Angela Reed is familiar to Denver audiences from her work with the Denver Center Theatre Company. She returns to town in the national tour of War Horse, playing Denver’s Buell Theatre Jan 8-20. Angela graciously took a moment out of her hectic schedule to answer a few of our questions.
Q: Denver audiences last saw you in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s world premiere hit, The Whale, which has since been produced by Playwrights Horizons. Did you have a chance to see it in New York? What was your experience being on the other side of the curtain?
A: Unfortunately I was not able to see the show in NY because I’ve been on tour with War Horse and have not been in NY since we hit the road in May. I know that NY audiences loved it and I’m so proud to have been a part of the production in Denver. I’d love to get the opportunity to work with the playwright, Sam Hunter, again. He’s a joy to be around in and out of the rehearsal room. And all of us who worked on The Whale in Denver have remained good friends. I miss them!
Q: You have a lot of “firsts” on your resume — first national tours of War Horse and Spring Awakening plus the world premieres of The Whale and Map of Heaven and we know you’ve been a past participant in our Colorado New Play Summit. Are you particularly drawn to newer works? If so, why?
A:I’d say I probably do prefer working on new plays because I really enjoy the process of having the writer in the room and helping in some small way to develop the piece. I think it’s a luxury for an actor to be able to talk directly to the person who created the character for clarification or insight. Overall, however, I’m “drawn” to great material. And there are a lot of playwrights writing rich, complex plays today that are exciting to work on.
Q: What can you tell us about your character, Rose Narracott, in War Horse?
A:Rose is resourceful, resilient and determined to keep her family together. She loves her son, Albert, and her husband, Ted, and it devastates her to see them fighting. I think Rose has a huge heart and a good sense of humor, which probably helps her again and again in the face of adversity.
Q: Why should our typical Denver Center Theatre Company audience “cross the Galleria” to see War Horse in our Broadway house?
A:Shows like War Horse come around so rarely — if at all. It’s a theatrical experience like no other to date. The craftsmanship of the puppets, and the skill of the puppeteer, will have you believing that there are living, breathing horses on the stage before you. And the story is beautiful. Michael Morpurgo, the author of the book, has called War Horse “an anthem for peace”. What a great way to start the New Year — reinvesting in messages of hope, faith, sacrifice and love.
Q: Do you enjoy national tours? A lot of packing but a lot of sightseeing too, right?
A:I love seeing the country and getting the opportunity to explore so many cities. And because my husband, Todd Cerveris, is also in the show (playing my husband, Ted!), we get to travel together. With our dog. In a car. And this is the second time we’ve done this, having been on the road together for Spring Awakening as well. We’ve racked up thousands of miles and our dog has stayed in more hotels than the average person.
Q: It’s early in the tour, but probably not too early to be thinking about your next opportunity. Will we see you back in Denver anytime soon?
A:I still have another six months to go on the War Horse tour, so I can’t predict what will come after that. And because I really need to be in NY to audition for upcoming projects, being on the road makes getting the next job more difficult. That said, I would LOVE to come back to Denver. This marks my fourth winter in a row that I have been in Denver at some point to work. I only hope that next time I have the opportunity to be here in the spring, summer, or fall!
by Douglas Langworthy for Applause magazine
Weighing in at 600 lbs, Charlie’s health is failing fast. He refuses to go to the hospital because he has no insurance and doesn’t want to lose the substantial nest egg he has squirreled away for Ellie, his daughter, with whom he desperately wants to reconcile. But Ellie’s a bitter, angry girl who blames Charlie for abandoning the family 15 years earlier. From this fraught set of given circumstances the stakes keep getting higher in The Whale, Samuel D. Hunter’s gripping new play now playing at the Denver Center Theatre Company's Ricketson Theatre.
There is nothing faint-hearted about Hunter’s writing—his taut, deeply human dramas present sharply etched portraits of struggling individuals who often get swept along in strong cultural currents. But although issues such as international terrorism, genocide, suicide, the Rapture figure into his plays, they are never about these issues. Take Charlie, for instance. While obesity presents a major obstacle for him (he may die before making peace with his daughter), The Whale is not a power point presentation about America’s obsession with food, but rather one man’s personal struggle to find greater meaning in his life before it’s too late.
Another topic Hunter is not afraid to confront is religion, which is folded into many of his plays. In The Whale Elder Thomas, a young Mormon missionary struggling with his own troubled past, tries to share his faith with Charlie.
