In Part Two of our look at Venus Theatre’s World Premiere production of Playwright Zoe Mavroudi’s The Stenographer, cast members Frank Britton and Amy Rhodes (who also designed the set) talk about how they became involved in the production, preparing for their roles, and working with Director Deborah Randall.
Joel: How did you get involved in The Stenographer?
Frank: Deb reached out to me through e-mail in early March of this year, and asked if I was interested. She sent me the script, and I jumped at the chance immediately, but I had to iron out scheduling issues before I confirmed. I was so glad that I could do it, and thank Deb so much for thinking of me. It’s my first time back with a mainstage show with Venus in six years.
Amy: Deb and I had been playing music together for a few months, when I got a call from her in need of an actor for this role. (I knew nothing about it and rather expected to find a much smaller, walk-on role, so I was quite astonished when I received the script and realized there were only two characters in the play.) Once I read the script I was sold. I was thrilled with the prospect of working with Deb as a director again, having worked with her on Daughters of Molly Maguire in 2000. This was the first project I’ve been able to take on in quite some time as my husband and I have two children and a coffee roasting business.
Tell us who the Professor and The Girl are.
Frank: The Professor is a man who teaches Russian Literature. He also has a Ph.D in it as well. Crime and Punishment is his favorite novel, and he is obsessed with the novel and its main characters and Dostoevsky himself so much so that, it’s evangelical. He’s also a man who’s become deadened by his circumstances over time, very isolated and lonely, and the over-consumption of vodka has become second nature to him. He’s extremely complex, and a very, very flawed individual, as one comes to discover. He yearns for connection and release, and, in a big way, wants to feel alive again. You come to find out why he brings the young lady back to his home, and it’s not what one would think.
Amy: The Girl is an exotic dancer who has agreed to accompany the professor to his home after he has visited her club. She has been surviving in the world of adult entertainment for nearly a decade and has developed quite a tough (if not threatening) facade. She is street-smart, pragmatic and needs to be in control, but underneath there is much more.
How do you relate to him/her?
Frank: Drive! The Professor seemed to me very driven, and the need to connect and talk to someone because of the loneliness and isolation (I go through that quite frequently). I’d say those were two things that stuck out with me with this role. A lot of the rest of his experiences I myself have never experienced, so I had to rely even more so on my instinct and imagination. When I tackled Richard III at WSC Avant Bard (formerly Washington Shakespeare Company) last season, it was the same thing in terms of relating to a role. You must find something (or many things) you love about your role, regardless of how questionable (or awful) their actions may be, or how their view of the world or the people around them is.
Amy: When I first read the script, I thought the girl and I had nothing in common, but the more we delved into it, the more similarities I found – similar experiences, decisions to make, feelings and dreams… I won’t be too specific here because I don’t want to give away anything of the play, but suffice it to say that there are plenty of parallels that I have been able to draw upon. I have really come to admire her as well, especially her ability to take control and speak her mind.
How did you prepare for your roles?
Frank: I first began by reading Crime and Punishment, and researching Dostoevsky. It’s not an easy read, by any means. The text is so detailed, descriptive and dense and the level of minutiae is insane! I love all of that, though, because that’s how I approach my work as an actor. I was advised by Zoe to be good to myself when reading it. I wanted to have the entire novel read by the first rehearsal, but that was wishful thinking on my end. It took a while. The role of the Professor is an extremely demanding one mentally/ psychologically, which in turn also informed how I would inhabit him physically. I kept mining the script to get inspiration for that.
Amy: Early on I read an excellent book, Strip City that really helped me to understand the world The Girl was coming from. I was also able to watch a few documentaries on strippers and the art of striptease – I even dragged my husband to “the Block” in Baltimore to experience the world first hand. (The girls I spoke with and saw perform were all pretty amazing). Much of our preparation, though took place in the form of tablework, with Deb (really exploring and analyzing our characters and the script–one of the great benefits of her directing style) which was quite intense and extremely beneficial, as were the various improvs she encouraged us to do….each day I discovered something new and tried to ultimately incorporate it all into this complex character.
