Theatre Kibbitz: Playwright Allyson Currin and Director Jessica Lefkow on ‘Hercules in Russia’

Playwright Allyson Currin and Director Jessica Lefkow have joined forces to present the World Premiere of Allysson’s new play Hercules in Russia at Doorway Arts Ensemble. I asked Allyson and Jessica to take us on their Herculean journey from writing the play, auditions, selecting and directing the cast, working with designers, rehearsals, cast changes, and finally attending to Opening Night.

Joel: Where did you first get the idea to write Hercules in Russia

Allyson: I first read about Jim Hercules in Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie, and became fascinated with all things relating to the Russian Revolution and Russian history. I ended up focusing my play on Jim because of the amazing fact that the real Jim would have lived through TWO civil wars – ours here in America, and the Bolshevik takeover. I mean, how crazy is that…? The irony of that alone thrilled both the historian and the dramatist in me.

Joel: How long did it take you to write Hercules in Russia? 

Photo of Allyson Currin. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Allyson: A VERY long time. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the research and vanish into it – which I did for quite a while, I confess. But the bonus of doing that is that you digest and metabolize the history in a very different way. I found that, once I started writing, the history found its way very organically into the dramatic action.  The desire to be historically accurate wasn’t holding me back in the writing of the play because I knew the history in such a visceral way.

Joel: How did Hercules in Russia land up at Doorway Arts Ensemble

Allyson: Claire Myles and I just engaged in a conversation about new plays and before I knew it, she was asking me to let her read some. I sent her two – one was Hercules in Russia. She took a shine to it!

Joel:  Why did you want to direct Hercules in Russia?

Jessica Lefkow. Photo by Abois Photography.

Jessica Lefkow. Photo by Abois Photography.

Jessica: I met this script six years ago in development, and thought it a lyrical and compelling examination of a man trying to thrive under increasing duress. My experiences as an expatriate redoubled my empathy for Jim, who chose to live in Russia without ever being of it. I was intrigued by the journey of the character through time and memory, and about to stage this journey in the most elegant manner possible.

Joel: What is it about Hercules in Russia that moved you the first time you read it?

Jessica: Ally’s language leapt off the page at me. This playwright is so gifted at finding the richest and most perfect turn of phrase, whether to garner a laugh or move me to tears. And Jim’s dilemma’s are not simple ones – I ached for him.

Joel: Have you worked with each other and Doorway Arts before? 

Allyson: This is my first time with Doorway Arts, but Jessica and I have several projects in our shared history.

Jessica:  Last year, I directed the World Premiere of Julie Taiwo Oni’s Tether for Doorway Arts Ensemble. Allyson and I have worked together on a number of her plays, including a wonderful 3-hander called Benched, which had a short run last year here as well as a reading in New York.

Joel: Talk about the auditions. How many actors tried out? 

Allyson: Auditions were awesome. Auditions are always awesome. It’s such a luxury for a playwright to have so many different voices bringing life to her words. And as an actor, I find it so reassuring to be on the producing/directing side of the table because it reinforces the fact that everyone wants every actor to do well. The goodwill is so lovely, and I remind myself of that every time I audition.

Jessica: What was wonderful was having clearly cast-able actors show up, and then having- for most of the roles – close seconds or even thirds, in terms of our preferences. Many of our auditioning actors were new to the area, having moved here specifically to work in theater. I love this! In what I think is a reflection of demographic realities in this business, we had more actors auditioning for the roles of the young women than for the other parts.

Joel: What was the most difficult role to cast?

Jessica: Jim Hercules requires an actor who can carry the entirety of the play, and play both a man in his mature prime with real personal stature, as well as a young man just starting out in the world.

Joel: Why did u select these actors for these roles? Why are they perfect choice to play their roles?

