Production Blog

A behind the scenes peek at rehearsals, artistic choices, artist interviews, and the daily business of running a theatre.

The Essay That Started the Story

Read the essay that began the story behind The Lifespan of a Fact

What Happens There by John D'Agata published in The Believer Jan 1, 2010

One summer, when six­teen-year-old Levi Presley jumped from the observation deck of the 1,149-foot-high tower of the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas, the local city council was considering a bill that would temporarily ban lap dancing in the city’s strip clubs, archaeologists unearthed shards of the world’s oldest bottle of Tabasco brand sauce from beneath a parking lot, and a woman from Mississippi beat a chicken named Ginger in a thirty-five-minute-long game of tic-tac-toe.

On the day that Levi Presley died, five others died from two types of cancer, four from heart attacks, three because of strokes...

Read the essay that began the story behind The Lifespan of a Fact

 

A chat with Evan Michael Woods about art and truth

Q: There are plenty of stories that cross artistic mediums: books become television shows and movies, short stories are turned into musicals, Shakespeare gets adapted to ballet, fashion designers are inspired by visual art and architecture. But when the basis for the art is real-life, things might get a little sticky if permissions with artistic license are taken too far. To your mind, how does this play discuss the responsibility that art has to truth, when the art is directly inspired by real-life facts?

A: Art has had a complex relationship with "real-life" since inception. Henry VIII was dismayed when his "to-be" Anne of Cleaves didn't quite resemble the beautiful portrait he had been sent. Patrons of the art exhibit at The Grand Central Palace were in arms about whether Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (an ordinary urinal signed by the artist) could even be considered art. In 2019, podcasts like My Favorite Murder have to issue "corrections" every week as their fast and loose comedic style often comes at the expense of journalistic precision or even accurate pronunciation of names and places.

The Lifespan of a Fact doesn't try to resolve this complex relationship in one hour traffic on the stage. The Lifespan of a Fact allows its characters to try and paint boundaries around fact and art without giving the audience an easily packaged answer. Rather than a sermon, it's much more of a debate....a debate that includes slamming doors, traffic diagrams, and strangulation.

A moment with Director Marianne Galloway about the balance

Q: In a time when facts seem to be something you can choose believe in or not and in a time when art is, at its core, a medium for truth-telling, The Lifespan of a Fact brings up a lot of interesting notions and ideas to wrestle with. In bringing this regional premiere comedy to Stage West, how do you balance the hilarious tone of this play with the very timely conflict it’s exploring? And what do you think the play is offering us in terms of a way forward?

A: One of the many fun things about a play like Lifespan of a Fact is that it allows us to laugh as we wade into some very deep and treacherous waters: What constitutes a Fact? Does the sum of a collection of Facts equal The Truth? Is Truth is more powerful than Fact? 

What starts as a simple splash in the colorful, fun, shallow end becomes a struggle against a maelstrom.  Our very notions of “right” and “wrong” swirl in on themselves, ultimately blurring into a Gordian Knot of logical fallacies and drowning our equilibrium.

The balance in this type of play comes from the storytellers, and we are fortunate to have three magnificent actors taking us on the journey. Dana Schultes, Chris Hury, and Evan Michael Woods are masterful and nuanced in their ability to elicit laughter in one moment, then drive home a core truth in the next. They are an extraordinary ensemble.

As both a society and individuals, we live in a constant battle of Fact versus Truth in both a macro and micro sense. While current events certainly put that battle in the foreground of our collective consciousness on a daily basis, this isn’t a new struggle. What the play offers us in the way of moving forward is evident in it’s key active example: Keep listening and talking to and with one another. Acknowledge the validity and value of another’s perspective. Stay open to what you don’t understand in the hope that growth towards understanding can occur. It may not happen today, but there is hope for tomorrow.

 

A chat with Amber Flores about the character types

Q: In stories like this one, many of the characters are a “type” or variation of a stock character - the nerd, the punk, the quirky friend, the overbearing parent, the girl-next-door, etc. As actors is it important to make these “types” as three-dimensional and human as possible?
 

