Iowa City – Today we’re going to a deep look into Dreamwell Theatre’s 2015-16 Season, which is called Interrogation: Uncovering the Buried Self. We had the chance to talk to Chuck Dufano, Dreamwell Theatre’s Artistic Chair, as well as Rachael Lindhart and Nate Sullivan, Artistic Committee members.
Dreamwell has a reputation of doing the show no one else does. Yet, you also do shows everyone else does – like Death of a Salesman. So which is it? What is Dreamwell?
CHUCK: While we appreciate that we have a “reputation” for doing the new or obscure shows, it would be silly for Dreamwell to impose limitations on itself and miss doing a great show just to maintain that reputation.
NATE: I agree. I don’t think there’s an imperative for Dreamwell to only do lesser-known plays, though of course, we do a lot of scripts that wouldn’t otherwise be produced in Iowa City.
RACHAEL: Dreamwell remains, I am happy to say, a theatre true to its name: a theatre of exploration. This means that we can explore very new works, which we make a great effort to do when we select the season each year.
NATE: When we choose a better-known play like Death of a Salesman or Beyond Therapy, it’s because that play has something interesting to say, and when we do these plays, I think they’re done differently than if another local theatre put them up. That’s another facet of our theatre of exploration.
RACHAEL: Yes, it means we can also explore plays that are not new, but which usually haven’t been done in Iowa City in a while. These are plays which we feel explore subjects and sometimes styles which have theatrical merit and speak to audiences no matter how old they are.
CHUCK: That’s right. We’ve done a number of shows in the past that are more mainstream (for example, Henry V, Enemy of the People, Master Harold and the Boys) because they are powerful shows with a timeless message.
RACHAEL: I am reminded of a theatre professional friend of mine (a set and costume designer) who, when asked, “What kind of plays do you like to do?” answered, “Good ones!”
This upcoming season, there’s a lot of drama – 1984, The Great God Pan, Gidion’s Knot – these are not happy shows. Now you have a comedy in there, too, but I have to ask – why are the comedies rare birds on the Dreamwell stage?
CHUCK: Have you met the Dreamwell Board? There’s not enough dark chocolate and Dr. Phil episodes to go around… No, really, I think it’s because usually when we find a play with an issue we want audiences to know about or think more about that play tends to be a drama. We’ve done plays that deal with things like homosexuality, war, child abuse, and obsessive gaming to help bring these issues more to light or present in a new way. Sometimes we find these issues dealt with in comedies, but usually not.
RACHAEL: Why are comedies rare? I think this question goes back to the Greeks: why do we still do the dramas of Euripides and Sophocles, but only comedies by Aristophanes? The answer is that comedies are hard.
NATE: That’s a good point, Rachael. One of the stumbling blocks we had this year with picking plays was this constant nagging question of, “Is this Dreamwellian enough?”, and I think often we shy away from comedy because it may seem too light or lacking in substance to serve our mission.
RACHAEL: I think there are fewer playwrights who truly see comedy as a form for talking about serious things that are more easily confronted in that form. The theatre tends to see comedy as mere entertainment.
NATE: I do think there are great comedies out there that fit into our niche, and it will serve us well to search for them in the future.
You have another Durang play coming up. In 2012, you did Baby with the Bathwater. Just last January, you did Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them. And here comes Beyond Therapy this fall. Why so much Durang? Is he a close personal friend? I kid, I kid. But tell me – what is it about Durang’s work that keeps you coming back to that well?
NATE: I think it ties into the last question. Durang writes very good comedies that also fit the Dreamwell spirit of pushing boundaries and testing conventions.
RACHAEL: Durang is one of our playwrights who uses comedy to serious effect. We haven’t done this play, but perhaps his most scathing and biting play is Betty’s Summer Vacation. Maybe that will be our next Durang!
NATE: I think a good step for next year and beyond will be to find other playwrights who write similar comedic work as Durang and explore their scripts as well.
CHUCK: Dreamwell did a Durang play?
Oh, Chuck. But let’s talk about your first show – 1984. A classic novel. My understanding is you’ve read a few different adaptations of this story, but the one by Michael Gene Sullivan is the one you chose. So what is it about this adaptation that made you want to bring it to stage?
