Doris realizes how they have prospered and how she and others like her have not prospered.  This is yet another reason for her to be bitter, a reminder of how things stand between the races.  As stated, Etta Doris has been able to acknowledge the disparities and move on making the best of her life.  She quickly gets to the reason for her visit – to give condolence to a grieving family whom she cared for so long ago.

As Etta Doris, one of my objectives was to remind the family of their son’s humanity.  In preparing for my role I thought about the many inhumane things occurring in the world today and in the past – wars, conflicts, assaults on sexuality, racism – things that allow us to treat people as “other,” to wipe away their humanness.  I considered different sides of the problems, which allowed me to delve deeper into the emotions we experience when faced with issues that challenge our beliefs and upbringing.  Given all the circumstances, ultimately Etta Doris chooses face the issues with kindness, which is also the choice I had to make.

Foote’s play reminds us that families dealing with the tragedy of the death (suicide) of a child suffer immensely, whether the unspeakable happened today or in the 1950’s.  The difference today is in how they deal with the fact of their child’s sexuality.  In 1950, Will and Lily Dale just couldn’t face it.  Today, we are more open in our society and can face it differently if we choose to do so.

The play doesn’t say how Etta Doris feels about homosexuality or what she thinks.  It doesn’t say exactly what was stated in the newspaper article she read about the circumstances of Bill’s death.  But surely she has heard the rumors about Bill’s death being a suicide.  Yet it seems none of this matters to her.  What does matter is that she remembers the loving human being she knew and she makes considerable effort to get to the home of Will and Lily Dale to remind them of the jewel of a son they had.

She reminds the family that no matter what the gossips say, their son was sweet and loving.  She confirms that he continued in that way in spite of whatever tribulations he faced in his adult life.  He stayed true to his sweet, kind, loving nature which they nurtured in him.  She seems to be telling Will to remember him that way.

Etta Doris also reminds us all to focus on the beauty of people we encounter throughout our lives.  A lesson I hope to practice on a daily basis.

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Eva Abram is a Seattle-based actor whose previous stage appearances include Attic Theatre, To Kill A Mockingbird; Lakewood Playhouse, A Raisin in the Sun; the Odd Duck’s Fourplay, and Julius Caesar at Freehold Theatre.

The Young Man from Atlanta runs at Stone Soup Theatre’s DownStage through March 10. Tickets can be purchased at GoldStar and Brown Paper Tickets online, or via telephone at 206.633.1883.

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Double (XX) Fest: Give A Girl A Chance

by Britain Valenti
Double (XX) Fest 2.0 Playwright
          I have always been a fan of Sam Shepard. By proxy, I have always been a fan of David Mamet. Basically, I have basically been a fan of most major masculine playwrights. After all, everybody reads Our Town, Death of a Salesman and Shakespeare (though I don’t particularly see him writing “masculinely” as much as “women aren’t much allowed onstage are they?). More recently, most Neil LaBute and Martin McDonagh steal stages across America. They’re not strictly “masculine” because they use a lot of curse words (a lot) or violence (a lot) onstage to offend our delicate sensibilities, it is because in most of their given shows, the best lines, most complex words go to the men, while women are portrayed…haphazardly. And, until recent years, I was a perpetrator of the same crime.
          I, inspired mostly by my above heroes, always sought to write the most masculine of plays – often failed, but seeking nonetheless. At the same time, I lamented the lack of roles onstage, real gritty roles of complexity or cursing and violence (a lot). Finally, after a few years of auditioning as “the girlfriend”, “the mother” or “the b*tch”, I got the dawning realization: Why am I cutting out my own tongue? (To reference that cool dude Shakespeare).
         Eisa Davis was a recent recipient of the “Ruby Prize”, an award granted by the Southern Repretory Theatre in New Orleans. While speaking on women’s roles in theatre, she mentioned how there are so few female playwrights being actively produced today one cannot even split up the amount into “female playwrights of color” and “white, American female playwrights”. We are ALL in the minority. At the most recent Tony awards, NO best-play nominee was written by a woman, and seldom is – at least by comparison to male writers. (We didn’t even get into the Best Revival of A Play category).
          Beyond Sarah RuhlPaula Vogel and Sarah Kane (unfortunately deceased…like Shakespeare), most theatre kids are probably going to have Tom Stoppard and Tony Kushner in their hands before they get any female playwright anthology. And, while all have female characters, the women are usually on average, outnumbered 2:1 (at best) onstage. A rule of thumb is: For every one woman you put on stage, there MUST be two men to fight over her. (In many cases three, because she needs a gay best friend.)
          So what is this blog entry? It’s not a plea for more women to rise up and start writing more – believe me, artists like Young Jean Lee and Katori Hall are consistently working below the fame radar. I know you girls are writing. This is more a plea to theatres to start or continue in the work of Stone Soup’s Double (XX) Fest. If every theatre in the country commited to doing one mainstage show by a (preferably current) female playwright, well, there’d be lot more stages to go around. And, hopefully a lot more insightful roles.
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Britain Valenti is one of the selected playwrights for Stone Soup’s Double (XX) Fest 2.0 – her play, Champagne, directed by Rebecca Parker-O’Neil, runs during the 2nd week, April 26-29, 2012.