A: In life, it’s only to be expected that we try to categorize ourselves. Are we outgoing? Introverted? An INFJ? An enneagram type 7 wing 8? We try to make sense of who we are CONSTANTLY — sometimes to our own detriment. In First Date, I find that Casey Clark is no different. Yes, she definitely falls under the umbrella of a “stock character” and that’s an easy thing to see when reading the play, but as an actor, it’s important for me to know and explore the things that make her more than that.

When facing the task of fleshing out a “type” character, I always take a moment to acknowledge the stereotype at large. Whether that be “the nerd,””the punk,” or the “girl next door,” it is important to find your characters’ category and then proceed to point out the acting traps that inevitably come with each. In this case, playing the “jaded hot chick” comes with its own slew of traps that I must avoid in order to give her a three dimensional life on stage. For example, it may be easy to just play angry or apathetic in a moment because a character is labeled as jaded. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if that character, when everyone expected her to be angry or apathetic, surprised us all with something different? Not for the sake of shocking everyone, but because another reaction was actually truer to her inner self than to the stereotype slapped on her.

Once I’ve explored the trappings of a type, I do something that sounds a bit contradictory to the first step: I try not to think of them as their stereotype. I find that this frees me up to dive deeper into their background, releasing me from any norms that I feel obligated to play because of a stereotype. This is by far my favorite part of the process. I often feel like my character’s therapist at times as I write down my opinions about why they are the way they are and maybe even explore the reasons why they feel they can’t change. In Casey’s case, there’s a lot in the dialogue that tells you her past is cluttered with “bad boy” types who didn’t treat her well. But why can’t she break the streak and find someone who is “nice” for once? Is it because she just doesn’t like “nice guys” or is there something deeper there? It’s questions like these that lead me to examine a character’s relationships. As we all know, a person’s life, and the lens through which they view that life is greatly informed by the relationships — good or bad— that surround them. These can be romantic, platonic, or familial. I tend to explore all three types. This has allowed me the opportunity to find some of my characters’ triggers. These don’t always have to be negative, they can also be very positive and even surprising if your character isn’t aware of their own trigger points.

Q: This leads me to another question that I find is important to ask of your character: Are they AWARE of themselves and their issues/shortcomings?

The answer to this question can be a very crucial determining factor in how a character is played. Casey is VERY aware of herself and her issues. She doesn’t need anyone pointing them out to her because she is constantly examining her shortcomings. So this leads me to dive even deeper into what Casey thinks about herself and what behaviors manifest in her life because of this self opinion. Ultimately, I know I’m getting close to fully realizing a character when I start to manifest physical behaviors that are contrary to my own. This happens late in the process for me and relatively unconsciously. I find it to be one of the most rewarding things as an actor, because it shows me that my character is thinking, breathing and reacting.

It seems that each question begets another question in this process of character evaluation. An endless psychological playground awaits anyone who is willing to put in the time and effort to go there.I guess when it’s all said and done, a stereotyped character shouldn’t be treated any differently than one that appears super complex. Because deep down every character has some sort of issue that needs to be examined, wants to be listened to, and quirks that long to be found. I know, I know, it sounds super complicated and layered, but that’s only because that’s how actual humans are, and characters — even the typed ones— are no different.

A moment with Director Harry Parker about the genre

Q: It is fact universally acknowledged that rom-coms are here to stay - it is a genre that has been around for decades. Audiences love this charming and relatable type of story - the meet-cute, the butterflies, the goodnight kiss. What do you think keeps this genre so prominent?

A: Romantic comedies are indeed one of the most popular and prolific story structures in theatre, film, and television, and it’s pretty simple to figure out why this is so.  Romance and laughter are two of the most life-affirming experiences the human condition has to offer.  Our own lives may or may not include a significant other, and they may or may not contain plenty of hilarity, but while watching a romantic comedy for a couple of hours we can enjoy the work of storytellers who have manipulated the fictive universe in such a way so as to remind us that the good feelings created by loving and laughing are extremely helpful in living a rich and satisfying life.