“Most of my plays are about seeking hope and meaning,” says Hunter, “and [religion] is the eternal well of hope and meaning for most Americans. It so shaped my childhood growing up in Idaho and going to a religious school, and so I see it in the larger cultural dialogue a lot. Mostly I write about it because people don’t seem to want to talk about it.”
When Sam graduated from his fundamentalist Christian high school, he assumed he would go to the University of Idaho like all those ancestors before him. But on a lark he sent in an application to NYU and was accepted into the playwriting program. After NYU, he went straight into a Masters program at the Iowa playwrights program and from there he entered Juilliard’s graduate playwriting program. While in Iowa he was mentored by playwright Sherry Kramer, who helped him look at plays in unconventional ways: “Sherry had a way of talking about how plays move, the way plays are organized other than plot. How plays are organized by image and metaphor—deeper organizational tools that really allowed me to start thinking about plays not as plots but as structured time.”
Certainly one of the organizing metaphors in The Whale is that of the whale itself, with its strong biblical and literary resonances. But Hunter did not start writing with that image in mind, it came to him organically. He initially included Moby Dick in the play because he needed Charlie’s students to be writing essays about a novel: “I picked Moby Dick because I like the book and the essential conflict in the novel related to the central conflict in the play—going after this thing that you can never get.”
Charlie’s job, teaching writing on-line, came in part from Hunter’s own experience. One year he found himself teaching expository writing at Rutgers in New Jersey, where he discovered that writing a good play and writing a good essay are very similar—they both need honesty and genuine thought. But the students were resistant.
“These kids couldn’t be honest,” Hunter laments. “Their main question was, ‘What do you want me to say?’ It was so deeply frustrating and deeply intriguing that they all-out refused to have a voice.” Throughout the play Charlie uses every trick in the book to get his students and even his daughter to express themselves honestly.
Hunter tends to people his plays with members of the working class—the sales clerks, nurses, on-line instructors and adjunct professors that make up the 99% of this country. There’s no social agenda here, he just finds them more representative of who we are: “I think the prevalence of upper middle class and upper class characters in our plays is surprising, especially given the fact that the majority of America is not these people. When I think about America, [working class people] are the people I think about.”
Writing without an ounce of irony or condescension, Hunter makes us feel his empathy for his characters. He has a way of unearthing their contradictions and creating individuals we at first may think we have very little in common with (the obese gay man, the religious fundamentalist blogger), until we understand them in a deeper way.
While Hunter was at NYU, he wanted to branch out academically so he minored in Middle Eastern Studies, even learning a little Arabic. Then in 2005, the first year of his Masters program in Iowa, he was offered a chance to teach a playwriting workshop in Ramallah. He eagerly seized the opportunity, later teaching in war-torn Hebron as well. “I knew the headlines of the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” Hunter says “but I had no opinions either way, and I became even less on either side after spending a couple of summers there. It was just so deeply complicated. It was terrifying and beautiful.”
As with his own writing, Hunter had to look at it all through a human lens: “So much of my experience in Palestine was not about guns and bombs, it was about learning to live with guns and bombs. How people go to the supermarket even though the checkpoints are closed and there’s gunfire going on.”
At the end of one of Sam’s plays you come away with the feeling you’ve just witnessed something profound. Whether you’ve just seen a wife mourning the loss of her husband or a father trying to reconnect with his estranged child, you’ve had a rare chance to set aside surface impressions and walk in someone else’s shoes. And although the play may have its sad, even tragic side, there is always the counterweight of compassion and hope. Deeply complicated. Terrible and beautiful indeed.
Douglas Langworthy is the Literary Manager of the Denver Center Theatre Company
Hal Brooks has a highly diverse list of directing credits. Most recently, he staged Will Eno’s Off-Broadway Pulitzer finalist THOM PAIN (based on nothing) at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, at the Soho Theatre in London, and at the DR2 in NYC. The Whale, a new play written by Idaho native Samuel Hunter and developed at the Colorado New Play Summit in February 2011, presented some major production challenges for the director, many of which Prologue won’t reveal—to avoid spoilers. Brooks and Hunter were introduced to each other by their respective agents and have spent hours on the phone, by e-mail, and in person at New York casting sessions for The Whale, preparing for the play’s Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) premiere. We recently chatted with Brooks to get some insight into his working process, his collaboration with Hunter, and his thoughts on his first DCTC project.
DCPA: You’ve been associated with particular playwrights, such as Nilaja Sun, Don DeLillo and others, but you’ve also free-lanced a good deal. You seem to specialize in staging new and challenging work. How do you pick your projects?