The Festival, created to exclusively showcase the work of female writers and directors, runs for three weekends from April 19-May 6 and includes A Night of Cabaret/Acts, A Night of Spoken Word, A night of Solo Performance and The 24-Hour All-female Playfest 2.0, in addition to pre-festival readings scheduled in local, neighborhood establishments and two weekends of fully-staged short plays. More info can be found on the SST website.

 

Young Man From Atlanta: There are no small parts…

by Carolynne Wilcox

Don't blink or you'll miss the pretty green dress! (Photo by Armen Stein)

So, I play Will Kidder’s secretary “Miss Lacey” in scene 1. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss me. The copious amount of time I sit around and wait during the show’s run each night makes me realize it’s actually been quite a long time since I’ve had a truly miniscule part in a play. Meaning less than a minute of stage time total.

My inaugural role back in Jr. High, when the theatre bug first bit was such a part – I had lost out to Laura Culberson the role of Dagmar in I Remember Mama (John Van Druten) after a series of callbacks (3!) where the director couldn’t make up her mind. Finally she had 3 other teachers come in, watch and vote. I got 1 vote, Laura got two. As a consolation, the director created a small, one-line walk-on role for me in the second act: “Hotel Guest Child”.

The next weensy role was my 1st year at Colorado State University in Brecht’s Mother Courage, when I played “Scene 8 Woman”. I got to wear old-age makeup and collapse from hunger after saying my one line(which I still remember), in a German accent no less. It was an important role for me at that point in my college career, however, as I got to meet and bond with other folks in the theatre department that I wouldn’t have otherwise met. I ended up winning a department award for that role – can’t remember award’s title, but it had something to do with fulfilling your tiny duties and having a good attitude about them.

Other smallish roles occurred, even several without any lines but way more stage time and movement. A non-speaking fairy in  A Midsummer Night’s Dream in high school; a non-speaking attendant in Antigone after transferring to a different college…and several small roles in Romeo and Juliet several years ago at Driftwood Players in Edmonds. I took up crossword puzzles during this run; for YMA I’m writing blog entries and watching the latest episodes of Top Chef on my iPod!

Since 2002, I have 35 more shows under my belt nearly all either leading or meatily supporting. And here we are at the Young Man From Atlanta with a five-line role and the aforementioned free time! I likely won’t accept this type of role again, not because I need to be a BIG STAR with LOTS OF STAGE TIME, but mainly because I love acting…I love to inhabit a character, and doing it for less than a minute always leaves me wanting to more acting, more character, and envious of my castmates who get that.

