A New Season, a New Play

By on 2 February, 2015 in Greg Thornton with 0 Comments

“There are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion…” -A. Bartlett Giamatti

PASTIME House  Photo Vintage January 5 2015 James Design

Our Page-To–Stage Series began two years ago and since then, we have received quite a number of new plays from all over the country. All of the scripts that are submitted are read by our New Play Committee in a “blind reading.” In other words, the playwright’s name and any additional biographical information are removed from each submitted script. The committee literally has no idea where the plays originate. The committee chooses one as the winner of the Playhouse Page-To-Stage Playwriting Contest. The Playhouse provides a staged reading for the winner. These readings are opportunities for our audience to comment and give feedback to the playwright. It is within this context that a play can either move forward to a full production or the playwright may take what the reading process has presented and return to the “drawing board” to revise.

Pastime, which opens the 2015 Playhouse season, was submitted to the Page-To-Stage Series under a pseudonym even before any “blind reading” took place. It was this writer’s fervent hope that it would be considered on its own merits and rise or fall as the committee saw fit. When the play was chosen, it was up to me to let the curtain fall, so to speak, but I decided to wait until after the staged reading to step forward and put my name on it. The actors, of course, knew from the first day of work on this new script, but our audience found out at the end of the staged reading. I was gratified by the enthusiastic response the play received that evening. Our full Artistic Committee decided to put Pastime on for the 2015 Season, with its premiere opening on Thursday, February 12. Work on a new play is always invigorating, always challenging, and often, if you are lucky, revelatory. The words on the page finally have a face, a voice and a personality behind them. Actors breathe life into what were once just words on a page, living within the writer’s cocooned imagination.

Pastime is set in the late 1980′s in a large middle-class, suburban/metropolitan neighborhood near New York City. It tells the story of a close-knit family dealing with the loss of the father and the subsequent struggle over keeping the family house. We have been in rehearsal for about two weeks now and I invited the cast to share some thoughts about Pastime and their roles in it.

Greg Thornton: What is it like for you to work on a new play? Creating these characters for the very first time.

Stephen Dubberly: Well, first of all, thank you, Greg for allowing me to participate in this interview and for including me in the Pastime cast. Personally, whether as actor, director or designer, I always try to approach a work as a “new play.” In this case, as performer, I hope to find much of my character (Donald Hanson) in his onstage interaction with the other characters. This is a fluid process which develops with each rehearsal as we all make discoveries, share insights, and learn one another’s tendencies. Theater is life itself, good theater, anyway, and I think what we are making here is good theater.

John McWilliams: I am extremely excited to have the opportunity to work on a new play. It’s a unique opportunity for any actor, especially an actor in a community theater. I am so proud that the Cloverdale Playhouse has committed itself to supporting new plays. In some ways, creating a character for the first time is liberating. You don’t have to think about the lineage of previous performances that have been seen in other theaters at other times. However, in other ways, there is a little more pressure since you are challenged with defining a role without any other precedence. Creating “Geoffrey” has been a pleasure! I love the way that this play gives each character such a unique voice.

Scott Page: It is so exciting to create a character from scratch. No expectations — everything I am saying as that character is being seen and said for the very first time. Most parts I have done, someone has already made their “mark on” — Jerry Malone is all mine.

Matthew Givens: With any play, the actors try to see beyond the words to get a glimpse into the motivations and emotions behind them. Often we are influenced by other performances of the play that we’ve seen, or possibly a movie adaptation as we build our characters. We know how many well-known characters should behave, because we’ve seen them so many times before. With Pastime, it is different. We are inventing our characters for the first time… we are feeling our way through the dark, finding what is behind the words and bringing that to life. It is at once exhilarating and intimidating… not to mention an intriguing challenge that I am glad I had the opportunity to undertake.

