An electronic cigarette and a character named ‘No One’ whose scenes take place outside of time and space – are major players in local playwright Jessica McHugh’s provocative and speculative premier production, Fools Call It Fate, playing at Mobtown Theater from July 22 through August 6th. After sitting down with the creative duo behind the wheel, I’m ready to show up on opening night with bells on, although shackles may be more appropriate.
Like most of the characters she conjures from her imagination, there is a lot more to prolific writer Jessica McHugh than meets the eye. She is warm and engaging, evoking immediate comparison in my mind to a woodland sprite (one could easily picture her with wings). After getting to know her, one finds she is an almost compulsive writer, with an appetite for twists to rival Christopher Nolan. She’s an artist who seems as delighted and surprised by her impressive body of work (nine published novels and more on the way) as those around her.
It makes perfect sense that her work attracted local theater veteran, and director for Mobtown Players, Mark Franceschini, as he’s been known to dabble in the “dark arts” himself. Both Jessica and Mark did a remarkable job at keeping the plot mysterious; they sprinkled the interview with just enough to spike the interest. Here is what the creative duo chose to divulge…
Teresa: Jessica what audience are you looking to draw with Fools Call it Fate?
Jessica: It’s definitely more adult themed, basically anyone who likes a play which is on a little of the speculative side, maybe a little bit creepy, but kind of like a dark comedy.
Teresa: What’s the basic story you tell?
Jessica: It’s basically about a group of characters who, as the play goes on, you kind of find out how their lives intertwine, and outside forces’ ability to intertwine into theirs lives as well.
Teresa: As the play begins, do the characters know each other?
Jessica: Some of them (Mark interjects)… we don’t know that they know each other.
Teresa: What time period is it set in?
Jessica: Present day
Teresa: Mark, how did you first get involved in Fools Call it Fate?
Mark: Mobtown did a group of staged readings of new play by local playwrights over the course of last season. I directed one of the shows during the season here, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, and when they did the staged reading for Fools Call it Fate I came to see it, and just thought it was a really neat project. When Fools Call it Fate got chosen out of the three stage readings that they had done to do a full stage production, I threw my hat in to direct.
Teresa: Who decided what show of the three to do?
Jessica: It was a playwright competition, three out of thirty were chosen for stage readings based on audience feedback, and I did a lot of social media and bombarded Mobtown about doing a stage reading.
Teresa: Did you already have Fools Call it Fate written?
Jessica: I heard about the competition about a month and a half before the deadline, and I had never written a play before, and then I figured I give it a shot.
Teresa: So it’s your first play?
Jessica: Yes, except for a terrible musical I tried to write in high school.
Teresa: You have performed on stage as an actor, as well. Did that draw you into writing?
Jessica: I did theater in high school and I did a lot of musicals. I did some stuff in small theater groups in Westminster. I did a little playwriting in Drama3, and I think I wrote a monologue or something. I never thought about it, which is silly, because one of the really favorite things to write in my novels is dialogue. And it is something that I am told quite often that I am very good at.
Teresa: So suddenly it clicked.
Jessica: Yeah. I feel like such an idiot!
Teresa: Could you introduce us to the cast and characters in the show?
Mark: There are six characters. Ash is played by Will Carson. Gabby played by Deb Carson (no relation). Sophie is played by Melissa O’Brien. Danny is played by Brian Kraszewski. Richard is played by Steve Shriner. Tara is played by Rachel Lee Rash.
Teresa: Jessica, have you seen and met the actors who are portraying your characters?
Jessica: I know most of them and have seen most of them in other shows, such as Judas Iscariot.
Teresa: So, physically, how did they measure up to the images you authored?
Jessica: It’s strange because during the reading I got used to those actors portraying them, you know, I shot all this video. It’s so weird, even after that, when reading the play I would hear the voices of those actors in my head. So it’s a little strange, but it’s really exciting. I’m really, really jazzed to see it. I’m just counting the days.
Teresa: Any personal connections to the characters or subject matter?