NATE: Classic novels often struggle on stage because the mode of storytelling is so different. In a novel, the author has the luxury of narration to create the world of the story, but in a script those things have to be stripped away and the only thing remaining is the dialogue, which doesn’t always tell us the full story. A good adaptation, like Sullivan’s 1984, is able to retain the spirit of the source while making it stage-ready. This adaptation does that by framing the events of the novel as a story-within-a-story. I don’t want to give away too much at this point, but I think it’s a really smart device to amp up the stakes.
RACHAEL: This adaptation we have chosen seems to me to be the most up-to-date one that still preserves those huge issues that Orwell was tackling.
CHUCK: Sullivan’s adaptation is theatrically exciting and visually engaging. It opens with Winston’s interrogation underway and his past experiences are played in scenes involving the interrogators taking on various roles of people in Winston’s life. Throughout all of this the omnipresent telescreen looms. The audience will be absorbed in the story whether or not they’ve read the novel. We were very pleased to find this adaption because another adaption we read last year came off more as a narrative than a theatrical piece. And, Rachael, didn’t you recently see a different adaptation of 1984 on stage?
RACHAEL: Yes, I saw a production in London last year which utilized lots of projections and video. That approach was interesting, but not do-able for Dreamwell; I think the one we have is certainly the best way we could fine to tell this amazing futuristic story.
As noted, Beyond Therapy is the one comedy of the season. The play is over 30 years old. Does it stand the test of time? Will you have to do any updating for a modern audience?
CHUCK: I think the themes hold up – people still have the desire to find their true love, talk over their problems with a therapist, and have disastrous first dates. It’s actually kind of depressing things haven’t changed that much in 30 years. Hmmm, what time is Dr. Phil on today?
RACHAEL: Beyond Therapy is vintage Durang. And I think it has stood the test of time as about the best of his early plays. It is a play that deals with big issues in a rather deceivingly realistic world — much more realistic than, say, the world of Baby with the Bathwater.
NATE: I think the play holds up based strictly on the quality of the dialogue and the characters. Sure, it’s full of ’80s references, but even if you don’t understand them (and since I was born in 1987, I don’t), the play is still incredibly funny and the issues of self-identity and self-validation are very relevant to today’s culture of obsession with things like social-media personas.
RACHAEL: I don’t feel that we will need to do updating; I think it will be possible to be funny in the period in which the play is written.
CHUCK: I agree with Nate — the only fear we have regarding updating for a modern audience is when the lead characters are advised to place a personal ad, 20-something year olds aren’t going to snort, “What’s a newspaper?” while thumbing through match.com on their Smartphone.
NATE: Chuck, Dr. Phil is on at 3:00.
The Great God Pan deals with the vagaries of memory and childhood trauma. What is it about this play that made you choose it for your season?
NATE: I’m not sure about Chuck or Rachael, but what initially drew me to the play was simply the fact that it provides some really outstanding characters to work with. These are some very real, tangible people, and that amplifies the story to something that really resounds with the audience.
CHUCK: Yes, the characters in this play jump out as real people from the start. The audience joins the journey of Jamie as he struggles to unravel an unforgotten but possible abuse in his past while the other people in his life deal with their own issues. You believe that these things could happen to these people.
RACHAEL: I agree. The Great God Pan deals with issues way beyond child abuse, although that might seem to be a central theme. Its questions of identity and memory go beyond the story it begins telling. It is the kind of play that explores epic themes without pushing into an epic style. That seems to me what makes it a Dreamwell kind of play.
Gidion’s Knot has so many issues at play – the nature of art, the responsibility of a teacher, the responsibility of a parent… can you talk a little bit about this show?
CHUCK: Are you familiar with the metaphor ‘Gordian Knot’?
Yes. Basically, it’s a metaphor for an intractable problem and the only way to solve it is to think outside the box.
CHUCK: It’s just like that.
Okay, but can you give us a little more?
CHUCK: Well, the play covers all this rough terrain – bullying, guilt, child suicide, the expression and freedom of art, blame, grief – and there’s seemingly no way the mother and teacher in the play are going to make any sense out of any of it. But life demands that we answer the question, “Why?” You’ll have to come see the play to find out the answer.
I intend to.
CHUCK: Good. Bring a Kleenex.
And I notice the playwright of Gidion’s Knot is Johnna Adams who wrote Sans Merci, a play you produced a few years ago. Is there something about her work that strikes a chord with Dreamwell?