HB: When I did Delillo’s Valparaiso a few years back, we had a nice [New York] Times review and I got a lot of meetings out of it. Tim Sanford [Artistic Director of Playwrights Horizons] advised me to “find my writer.” And then I met Will Eno and I felt I had found my writer. But truly, as much as I would work with Will anywhere, anytime, realistically I need to keep working when I cannot direct his work—so I’ve modified Tim’s advice to read “find your writers,” plural. I’m always on the lookout for new voices. I’m constantly reading new plays, meeting writers. My agent, Val Day, does a great job of introducing me to new writers too. She was instrumental in putting me together with Sam Hunter for DCTC’s premiere of The Whale. I’m really excited about this project. I think Sam Hunter has become one of my writers.
DCPA: I’m sure each project has its own unique requirements—do you have an overall approach to directing?
HB: I always think the job of a director is twofold: honor the intent of the playwright, and tell a good story—or tell the story well. So in that sense the job remains the same. I’ve directed a play with a cast of thousands and budget of hundreds—but no matter the play or the budget, the need is to tell the story in the best way we can, with the resources we have. And The Whale presents huge challenges: how to tell this difficult story, full of anguish and pain and humor and humanity, to a new audience every night? How can the actors, with my help, find a way to make their characters real for themselves? Accessible to the audience? How to make the story matter?
DCPA: Can you tell me something about your working process with Sam Hunter?
HB: Sam and I get along very well—I’m experienced with developing and directing new work, and Sam is an exciting young writer who loves to keep working on his plays—modifying the script to accommodate actors and production needs. Sam is enjoying considerable success of late—his play A Bright New Boise has gotten fantastic reviews in both New York and Washington D.C., but his focus remains on the work. So—we do well together, since we both like to keep developing and refining the script.
DCPA: You two auditioned actors for The Whale in New York recently—did you see eye-to-eye on the actors who came in to read?
HB: We did! We saw some great people out there, and were pleased that we were able to get the cast we wanted. The central role of Charlie is especially challenging, and we were very lucky to find the right actor. We both knew who we wanted the minute he came in the door.
DCPA: In addition to last season’s Summit workshop of The Whale, the play had a reading last summer at Icicle Creek in Washington state—outside of the Denver Center process. Did Sam do any major rewrites as a result?
HB: Sam is always rewriting, based on what he sees in a reading or rehearsal—he’s always looking to focus the work, the characters. One thing that came out of the Icicle Creek reading was that he decided that he needed to put the kitchen of the lead character Charlie’s apartment onstage, for dramatic reasons. Originally the set was confined to Charlie’s living-room. This makes for some challenges for the set designer, but it helps move the play forward in an important way.
DCPA: Sam has set The Whale, like some of his other plays, in his native Boise, Idaho. His characters are mostly everyday people, in a generally conservative, small town environment. How does he find drama in what might seem overly familiar and in conventional settings?
HB: Part of Sam’s genius is to take these people and put them into extreme situations. He finds deep, universal themes that run through their lives—he avoids melodrama, though the play might be considered to be “kitchen-sink realism.” He also looks to tell the truth in ways that some audiences may find tough. And like any good playwright, he has a knack for finding interesting character relationships even in familiar settings. Sam never condescends to his characters—he clearly loves and embraces the people and their milieu. He knows them so well.
DCPA: The actors have to portray people who might not be terribly sophisticated and yet need to resonate as larger than life in some ways. There also are some big literary themes—the Book of Job, Melville’s Moby Dick—as well as discussions of organized religion. Will you look for ways to bring out these ideas?
HB: No. My job as I see it is to tell the story, let the characters and the audience find their own way to the heart of the play, which has plenty to say. Think of [Arthur] Miller’s Death Of A Salesman—those characters are garden-variety middle-class working folks—and yet their story has been told and retold, and has moved audiences, for decades. The Whale involves an outsider, a working man in extremis, trying desperately to reconnect to his angry, estranged teenage daughter, hoping he can help her, against her will, to a better life.
He’s surrounded by controlling people with their own motives. His journey is to get past the others and through to the girl while there’s time. The story might sound familiar, but the play has such richness and depth. My job in part is to help the actors find the connections with each other and with the story. Sam is a really strong writer, and I think The Whale is his most mature work. I’m really enjoying working on this project and being able to be part of Sam’s next step in his professional life as a playwright. I think Denver Center audiences will really embrace this play.
This article originally appeared in PROLOGUE, the Denver Center Theatre Company subscriber newsletter.