RAPID FIRE 20 Q WITH CAST OF CIRCLE PLAYERS’ Clybourne Park
To refer to playwright Bruce Norris‘ Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning Clybourne Park as a sequel or even spinoff of Lorraine Hansberry‘s four-time Tony-nominated A Raisin in the Sun doesn’t exactly give the work its due. Yes, Norris borrows a primary plot point–a black family moving into a predominately white neighborhood during the volatile late 1950s–from Hansberry’s original and even features one of the characters from Raisin, Karl Lindner (two if you count the home itself, and frankly you should) but from there on, Norris makes Clybourne Park and the additional characters he introduces his own by not only examining the neighborhood Hansberry’s Younger family is moving into, but through a clever plot devise midway through the play, that same neighborhood as it experiences a bit of reverse racism some fifty years later when Act 2 time jumps to the year 2009. Adding to Norris’ creative take, actors featured in the first Act reappear as different characters in Act 2.
Whether by fate or clever marketing, at present, Nashville theatre enthusiasts have the chance to see both works as Raisin just opened at Nashville Rep last week, while Clybourne Park is Circle Players‘ current offering running through Sunday, April 2, under the direction of Daniel DeVault at Circles’ occasional home, The Looby Theatre (2301 Rosa Parks Blvd. in North Nashville). Those in the historical know might enjoy the fact that the venue is named for Z. Alexander Looby, one of Nashville’s most respected civil rights leaders and of course the venue’s street address is named for arguably the most famous civilian accidental activist, Miss Rosa Parks. So it seems more than fitting that Circle Players’ Clybourne Park, steeped in racial and socioeconomic issues is calling The Looby Theatre home during this run of the ever-timely play. Earlier this week, with only a weekend’s worth of performances left for Circle Players’ Clybourne Park, I had the chance to pose a few questions to actors Matt Smith, Maggie Pitt, Preston Crowder and Clybourne Park stage manager, Alexis LaVon for the latest entry in my recurring celebrity interview feature, Rapid Fire 20 Q. Our conversations follow:
Rapid Fire with Alexis LaVon, stage manager for Circle Players’ Clybourne Park
JONATHAN PINKERTON: Let’s assume not everyone knows exactly what a stage manager does. Describe your job duties in ten words or less.
ALEXIS LAVONl: Okay that is going to be hard and I laughed out loud upon reading this question…..how is this …. “The person who oversees most tasks and keeps everyone together.” How is that !
JP: You’ve worked with Circle Players’ for a while now. What’s it like to be part of the Circle family?
ALEXIS LAVON: It’s been great…I’ve worked with several companies in Nashville, but Circle has a unique way of bringing people together to do quality work. They choose fun and intriguing pieces of work and are open to all…Veterans and Newbies alike. I’ve met and worked with so many great talents that I now call friends. Everyone brings such a commitment and love for theatre which is nice.
JP: The house in Clybourne Park is a character itself, and interestingly the only one that appears in both acts. What’s your personal favorite 1950s touch in Act 1?
ALEXIS LAVON: Wow…I love the set in Act One…it’s beautiful. My favorite would have to be the vase with purple flowers and the Window Display and Retro Phone…..Great Touches.
JP: On the flip, what set piece or prop most exemplifies 2009 in the show’s second act?
ALEXIS LAVON: I would have to say the solo chairs for each actor…it’s such a dramatic difference from Act One…because it’s pretty empty….it’s the shell of the original home. It’s such a great choice by Daniel because the focus is entirely on the Actors and the Dialogue.
JP: What’s the biggest challenge of orchestrating lapse of time in the same house set between between Act 1’s 1959 setting to Act 2’s 2009 time frame…and how the heck to you pull it off during the quick intermission?
ALEXIS LAVON: The biggest challenge is making sure everyone can work together quickly and efficiently… I analyzed the Set Items and took into consideration my crew’s strengths and what needed to change and just assigned tasks… we work like clock work and everything is done in such a way that no one is in the running over each other and with that method we were able to execute in 8-9 minutes flat. So proud of them ….they rock !
Rapid Fire with Matt Smith, Karl/Steve in Circle Players’ Clybourne Park
JP: I have to admit, I was a bit surprised when I learned that this is your first time appearing in a Circle Players’ production. What drew you to the project?
