The latest production to come out of Plan-B will take an interesting turn down the road of religious exploration with Virtue
. The play focuses on Hildegard of Bingen, an interesting figure in the Catholic Church from the 12th century who managed to have the ear of the Pope, wrote the first Western world's first opera and questioned whether or not they could bridge the gap between spirituality and sexuality. Today we chat with playwright Tim Slover, who is making his Plan-B Theatre debut, and actor Christy Summerhays, who will be playing Hildegard, about the production and bringing it to life, as well as their thoughts going into opening night. (All pictures provided courtesy of Plan-B.
Tim Slover & Christy Summerhays
Hey Tim and Christy! First thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.
The most important thing to know about me is that I’m married to an extremely gifted marriage and family therapist. In the Department of Theatre at the University of Utah, I teach playwriting and dramatic literature, and direct student and adult learning abroad programs in London. I wrote a Christmas play when I was in sixth grade that got put on. Well, one could hardly retreat from that heady accomplishment, right?
The first time I remember being aware that I wanted to be an actor I was about four years old. I moved to New York at 19 to study acting at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts and I’ve been acting and directing in theater
and film ever since. I am the fifth of eight children and was brought up by parents who loved the arts and were very encouraging of me. My father sang with Utah Opera, and my first time on a professional stage was with him, in Utah Opera’s production of Carmen
What have the two of you been up to over the past year in local theater?
I’ve been seeing a lot of remarkable productions stuffed to the gills with talent, ingenuity and a work ethic that would put John Henry the steel-drivin
’ man to shame. Ounce for ounce, Salt Lake City really is the most amazing theater
city, especially for producing new work. We seekers after aesthetic thrills are so fortunate that these artists have chosen to ply their skills among us! I’ve also been writing a modern-language translation of the last play Shakespeare ever wrote, a collaboration with fellow quill-jockey John Fletcher called The Two Noble Kinsmen
. It’s a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and it will be produced by the U’s Theatre Department in April. One of the University of Utah’s truly gifted and talented rising stars, Professor Martine Kei Green-Rogers, and—wait for it—her equally gifted and talented husband, Shane Rogers, is playing the role of Volmar in Virtue
. You realize,
I hope, that this proves there is meaning in the universe.
My main project was producing and acting in a short film I wrote. I got the script ready, the crew ready, myself ready and shot 95 percent of it last summer. The other 5 percent was shot just a few days before starting rehearsals for Virtue
! I also directed and toured with The Forgotten Carols, a yearly Christmas tradition for me.
Tim, when did you first come up with the idea for Virtue?
An opportunity arose. The MFA Acting Program at Penn State University was looking for a new play in development for their students to work on over a year. So I started developing.
What piqued your interest in Hildegard of Bingen?
Hildegard is one of the most remarkable figures in the European Middle Ages. She was a prioress, a mystic, an herbologist and a writer about midwifery. Her books of visions were widely read and respected—even by the Pope—and that made her a famous woman, the correspondent of princes and cardinals. At the same time, she was very much her own woman, defying, when she felt she needed to, authority figures of her day. For example, when she received a revelation that the nuns in her charge should wear white gowns and jewelry as brides of Christ, she didn’t hesitate to institute the practice in her monastery—even though it flouted the customary dress of her Benedictine order.
What made you decide to incorporate a musical aspect into the production?
Hildegard’s music is the crown of all her remarkable accomplishments—and the most long lasting. Today, her songs are performed by some of the best ensembles and soloists in the world, and several beautiful recordings are available. Hildegard’s claim was that her music came to her directly as revelations from the Living Light; she herself was untrained in musical composition. Certainly, there is nothing quite like it: It swoops and soars and is very demanding. I believe you can’t write a play about Hildegard and not include her music! It’s at the heart of Virtue;
Hildegard receives the world’s first opera—also the first morality play—in the play.
How was it for you to bring it to Plan-B and work with their crew to make the play happen?
If I had to choose one word to describe my experience working with Plan-B this year, it would be "superfantasticeyeopeningunbelievablyhelpfulandcreativelysatisfying." Jerry Rapier, Plan-B’s Artistic Director (and the director of Virtue
), cast the play early—and what a breathtakingly talented cast it is! We did three table reads over the course of several months before we began rehearsals. Guided by comments from the cast and insights from Jerry, I made changes and additions after each reading. It has made the play deeper and more potentially engaging to audiences, and I’m very grateful for the gift of time and creative insight I was given. The designers are also sensational. They have taken the time to really understand the play and research the period. The set, costumes, lighting, sound, makeup and properties they are creating solve the design challenges of the play elegantly and in a manner that turns my script into an absorbing and exciting theatrical text. 2016/17 has been one of the best artistic years of my life, thanks to Plan-B. I want every year to be this year!
Christy, what were your first impressions of Virtue and how did it resonate with you?
I guess my first impression would have to be the elegance of Tim’s writing—I mean, the character was, for obvious reasons, compelling. But as an actor, I am keenly aware of how words feel coming out of my mouth. Tim has found a way of making the language accessible while also achieving this elegance that helps you go back to this time and place.
What are the challenges of bringing Hildegard of Bingen to life?
At first, I was intimidated by the historical distance—but now I have realized that if I can get the relationships right and a strong sense of place I can trust the script and the designers to take us to the 12th century. The challenge right now is to make sure that I do all I can to find Hildegard’s many dimensions. She was a dynamic visionary, yes, but she was also wise, compassionate and could also be strategic in dealing with the men she was made to answer to.
How have you personally been able to connect to her?
I think Hildegard has what we might call a “strong personality,” and I’ve always been that way. She has a hard time taking no for an answer—something I can relate to as well. Having been raised in a strong Mormon tradition, I relate to striving to live a spiritual life, but being thrown by
a focus on “rules” that can sometimes take one away from the heart of it. One of my favorite lines is when Richardis
tells Hildegard she’s not worthy to be her scribe, Hildegard says, “Forget the cramped religion you learned as a child, I have seen beyond it. Everyone’s worthy. Everyone. Or, put another way, no one is. All our souls are black as pitch, all our souls precious beyond emeralds.”
How has it been for you working with the rest of the cast and crew?
Heavenly! (That’s how Hildegard would have put it.) I have loved every minute of it, except maybe when I was running a fever. There is nothing is this world more satisfying to me than to work in a talented and dedicated ensemble of actors, on a wonderful script, with a director and crew I can trust. All of those things have come together on this project. I wish it could go on all year.
What are both your thoughts going into opening night?
Since Christy is playing Hildegard, my thoughts are utterly serene. She is all I could ever hope for in the role. She lifts Hildegard off the page and makes her a real, flesh-and-blood woman so compelling you can’t take your eyes off her. But you should—because Shane, Emilie and Jay are doing exactly the same thing with their roles. Have I mentioned this cast is great? Yeah. I’m anticipating serenity.
Okay, I’ll make a confession—rehearsals are MY FAVORITE, so I always have a little sadness when they’re over. But, when the audience arrives, the play becomes complete, and I love that too. Opening night is always exciting and a little frightening! Mostly I’m so glad Plan-B chose Tim’s play to produce and excited for people to come be a part of it.
What can we expect from both of you over the rest of 2017?
Tim: The Two Noble Kinsmen
plays at the University of Utah Department of Theatre in April, with Randy Reyes, Artistic Director of the Mu Theatre Company in Minneapolis, directing a stellar cast and design team. Do check it out. I’ll be taking groups to London in March, May-June, and October. Because somebody has to do this work, damn it!
I’ll be back at Plan-B this fall in a show that I can’t tell you about yet!