Sarah Adkins: It has been absolutely thrilling. This is a first for me. The very idea that I will be the first person to flesh out this character, and give her life is so freeing. There is no other performance for me to live up to, or any other characterization of the role to be compared with. I will be the first person to give breath to Barb Hanson. I will bring her forth from the page and onto the stage for the very first time. No one else can ever say that. It is a genesis of sorts — the beginning of the existence of Barb outside the mind of her creator. It is an absolute honor.

Teri Sweeney: This is my sixth new play, and, by far, the least stressful of the lot. It’s exhilarating to create a character without the need to consider earlier versions. True, I cannot benefit from other actors’ research or instincts, but “sailing in uncharted waters” makes it all the more exciting.

Mariah Reilly: This is my first time becoming a character from scratch and it’s fairly unnerving. With every other role I’ve done, there was some familiarity to draw upon. So, with Francie, there is freedom to go in any direction but also fear that I’m doing her completely different than the playwright envisioned. The fact that the playwright is also directing certainly adds another facet, but Greg has been wonderfully careful to allow us to explore the characters on our own.

Greg Thornton: Often, while working on a new script, a new play, the playwright is available at rehearsals. Certainly, that’s the situation in this case, since he is also directing the thing. Is this helpful to you or a hindrance?

Stephen Dubberly: I have had moments during rehearsals where I have looked or listened for your reaction to special moments that you yourself crafted. If you are grinning ear-to-ear or laughing out loud I tell my inner child that if we are lucky the director in you approves as well. I suppose I have also wondered how much our interpretations have informed you as the writer. This process certainly makes me want more of the same, at least at the moment [he says with humble sarcasm].

John McWilliams: It’s been a blessing. Greg, you’ve balanced those roles extremely well. With you in the room consistently, we’ve been able to find minor revisions that have made the play stronger. Furthermore, you’ve been able to guide us and help us explore all of the nuances of this powerful story.

Scott Page: It is a little of both- I am happy that you are there to answer questions about — what you meant, how this should be said, how to pronounce a famous baseball player’s name — but, also we don’t want to disappoint you and want to do justice to what you have created. It’s like not wanting to disappoint a parent.

Matthew Givens: It’s always a benefit to ask the playwright what he meant by certain phrases or references, or why the blocking has certain actions spelled out. Being able to talk to the playwright allows us to get a clearer idea of how he envisioned the characters we are trying to portray, their motivations and behaviors, and allows us to both examine that vision and explore alternatives that may work better within the constraints of the script.

Sarah Adkins: I find it extremely helpful! This play was born in Greg’s mind, and he is available for us to pick his brain at any time. We are at the source. It is like exploring a new universe and having the designer of that universe at the helm of our ship. He will never steer us in the wrong direction. No matter how far we may veer off the original course, we can never get lost. He lets us roam about and explore all the uncharted territory, but he is always there to guide us if we become unsure of something. He is the architect of this family, and having the architect on site with a hammer and nails ready to help construct this family’s story is nothing short of amazing.

Teri Sweeney: Greg is a huge asset. That has not always been true in other world premiere productions, but it is in this one. Since Greg is an actor himself, he has great respect for his cast as collaborators. At the same time, he’s immediately available to clear up any ambiguities we may perceive.

Mariah Reilly: Greg is a great wealth of information about the time, setting, relationships and historical relevance. And it is wonderful to be able to ask a question about the script and get an immediate answer. However, I know that I am eager to stay true to his vision more than I might be if the playwright wasn’t present. While I do feel a greater sense of responsibility to the character, that is not necessarily a hindrance. I’m not sure if it’s more out of respect for Greg, the play, or the creation of something brand new but I want to do Francie as much justice as possible, because she is wonderful.

Greg Thornton: Without giving too much away, how do you see the family in the play? Is their situation something to which you can relate?

Stephen Dubberly: I am the third born of four siblings, two older brothers and younger sister, the same dynamic for the role of Geoffrey in this production of Pastime. I would say that the playwright is eerily well-informed as to the science of birth order.