The director (Maureen Hawkins) warned it’d be “thankless”, but I wanted to work with her. And also, I DO still get to be part of this ensemble. I still get to speak some Horton Foote, however little and be in a Pulitzer Prizewinning piece of dramatic literature. I get to wear a pretty green dress, eat potato chips with the girls in the dressing room and laugh at Matthew (Gilbert) and Zach’s (Robinson) coveralls at the end of Scene 1. There is still a very intricate set of rituals attached specifically to this show that I get to enact. Theatre is all about the “get to’s”, since it is not very often about lots of financial compensation, and the “get to’s” on this show work for me!

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The Young Man From Atlanta runs through Saturday, March 10. Tickets can be purchased by phone at 206.633.1883 or online at BPT or GoldStar. More information can be found on Stone Soup’s website.

 

Double (XX) Fest: Writing About PTSD

It’s Not Really Suicide, Is It?

February 21, 2012 by Persephone Vandegrift

Double (XX) Fest 2.0 playwright and frequent Stone Soup Collaborator

PTSD. Post traumatic stress disorder. Long name for a silent killer. There are so many different ways PTSD surfaces and it isn’t always obvious. Many forms of PTSD can lay dormant for years – all it takes is a trigger, a scent, sound, taste. But PTSD brought on by war is one of the most devastating. The heartbreaking rate of suicide amongst war veterans is rising, and so is the criticism. Despite what we believe about suicide, whether we are religious or not, unless you are a veteran, none of us are walking a mile, or even a minute, in their shoes.

Most of you don’t know me from any other writer. I am not here to support or to rally against suicide. When I set out to write a short script or play, I never know exactly what the subject matter is going to be until it hits me over the head.

And how it presented me in this short play was via the supernatural. “Okkkkay”, I said to my muse, “let me have it.” (I know better than to argue with my muse) A ghost story – on the stage…how hard can it be?

I didn’t set out to ‘choose’ PTSD, war & suicide; it chose me. Yes, it is as simple as putting a pair of socks on, although it may take a couple weeks before the sock (subject matter) actually ‘gets out’ of (the muse’s head) drawer (into my head) and then onto my foot (page). And it was not long after I got sock #1 on that I decided…my main character, Brian (a decorated war veteran), decided that he would be the one suffering from PTSD.

And thus began the roller coaster writing ride.

For many years, PTSD, like domestic violence, was hush-hush. But because more people have stepped out of their comfort zones and talked and written about it, it has made society stand up and take notice. Whether you suffer PTSD from a car accident, witnessing a crime or victim of a crime, or you witnessed abuse or have been abused; PTSD is a world-wide epidemic. And the devastating fact is that more and more of our war veterans are losing their lives to it.

Tossing something as extensive as PTSD onto the stage in a short format…was I crazy??? How could I make it work? How could I do this subject matter justice without sounding judgmental or pontificating without any foundation?

I had many versions of the play, and readings, and for a while, it felt like I was chasing it around and around. I honestly couldn’t ‘define’ it. That was until I let go of my insecurities and just simply allowed my characters to react to the situation I put them in. There were many, many challenges, but my priority was to not stereotype Brian’s struggle with PTSD. Many doctors dismiss PTSD leaving soldiers to try and struggle on their own or with their family’s help. The strain it puts on relationships – platonic and intimate is immeasurable. War changes us – whether witness or participant. We may not process our experiences with it until years later. That is why it is so difficult to catch PTSD in time, you can’t do blood tests for it. It is a silent killer eating away at the psyches of our bravest.

I don’t know everything there is to know about PTSD. The easiest way I could approach it for It’s Not Really Suicide, Is It? was to start at the end – or the aftermath, more appropriately. Brian is home between tours. He’s been suffering for some time – mostly in silence. His family has, in the past, staged intervention but without proper training, the interventions fall flat leaving Brian to suffer and end up in an abyss so deep he can see no way out. There’s only so much a human being can take, and only we know what those limits are and when we have crossed them to the point of no return.

Knowing he could not face another deployment, Brian commits suicide. This is not ‘something new’.  This is the reality for thousands of soldiers. Brian’s estranged younger brother, John, is at the wake trying to piece it all together. Brian’s on/off again partner, Nicki, the one who found Brian, is also on her quest to understand Brian’s choice.

