As Salt Lake Acting Company begins to wind down its very successful season, the company takes a proper step toward the final production with a comedic play. --- Course 86B In The Catalogue focuses on a paleontology professor at a community college seeking refuge from her affair-driven hubby, which during her time she discovers artifacts that not only carry a message over the ages, but have a profound impact on her in ways that span across time. Today, we chat with the four actors involved with the production, as well as playwright Kathleen Cahill and director Tracy Callahan. (All photos by David Daniels of dav.d photography)
Colleen Baum, Dan Beecher, Elise Groves, Topher Rassmussen, Kathleen Cahill & Tracy Callahan
Gavin: Hey, everyone. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.
Colleen: I'm Colleen Baum, playing Stevie Stuart, and there's not much to me. I have been acting at SLAC since 2002. This is my 10-year anniversary! I have never regretted a second of it.
Dan: Born and raised in Salt Lake City. Got into acting when I was eight when all my buddies decided to audition for an LDS stake production of The Music Man. I was cast as Winthrop (the little kid lead), and from then on, I had the disease they call theater. Went to the Actor Training Program at the U of U, and also studied at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York. Now, I'm into writing, branching out into directing and trying all sorts of new things to keep my habit going. Outside of theater, I enjoy doing fun things with fun people, the funnest of whom -- funnest is a word -- is my wife, Andrea, who is an astounding interior designer --have you eaten at Pallet, yet? -- and an all-around awesome woman.
Elise: My name is Elise Groves, I have lived in Utah my entire life, and I graduated from Weber State University in theater. I am a cosmetologist, I teach voice lessons and piano lessons and, of course, I am an actor.
Topher: I'm a 21-year-old introvert, possibilitarian and music junkie. I go to school at UVU, and am in love with the theater program there. I spend way too much time on the Internet. I'm an actor -- obviously -- musician, DJ and artist. My favorite color is sea-foam green. I am mildly obsessed with film noir, J.D. Salinger, Radiohead, tea, Shakespeare and octopuses. I like to be frightened. I don't like to wake up early in the morning.
Gavin: What are some of the projects you all have worked on in the past year?
Elise: Jesus Christ Superstar at the Egyptian Theatre Company, Iphigenia at the Utah Greek Theatre Festival, Gypsy at Dark Horse Theatre Company and Sunset Boulevard for Pioneer Theatre Co.
Topher: Well, there was Borderlands and a Script-In-Hand Series reading or two at Plan-B, then I took some time to work on my music, did Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of the War Of The Worlds at the U of U, had a blast doing Midsummer at Davis Arts -- where I met Dan! -- MacBeth with Grassroots Shakespeare Company -- one of the best experiences of my life -- and an experimental movement piece called Blue with Latchkey Theatre. I've had a great year.
Dan: Last summer, I played Bottom in the Davis Arts Council's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which has been my only theater gig until Course 86B... I did act in a couple of short films, and also co-wrote and directed a short -- which is now in post-production -- so that's fun. Also, I do a weekly podcast called Thank God I'm Atheist -- subscribe on iTunes -- which covers current events from a godless perspective. And it's funny. I hope.
Gavin: Kathleen, how did the inspiration for Course 86B come about, and what made you decide to write a play?
Kathleen: The play evolved from several sources. I was researching women in science, I was reading a book called Wonderful Life by the natural biologist Stephen Jay Gould, and I had just taken a trip to the slot canyons in Bolder, Utah, where I was introduced to dinosaur prints in the rocks, ancient plants growing on the top of mesas, and my guide, a former high school teacher who told me that, after teaching a course on evolutionary biology, his best student said to him, "I don't believe any of it." The teacher later learned there was a file on him in the principal's office. And shortly after that, he lost his job. All of this and more spun around in the Cuisinart of my mind and came out as this play. I was also, for some reason I haven't examined, interested in writing a comedy, a comedy about a serious subject. So the play takes on the subject of evolution, but not as a polemic. It's a comic exploration.
Gavin: Tracy, what did you think of the play on first reading, and how did you come on board as director?
Tracy: I was intrigued by the journey of Stevie's character and, of course, by the idea of time -- as in where are we and who are these people she encounters? I was struck by the similarity to southern Utah and thought it would have a connection to the audience specifically from this state. As in all of Kathleen's plays, I was intrigued by the magical quality she brings to life through the worlds she creates. Her connection to the Earth and the stars and all of the elements really is very interesting to me as a person.
Gavin: What kind of a challenge has it been for you to put on this production and bring it to the SLAC stage?
