Arvada Center Blog
An Interview with Jessica Austgen, playwright of Sin Street Social Club
by Leslie Simon
When English Restoration writer Aphra Behn wrote The Rover in 1677, she broke cultural barriers and became a role model for women authors everywhere. Reputedly the first Englishwoman to make her living writing, Behn broke barriers that subversive female playwrights continue to break down today. The Arvada Center is proud to present the World Premiere of Sin Street Social Club, a play based off The Rover that we commissioned Colorado playwright Jessica Austgen to write. We recently had the opportunity to talk with Jessica Austgen about writing Sin Street Social Club and the importance of female playwrights.
Q: Why did you choose to adapt The Rover, and what differences will we see in Sin Street Social Club?
A: The Rover is widely considered to be the first play written by a professional female playwright and is an important part of theater history but…it hasn’t really aged well. The cast size is humongous (twenty-one named characters!), some of the language is pretty antiquated and—most notably—it features one of Restoration Comedy’s most problematic tropes: comic sexual assault. Sin Street Social Club cuts the cast size to nine, streamlines the plot and moves the action away from 17th century Naples and lands in the tawdry Storyville District of 1917 New Orleans. The plot does still involve the aforementioned moments of sexual harassment and assault but reframes them and, hopefully, puts more power in the hands of the female characters.
Q: Have you learned anything valuable from Aphra Behn on your own journey as a playwright?
A: Aphra Behn was a phenomenal, fascinating figure. I think I was impacted by her tenacity and willingness to compete with her male peers and succeed. She made it into the history books and that is no small feat.
Q: Why is it so important to have female voices represented, both as a writer and a character on stage?
A: While any writer of any gender can write female characters, there’s a difference between imagining a life, and drawing from your own life experiences. Also, it’s so important for everyone—women, people of color, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, people of different ages—to see themselves represented on stage. If theater is for everyone, then it is crucial that—at some point, in some script, at some theater—they see a version of themselves up there under those lights. How can a human know that they are welcome at the theater if they don’t ever see someone up there who looks like them? Or sounds like them? Or moves like them? They can’t. We have to tell all kinds of stories if the theater is truly for all people.
Q: What do you hope the future of female playwrights looks like?
A: I hope at some point, female (and POC, and LGBTQ, etc) playwrights are prevalent enough in this industry that we can just call them “playwrights.”
Sin Street Social Club opens in the Arvada Center Black Box Theatre on March 15, and runs until May 19. Tickets are on sale now!
An interview with Abner Genece of The Diary of Anne Frank
How often have you attended a play with a vision of what the characters look like beforehand? What happens when they look nothing like what you expected? With today’s atmosphere geared toward inclusion and racial equity, diversity in casting is a hot topic. Color-conscious casting aims to choose performers based on their skill and character fit, but also to embrace how an actor’s race, gender, or disability can reveal new and interesting elements of a character and a story. In the Arvada Center’s 2019 Black Box Repertory season, The Diary of Anne Frank uses color-conscious casting for the role of the Dutch character Hermann van Daan. We spoke with Abner Genece, who portrays Mr. van Daan, on his views of casting diversity and how it can illuminate a play’s universal themes:
- In this spring’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank, you play Mr. van Daan, a character who in real life was a white Jewish Dutch man. As a man of Haitian descent, how did you approach inhabiting the character?
As a man of Haitian descent, I approach the character with a deep sense of respect, admiration and sincerity for Hermann van Daan’s cultural identity and historical significance. In The Diary of Anne Frank, I’m telling the story of a man who actually lived; a specific man: of a specific culture and time in history. My goal is to honor his story and culture as best I can, using all the tools that I have (including my own cultural perspective). In the end, I am telling his story within Anne’s story, in a way that aims to serve and enlighten.
- What universal themes of the play do you think are illuminated when race and ethnicity are not a factor while casting?
I recognize numerous themes that infuse my character’s journey in the play; such as honor, pride, resiliency, patience, humor, discrimination, passion, diligence, love, and loss. My goal was to bring such themes forth, through the character’s perspective.
- How do theatres respectfully create racially diverse companies and casts while recognizing the playwright’s original intentions?
