There are plenty of interesting and talented people doing theater in Santa Barbara right now, but even among his distinguished peers, director Maurie Lord stands out. Lord founded Genesis West in 1998 with the stated goal of presenting “transgressive plays by contemporary noted playwrights in order to make Santa Barbara a more artistically vibrant community,” and he has succeeded on every level. Transgressive? Check. Contemporary? Check. Make Santa Barbara a more artistically vibrant community? Double check. With such shows as The Pillowman, The God of Hell, Bug, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and Curse of the Starving Class, Genesis West has consistently wowed the critics, earning multiple Independent Theater Awards for an unprecedented seven consecutive seasons. In the process, the company has become a second home to the top actors in the area, attracting adventurous players willing to give their all to a show, even when that means hanging upside down for a scene or sharing the stage with livestock.
In Endgame, the Samuel Beckett play that Genesis West will present for the next three weeks starting on Friday, October 12, longtime Lord collaborators Tom Hinshaw and Brian Harwell take the lead roles as Hamm and Clov, a deeply troubled pair of existential wayfarers trapped in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Accompanying them on their (non-?) journey are Nagg (David Brainard) and Nell (Julie Anne Ruggieri), an old couple who have been reduced by a catastrophic cycling accident to occupying adjacent sand-stuffed trashcans. And, if all weren’t enough, the show takes place not in a conventional theater space but rather at the McDermott-Crockett Mortuary on Chapala near Mission Street. I spoke with Lord last week about his latest foray into the deepest reaches of contemporary theater.
How has it been to work on a play by Samuel Beckett? There’s this paradox to preparing a piece for the theater, and it has to do with the fact that the experience of the director and the actors in rehearsals is often the opposite of what the audience goes through. Usually a lighthearted comedy is hellish to stage, while working on a tragedy is often a delight. In this case, that paradox has manifested in an interesting variation, because here we are putting on an absurdist masterpiece that everyone knows supposedly expresses the meaninglessness of life, and, for me at least, the dominant impression in the rehearsal process has been that I’ve never worked on material that feels so true. Everything in this play makes sense. It’s about something — death — which we all know we are going to go through, unfortunately, but somehow Beckett makes sense out of it.
Are you bringing a lot of new ideas to the staging? There are two main approaches to directing a play — the director as artist or the director as craftsman — and when you start working on something, I think you have to choose which one it’s going to be. I’m comfortable with both, but for Endgame I am definitely in craftsman mode because everything you need for this show is in the script. Sam [Beckett] gives it all to you.
I know some people who are interested in seeing it, but they wonder what the experience will be like. What should I tell them? Well, tell them it’s 90 minutes in comfy chairs; that ought to reel them in. [Laughs.] Seriously, the space is great — it has good bones. Oops, I probably shouldn’t say “bones.” Anyway, it has a great feeling, and now that I’ve done a few pop-ups, I am confident that I understand how they should be approached. The mistake that you see people make is to fight the room by trying to convert it into a black box theater, but that defeats the purpose. The right way involves embracing it, so in this case we are using everything we can that’s already there. We’re bringing in the trashcans, and we’re covering up some stuff, but otherwise it’s all being done with lights. Ted Dolas will light the show, and he’s doing a brilliant job.
How did this rehearsal period differ from others that you have done? The biggest difference was in the number of readings we did. At the beginning of the year, we met once a month at my house just to read the script, and then we stepped up the frequency to twice a month, then once a week, until finally we were off book and in rehearsal. At first I was also really in research mode. But some time in August I shut down the nerd and went full-time working with just the script. At that point, I quit watching other versions of Beckett and instead went on a steady diet of silent comedy — Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy — wonderful stuff, and very relevant.
Beckett seems to be enjoying a resurgence in popularity these days. Have you noticed that? How would you explain it? I had a great professor of theater at UCSB, William Davies King, and he said something really interesting to me about that. He said that he felt like there were two Samuel Becketts — the one that was a hit with the Beatniks, and who was understood as representing some kind of response to the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation, and then this other Beckett, who is only now really coming into focus, and who is popular with students today.
Hamm and Clov are master and servant. Are you playing that more for comedy or tragedy? We always walk a fine line between making it too funny and letting it get ponderous. There’s this great tradition that comes down from commedia dell’arte and Roman comedy of the master-servant relationship in which the clever servant really calls the shots. He’s the one who knows what’s up. You see this not only in the action but also in the characterization, because Hamm, who is the master, can’t see or stand, and he tries to make up for that by talking a lot. Clov, on the other hand, can’t sit. He limps, and he’s constantly in some kind of physical discomfort, but he has to keep moving.
The term “endgame” comes from the last part of a chess match, when there are only a few pieces left on the board. How do you see that reference as relevant to the play? Beckett was interested in chess, and actually all you have to do to see that is just open your eyes and look at the stage, because each character resembles a piece on the chess board. There’s Hamm; he’s the king and, as in chess, he can’t do crap. Then there’s Clov, who’s like a knight because his range is limited and he’s eccentric in his movement — two squares up and one over, or one up and two over — he staggers. Finally there’s Nagg and Nell, the parents, and, sitting legless in their cans, they look just like the castles or rooks.
You’ve done a lot of great work over the last decade. Where do you see Endgame fitting in? This is probably the oldest play I’ve done by 30 years, but if I had to choose one play to explain to someone what’s true in the world, it would be Endgame.
Genesis West presents Endgame at McDermott-Crockett & Associates Mortuary (2020 Chapala St.) starting Friday, October 12, and running Thursday-Saturday through October 27 at 8 p.m. Call (805) 969-5637 or visit genesiswest.org for tickets and information.