What were the biggest challenges learning the role, and how did Deb help with those challenges?
Frank: One of the biggest challenges was the text itself. The use of pronouns in this is extensive and very important, and there is a certain repetition with some of the things I say. There’s a simplicity to the writing, but the simplicity is deceptive (in a wonderful way, of course), because there is so much underneath, so much to glean, so much to experience. Also, the Professor is consuming vodka throughout the entire play. When the play begins, he’s already lecturing (and has already consumed three drinks by this time. And his constant return trips to his home bar is his routine. Gauging the level of intoxication in this play has been a wonderfully extreme challenge as well, because it’s a downward spiral that’s occurring in real time, and the severity of the intoxication increases with the turn of events and the revelations. As Deb stated, playing against all of that was essential, and that has been truly exciting. Deb helped with those challenges by having Amy and myself going through a series of exercises to build a relationship between these two strangers, and encouraging us to keep going deeper – to trust myself, relax, breathe with Amy and everyone in the space, and strive for that honesty and truth each and every time.
Amy: The biggest challenge for me was probably the fact that there is little revealed about The Girl within the script. Working with Deb though, she pointed out the different layers of the character–the stripper, the little inquisitive girl, and the writer – for the most part, we see the stripper, but the other two personalities surface from time to time and are always lying just below the stripper facade. Deb pushed us to really explore our characters and to try things in various ways until we found the perfect balance of character. Additionally, the stillness of The Girl (being present and silent for pages of the script) was challenging, but Deb steered me toward feeling the power of that stillness so it is no longer intimidating. I think the most important thing that Deb does as a director, is to provide a safe and supportive environment and then demand nothing less than the very best that you can possibly do…and then she pushes you even further.
What do you love about the role and the play?
Frank: I’m attracted to all types of roles, roles that I can connect with in some way. It could be anything. What I love about the Professor is his flaws; I think beauty can be found in flaws. His desire to connect with another human being on a more personal and intimate level. These are just a few of the many things I love about him, and this is the most intimate play I’ve done thus far. There’s only two of us, and the sharing, listening, revealing, and give-and-take is magnified a hundred times over. Personally speaking, one of the main reasons why I became an actor is because I simply wanted to communicate with people. I love the sharing, listening, revealing, and give-and-take on stage between one another. That’s an enormous amount of fun.
I love this play because of the immediacy, the heightened tension, the great challenges it poses for Amy and me, and the language of the play. When it comes to this play, truth is a word that can’t be stressed enough. These two people need something from each other. The stakes are unbelievably high. I wholeheartedly thank Deb for asking me to be a part of it and her guidance, Zoe for writing such a fantastic play, and Amy for being such a wonderful partner on stage.
Amy: There is so much that I love about my role and the play! I love that despite the specificity of our characters and the setting, that they are still so universal. I love the tug of war relationship that builds between our characters. I love that each time I read the script, or run through the show, that I discover something new. I love how demanding it is and how we must constantly be present in that world. I love being able to embrace the stillness, the power and the intimacy that exist within the play. I love that there are only two of us (there is something very unique about a two person play – a level of trust that must develop between the actors) that alone is an amazing experience. I love that the audience is right there, looking in on our private world. I love getting to be the tough girl. I love the moments when our characters truly connect. I love the confessions and the truths that are uncovered. I love the humanity of this play.
Have you ever worked with together before?
Frank: No, we have not. I didn’t meet Amy until the day of the first read. We clicked right from day one. It’s been an absolute pleasure and privilege going on this journey with her. Given the intensity of the play, we always share laughs when on breaks from rehearsing. It’s very much needed.
Frank, you’ve appeared in some Shakespearean plays. Do these characters remind you of any characters in any Shakespearean play or comedy?
