Trying something new this week -- it's an interview! A first here at A Year of Plays and I'm excited about it. Bryan Close is the artistic director of Occam Rep, which is presenting three short plays from Suburban Motel by George F. Walker at SLC Center in NYC, now through December 17th. Seeing as I'm getting more and more interested in the dynamics of producing theater, as well as this phenomenon of artists taking their careers into their own hands, I thought Bryan -- who is actor-director-producer in some combination for each of these three shows -- would be a perfect subject for a little picking of the brain. And as an increasingly hyphenating theater professional myself, I'm drawn to the idea of hosting a space where fellow theater-preneurs can share their experiences and discuss their projects. As with all efforts on this blog, it's a experiment. You'll have to let me know how it turns out.
I sat down with Bryan virtually. Presumably in our two respective living rooms.
Hey, Bryan, congratulations on opening your show! How did the first weekend go?
Hey Anna. So far so good, thanks! Two of the plays opened last night – including Featuring Loretta, which I directed – and they went great. I’m so happy with my cast.
The very first scene I ever did in an acting class was from Beautiful City – I think I played a ball-busting lady detective – so when you first mentioned Suburban Motel to me, I had an idea of what to expect. Yet I'd venture to say that most Americans haven't heard of George F. Walker. How would you describe Walker's work, and more specifically, these plays?
Walker’s work is incredibly funny and dark and ballsy and strange… I’ve been comparing him to early Shanley or early Shepard crossed with Tarantino. But really, he’s sui generis – there’s no one quite like him. I met a Canadian actress at a bar last night who told me Walker drove a cab in Toronto for years, which I totally get. He has such an incredible comfort level with all sorts of dangerous, marginal people that most of us wouldn’t feel comfortable getting too close to. Unless you’re an actor, of course. These characters are actor crack.
You’re pulling off a bit of a trifecta here – producing all three plays, acting in one, and directing in another. How has that experience been?
Overwhelming. Humbling. Euphoric. Eviscerating… I don’t know. It’s a little like asking a teenager how adolescence is going. I’m way too immersed in it to see it clearly. Ask me again after it’s been over for a while.
Do the plays take on different shapes depending on which hat you’re wearing?
Oh, sure. A director has to see a play in a very different way than an actor does. But the plays are also inherently different from each other. Featuring Loretta (director/producer) and Risk Everything (just producer), the two that have opened are extreme comedies with a lot of dark stuff mixed in. Adult Entertainment (actor/producer) on the other hand is a seriously disturbing drama with comic and noir-ish undertones. Acting in that is another world from directing Loretta.
It’s also harder to be a producer when you’re acting than when you’re directing. A director has a big-picture view, which connects pretty directly to getting the thing done, you know? Acting is totally different. You’ve got to be advocating for your character – often at the expense of the other actors’ characters. So it’s less psychologically consistent with producing. Fortunately I have an excellent producing partner, Shawn Rozsa, who is also directing both Adult Entertainment and Risk Everthing. And we have some other great support people as well.
Considering that these plays presumably exist in a consistent world, did your work as director on one play influence your approach as actor on the other? Or did you find it best to just keep those experiences completely separate?
They’re consistent but not the same. Suburban Motel is a collection of six fully independent plays (we’re producing three of them) that happen to take place in the same cheap motel room. They are all hilarious, brilliant, psychologically rich and wonderfully theatrical. But no two are any of those things in the same proportions. Directing Loretta has no doubt helped me act in Adult, but not in any conscious, articulateable way.
Okay, this part I’m gonna have trouble articulating, but here goes. When I think of these plays – having only read two of them, once – one theme that comes to mind is what I’ll lamely call “Men and Women.” The men seem to be clearly of a group, and the women of another clearly separate group. It’s not that Walker generalizes the sexes – indeed there are a variety of characters represented in both groups – but that he seems to truly delineate between the two. And the character’s sex seems to be central to who that character feels himself or herself to be. Furthermore, my recollection is that whenever man and woman come into contact in these plays, there’s this … I don’t know, a frisson. A charge. Like playing with the different ends of magnets, attracting and repulsing each other. I suppose I would throw all this in contrast to a playwright who writes a bunch of characters, and some of them happen to be men, some happen to be women, and the charge of their interactions – even their sexual interactions – has more to do with personality or background or point of view. So, does any of this ring true to you? And if so, would you have anything to add, or to contradict?
Yes and no… I mean, in a way, yes, definitely: there’s a lot of sex and violence and it’s all right out there. But the sex and violence are just two parts of the cocktail of extreme circumstances he puts these complex human beings into to push them past their normal limits.
And again, it’s so different from play to play. Featuring Loretta (which I know is one of the ones you read), is really fundamentally about a woman being objectified by the men in her life (in hilarious and disturbing ways), who is forced to grow up and take control of the decisions she’s going to make about her own body. It’s about the way these predatory men interact with this smart but troubled young woman, and the way she behaves in response or opposition to that. So it’s overtly sexual in that way. But there is also a wonderful relationship between the two female characters, and that’s actually the central relationship of the play. Ultimately, even though it’s a comedy about making porn, it’s very much feminist work. I would argue that with anybody.
Adult Entertainment has two extraordinary male-female relationships, one of which is dangerous to the point of being psychotic. But the other one, which I would argue is the central story, is a true love relationship. Complex and flawed, sure, but deep and real all the same. Adult Entertainment also has a male/male relationship straight out of Shepard. Or even Pinter.
Finally, Risk Everything. It’s central relationship is generational, between a gambling-addicted mother and her daughter, a former junkie prostitute. Also, there’s the daughter’s husband – another uniquely rich relationship – and the cheesy dude mom’s banging, and stolen money, murderous gangsters and dynamite… But at the core is a troubled young woman who’s forced to take care of her even more troubled mother.
What was the most challenging aspect of presenting these plays, from either an artistic or practical point of view?
Practically, everything. Every single thing has been tougher than I imagined.
Artistically, though, it’s been mostly great. The toughest thing artistically was probably casting. Nearly 1400 actors submitted for our little project. That’s just an overwhelming amount of human energy and talent to try to deal with. In the end though, we wound up with some truly wonderful actors – speaking as the director of Featuring Loretta, I’ve never worked with a better a cast: the gorgeous Jennifer McPherson, the brilliant Brian Lafontaine (who I first acted with 16 years ago in Charlotte, NC), and Scott Kerns and Merissa Morin, both of whom are on their way to being big stars – all professionals who make their living acting, but who were willing to work their asses off for me for nothing. I’m a little in awe of their collective talent. And the phenomenal actors I get to work with in Adult Entertainment – Paul Michael Valley, Jennifer McCabe and Marguerite Stimpson – it’s a dream to work on material this rich with actors of this caliber. I am very, very grateful.
What was the most motivating aspect?
Let me play the Lion too!
Ha! Nice. These plays are the debut productions of your new theater company, Occam Rep. What’s your vision for Occam Rep’s future?
There’s been talk about doing the other three plays in the series: Problem Child, Criminal Genius and The End of Civilization. Whatever it is, though, it’s going to be repertory. I’m committed to that.
Thanks for letting me babble about all this stuff… It’s always fun - and, as you know – challenging - to try to write coherently about an artform that’s so inherently visceral and ephemeral. A play is something you can only learn so much about but writing or reading or talking or listening. You’ve got to be in the room with it. And these three plays, and this great writer, have given me such a great room to be in. Can’t wait for you to see them!
Me neither! I’m going next weekend. It's gonna be great to see this project come full circle. Thanks for your time, Bryan -- and for being the interview guinea pig at A Year of Plays!