Tracy: I think the biggest challenge I found in the script was the way it moved. There were so many quick transitions and various locations, it sometimes felt more like a film than a theater piece. It moves fast -- this is part of the humor of the piece, that we keep Stevie's journey full of twists and turns. This is where clever staging, a multi-use single set and intriguing light and sound design come in. Thankfully, the entire design team for this show are top notch.
Gavin: For the cast, how did you first find out about the play, and what were your thoughts about it after reading it?
Colleen: I found out about the play from being asked to do a reading at Kathleen's house, and then a little later, doing a staged reading at SLAC. I thought it was very clever and deep and fell in love with the character of Stevie. She was well-thought out and very lovable. I knew an audience would take to her quite easily.
Dan: Kathleen asked me to be part of one of the first -- possibly the first -- readings of the play at least a year ago. It took place in her living room, and I read the part of Sterling. I'm now playing Bill. I don't think I have EVER been cast in a full production as the character that I read in a reading of a play. I thought it was a really fun play, and I loved how it played with time and space. As it should, considering it's thematic content, the play has evolved a lot since that first reading, and it's only gotten better.
Elise: This was probably one of the more exhausting audition processes I have been part of in a while. First of all, there is nothing more frightening than auditioning for the playwright. Knowing that she created and envisioned the role that I am bringing to life adds a whole new level of nerves. Secondly, as if auditioning once wasn’t stressful enough, they called me back to audition four different times. I had half of the show memorized just from auditions. Luckily, auditioning at SLAC is always fun, and working hard to get the role it makes the joy of getting cast all the sweeter.
Topher: Kathleen mentioned the play to me after one of Plan-B's SLAMs, and we did a reading at her house. I was intrigued, to say the least. Honestly, I wasn't entirely sure I "got it" the first time through, and was pretty sure I mangled the character she had written. I had fun with it, but I definitely thought they wanted someone else to play Sterling.
Gavin: What was it like for each of you during auditions and eventually getting your parts?
Dan: Auditions used to be fun for me. That wore off a long time ago. Now it's a special brand of torture. That said, the callbacks for this show were actually enjoyable. Initial auditions are usually you by yourself and a reader sitting nearby, reading out the other character's lines. I don't love that. But at callbacks, you frequently get to interact with other actors, which can be really fun. It's all about play, and seeing what the other actors are bringing to the table. That can be really great, especially when the actors you're playing with are super-talented. Which they all were in this case.
Tohper: Auditions were a blast. I had forgotten to check when auditions were, and heard about them pretty much by accident the day before. Luckily, when I called in, they had a time slot open. So I had very little time to prepare. I just went in and let loose. I'm pretty sure I put things in my mouth, and basically made a fool of myself. Apparently, they liked it! Haha.
Colleen: Auditions were a bit difficult because I wasn't sure if how I portrayed Stevie in the reading was how they wanted her to be done in the actual production. We were all called back several times and were just hoping to make it to the end.
Gavin: What are your thoughts on the particular characters you're each playing, and how has it been getting into those roles?
Elise: This has been a really fun character to bring to life. I play an 18-year-old girl named Dell from a different time period. Dell is very matter of fact and opinionated, and I believe she is an ordinary girl in her world. It is not until she is brought into Stevie’s world that she becomes really strange. The only real challenge is to keep a straight face while watching the other crazy actors on stage. Oh, I also play a life-size sea creature with five mushroom-shaped eyes on stalks … but you will have to come see the show to find out what that is all about.
Topher: I have had so much fun preparing for this role. I had to get in better shape. It's definitely a new challenge, in that I'm sort of PLAYING A DIFFERENT SPECIES! So I have had to do a lot of movement research, and have learned to embrace the ape-like parts of myself. Sterling's perception of the world is so fun. He has no inhibitions, no social awareness. It takes a lot of energy to play Sterling. But I love it.
Colleen: I love my character, Stevie, because ..."she is truly one of the old ones." She is a caring and enthusiastic person who struggles with the very deep questions of life and makes us smile because of her desperate attempts to answer those questions. We see her grow and change and fall down and pick herself right back up again ... and she only whines a little bit along the way; I think audiences will see themselves in her -- especially the paleontologists in the audience.
Dan: As I said before, I originally read the part of Sterling, so that's where my brain was when I auditioned. So, when Tracy asked me to look at the role of Bill, I was a little surprised. In part, because Bill is actually my age or -- gasp! -- possibly older, and I'm ALWAYS cast younger. Perhaps I've finally caught up with myself. But I really enjoy the challenge of Bill. How do you take a slick, philandering, financial-sector huckster and evolve him over the course of a play to being somebody the audience could believably like and possibly even root for? Can a man who has cheated on his wife and lost his -- possibly criminal -- job become sympathetic enough to win back the woman who left the state to get away from him? Hard to say ... but a fun challenge. We'll see how the audience reacts...