I feel that it begins with an open, honest dialogue. How does one choose to define the position of the company? Is the theatre asking the right questions when it comes to racially diverse companies and casts? We, as theatre artists, have an opportunity to explore such questions with sensitivity, curiosity, and honesty. For me, it’s also important to remember that historically-marginalized groups, as a whole (such as those of African descent, for example) have never been on completely equal footing with regard to “mainstream” storytelling. To a large degree, choices in storytelling have been based on preconceived notions. To start these dialogues with such truths, with each story told, requires patience, commitment, and discipline.
- Diversity of casting is an important part of the Arvada Center’s IDEA initiative (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access). How does this affect the stories we can tell and how a philosophy of IDEA can play a part in telling those stories?
For me, the Arvada Center’s IDEA initiative represents an exciting opportunity to approach and tell stories with uniquely fresh perspectives. The truths of these stories can be explored through formerly hidden lenses. My very casting illustrates a commitment to the philosophy of IDEA, and seeks to uncover truths that can be revealed and celebrated for the benefit of our audiences.
The 2019 Black Box Repertory Company features a rotating cast of talented actors – both new and familiar faces. Meet the company, and learn more about the plays presented this season, on the Arvada Center website. The Diary of Anne Frank runs until May 17.
By Leslie Simon
When the Arvada Center hosts Art of the State, a juried exhibit of local artists, the beautiful artwork on the main posters and invitations is hard to miss.
Every year, Director of Galleries Collin Parson teams with Warren Tech’s Scot Odendahl, choosing one lucky student to provide the main artwork while getting a chance to experience working in graphic design at a professional level. As the students hone in on their unique ideas, they are given assistance in ways to really amp up their work to a professional standard.
“We give the students the concept, theme and title for the winter and spring exhibits. They get to create graphic murals that we incorporate into printed invitational postcards,” Parson said.
While previous years saw only Graphic Design students participating, the program continues to grow and offer artistic opportunities for students in other concentrations to be a part of Art of the State. ODendahl remarks “This year we have expanded once again to create a multi-disciplinary program called the IDEA (InterDisciplinary Enterprise Apprenticeship) Group that consists of Computer Science & Cybersecurity, Game Development, Graphic Design & Digital Photography, STEM: X-TREME Engineering, and TV/Video Production. Students now have the ability to work together with other Warren Tech programs to solve multi-disciplinary problems in a creative environment.”
The collaborative program for Art of the State is a great way for students to get a head start in their creative profession. Each winning selection is adapted into various sizes and forms, from the 8’x8’ mural in the Main Gallery to the postcard invitations that have the students name credited on them. “It’s a win-win for everyone as they get a professional setting to experience and we get amazing and unique graphics while extending our mission of arts education,” said Collin.
With both the Arvada Center and Warren Tech being important community institutions in Arvada, it only makes sense that there is an overlap for some of the students.
“Our students love working with the Arvada Center, and many of them have been coming to events there since they were in elementary school. Seeing students have an experience working with a venue that has been a great influence on their early life impact and continue on into their future careers has been amazing to witness,” says Odendahl.
So when you see the poster for Art of the State 2019 this year with its beautiful state flower, the columbine, know that the artwork came from the hard work of a Warren Tech student artist and the guidance of the Arvada Center. What began as a student artwork exhibit grew into those students creating professional work for us, and we look forward to seeing how the relationship continues to grow.
Art of the State 2019 begins this Thursday, January 17 with a free reception from 6 – 9 pm. In its third iteration, Art of the State 2019 garnered 1,555 entries from 566 artists in a call for entry that was open to all Colorado artists utilizing all media. It runs until March 31.
A Q & A with The Electric Baby director Rick Barbour
What makes you excited to direct The Electric Baby?
I’m excited about working with some of Denver’s best actors and designers on this beautifully-written play. It requires and celebrates great ensemble acting and the simple, honest, transformative power of theatrical storytelling. Some contemporary plays read and feel and expect to operate as film or television does. Trouble is, when we try to produce camera-centric stories on stage, it usually doesn’t work out so well – theatre’s storytelling language is distinctly different than film or television’s. The stage is the place for metaphor, for heightened language, for poetry, if you will, and The Electric Baby was built for it. Bottom line: I get to work with great collaborators on a great script at a company that is dedicated to the power and beauty of actor-driven storytelling, on a schedule that is uniquely generous in supporting a depth of process unlikely to be encountered elsewhere. I’m in heaven.