John McWilliams: In some ways, this play is about a specific family, with specific traditions at a specific time. I think that the unique story of this particular family is what makes this play so compelling. However, there are some universal experiences in this story that will appeal to everyone. We all have to deal with the fears of change and loss. We all look forward to the future with great anticipation and with some worries. We all have family conversations that both reveal our deep love for one another, but also reveal the difficulties in navigating different family situations. We all have to deal with the way that the past shapes our perception of the present and the future.

Scott Page: My character is married into the family, so he is a bit of an outsider to this really great, complicated, loving family. I see my character more married to the family, than just the daughter. I come from a rather small family in real life and have always secretly desired to be from a large clan. I understand Jerry’s comfort with this group.

Matthew Givens: Like any family, the Hansons are a collection of individuals bound together by their shared past and their feelings for one another. The dynamics of love and hate, anger and humor, concern and selfishness all pull strongly at the ties that tie them together. Though I’ve never experienced quite the same mix of circumstances contained in the play, I am familiar with the dominance games played almost automatically between siblings as each tries to define themselves as individuals within the family unit. We see them at their best and at their worst, and that makes them real.

Sarah Adkins: The family in this play is struggling to stay together. Many wish to hold on to the legacies of the past, but there are some that see the past as a time that should be forgotten. The family can’t quite let go of what is behind them, and life keeps moving forward so fast, that no one can see what is front of them. And everyone in a family has a very unique perspective of the way life was inside the family home. All the dynamics differ depending on who you are hearing the story from. Some of us have a harder time than others reconciling the dynamics of these relationships, especially when we feel that we have been given the short end the stick in some way. And sometimes it just seems easier to walk away and leave all those thing that hurt us behind. But even the hurtful things are precious, because they make us who we are. Your family is never going to be perfect, but it is the only one you got, and you have to learn to love and accept your family for who they are. Sometimes you just have to blow a kiss into yesterday and wake up in the arms of the present. Your family is a gift. Like it or not, it has been given to you. And I think that is one of the most important messages in this beautiful script by Greg Thornton.

Teri Sweeney: This is a typical middle-class Irish-American family from a Mid-Atlantic or Northeastern state. It’s synonymous with my own family, and thus a very comfortable milieu, even when it cuts a bit too close to home.

Mariah Reilly: I see this family as beautiful. I am an only child so there is an inclusive joy I feel when I do a show that allows me to be a part of a big family and I certainly feel a kinship with this cast. This family feels so real, with its squabbles, misunderstandings, and comfortable moments. Greg has done a great job of fleshing them out and I suspect it’s because he comes from a great family himself.

Greg Thornton: Whether a son or daughter, sister, or brother, a mother, a daughter–in-law, the family dynamic switches with each member. Do you find that informing anything in particular as you explore your role?

Stephen Dubberly: Over these few weeks, as I have searched for my outward “Donald” I have realized that this character is still looking for his inner self. Through the course of this play, a summer afternoon, I know Donald is learning his role as brother, son and husband. Pastime concludes with much of the family business unresolved, but we are left with the sense that they are each better off than at Act I, scene 1.

John McWilliams: As Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage, / and all the men and women merely players.” I think that Shakespeare’s words remind us that, during our lifetimes, we “play many parts.” Life, in this respect, is really one great drama, and we all experience difference roles, particularly as we experience the “family drama” in our lives. As we have been rehearsing this play, I have been thinking about how we all play multiple roles in our families. Those roles can switch depending on the makeup in the room. Sometimes, with one set of relatives, a sibling might provide comic relief, but with another set of relatives in the room, that same person might be more serious. In Pastime, we set an array of conversations that expose all of the different family dynamics of this particular family. My character Geoffrey generally tries to be a peacemaker, and he tries to be rather consistent in that role. But his tactics have to change. At times, he uses humor to break through the ice. At other times, he uses a more serious tone. As audiences encounter this story, I think that there will be a level of familiarity with the types of family dynamics that we all encounter in our lives.

Scott Page: I will refer to my answer to the last question — I think it fits here as well. I have come to imagine that my character and the character Stephen plays (Donald) were friends before Jerry married into the family, so I have this whole, familial relationship with most of the brothers anyway.