Sarah Ulstrup and Ricardo Frederick Evans in ‘Hercules in Russia.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Allyson: The creative team made the casting decisions collaboratively. I am always personally drawn to really brainy actors, and I find that I’m always on the lookout for those. We chose a cast that is wonderfully dedicated and cares so, so much about this play.  I love these actors: DeJeannette’s charm, Sarah’s luminosity, Jasmin’s ferocity, Andy’s witty intensity, Gordon’s authority, and Ricardo’s power and profound decency – all of these qualities make these actors so right for this play. And our fabulous, unflappable stage manager Candis rocks our world!

Joel: What were the biggest challenges you faced during rehearsals?

Jessica: We were presented with particular challenges by the casting changes we encountered – getting the play adequately prepared for opening on an already tight schedule was a huge concern for me. I hasten to add that we had an devoted team of artists both on-stage and back-stage, who stepped up to the work with enormous good humor and generosity.

Joel: What are some of the changes you made after you began rehearsals? 

Allyson: I did more re-writes than I thought I would, particularly with regards to the character of Sunday. So funny – before we started rehearsals, I thought she was under-written, but about halfway through the process I learned that she was actually OVER-written. I pared her character down and probably will continue to do so as I work on the script in the future.

Joel: You had some cast changes before opening night. Tell us about that and the process of teaching them their new roles. 

Allyson: Well, in this business, casting changes happen. It was hardest on our supporting cast, who had to find ways to work for a few days with the uncertainty. But Ricardo Evans, who plays Jim, brought such a high level of professionalism into the room that I think they were immediately reassured. I mean, Ricardo came into his first rehearsal off book for the first 20 pages!  Everyone chipped in and helped him learn his lines. It brought everyone closer.

Jessica: I cannot adequately praise either Ricardo Frederick Evans for his incredible work in preparing for the role of Jim Hercules in under three weeks, nor the rest of our cast- Gordon Adams, Andrew Ferlo, DeJeanette Horne, Jasmin Johnson and Sarah Ulstrup – for the professionalism with which they rose to incorporating this late change into their work. My only disappointment has been in wishing we had more of that most precious commodity – Time! – to explore at leisure the abundant discovery Ricardo brings to us, with his wonderful portrayal of Jim.

Joel: What were some of the challenges you had working with the cast, with each  other,  and with the space at Doorway Arts, and how were these challenges resolved?

Allyson: Probably the toughest thing to deal with is my own anxiety level! That never resolves itself, but shows up with every production of mine. I just get so nervous, I drop weight, I can’t eat… If anybody thinks that playwrights write plays for any sort of ego gratification, let me clarify once and for all: our egos take pretty regular bruisings. Our egos get nothing from this process!  (And our immune systems take a hit too…)

What are the toughest scenes for you to watch?

Allyson: The toughest scene for me to watch, hands down, is the scene when Jim attacks Tatiana. It hurts me because they are both such good people, who honestly do love and respect one another. But in her youth and innocence and desire to know the world, Tatiana has really stepped in it, taking Jim to a place that he just cannot stomach, and he snaps. It isn’t a cruel scene, because Tatiana stands up for herself and can hold her own, but it’s hard to watch Jim attack, and it’s hard to watch the pain that Tatiana has unintentionally brought to the surface of Jim.

Joel: When did you ‘freeze’ the show? What were the final edits you made before the show was ‘frozen’? 

Allyson: We didn’t have a specific time set, but obviously you don’t want to throw your actors late in the process by giving them a bunch of re-writes. I cut one line during the last week of rehearsal – other than that, I think I was pretty done with re-writes by the second week of rehearsal.  (The actors might correct me on that, though – I might have blocked it!)

Joel: How was Opening Night? 

Ricardo Frederick Evans (Jim Hercules) and Jasmin Johnson (Sunday). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Allyson: I can’t sit and watch a performance of my plays. Ever. I pace in the back and lurk and prowl. I’m a wreck. And it’s never a reflection on the acting or the directing or the design elements – it’s just how I deal with the stress. I come completely out of my own skin and chew my nails down to nubs. It’s a good thing I never started smoking. And then it’s over and the audience applauds and I’m FINE. Such an unhealthy way to deal with opening nights, but I can never be calm about them.