Nicki and John gave me the biggest writing challenge because given their particular relationship histories with Brian, how would they decide to navigate through their grief? Could they find a way to forgive Brian or would they let it run interference in their lives forever?

I thought many times about giving up on the play because I was worried I would not do it justice. But it was the fear of giving up on it that I kept going back to it because I felt like I was abandoning it. There were already so many veterans already abandoned and I could not bear to add my name to that list.

It’s intimidating to address it on the stage because it is an uncomfortable subject; a truly heart-wrenching subject to research and write about because we don’t want our warriors returned to us destroyed on the inside that they do not recognize themselves anymore. We hear over and over that that’s the cost of war but its commodity is souls; lost, damaged, altered and shredded. It’s a difficult path for humanity to be on.

But if we can at least try to keep the conversation open and not attach the subjective stigma of shame or judgement to those who suffer hell because of PTSD then the path to healing is made stronger. We can not control the actions of others, but we can control how we react to them, how we process them, and how we find a way to understand them.

Theatre is different things to different people. For me, it has always been THE sacred of spaces where the trials and tribulations of life can be displayed without regret. It allows me to access the divine, the tragic, the ordinary and the extraordinary. I believe theatre allows us to examine our observations, perceptions, test our beliefs and relationships without hindrance. It has the power to move us in strange and fantastic new directions.

It can make us humble and cower and yet fill us with such a sense of pride.

And so it is a perfect venue, therefore, to explore the impact war, suicide & PTSD has on humanity’s capacity for love and forgiveness. The question mark at the end of the title was an unintentional addition. If its one thing I enjoy doing, it’s to keep the audience’s journey open for interpretation.

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Persephone Vandegrift is a Seattle and East Coast-based writer, performer and producer. She was seen during last year’s Double (XX) Fest as Carrie in Hypochondria by Deborah Harbin. Her full-length adaptation, Revenge and Sorrow in Thebes (Euripides’ The Bacchae) premiered in the DownStage during July of 2009, produced by her company, Flying Elf productions. She has also done a few stints as Stone Soup House Manager!

It’s Not Really Suicide, Is It? premieres at Stone Soup’s Double (XX) Fest 2.0 May 3rd – 6th in Seattle, WA directed by Julianne Christie. The  festival itself runs April 19th-May 6th, dedicated to works written and directed by women.

For more info, check out Stone Soup Theatre’s Double (XX) Festival

Directing The Young Man From Atlanta

Maureen Hawkins, Director (Photo by Kirby Lindsay)

by Maureen Hawkins

Frequent Stone Soup collaborator and Young Man From Atlanta director

The journey to bring The Young Man From Atlanta to the Downstage Theater began in the spring of 2011 with a cold reading by invited actors. Maureen Miko (Stone Soup Artistic Director) and I had discussed staging one of Horton Foote’s one-acts during the 2011-12 season but, having read the entirety of his short plays, I felt this Pulitzer Prizewinning play in 6 scenes would be a better choice.

After the cold reading, Maureen agreed and, a few weeks later, I was auditioning actors for the roles. I felt incredibly blessed when I was able to assemble a cast of actors whom I felt each fit their roles perfectly and who would, together, create a tight and powerful ensemble.

As I continued to do my research, including reading the Orphan’s Home Cycle (Foote’s nine play opus that follows the life of his grandfather and in which the characters of Lily Dale, Pete and Will first appear), I worried I would get a call from an actor bowing out of this production in favor of a more lucrative or bigger role. Thankfully, when rehearsals started in January, everyone was still on board.