Gavin: Considering the content, would you say its easier to do an outright comedic play as opposed to a dramatic play with comedic parts to it? Or is it a different challenge altogether?
Topher: I have very little experience with comedy, so there are a ton of new challenges for me. It's so easy to lose truth, lose focus, but those are essential parts of really engaging comedic work. All the rules of drama apply, as much if not more than in dramatic pieces. It's exhausting. But so rewarding. I would say it is much harder to do a comedic play than a dramatic one.
Dan: I'd say that each play is its own challenge, regardless of genre. The key for me seems to be to keep my comedic sensibilities at hand, and then find an honest way to play the role I'm given. Usually, a production will develop its own unique style and rhythm, and the comedy can just grow from that. Comedy is never funny to the character who's in the middle of it. Comedy to me is about seeing someone having a really tough time, and being able to relate to that on a visceral level. The only difference between comedy and tragedy is that the comedy finds a way to let the audience off the hook somehow. So it becomes a matter of playing the character's situation in earnest and then maximizing the humor of those tough moments. I also think there are usually comic moments to find no matter what play it is. Humor is such a great tool for engaging an audience.
Colleen: I think whether a play is dramatic or comedic, you have the challenge of telling the story and telling it clearly. We have been lucky to have the playwright in the room with us and so we understand clearly what the intent for a scene or a line is. That is a convenience that actors and directors are not always fortunate enough to have.
Elise: Comedies are always harder to pull off than dramas, in my opinion. The best way to approach a comedy is to play it serious; believing in what you are saying and staying true to your character. The events and the dialogue will bring the comedy, and Kathleen has done a fantastic and hilarious job of doing that.
Gavin: How has it been during rehearsals, interacting with each other and bringing the play to life?
Colleen: The cast, director, playwright and stage manager have already become a close group of friends and even a family. People have been very giving and respectful. My fellow actors have been very patient and have shown me so many different points of view when playing a scene; some really nice variety.
Elise: It has been such a great cast to work with. With only four people in the cast, it was easy to click as a group and really be able to trust each other onstage. It seems as if we had been reading and doing script work on it for so long, it was nice to get the show on its feet! It was also really great to have the playwright right there with us through the process. We were able to go straight to the source with any questions.
Dan: Awesome. Everyone in the cast brings something totally different to the show, but we all get along really well. And Tracy has been a delight as a director. It's really fun playing with these people.
Topher: It's been wonderful. I've felt so welcomed and embraced by not only the cast and director, but the administration at SLAC. I've learned TONS from my cast mates, and they've all been lovely to work with. Tracy is a phenomenal director, and makes it so easy to be creative and expressive in my work. We have so much fun.
Gavin: What are all of your thoughts going into opening night?
Elise: I hope that people come ready to engage and really take part in the journey of this play with open minds. As long as the audience is willing to accept dino dogs and monkey men in the middle of the desert in 2012, then they will love the show! Kathleen does some great story telling in her text, and Tracy has really brought it to life with her direction. There is quite a bit to learn about evolution and fossils, as well!
Dan: Not even thinking about opening night. I'm as big a sucker for an audience as the next actor, but for right now, I'm just focused on the work of rehearsal.
Topher: I'm nervous. What's the difference between nervous and anxious? No, I'm very excited -- eagerly anticipating conversations regarding the production.
Colleen: Opening night? I just don't want to ruin the whole thing!
Gavin: What can we expect from each of you over the rest of the year?
Colleen: Being an actor, it's not always easy to know what the rest of the year is going to be like. I'll be just as surprised as anyone else.
Topher: A reading or two with Plan-B, and a show there next season; I'm not sure if it's public information yet.
Dan: Nothing solidly lined up as of now, but many irons in many fires. The podcast will continue, and there are some film things in the works.Who knows? I'll probably be as surprised as you are by what the year brings for me.
Elise: Next up is Chicago at the Egyptian Theater with Dark Horse Theater Co.
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Topher: Grassroots Shakespeare Company's Summer Tour!
Dan: My website can link you to my podcast, as well as various bloggy-type ramblings. Warning: It's not for those who are easily offended by humor involving religion. Or you can just search Thank God I'm Atheist on iTunes. Also, go see the movie Drive. I had nothing to do with it, I just think it's a really good film.
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