Mark: Other than, as you can see, there is a bar here. I relate to tavern life! There are characters meeting and trying to develop relationships, which is obviously, something that everyone can bring to the table.
Teresa: When developing characters, are they mostly from imagination or taken from people you know?
Jessica: I don’t really think about it. When I write everything just kind of happens organically. I figure out who my characters are from what tumbles out of their mouths, pretty much.
Teresa: So even you, in a sense, have not met them before?
Jessica: Not really. I don’t very often set out with a character’s dossier and how they are going to act. A lot of times I just throw them in a room and let them have at it.
Teresa: So, would you say your pieces are more story driven or character driven?
Jessica: Somewhere in between because a lot of times, especially with novels, I have the story and where I eventually want it to get to. But with plays I’m still streamlining my method.
Teresa: You start with the ending point and let it flow from there?
Teresa: As an actor, what character would you want to play?
Mark: I tend to play darker characters – so Richard.
Jessica: I’d want to play Richard as well – and Sophie.
Teresa: Did the two of you work together to transfer the story to the stage? Did any changes occur in the dialogue or setting?
Mark: Two stage readings of the show were performed over two weekends. I believe Jessica did some rewrites of the play between the two weekend readings, based on audience feedback and having seen the stage reading, which is one of the beauties of having the stage reading,
Jessica: I didn’t do too much rewriting during the stage reading process, just because I have a problem with over editing and obsessing. Based on the repeat feedback over the first two nights – for example – people would ask me why a character was behaving a certain way, and I was able to explain it to them, but by getting that feedback – I was able to elaborate more on the relationship between two characters, and actually put some personal experience into it to make the character deeper.
Teresa: Where do you get your ideas? Do you find inspiration in other forms of art: film, literature, and/or music?
Jessica: I definitely watch a lot of different kinds of movies, and used to read a lot. I like a lot of things like my favorite author, Ronald Dahl, who is better known for his children’s books, and Easton Ellis who wrote America Psycho. I like to stick with speculative works.
That way I can put in comedy, romance, and horror
Teresa: Does Fools Call It Fate include all of those elements?
Mark: A 21st Century version of The Twilight Zone.
Teresa: Mark: This is your first working with Jessica, Has she come to any rehearsals?
Mark: Not yet, but we did some discussion just before production, with some rewrites just to tighten some things up. One of the nice things about directing an original production, is that you have the opportunity to work with the playwright, but it’s still their show, and the idea is to put their dream on stage the way that they see it. Theater is an interactive process. You cannot distill it through the director and the creative minds of the actors, and technicians, because that’s all part of it. Since it’s the first time it’s been done, as a director, I take special care to try to make sure that the original idea does not get lost, and that she gets to see what she wanted.
Teresa: Will you be here on opening night?
Jessica: Oh yeah! I will probably be at every performance.
Teresa: Are there any specials challenges of directing the show in this small space?
Mark: Yes, the show takes over seven different locales, that could have been done in several different ways. We could have had an amorphous set, which just sort of blended slightly between different scenes. We could have different scene changes where technicians are rolling scenes on and off. I personally would rather have had the action flow at much as possible, so we have taken the stage and divided into seven different acting areas. And since the stage is so small, the challenge is keeping the action flowing and interesting without losing the fact that we have seven different scenes.
Teresa: Mark, you have done how many shows with Mobtown?
Mark: This is my third show overall – two directing and one acting.
Teresa: Jessica, are you happy with the production?
Jessica: I’m really certain I will be, but seriously – I am not a tough critic!
Teresa: Any personal experiences of yours that you are bringing to this production through your direction?
Mark: Just the idea of doing an original piece – the differences it has as a directorial project than doing a piece that is being run through Samuel French or another than has been done a million times all over the country type of thing. That makes it very different.
Teresa: Do you have plays that you are working on currently, or stories that you’ve written previously that you’re now thinking. about adapting for the stage?