What do you look forward to sharing with audiences?
Great acting within the intimacy of a black box space. Experiencing the power of this at the age of 15 propelled me into the theatre in the first place, and has sustained and driven me ever since. From the first time I read it and through each rehearsal, I’ve been deeply moved by The Electric Baby. It is not a heady or intellectually analytical play, it is very much an intuitive, heart-based play that works its magic in visceral ways. I’m eager to enjoy the play in live performance with our audiences – my hope is that we create a memorable experience of surprising, delightful, and emotionally powerful one-ness for our audiences with each and every show.
How does the idea of storytelling impact your vision of this production?
My vision of this or any other play is based on what the playwright gives, or suggests, or implies to us, through the writing on the page, through the actions of the characters. The Electric Baby is all about storytelling – it’s built on the strong and comprehensive use of folk lore, folk tales, parable, and metaphor, yet is simultaneously rooted in the painful realities of its contemporary, fully-dimensional, all-too-human characters – characters that we initially meet in varying degrees of emotional isolation, yet who wind up unexpectedly interconnected in ways that invite resurrection. My goal is to communicate the soul of the play as clearly as possible by fully embracing its nature, its structure, and by encouraging our actors and designers to breathe into each moment of the text with full attention, empathy, emotional courage, and intuitive confidence.
How does having stories within a story make it more challenging to direct?
I’m not sure that having stories within a story make it more challenging to direct. All the stories related or revealed in the play are, like all human utterances, based in need. That is to say, each story is expressed in the pursuit of a specific character need – no one is “telling a story” just for the sake of doing so. There’s motivation, purpose, and intent behind it. In rehearsal, our basic assumption has to be that the story is the best and most effective way for the character to get what they need from another person in that particular moment and situation. We do this all the time in real life. A well-constructed play like The Electric Baby uses this fundamentally human impulse in ways that might be more heightened than may be expected of most moments in our everyday lives, but that’s what dramatic writing is supposed to do – distill and elevate the truth of our shared humanity in ways that, at their most potent, invite catharsis.
This play has elements of magical realism. What are the important things to consider when directing a play with fantastic elements?
That what we may call fantastic elements are in fact expressions of the play’s essential DNA. That these elements are the defining features of the play’s world, its logic, its power and truth. That they are as “real” as any other element that defines the specific world of the play, and almost always more “real” than anything our everyday reality could possibly evoke. Theatre is at its best when it unapologetically embraces metaphor as its way of telling us the truth. As long as we are consistent in how we employ and relate to a play’s essential conventions, no matter how fantastic, an audience will follow us anywhere. With The Electric Baby, the playwright isn’t concerned with explaining how or why a baby that “glows like the moon” is the central presence, crossroads, and catalyst for the action of this hauntingly beautiful play. It just is. We are given it as fact. And as the play unfolds in delightful and unexpected ways, as we witness the struggles of its characters, as we are swept up in events that affect us and reward our faith in the power of story, The Electric Baby offers us a beautiful and desperately important reminder that only by opening ourselves to another can we possibly begin to heal. If metaphor and magical realism can open the way to truth such as this, then all of us – artists and audience alike – have cause for celebration.
The Electric Baby is open now and runs in repertory until May 4.
This holiday season the Arvada Center produced a brand-new musical work – the first in our 41-year history. Arvada Center Artistic Producer of Musicals Rod A. Lansberry and I’ll Be Home for Christmas co-creators, David Nehls and Kenn McLaughlin offer their perspective to what it takes to build a new musical from the ground up.
- Describe what it feels like to create a new musical like I’ll Be Home for Christmas from concept to completion?
Rod Lansberry (RL): The idea to have a world premiere on the Arvada Center stage is something we have worked on for many years, and we are happy to have this chance to bring something new and fresh to our audience.