Matthew Givens: The firstborn of any family faces unique challenges in any family, and for a variety of reasons. New parents learn their roles with the first child, later refining those roles with the younger siblings, so the parents experienced by the eldest child are often different from those experienced by the younger. The firstborn also faces different expectations, rightly or wrongly, and these can quite easily shape his character for good or ill. Mark is the firstborn, and has reacted to these different pressures in ways that his younger siblings don’t always understand… and these facts are essential to understanding him well enough to build him into a believable person on stage.

Sarah Adkins: Well I think Barb, being that she was not born into this family, has a more objective vision of the family portrait. Of course she leans a little towards her husband Don’s way of seeing things, but she also sees a lot of things Don does not. I think she sympathizes with everyone and tries to connect to everyone on a very real level. Even when she thinks she has her mind made up about someone or something, she listens to all sides, and she is capable of changing her views. I really like Barb. She has a really close relationship with her mother in law and yet a very distant relationship with her own mother. These things in life can be hard to figure out. And we struggle to understand them, but most times we fall short of understanding and have to settle for acceptance

Teri Sweeney: The mother-daughter relationship is a very familiar one. That could be heartbreaking, but I prefer to believe it will be therapeutic.

Mariah Reilly: Though I come from a small family with no siblings, I related immediately to Francie and the relationship with her mother. I recognized her pain and strife with her mother, who is well loved and liked by all else. From personal experience, that dynamic is just … infuriating. Nobody understands or empathizes with you and you always look like the bad guy. My character is not the most likable, but I loved her immediately because of this.

Greg Thornton: One of the main characters in the play never appears, yet he is a constant presence. Is that an element that affects the “playing” of a scene or perhaps allows you to make different choices as you work on the play?

Stephen Dubberly: Each of these characters has his own unique connection to this unseen character, the deceased father. Whether by terms of acceptance, denial or longing, he defines these characters, much like the approaching night sky might define how we might see the maples of Geoffrey’s memory and recollection. We discover the father through a collage of subjective points-of-view, each view affecting another. It is perhaps the most important relationship in Pastime.

John McWilliams: For my character Geoffrey, the presence of this character in the play has a profound impact on his choices. Geoffrey so desperately wants to have pleased this character, but the circumstances of the play don’t allow that. All of the characters rely on their memory of this character to shape their perceptions of him. Unfortunately, they don’t all have the same memories, and, therefore, their perceptions do not always agree. This character’s presence in the play demonstrates the subjectivity of memory in all of our lives.

Scott Page: Absolutely. One scene in particular where my character is trying to find out what the fathers reaction to the oldest son’s baseball skill has to do with how he … acts and reacts in present day.

Matthew Givens: Plays with characters that never appear on stage, especially important and influential characters, offer actors unique opportunities to add rich undertones to the performance. Through each character’s recollections, we get glimpses of the person that don’t always blend together into a coherent whole. The incidents with the father that Mark remembers, the behavior and words that stuck with him, are clear indicators of Mark’s character… what he chooses to hold onto as important tells us at least as much about Mark as it does about his father.

Sarah Adkins: I think the presence of the father does affect the playing of the scenes…at least for me. There are certain times I hear people telling stories about him, and it does seem as if he is actually there in a way. Sometimes that presence is really comforting to think about it, and sometimes it is a little spooky. But it is definitely there! I think to ignore that, would close off a lot of fun and interesting choices for an actor to play.

Teri Sweeney: Dad has died a decade before the play takes place, but his spirit is very much alive. His constant striving for excellence, his exhortation to go “above and beyond” has impacted each of the siblings differently. Some took it in stride, one found it stifling, and one is deeply grateful for the extra push, feeling that it provided a very effective “boot camp”. Those who considered his impact positive want to preserve some connection to him, and the past of which he was such an influential part. The one child who felt he was never good enough is eager to put Dad’s spirit to rest.