Meanwhile, our scene designer Suzi Tucker, was creatively implementing those elements we agreed would be essential in to the production:

  1. An intimacy with the audience which would take advantage of, and be enhanced by, the proximity of actors to their audience at the Downstage. From our first meeting we agreed that we wanted the audience to feel that they were in these rooms with no “fourth wall” separating them from the actors.
  2.  A set for scenes 2-6 that would emphasize the largeness and affluent detail of the Kidder’s living room while giving it an empty, just-moved-in quality (no pictures on the wall, no knick knacks, no elements from their former homes, in effect, no memories.)
  3. A creative way to store the set pieces for scenes 2-6 onstage (since there are no wings at the Downstage) during scene 1.  And, lastly, a way to make the scene shift between scenes one and two a smooth transition that underscores the dramatic progression to the Kidder’s new home.

At the same time, Savannah Balthazar was creating historically-accurate costumes which would complement the colors in the Kidder home while allowing for some quick changes; Lindsey Morck was selecting a beautiful solo piano score to bridge the scenes acoustically; and Chris Scofield was systematically choreographing a brilliant scene shift that would not only run smoothly but would visually underscore the transition to the new locale.

In rehearsal, the actors and I met the challenges that come in a play with long monologues, lots of exposition, repetition, scenes that have elements of melodrama and farce, and the regionalisms of authentic Southern voices.

My primary goal as director was to keep us true to the playwright’s intent: to simply and sincerely tell the story of a midlife couple who are dealt crushing blows at a time when they believe the struggles in their lives are all in the past.  Like many upper middle and middle class families in the recent past, the Kidders think the good times will last forever. Will builds a big house, buys expensive furnishings, “the biggest and the best” of everything.  But hard times come to the Kidders and any upper or middle management person who found themselves jobless and overextended in the recent past can relate to Will’s shock and anxiety as he sees himself facing financial disaster.

Gordon Coffey & Maggie Heffernan as Will & Lily Dale Kidder (Photo by Armen Stein)

Will Kidder is not unlike the classic tragic hero, blind to his faults: a victim, in part, of his own hubris. What will it take for him to be humbled enough to see what is really important in life while finally coming face to face with a grief he has barely acknowledged?

The plays demands that we ask questions: Does shielding those we love from facts we know will hurt them make our relationship stronger, more loving, or does it drive a wedge in it? Will a life driven by a need to have and to be “the best” sustain us at the end of our lives? Who is sincere and who is the liar? I think these are the questions Foote wants us to think about as we leave the theatre after watching this play.  As in any true classic, universal themes are made personal.  We are human and we all struggle to cope with devastating losses at some time in our lives. Accepting our mistakes and those of the ones we love, forgiving each other and ourselves, we go on as best we can.

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Maureen Hawkins is a professional actor and director based in the Seattle area. Directing credits at Stone Soup, in addition to the above, include Durang7 and PlayFest 4. The Young Man From Atlanta runs Th-Sun through March 10. Tickets can be purchased at Brown Paper Tickets or 206.633.1883.

Young Man From Atlanta: The Making of a Living Room

by Suzi Tucker

Young Man From Atlanta Scenic Designer

Floor Plan Sketch

In The Young Man from Atlanta, Will and Lily Dale Kidder live in an expensive, newly-built home in Houston. As the scenic designer, however, I had only a small, 800 sq. ft., black-box of a theater within which to create these characters’ reality. How did I do it? First, I recognized that if we were to create one room of the house very well (we chose the living room for this), the audience would believe in the rest of the house without it having to exist. To enhance the reality of this one room, I chose to construct all 4 sides of the room, thus immersing the audience in the characters’ world. Yet I was still stuck with a small space that needed to appear larger. Toward this end, I built angled side walls (see floor plan, sketch, ABOVE), as they exaggerate the perspective and create an enhanced sense of depth.

But once I’ve built the walls, what should they look like? The year of the play is 1950, so I studied US home architectural interiors from the late 1940’s, a period of extensive, but less-ornate, trim and strong wall colors from a dark-pastel pallet. Within this look and feel, I incorporated pilasters to emphasize the verticality of the walls, chose a lightened version of a typical wall color to keep the space feeling large, and added a fireplace with mantle, trim elements, and a marble hearthstone to imply the sense of wealth appropriate to the Kidders’ living room.