First Date is a unique and clever variation on the RomCom theme, because while it uses the tried-and-true device of a blind date which starts pretty badly, its convention of using the “others” in attendance at the restaurant where the date is occurring (the waiter and other dinner patrons) as the voices in the heads of our protagonists, is original and alternately hilarious and moving.  All of us carry around these invisible commentators in our head, but rarely have they been so effectively dramatized as they are in First Date.

This particular production of First Date has been a special pleasure to help create because of the powerful alchemy of working with Theatre TCU faculty and students, along with some of the finest theatre professionals in DFW.  It’s been exciting to see new professional friendships and camaraderie develop, and to watch those collaborations bear fruit on stage as we’ve rehearsed and polished the show.  It’s our sincere hope that audiences will have at least as much at First Date as we have had in working on it.

This musical had a modest Broadway run in 2013, with Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez as Aaron and Casey.  Subsequent professional productions have been mounted in Japan, Argentina and Australia – a testimony to the universality of this kind of story: two hopeful romantics who yearn for a satisfying relationship but are hemmed in by extremely identifiable hang-ups: a fear of vulnerability and  commitment, and the lingering wounds of failed romances in their past. If First Date has a familiar and comfortable story arc (and it does), there’s no need to apologize for an evening that deals honestly with common human frailties, and does so in such a lively and entertaining way.  On the contrary, those are theatrical treats worth celebrating, so… Hooray for Romantic Comedies!  Hooray for Musical Theatre!  And Hooray for Stage West and Theatre TCU!

A moment with Director Carson McCain about the movement in LUNGS

Q:  This story is one that moves through time in an interesting way, with specific rhythms. Early on, you’d mentioned that you see the play in your mind’s eye as a dance. Can you talk a little bit about your vision?

A: The playwright, Duncan Macmillan, has a note on the first page of the script that has made this play the most challenging piece I’ve ever directed. He mandates that the play be performed with no set, no props, no mime and no lighting or sound that suggests space and time. He strips away everything except the actor’s bodies in space. There are no activities I can give them to help them know what to do with their hands. There aren’t even any chairs I can sit them in. It is two human beings tasked with creating not only their characters, but also these characters’ entire world. I have held tight to the vision of this play as a dance, not because we are pirouetting and box stepping, but because the movement doesn’t have to be literal. We cannot drink gin, because there are no cups. We cannot drive a car, or show you what the inside of IKEA looks like. We can only use their bodies, their movement to convey the truth of their relationship. Sometimes that looks like an actual tug-of-war game, because that’s how big the argument feels. Sometimes this looks like walking in a maze because that’s the visual representation of what’s happening in the character’s mind. And sometimes these two people stand next to each other and don’t look in each other’s eyes because it’s too painful. As challenging as it is to strip away all of the usual theatrical elements, it’s also freeing. Because we didn’t have those cups, that car, we weren’t beholden to using them. We could do truly anything we wanted to do. And so we have.

I hope that audiences watch this play and think about how our lives are often like a dance. We move through space in a particular way to communicate who we are or what we’re about. We breathe differently in different spaces, with different intentions, just as these characters do. Sometimes we feel like we’re walking on a tightrope, trying not to offend someone. Sometimes just making it through a conversation feels like an athletic feat. I believe our ‘dance’ has gotten us closer to the truth of these characters’ experience, and I hope the audience can see a bit of their own truth as well.

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A chat with actor Dani Nelson about the chemistry in LUNGS

Q: This script is quite demanding - it requires precision, levity, and gravitas, among many other “asks” of its two performers, not the least of which is creating an intimate relationship with your fellow actor/actress. How do you go about building these kinds of relationships in the rehearsal process - what tools do you use to create trust and closeness with the actor/actress playing your partner?