Frank: Actually, I’ve only appeared in two Shakespearean plays professionally: in The Tempest as Caliban with the Virginia Shakespeare Festival back in 2005, and in Richard III as Richard III for WSC Avant Bard back in 2010. I absolutely love Shakespeare, and definitely want to do more of it. I’m beginning rehearsals for The Mistorical Hystery of Henry I(V) as Justice Shallow at WSC Avant Bard this week, which will be me returning to Shakespeare since Richard III.
There are Shakepearean qualities to the Professor and to the play itself in some ways, definitely. At this juncture, I can say that there is probably a little bit of Antonio from The Tempest, and a little bit of Claudius from Hamlet. I’m sure there may be more.
How can audiences in 2011 relate to your characters and the play?
Frank: I think at one time or another, we’ve all had the need to share something personal or revealing with someone, whether we are familiar with them or they are complete strangers to us, and that’s what happens in this play. Something as basic as that, I think, the audience can relate to.
Amy: I think the audiences will relate to the connections between our characters…the impact of two strangers upon one another. The influence that people have upon one another is staggering, especially when such intimate and honest connections are made. I hope they will relate to the characters and that they will be able to compare them to their own lives.
What’s next for you?
Frank: While still running The Stenographer, I begin rehearsals on The Mistorical Hystery of Henry I (V) at WSC Avant Bard (where I’m a member of its Acting Company) this week, and following that will be Les Justes in the winter, and The Bacchae in the spring, all at WSC Avant Bard also.
Amy: I’m not sure what is up next for me. There’s been some discussion of something family friendly (which would suit my children as they are most upset with me that they cannot see this one). Beyond that, I’m just planning to enjoy the rest of this run and see what comes my way in the future.
What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing The Stenographer?
Frank: As an actor, I can only hope audiences take with them whatever they experience, in that block of time, in that moment. Experiencing your experience.
Amy: After seeing this play I hope that audiences will take away an appreciation for the intimate theatre experience, and embrace the honesty and simplicity onstage and in the writing. I hope that they might even take away a message of hope and perhaps a deeper understanding of what it is to be a part of the human race.
AMY RHODES (SET DESIGNER)
Joel: Why did you want to design the set for The Stenographer?
Amy: First and foremost, I love the script. I was already working with it as an actor when Deb asked if I’d consider designing as well. So, of course, I couldn’t say no!
Joel: What were some of the challenges in working and directing in this space?
The space itself is challenging in its shape and size but ultimately, this intimate space is the perfect setting for such an intimate and honest script. The audience sees things at a very close range and from all angles–there’s no faking it. The set had to reflect that.
How does your set design contribute to the production?
It was a unique experience to create a set organically throughout the rehearsal process, as opposed to coming into production meetings with drawings and models. We made discoveries about staging as we went through and developed the set accordingly. In that way it evolved with the work and with our understanding of the characters and their interaction, rather than remaining static and making the actors conform to it.
The play is very realistic – in real-time and conversational, but as the play progresses, we see how the characters have created their own realities to deal with their own lives and the choices they have made. We wanted the set to reflect both the realism and the characters’ isolation – one room with distinct areas dedicated to the different parts of the Professor’s world. Aside from its intimacy, the set is functional – everything the Professor needs to survive is in that one room. It gives the audience a real sense of who he is and intensifies the fact that the girl is an outsider in this private world of masculinity and intellect.
My favorite part of the set is the print of Paolo Sala’s painting Twilight, St Petersburg which hangs over the professor’s “throne.” It not only reflects his obsession with Russian literature but, despite the numerous people in the painting, there is a cold isolation about it that mirrors that of the characters of the play and of Crime and Punishment as well.
What were some of the challenges in working and designing the set in this space?
The space itself is challenging in its shape and size but ultimately, this intimate space is the perfect setting for such an intimate and honest script. The audience sees things at a very close range and from all angles – there’s no faking it. The set had to reflect that.
The Stenographer plays through September 25th at Venus Theatre Play Shack – 21 C Street, in Laurel, MD. Tickets, which are general admission, are $18, and can be purchased at the door or online.
Read Graham Pilato’s review of The Stenographer.