Kenn McLaughlin (KM): It is a very hard thing to describe! Rod and (director) Gavin Mayer have been champions of the work from the start and have offered great direction and feedback that have helped shape where we are.
David Nehls (DN): Creating a new work for musical theatre is one of the most thrilling journeys in the arts. To be in the room to see the final result with an audience is both exciting and terrifying because you are experiencing all the elements coming together for the first time in real time. It is truly like nothing else.
- This musical draws on an old holiday tradition, but it’s also rooted in a specific time (1969). What was the inspiration for the setting of a Christmas variety show? What about this point in history?
KM: Both David and I grew up watching these shows. When we started talking together about our memories of the shows it was clear they had had a deep impact on us.
DN: The TV variety shows of the late ’60’s and early ’70’s honed my sensibility for what I liked as an artist and helped encourage me to go into the arts as a career. Plus, the idea of family is the cornerstone of I’ll Be Home For Christmas, and my family came together to watch these shows.
KM: The idea of the turmoil of the late 1960’s gave us a way to bring in more powerful social themes and put those up against the traditional ideas of an American Christmas. The collision of these ideas is what gives the show its voice. People who have read it or heard it remark how it feels very relevant to our circumstances today and that was the biggest of our goals.
- How long did the development of this musical take?
KM: The first time we even discussed it was December 2012. At that time David and I had just finished work on a holiday pantomime for my theatre in Houston, and we were looking forward to what else we might work on. He called me as I was about to board a plane and laid out the idea. I wrote the first treatment of the show on the plane
DN: When Rod reached out about the show after this past Christmas, we jumped on it completing a first, readable draft by March.
RL: The actual production has been in process for almost a year, It went from rough drafts of the script and music to table readings and a staged reading for an invited audience in June.
- What phases did the musical go through in development? How did it change?
KM: The biggest change came late in the process with a different approach to Simon’s journey through the play. He now gets more caught by surprise by several things and that sets him on his path. It is much more playable for the actors, and I think much more interesting for the audience.
DN: Dialogue shifted in places, strengthening characters here and there, but the basic structure remained.
5. The Arvada Center held a workshop with actors and a live audience in June. Was having an early audience to hear the words and music helpful?
Rod Lansberry: Actually getting live feedback led us to many insights and ideas that only helped to solidify and improve the piece.
KM: Based on the response we got that day, we knew that the characters and the core story mattered to people. We got to hear where the audience got lost and we got to hear what moved them and all in all it was a remarkable and important day for the play.
- What was the collaboration process like, particularly with one of the creators living in Houston?
DN: Working with Kenn is always a joy! He is so smart and fresh and has a great sense of how the process works.
KM: David and I spoke on the phone several times a day during creation – he’d write something he was excited about, and he’d send it, and I’d write something I was excited about and then we’d get on the phone and work it out. David and I think a lot alike about theatre so it was an easy process for us and the distance was not a problem at all.
RL: Kenn and David have a great working relationship that has served to make the entire project an enjoyable and creative process.
- What is the biggest challenge?
RL: Creating a piece that will artistically fit the reputation of the Arvada Center and enlighten while entertaining an audience – especially a piece that fits the theme of the holiday season.
KM: This is a play of extremes and getting that just right is a challenge. It’s a musical comedy with a very powerful story about a soldier and his return from Vietnam. Balancing the power of that story and making sure we honor all the voices of that story while we surround it with some joyful singing and dancing– it is a great and thrilling challenge indeed.
DN: And casting these specific roles with such specific talents is a bit of a challenge.
- What’s most exciting to you personally about presenting a world premiere at the Arvada Center?
RL: Bringing a fresh new holiday production to our audience and producing our first new work.
DN: This has been my home theatre for 14 seasons and to have my own work premiere here for the first time is a big thrill. My shows have now been produced all over the country, but we have never produced one here. So to cross this off the bucket list is great!
KM: The fact that Rod challenged us to go deeper and to find the darkness too – I can’t be more excited about that. I think it has made the play very special and in fact more joyful than I could ever have imagined. I cannot wait to share it with people – I just can’t wait!
I’ll Be Home for Christmas runs until December 23. Tickets are available online!