A: Coming into this process, I had not met Ruben in person. And Lungs, as a play, is so reliant on the connection between the actors themselves. I think for me, that chemistry comes from being absolutely attentive on stage; really listening to your acting partner with everything at your disposal, and then responding honestly. What’s wonderful about acting is that I have this living, breathing human being in front of me who is infinitely interesting and complex. And if I have the courage to really take him in, and let myself be affected by what he’s doing, then the chemistry between us is there. I’m fortunate that Ruben in particular is an extremely talented, generous actor.

It has been an absolute joy to work on this stunning play with him, with Carson and Caroline, and the entire Stage West team.

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A moment with Director Susan Sargeant about the Holmesian legacy

Q: In Holmes and Watson, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has crafted a completely new story for the Sherlock cannon - a supposition as to what actually happened that fateful day at Reichenbach Falls between Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, and the events that followed. In working with this text and building this production, what elements have you found make a Sherlock Holmes story a Sherlock Holmes story, and why do you think that we are still so fascinated with the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson today?

A: A Sherlock Holmes story is an elaborate game framed around the solving of a mystery. Jeffrey Hatcher, the playwright of Holmes and Watson, is well acquainted with the canon of short stories and novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Jeffrey Hatcher has created an elaborate Sherlockian game that gives his play all the key ingredients of a great Sherlock Holmes story: intrigue, mystery, suspense, plot twists and turns, wit and intelligence. The paramount ingredient in any Sherlock Holmes adventure, is the unrelenting desire of Sherlock Holmes along with his friend and colleague, Dr. John Watson, to solve the crime and unearth the truth.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote great stories and was able to capture magic on the page with the relationship of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. Some say, the friendship of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson is the greatest male friendship ever penned in literature. This is the heart of what continues to resonate and captivate us today and onward to future generations.

A chat with Ashley Wood about the thriller genre

Q: As in every Sherlock Holmes story, mystery and intrigue abound, and things might not always be as they seem. As an actor, what are the differences and/or similarities in your approach when you are acting in a suspenseful thriller like this versus another genre, like a kitchen sink drama or a farce? How does being in a mystery (as opposed to another genre) affect or inform your process as an actor?

One of the main differences in approaching a mystery is how we handle the presentation and processing of information. As an ensemble, we’re layering a lot of story elements. For these elements to emerge cohesively for the audience, they must each be presented precisely. While that’s always true in theatre, no matter the genre, it’s heightened in a mystery. We’re laying out puzzle pieces for the audience and for ourselves. Every word that’s said, everything that happens…it’s almost all italicized to some degree. This presents a few challenges, one of which is negotiating those degrees so the experience doesn’t all sound and feel like the same note being played over and over. All of this careful laying out of the puzzle still has to come from a very human place for it to be engaging. But it sure is fun to tackle!

Read 'The Final Problem' by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Read Conan Doyle's "The Final Problem"

Read The Final Problem by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Final Problem sets the scene for where we find ourselves at the beginning of Holmes & Watson. It is by no means necessary to read this prior to seeing the play, except for your own enhanced enjoyment. 

"It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts by which my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes was distinguished. In an incoherent and, as I deeply feel, an entirely inadequate fashion, I have endeavored to give some account of my strange experiences in his company from the chance which first brought us together at the period of the “Study in Scarlet,” up to the time of his interference in the matter of the “Naval Treaty”—an interference which had the unquestionable effect of preventing a serious international complication. It was my intention to have stopped there, and to have said nothing of that event which has created a void in my life which the lapse of two years has done little to fill. My hand has been forced, however, by the recent letters in which Colonel James Moriarty defends the memory of his brother, and I have no choice but to lay the facts before the public exactly as they occurred. I alone know the absolute truth of the matter, and I am satisfied that the time has come when no good purpose is to be served by its suppression. As far as I know, there have been only three accounts in the public press: that in the 'Journal de Geneve' on May 6th, 1891, the Reuter’s despatch in the English papers on May 7th, and finally the recent letters to which I have alluded. Of these the first and second were extremely condensed, while the last is, as I shall now show, an absolute perversion of the facts. It lies with me to tell for the first time what really took place between Professor Moriarty and Mr. Sherlock Holmes."  

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