MATT SMITH: I’ve been wanting to do a Circle Players show for years, there just hasn’t been the right project at the right time until now, and I’m thrilled to finally be working with them. This play is breathtakingly well-written and the subject matter is both timely and extremely challenging.
JP: Tell me about the characters you play in Clybourne Park?
MATT SMITH: Karl is, in the words of the playwright, an “oddly formal and uncomfortable-seeming man.” He and his wife lost an infant 2 years before the action of act 1 and she’s pregnant again. He believes that he is fighting for the well-being, maybe even the survival, of his family and their way of life as he watches the ethnic makeup of the community begin to change. Steve feels disenfranchised (in his words, “marginalized by the tide of history…”) and somewhat emasculated and, again, the playwright gives us a brief look at a specific event from his past; in this case, being “publicly beaten” by the only black kid in his entire high school. In one of my favorite lines in the play, Lindsey accuses Steve of having “…white male myopia.” Steve, to me, is a vehicle through which the playwright catalogs the grievances of the American white cisgender male, all the while discounting and deriding each and every one of them.
JP: In developing your characters, have you found similarities between Karl and Steve?
MATT SMITH: Karl and Steve do share some personality traits. They both consider themselves to be more intelligent and better informed than the people around them, which leads them to speak in an annoyingly pedagogical and condescending manner. They are both confident that the beliefs they hold regarding community and race relations are just and moral. This is what made developing the characters such a challenge for me. I had to work very hard to not allow myself to feel any guilt, shame or embarrassment and to remind myself constantly that I should be surprised if everyone in the room didn’t agree with every word I said!
JP: How is Daniel DeVault as a director?
MATT SMITH: Although I’ve done several shows with Daniel over the years as an actor and director myself, this was my first opportunity to be directed by him, and it’s been such a joy. He had a very strong idea of exactly what he wanted from the first rehearsal, and has communicated that vision to us clearly, consistently and passionately. At the same time, he gave us the freedom we needed to create and discover our individual characters and their relationships with each other.
JP: In both acts, you play opposite Maggie Pitt. How has it been to work with her in this show?
MATT SMITH: This has also been my first opportunity to work with Maggie, and it’s been a delightful experience. I’m amazed by her ability to play two completely different characters every night and she does so flawlessly. She prepares exhaustively and has a rare feel for timing and connection, and when we interrupt and talk over each other and finish each other’s sentences in act 2 I believe it gives the relationship between Steve and Lindsey a real feeling of emotional depth and authenticity.
Rapid Fire with Maggie Pitt, Betsy/Lindsey in Circle Players’ Clybourne Park
JP: You play Matt’s character, Karl’s deaf wife, Betsy in Act 1. What did you find to be the biggest challenge in playing a deaf character?
MAGGIE PITT: I think getting the voice right was my biggest challenge for Betsy. Bruce Norris wrote Betsy’s lines phonetically which served as a good starting point, but I still had to do research and get constructive feedback from a few people before my speaking sounded plausible, and it took most of the rehearsal period for me to be able to deliver my lines consistently. I still run all of Betsy’s lines out loud before each show to make sure that my vocal delivery hasn’t altered.
JP: In Act 2, you play Lindsey. What’s your favorite aspect of that character?
MAGGIE PITT: My favorite aspect(s) of Lindsey are her complexity and emotional range. I appreciate a good challenge, and it’s definitely been challenging trying to dissect this character and to resolve what initially seemed like contradictory words and actions on her part. Also, I’m happy any time I get to play a wide range of emotions on stage.
JP: I mentioned that this is Matt’s first show with Circle. Over the years, you’ve appeared in more than half-a-dozen Circle productions. What is it about Nashville’s oldest continuing theatre company that keeps you coming back?
MAGGIE PITT: Circle has a very special association for me because the first theatre show I ever acted in was Circle’s production of Treasure Island in 2007. I’ve been hooked on theatre ever since, and many of the friends I’ve made in Nashville I met while doing Circle shows. They’re a great organization that I’ve enjoyed being involved with over the years.