Jessica: Thrilling. Working at Montgomery College is always particularly special. A number of people at every performance are having their first-ever theater experience, and many students present on this Opening Night said that they had no idea of how wonderful it could be to come to the theater – and that they would be back! Unbeatable.

Joel: Now that the critics and audiences have had their say – what changes or tweeks would you consider making to the play and/or the production? 

Allyson: None really. I found that critics and audiences (so far) have gotten out of the play what I had hoped they would. Audiences really seem to be understanding and respectful of the material so far, and a number of people have communicated to me how touched they were by the story. That’s really nice to hear.

Jessica: First productions always reveal things about scripts, about bringing the work to the stage. I know that Allyson, our brilliant dramaturg Sonya Robbins, and I are all noting with this run how specific moments can be tightened with tweaks to dialogue or structure. I see ways that my directorial choices helped or hindered in the process, and will weigh in on whether there are specific things which we now know should be a permanent part of the script or which may not have served this piece as well as they might have.

When this production closes, we’ll all gather for a post-mortem, (a standard piece of this process) and discuss all these things, which may have revealed desired changes to the playwright.

The audience piece of this process is very much one of observing their experience of the play and gauging the desired impact of our efforts. Critics can be and are also extremely helpful when their comments serve to articulate this impact.

Joel: What did you learn about each other that you didn’t know about each other since you began working on this production?

Allyson: I think I know what Jessica learned – how truly neurotic I can get about my work. I (re-)learned how thoughtfully Jessica moves through a rehearsal process. She is one savvy dame. Also learned from this, and our Benched project in 2011, that if you want it done, put a bunch of driven women on it!

Jessica: I have loved watching Ally work with everyone involved in the process of bringing this play to life. While no surprise, it has simply been a delight to watch the ways in which her passion for her work extends to the trust and pleasure she takes in having an entire team – actors and designers and the entire production machine- bring their pieces of the collaborative process into the crafting of this World Premiere.

Joel: What has been the most gratifying thing about working on Hercules in Russia

Allyson: Well, it’s what playwrights live for. I love this story and I love telling it. It’s an honor that I have been given the opportunity to tell it with this creative team. It’s an honor. I’m really humble about that.

Jessica: Having designers, producers, actors, the dramaturg, and now audiences respond so deeply to the story of Jim Hercules, and the life Allyson Currin has imagined for him. This man really lived; who was he? What a rich life Currin has imagined for him here!

Joel: Jessica, you are well known for nurturing new works. What makes it so exciting for you to direct new works, and especially working on Hercules in Russia?

Andrew Ferlo (Lev). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Jessica: It’s gratifying to get work in this business, and people keep hiring me to bring new works to the stage! I like playwrights, and enjoy bringing queries about the script back to the source. In production, I like knowing that I am responsible for creating an environment where those investigations feel safe and productive for the playwright, and meaningful for the rest of the production team. It is immensely satisfying to have a hand in sending a well-built play out into the world.

I spoke before about my love for this script, and my long acquaintance with it, as well as my collaborative relationship with Allyson. Being part of its first steps in the world is like being part of a rite of passage for the beloved child of a dear friend.

Are there any new works that you would like to see adapted for the stage?

Jessica: I work with devised-theater company dog & pony dc, and I am so jazzed about the work we’re looking at ahead! I could tell you what these things are, specifically, but… then I’d have to kill you. So, yes! But I’m not saying.

Joel: Besides being an accomplished playwright and director, you both have performed in many productions in the DC area. What is is about the DC Theatre Community that keeps you here performing, directing, and writing plays?   

Allyson: Underline the word COMMUNITY. I am so lucky to have spent 20 years in this theatre community. I love this town and I love the artists in it. I’m committed to it.  I’m an artist in this community because I love collaborating and have found a wonderful pool of like-minded collaborators that I respect and adore. Having a true community takes the edge off of some of the difficult challenges of this business.