Mariah Reilly: The absence is palpable and the character definitely left a mark on all of the family, for better or worse. My character is at terrible odds with her mother, in a sense, because of this character. Yet Francie doesn’t place blame there, just affection. That has been an interesting for me to explore.

Greg Thornton: The brothers, two of them anyway, engage in a “wiffle ball” game, a kind of fantasy baseball game, but the play isn’t about baseball really and the title Pastime refers to something other than our National Pastime. Can you speak to that a bit?

Stephen Dubberly: Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, simply being together is at the core of being human. Wiffle ball, or any game or enterprise is but the flesh and bone, sticks and stones of our need for one another, our love for one another.

John McWilliams: In my opinion, it’s a perfect title. For my character and his brother, the wiffle ball game represents a connection to their past together. By playing a childhood game together, they are seeking to connect back to their younger years, and they are trying to hold on to a past that doesn’t exactly exist in the presence. As they play, they mention the great baseball players of the past, keeping these players alive in their memories. By using America’s “pastime” as a way to introduce the characters, the play demonstrates how “past-time” consistently plays a significant role in our present lives. Also, as we learn more about how the family house is falling apart, we also recognize that it is “past time” for the characters to deal with an issue that perhaps they all have been avoiding. I hope that audiences will enjoy thinking all of the different ways that this play will resonate as they consider the way that the past affects their lives.

Scott Page: I think it speaks to living with the ghosts of our past, and also to the fact that we are kind of molded as adults by what happened to us in the past.

Sarah Adkins: Well I think it is a metaphor. I think we all play games in life and some of us are better at them than others. Sometimes just being a member of a family is a game. We all want to come out on top. We all want to win. But we forget that in order for us to win, someone else has to lose. I think we would enjoy life more if we just let ourselves play with no expectation of what winning or losing might mean. And it always feels like we are running out a time! There is never enough, and we regret time lost or not appreciated while we had it. Time does not wait for us to wake up. If you miss the alarm bell, you lose precious time. I think we should all work a little harder at seeing the big picture, and really savoring the time we have with another. We don’t have long. And we never know when the game might get called.

Teri Sweeney: “Pastime” indicates a time beyond retrieval, as well as the swift progression of days and years, with the changes that progression brings. Each character has his/her own perspective on what changes time has wrought to the house, the neighborhood, the family, and each of its members. Each attributes a different significance to those changes of which he/she is aware.

Mariah Reilly: This play reminds me of the old southern plantation homes you enter and immediately feel like time forgot. There is age old wear, damage, and faded beauty; the feeling that time went on and left it to fend for itself. This family and their home feels like that to me. Some are ready to move on, start fresh and others insist on holding on to romantic notions and memories of the past. In my heart, the play feels like a wound or injury that never healed quite properly and still aches when touched wrong.

Greg Thornton: Many of us, of a certain age, are dealing with elderly parents, the loss of one or both of them, the decisions as to what to do with a family home, keep it or sell it. These are, to me anyway, powerful forces in our lives and one of the reasons I wrote Pastime. Do these forces inform your playing these characters in a personal way? If you’d care to share that, that is.

John McWilliams: I have drawn on several family experiences as we have rehearsed the play. Here’s one example: I spent every Christmas of my life at my maternal grandparents’ home in Mobile, Alabama. If I close my eyes and think about it, I can still see exactly what that house looked and even smelled like when I was a child. When my grandmother decided to leave that home several years after the death of my grandfather, it was a family trauma. Although we understood my grandmother’s decision, it was very tough to lose the physical reminder of all of our family gatherings over the years. Christmas was never the same. Now, we have established new family traditions that are just as powerful, but there is still something that longs to run down those stairs on Christmas morning at that home on Bromley Place. But I know that will never happen. In the play, I think that Geoffrey and Donald are desperately trying to hold on to the physical space of their childhood because it brings back so many memories.

