The theater changes all the time. There are movements and -isms that come along every so often, and one replaces another. But what is it like to witness a new theatrical movement before it coalesces into something with a name? Truly new artworks ordinarily meet with resistance, yet those that survive must have something in them which reveals an aspect of the future, and already appeals to something that has yet to be acknowledged.
Genesis West is a theater company that was founded to explore this edge. Their recent production of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman was one of the most controversial plays mounted in Santa Barbara this year, and the reasons for this controversy are obvious. For one, The Pillowman is two hours and forty-five minutes long-more time than most people are willing to give to an experiment.
Another scary thing about the play is its subject matter. The first thing I heard about The Pillowman alarmed me. “I think it’s about some kind of serial child murderer” said an actor friend, and I thought, “Oh no, please not that.” The next person I asked about the show told me that it was about police torture in a totalitarian state, and I thought, “Great, compared to the alternative, that’s a relief.” But ten minutes into the show at Center Stage, I realized something truly dreadful: they had both been right. The two funny, tough, Tarantino-type cops I was watching onstage, played by Dirk Blocker and Tom Hinshaw, were interrogating Jeff Mills as Katurian, a possible serial killer of children.
I spoke with director Maurice Lord in the middle of the run about what it is like to take on such challenging material.
Was it hard to cast The Pillowman?
Not really, because I chose Jeff Mills right away to play the lead, Katurian. I had two choices for it, and Jeff was one of them. I stalked and hounded him until he read it and then he said “yes.” When Matt Tavianini came on, then that made it even better, because the two work so well together.
How did you decide to do this play?
To me The Pillowman was an obvious choice. I’m a kind of playwright nerd, and whenever I hear about a new playwright who is supposed to be good, and who is challenging to produce like this, I just immerse myself in that person’s work until I know what they are about. With Martin McDonagh, I completely believe in what he is doing. I feel confident that this is a play that people will be doing in one hundred years, and that McDonagh is one of the best writers out there right now. His work opens onto so much more than just Ireland. He’s only 38 years old and he is already prolific, with several series of plays.
The play’s protagonist is also a writer of shockingly gruesome stories. Do you think there is a connection to the playwright there?
I know there is, because all the stories Katurian tells in the play were originally stories by McDonagh, so that is where they came from. Working with them gave us all a very strong sense of what the author was like, or at least what he seemed like to us. We could really feel it, to the point where we found ourselves saying, “That was so Katurian,” about a particular moment. He is an artist figure, and shows what artists fear that they might be. Plus he has an artist’s laughter and irreverence and obliviousness.
What are the themes of this play?
I think McDonagh would say that there are no themes in his work. I think he did say it, and that made it harder for us. No themes. That doesn’t leave much to work on in rehearsal. It’s just a wonderful web, this script, so really all we tried to do was to light the paging, to show the lines and the structure there. Michael Smith and I started Genesis West as a playwright’s company, and we have stayed true to that. I don’t veer off from the script. I would not cut a work, or intentionally compromise the writer’s vision in any way.
It must have been a challenge for the actors to learn such long and frightening roles.
The rehearsals were hard, like a tough yoga class. There would be table work to warm up, then we would really get into it, and then we would consciously take some time to cool down, and respect the importance of that. It was a monumental effort. I mean, Jeff memorized all those stories. I don’t think Jeff knows this, but Billy Crudup, who played Katurian on Broadway, used a prompter, or at least that’s what I heard. It was like learning three plays, and that’s how we did it, by taking it as though it were three plays.
What was the feeling like among the cast members?
Backstage was a happy place. It had to be. You can’t do this kind of work without that sanity and trust in the cast. These are experienced professional people and they are testing their limits with this show. All four guys did stuff they had never done before. And we needed to talk about it, and that’s another thing that the Boxtales [Theatre Company] people really brought to this: an ability to discuss the things that we were doing, and to take them seriously. We had debates about the stories, and what they meant, and that was important.
There are two roles that are for children, yet due to the subject matter, you had to use college students, is that right?
Yes, and I must say Amanda Berning was heaven sent. There was no way I could use a child actor, and then there she was, straight from UCSB, and she totally got it and did an amazing job.
411: The Pillowman runs at Center Stage Theater through May 3rd. For tickets or more information, call 963-0408 or visit centerstagetheater.org.