RACHAEL: Umm, I’ll take this one, Chuck. Johnna Adams came to our attention as part of a group of playwrights writing new, edgy work mainly in California. Since we had successfully produced Sans Merci, we were eager to read other works by Johnna. Actually, Gidion’s Knot impressed us as we were choosing plays for the 2014-15 season, but it didn’t seem to fit with the other plays we selected. However, we revisited it for the 2015-16 season and felt that it was truly related to our theme of uncovering personal secrets and how that impacts lives–studied in a very intimate way. I think we are all excited about finally doing this play.
CHUCK: What she said.
So tell us about Cock. Are we talking about a rooster here? Or is the title as provocative as it sounds? Tell us what the show is about and why you think audiences will enjoy it.
NATE: Yes, the title means what you think it means, and yes it is a button-pusher of a title, but the play is much more subtle and intelligent than the title would suggest.
CHUCK: What’s in a name? That which we call a rose….well, that’s another play altogether. The title of this play will draw attention, but as Nate said, it’s a smartly written play.
NATE: Yeah, it’s a super-minimal piece that makes no use of set or props in telling this story of a conflicted young man wrestling with the nature of sexuality and love that really hits at the heart of questions of labeling oneself.
RACHAEL: The playwright really explores deep questions about the meaning of sexual identity and what we are all looking for as we try to define ourselves in order to live our lives. The search for self and identity in this play is dynamic and highly theatrical.
CHUCK: The really cool thing about the story is that it isn’t about being straight, gay or bisexual – it’s about loving another person simply for who they are transcending gender and sexual orientation. And the play will be a challenge for the director, actors and our publicity committee alike.
RACHAEL: Cock is a play that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. I was terribly impressed with the play.
Word has it you could be in a number of different locations next year. How does the lack of permanent space impact your artistic decisions?
RACHAEL: Naturally, our search for a new home and locations for the productions we will present in 2015-16 will impact how we produce this season. It will be a challenge.
NATE: We knew we had to choose plays that are flexible and that have lower tech requirements rather than big spectacles, which I think contributed to the overall theme of close, personal engagement that pervades the plays we’ve chosen.
CHUCK: But audiences should know that even though we focused on lower tech shows that doesn’t mean they will be visually boring or unsatisfying. There’s a lot that can be done with simple sets and strategic lighting along with great acting.
RACHAEL: Absolutely! I think that we can look at it as an opportunity to try new things in new places; to learn a lot about the advantages of free-wheeling, creative approaches to the plays we have chosen. I am hoping that this very directorial problem will attract some strong directors who will be up for the kinds of challenges our homelessness will provide. I think some bold and strong choices will emerge to keep our season an exciting one!
Your season theme is Interrogation: Uncovering the Buried Self. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose this theme and how it relates to the season’s plays?
NATE: The theme reflects what I mentioned in my answer to the previous question: that these plays deal with deeply personal issues of identity and self-actualization. They center around characters asking tough questions, both of themselves and each other, and I think that drama of self-discovery is really moving.
RACHAEL: The theme of uncovering buried secrets is a strong one! The way human beings keep secrets (or don’t) is truly universally intriguing! And I think that it is very germane to all of the plays we have chosen.
CHUCK: What else is intriguing is that sometimes secrets are of our own choosing and other times we are the victims of someone else’s secrets. Next season’s plays cover the frustration and consequences of all those kinds of secrets.
RACHAEL: By designating this theme, I think we are sending a message to those directors who are finally chosen for these plays that we expect them to delve deeply into what these plays are truly about!
Bonus question: What was your favorite Dreamwell moment last year?
NATE: I was really moved by the funeral scene in Death of a Salesman. Coming after the frenzied emotional height of the climactic confrontation in the previous scene, this was a gentle and nuanced final note on a really good production, particularly in Krista Neumann’s performance.
RACHAEL: A personal favorite moment for me in Dreamwell’s past season was when Bob opened up the Flea Circus at the end of Bob: A Life in Five Acts. It was a wonderful ending to a wonderful production; topping everything that had gone before was a tough row to hoe and they nailed it!
CHUCK: I enjoyed the moment at the end of Uncle Vanya when Sonya responds to Vanya’s broken heart with her monologue about how they must continue to live; that they will look back on their sadness with tenderness, and they shall rest. Julia Sears delivered this with such genuineness and compassion which left a glimmer of comfort for this very desolate family. I must say, I think it’s really interesting all three of us choose the ending moments of three plays as our favorite moments. I guess the moral of this interview is with Dreamwell you got to stick around until the end because you never know what amazing thing is going to happen!