Jessica: Actually, I do have a novel that I think would make a very good play that I am still editing. It is about Christopher Marlowe. I think it would make a cute play. I also jumped on a theater website that I used to use for auditions and there was a call for submissions for a One-Act Play Festival. The deadline was two days later. So from 8 AM on, every time I had a moment at work, I was writing and I wrote it in a day, sent it in, and it was chosen with about four other plays for the festival. It’s called Two Grunts for Yes and will be produced by Thunderous Productions in Sandy Springs.
Teresa: So it seems your creativity flows best under pressure?
Jessica: Apparently! My husband said that i just love torturing myself with tight deadlines because it forces me to write. Otherwise, I might just dance around the same page for a couple of days if I don’t like where it’s going.
Teresa: Is your husband in the arts as well?
Jessica: He does a lot of lighting for movies and TV in the tri-state area. He’s also the illustrator for the next book I have coming out. This is from the book [shows a haunting and lovely Jack Skellington-esque tattoo on underside of forearm] So he’s got a little bit of awesome talent.
Teresa: Mark, did you have a good turn out for Fools Call it Fate auditions?
Mark: It was a solid turnout, yeah. We had more than enough to cast and had to make some tough decisions, which is a good place to be. I’ve been in shows where we’ve had to go shake the tree to try and fill out a cast. We had a good group to pick from.
Teresa: Do you see your work foraying into film or other mediums?
Jessica: Yeah, definitely. I’ve often been told in reviews that my books are very descriptive and people can picture them easily. Someone mentioned to me that if Hollywood gets tired of doing its little horror remakes, my book, Rabbits in the Garden, would be perfect.
Teresa: Is that a horror story?
Jessica: Yes, it’s horror/suspense. I like things with a little bit of a twist.
Teresa: Does all of your work fall into that genre?
Jessica: No, I have an Arthurian legend, an epic fantasy series, I have dystopian, steampunk, romance, and historical fiction.
Teresa: I’d like to see the steampunk on stage!
Jessica: I don’t know if that one would work very well, but Verses of Villainy would be perfect! It would work really well., I don’t know though…I mean I spent so much time making it a novel.
Teresa: Has it been hard to hand your work over to Mark?
Jessica: No, not really. I trust him. I have seen two of his shows, one was Twelfth Night. I’m very excited to give up my work and someone reinterpret it and make it awesome for the stage.
Teresa: Mark, tell us a bout what you have directed in the past.
Mark: Everything from musicals, like The Sound of Music and The Music Man at Glyndon Area Players to The Last Days of Judas Iscariot here at Mobtown, which gives that same, thought provoking feeling, making people walk out and saying…”Huh…now what?” I have also directed Anna Deavere Smith’s Fire in the Mirror in Silver Spring, as well as farces like Noises Off, Don’t Dress for Dinner, and Shakespeare, and The Woman in Black in Westminster, which is a psychological ghost story.
Teresa:After Fools Call it Fate. what’s next?
Mark: Good question, I’ve been mulling over that. I think maybe time for a musical or comedy after spending some time on the dark side, to lighten things up a little bit. I’ve got friends bugging me to do a farce.
Teresa: What emotions would you like to leave the audience with, after they have viewed the play?
Jessica: Perhaps a bit of shock, maybe have them scratching their heads, and have them think “wait a minute” and have them kind of have to backtrack a little. What I would hope to have is a repeat audience that want to go back and pick up on all the little things that are sprinkled throughout the play. There are a couple of little tell-tale signs throughout the play.
Teresa: Anything else to leave us with?
Jessica: I’ll have some signed copies of Rabbits in the Garden and other novels at the shows.
As the actors trickle in Mark, Jessica and I say our goodbyes. Jessica declines Mark’s offer to stay and view a portion of rehearsal, saying, “I want to be surprised!”
He chuckles and comments that she is” just like an expectant mother who wants to wait to find out the sex of her child”.
Purchase tickets to Fools Call It Fate here.
Learn more about Jessica and her projects here.