JP: How familiar were you with Clybourne Park prior to auditioning for Circle’s current production?
MAGGIE PITT: To be honest, I knew very little about Clybourne Park until Circle announced it as part of their season lineup. The first time I read the play was about three months ago in preparation for the audition, but it’s such a good script that the more I read and studied it the more I wanted to do the show.
JP: Why do you think Clybourne Park and its source material, A Raisin in The Sun, continue to captivate audiences’ attention?
MAGGIE PITT: I think these plays still captivate audiences because they are beautifully written pieces that force us to examine our own views, actions, and personal responsibility to directly address societal problems instead of regarding them as large, abstract concepts that don’t affect us. The issues that the characters in these plays deal with (particularly the blatant racism of the 1950’s and its more subtle form as gentrification fifty years later) are especially relevant today.
Rapid Fire with Preston Crowder, Albert/Kevin in Circle Players’ Clybourne Park
JP: Like the show’s director, Daniel DeVault, you yourself have acted as well as directed. What advantage do you see when developing your portrayal of characters, having been on both sides of the stage?
PRESTON CROWDER: As a director, I learned the balance between allowing actors to make their own choices while also finding ways to achieve the overall vision. Directing is about the art of molding reality, and Daniel found various ways to do just that with the cast and crew. Daniel’s specificity along with his ability to let us to carve out our own paths truly pushed everyone to find my heart heart in the show. While acting, I paid close attention to Daniel’s direction and will surely use much of what I’ve learned in the future.
JP: Do you think Clybourne Park is a faithful continuation of Hansberry’s tale?
PRESTON CROWDER: A Raisin In The Sun is a story that stills resonates greatly with audiences everywhere. There’s a reason why you can always seem to find wonderful productions of the show. Although we are decades ahead of when the story was written, the topics explored are still very much present in our society. Clybourne Park beautifully explores the idea that issues surrounding race that were present in 1959 are still very much present today. Norris’ bold and realistic take on current discussions around race and gentrification is one that has the ability to remain relevant for many years to come. I’m sure Hansberry would have nothing but love and admiration for the play.
JP: While Albert and Kevin share a few personality traits, what’s the the primary difference between the two men you play?
PRESTON CROWDER: I think the biggest difference between the two men is how they view their blackness in each act. In ACT 1, Albert stands a proud working, black man but he most often hide the pride he has for his skin color as a means of survival. In ACT 2, however, it feels as though Kevin would rather pretend his race didn’t exist as a means of being viewed as respectable and legitimate in the eyes of his white peers. Similarly, both men find themselves putting masks over their blackness. On the other hand, however, the men’s motives are much different.
JP: In both acts, you’re paired with Chandra Walton, who plays the Stoller’s maid, Francine in Act 1 and Lena in Act 2. How is Chandra as a scene partner?
PRESTON CROWDER: Chandra has an energy that will automatically make you feel comfortable, no matter what’s going on. Part of her ability to do this is the dedication she brings to her role. The way she digs into the characters of both Francine and Lena makes you want to bring your best when working with her. Not to mention she’s extremely hilarious, so she always makes doing the shows a good time!
JP: In Clybourne Park, the playwright touches on so many “hot button” issues including: political correctness, racism, mental illness, suicide, grief. If the audience were to take away an uplifting representation of one topic, one scene, what do hope it is?
PRESTON CROWDER: If there’s anything I hope audiences takes away from this show, it’s that there’s always room for us to grow in terms of loving and respecting each other. There are a lot of hateful things said (and yelled!) and in the show, and many of those statements are propelled by blind and blissful ignorance. I hope this show pushes people to keep learning how to love one another, but most importantly, understand one another.
Circle Players’ Clybourne Park directed by Daniel DeVault and starring Caroline Prince, Doug Allen, Chandra Walton, Ethan Treutle, Matthew Robert C. Laird, Preston Crowder, Maggie Pitt and Matt Smith concludes its three-week run with performances at The Looby Theatre through Sunday, April 2 with evening performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 and a final Sunday matinee at 3 p.m. Click Here for tickets. Up next for Circle Players’ is Saturday Night Fever. Click Here for more. Follow Circle Players on Facebook and Twitter.
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