Jessica: I was born and grew up in the District and returned here quite by chance in 2003. I’d spent 17 years overseas, following the salary of my journalist husband around the globe and back again. Every place we lived, I made a community and a home for my husband and children, and work for  myself in the theater. Sometimes I was part of a larger theatrical scene, sometimes I was the only game in town. Arriving back in the DC area, I found a city exploding with opportunities for work, and lively and skilled exploration into all things theater.  I’ve worked constantly since then, and have yet to scratch the surface of so many of the conversations happening in this town, in this country. Aside from having strong ties of family and familiarity with the DMV, it’s been a great place for me professionally to call home.

Joel: What are some of your favorite roles that you have performed on DC area stages?

Richard Pelzman and Allyson Currin in ‘Four Dogs and a Bone’ at Signature Theatre. Photo courtesy of Signature Theatre.

Allyson: Oh, lots! I loved being in Four Dogs and a Bone at Signature – I LOVE playing ditzes. (And end up playing a lot of them – not sure what THAT means…) I loved being the title role in Olympia at Washington Stage Guild because it’s always fun to be a princess hopelessly in love. I loved being tough and damaged Liz in Theresa Rebeck’s Loose Knit. I loved playing Dorothy Parker-esque Lily in Hotel Universe. I love all those wonderful moments onstage when the energy is really cooking between you and a stand-out scene partner – it’s nothing but trust and safety and the ability to go anywhere emotionally and know it’ll be okay. Love that. I also love it when technique really pays off in a comic moment.

Jessica: Oooo, that question! I’ll always have a special fondness for the parts which scare me, or bring me into contact with something new. These are often the same thing.

Joel: You are both teachers. What advice can you give to a young actor/actress who is considering a career in the theatre?

Allyson: Only do it if you love it. This business is unreasonably hard so you need 100% commitment and genuine belief in yourself. You have to KNOW yourself in a profound way so that the blows the business lobs your way don’t break anything inside you. If you’re that person, and you MUST work in this business, then don’t quit. If opportunities aren’t coming your way, make your own and don’t give up.

Jessica: Never ask permission to pursue a role, an inquiry, a place at the table. Educate yourself about the use of your body, your voice, your breath, and the ways in which performers have traditionally done so. Say yes. Read widely. Be kind, and find or create ways to work with others who are kind. Seek muses beyond theater; they will feed your passion.

Joel: What’s next for both of you on the stage?

Allyson: Tons, I’m happy to report! DC Actors Salon is doing a benefit with my new play Caesar and Dada on March 18th. I have also written the script for WSC-Avant Bard’s upcoming benefit on March 4th. I’ve got a couple plays in development, and I have a brand new play that I’m starting as soon as Hercules… goes down. And some stuff that hasn’t been publicly announced yet…

Jessica Lefkow as Cassius in Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s ‘Julius Caesar.’ Photo by Kristin Holodak.

Jessica: In March, I’ll direct a Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s Riot Grrrl reading of Anna Christie, as part of Arena Stage’s O’Neill festival. During the second performance of that reading, I’ll actually be in Florida, where I’ve been engaged by the Gulfshore Playhouse to appear as ‘Eunice’ in their April 2012 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, with their marvelous AD, Kristen Coury, directing. I’m back in May to begin rehearsing RIII with Brave Spirits Theatre Company (Victoria Reinsel and Charlene Smith, Co-founders and Artistic Directors), then a summer of performing with dog & pony dc, both reprising and devising work for the season ahead.

Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing Hercules in Russia? 

Allyson: I hope the audience is moved by this story. If someone connects with and is touched by Jim’s journey, then we’ve done our jobs, mission accomplished. I want the audience to be moved.

Jessica: A feeling for having witnessed a well-wrought story, beautifully told. A surer knowledge that each of us must find our own best answers to the challenge of living in trying times.

Hercules in Russia plays through March 4, 2012, at Doorway Arts Ensemble at Theater 2 in the Cultural Arts Center at Montgomery College – 7995 Georgia Avenue, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.

LINKS

Allyson Currin’s website.

Jessica Lefkow’s website.