Sarah Adkins: Thankfully, both my parents are still alive, but my siblings and I have talked about these issues, and we certainly have differing opinions on what choices should be made when the time does come. I hope we can work together and do what is best for everyone, but these things are always so hard for a family to deal with. And I think that is precisely why this play will hit home for so many.

Teri Sweeney: Both my parents died fairly young, in my estimation. I’ve never had to decide if a parent was no longer able to drive, or live alone, safely. I have, however, faced the disposition of our family home. The experience was not a good one – much more acrimonious than the Hansons.

Mariah Reilly: I am not necessarily of that age yet, but working on this play has caused me to reflect on some of my own estranged family relationships. I honestly believe that mentally navigating this “family” will affect my approach to the people who raised me. It is a beautiful, layered portrayal of how differently we can approach the same event and how differently we can respond to and/or recover from these shared experiences. It demands empathy.

Greg Thornton: One of the hopes and part of our mission at the Playhouse is to be a place where new plays can be born and maybe, move on to other playhouses in other places. Are you finding this a worthwhile experience and do you feel it is something we ought to continue to pursue?

Stephen Dubberly: Hopefully, this experience hasn’t ruined me, for this is theater at its crystalline, combustible best. That being said, I think it’s time for my nap.

John McWilliams: Absolutely. While I have a deep appreciation of the classics, I also think that it is very important that we continue to support new voices in the American theater. There are not many community theaters in this country that actively support new play development. That’s why I am so proud to be associated with the Cloverdale Playhouse! I definitely hope that the theater will continue to support new work through the Page to Stage competition and through producing new plays during the season.

Scott Page: I really hope we do–I have actually been kicking around an idea for a play that I may want to introduce in the near future.

Matthew Givens: Most decidedly, absolutely, emphatically yes. New work is what drives the growth of theater as an art form, and that is something in which we all have an interest. New plays not only bring new experiences and delight to audiences, but also provide new challenges to actors and directors. Each play tells a story that, hopefully, resonates with an audience, and from these stories we learn a little more about ourselves. I have enjoyed being involved in this production, and I enjoy watching a new story that I’ve never seen before. Both are important aspects of my life, and Cloverdale helps provide both for me.

Sarah Adkins: I absolutely think this a worthwhile endeavor, and that it should be continued. Giving birth to new art is one of the most amazing experiences an artist can have in life. We ought to nurture new talent and tell new stories. This could be a sanctuary for new artists looking for a place to share their vision with the world…artists looking for a home. That is a very noble mission. The Playhouse should stand as a beacon of light calling new talent from near and far.

Teri Sweeney: Emphatically, yes. There are not enough nurseries for new plays.

Mariah Reilly: I am surprised by how wonderful this experience has been! I didn’t expect it to be very different from doing an existing play, but I feel like I’m contributing to something beautiful and huge. Greg and the whole cast have been so comfortable and collaborative to work with. I hope, for the playwrights’, actors’, and audiences’ sake that the Playhouse will continue these feats.

Greg Thornton: Thank you a hundred times at least for being a part of this.

Stephen Dubberly: Greg, I am honored to be a part of this. We all owe you immeasurable thanks for your creation, your sharing of Pastime.

John McWilliams: Thank you, Greg, for this amazing opportunity. I had no idea when I first met you as an 11-year-old child actor at ASF that we would still be working together over 25 years later. You have made Montgomery a creative home, and we are all the beneficiaries of your talent and your work! I hope that audiences will come out to see the premiere of your play!

Scott Page: So incredibly honored to be a part of this experience. Thank you.

Matthew Givens: I have to say that I have enjoyed every moment of this experience. It is a great pleasure to be part of such a wonderful production where everything is such high quality… the play is magnificent, the actors are incredibly talented, and the set is gorgeously detailed. For me, this play will set a high bar for future productions in which I am involved. I am particularly thrilled to be working with Director Greg Thornton, a talented actor in his own right and an equally skilled director. This has been the experience of a lifetime.

Mariah Reilly: Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this wonderful production with such a talented cast and crew!

 

Greg Thornton is the Artistic Director of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

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