Another key element in the design is the wood flooring. De rigueur for expensive residences of the time, wood flooring also served to give depth to the space and make it feel larger. This comes in part from the way that a series of thin lines emphasizes our ability to see perspective effects (that is,the width of the wood strips appear to get thinner as they get further away from you). Of course, we couldn’t buy a real wood floor, so I painted this one.

Creating the Wood Floor

To do so, I started with a base coat of light yellow ochre for warmth. Then I brushed on wood-plank-sized strips of a thin, yellow-burnt-sienna glaze coat. This glazing is done using a lining stick (see photo, LEFT) to keep the “board” edges straight and properly aligned, and it is the variation of color between “boards” achieved with this layer that makes the floor read as wood. Then, using the same glaze color, visible graining is added to a select few “boards.” Finally, a very thin burnt-umber glaze, which includes a protective varnish, is overlain in order to tie everything together and add depth and gloss. Once the walls and floor are completed, all you have to do is add period and social class appropriate furniture and voila, your theater has become the Kidders’ living room (photo below)!

Lily Dale (Maggie Heffernan) and Clara (Maria Knox) in the Kidders' Living Room

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Suzi Tucker designs and builds for theater and educational exhibits. She has contributed her talent (and elbow grease) to numerous recent productions, including Seattle Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sound Theater’s Pygmalion, Satori’s Fabulous Prizes, and Annex’s Duel of the The Linguistic Mages and frequently builds with Seattle Scenic Studios. The Young Man From Atlanta runs Feb 17-Mar 10; tickets can be purchased by calling the box office or online at Brown Paper Tickets.

Closing in on Opening Night

Clara (Maria Knox) and Lily Dale (Maggie Heffernan)

by Carolynne Wilcox

Stone Soup Theatre PR Manager and YMA Cast Member

Stone Soup first decided to include Horton Foote’s Pulitzer Prizewinner for Drama (1995), The Young Man From Atlantain our season back during the summer of 2011. We had our director, Maureen Hawkins on board, and were just coming off our season auditions. Most of the cast have known we’d be lending our acting talents since then. Chris Scofield, our production manager, set about hiring designers who then began working on set, lighting, sound and costume plans.

Rehearsals started at the beginning of January, right after the holidays, and we’ve been plugging away either with rehearsals or construction and assembly of the various other parts of the production that are necessary pieces of the whole. We’ve had a few formidable kinks, like snowstorms and actor illnesses to contend with as well as smaller foibles like having to take off our shoes so as not to damage the newly-painted floor, but through it all, we’ve stayed the course, because the show, after all, must go on

We find ourselves now in the home stretch of tech week (or “Hell Week” as it’s sometimes affectionately called) with four dress rehearsal runs before we put this show in front of an audience. Two runs tonight; two runs tomorrow night. Lines have been learned, costumes have been fitted, all the precious and important pieces

Come into our living room!

are mostly in place and now we just have to do it. Again and again and again…and then once more, with feeling.

The verdict? It’s a graceful, lovely show. It’s about real people dealing with real things. The death of a child, a difficult economy, and all those wonderful little issues in our lives we choose to remain in denial about. It’s not a histrionic show – there isn’t a lot of scenery chewing. The actors are subtle and the performances are richly nuanced. They and all the supporting elements (costumes, set, lights, sound) frame Foote’s words beautifully. There are moments that will make you roll your eyes. There are moments that will induce chuckles. And there are moments that will absolutely break your heart.

We invite you into the living room of Will and Lily Dale Kidder to laugh and cry with them as they figure out how to make lemonade out of the recent lemons life has handed them.

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The Young Man From Atlanta opens Friday, February 17th with two 8pm preview performances on Feb 15th and 16th. Running through March 10th, showtimes are 8pm Th-Sat and 4pm Sundays Feb 26th and March 4th. Tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com and a limited number of half-price tickets are available at goldstar.com.

Etta Doris looking at a photo of Bill Kidder