Headed into the second half of Salt Lake Acting Company's season, we're taking a little trip back in time with a world premiere play. --- Grant & Twain explores the relationship between one of America's greatest authors and the 18th President of the United States, as Twain came to help a penniless Grant finish his memoirs before he died of cancer. The two forged a great friendship that would inevitably change both their lives and memorialized the former Civil War general turned Presidential leader. Today we chat with three members of the cast, as well as the director, about this production and the work going into it as the play debuts tonight and runs through March 2. (All pictures courtesy of SLAC from Dav.d Photography.)
Morgan Lund, David Spencer, Kathryn Atwood & Keven Myhre
Gavin: Hey everyone! First thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.
Keven: Hi, I'm Keven, one of the co-Executive Producers at Salt Lake Acting Company. I am also the director and set designer for our production of Grant & Twain.
Kathryn: Hi, this is Kathryn Atwood and I'm thrilled to be back at SLAC after a 10 year hiatus!
David: Actor, art and theatre enthusiast, world traveler (when possible), uncle, friend, and arts patron. Currently living in New York, just outside of the New York City, in Patterson.
Morgan: I am getting grumpier and old. And spend most of my time in the fresh air of Helper.
Gavin: What have you all been up to over the past year in local theatre?
Kathryn: The last show I performed in was Hold Please in 2004, where I played a secretary, Agatha. It was directed by Adrianne Moore who is our dialect coach in Grant & Twain. I last performed locally as Paulina in Shakespeare's Winter's Tale for Sting & Honey Company at The Rose. It was really intense because I was diagnosed with a brain tumor during the rehearsal process! I'm fine now, but I performed opening weekend, and then an understudy went on in my place so I could have brain surgery. Thank goodness it turned out to be benign and encapsulated, so the problem was taken care of. I had a brilliant neurosurgeon who I have to give credit to right here - Randy Jensen. Thank you. Anyway, I'm feeling better than ever and so grateful to discover this wonderful woman, Julia Grant.
Morgan: Last year at this time I was doing Henry In Lion In Winter, and directing Almost Maine at USU eastern. It was great fun.
David: Locally, in the past year I worked at Pioneer Theatre Company in their production of Les Miserables doing the same track I did in PTC’s original 2007 production: The Bishop Of Digne, Villager, Prisoner, Revolutionary, etc as well as covering Thenardier. A great gig.
Keven: Since the close of our production of Dr. Suess's The Cat in the Hat, a theater for young audiences affair, things at SLAC have been very busy. The lobby at SLAC has undergone a renovation and that's been eventful. I'm excited for the patrons to experience a larger lobby, a new box office and an ADA bathroom on the entry level.
Gavin: Kevin, when did you guys first come across Grant & Twain and what were your first impressions of the play?
Keven: Sometime in November 2012, the script for Grant & Twain appeared in my e-mail inbox. SLAC did a reading of the play in February 2013 that was well attended and very successful. One glance and I was hooked on a story about two American icons and their friendship, struggling with many of the same issues that human beings struggle with today. Who knew a retired U.S. President and a satirical writer had crossed paths back in the day? I liked it, the people who came to the reading liked it. It was a big like-fest.
Gavin: What made you decide to bring it to SLAC and why did you choose to direct this one?
Keven: One glance and I was hooked on a story about two American icons and their friendship, struggling with many of the same issues that human beings struggle with today. Who knew a retired U.S. President and a satirical writer had crossed paths back in the day? One glance and I was hooked on a story about two American icons and their friendship, struggling with many of the same issues that human beings struggle with today. Who knew a retired U.S. President and a satirical writer had crossed paths back in the day?
Gavin: I understand a lot of extra work has gone into the production, including hiring a dialect coach to capture the period perfectly. What kind of a challenge has it been getting this play to its original conception?
Keven: We're working on developing a play surrounding real-live characters and actual events. We had to get it right. We took the time and hired the resources to recreate things as accurately as possible. It wasn't a challenge so much as a thrilling journey of discovery and learning that history isn't so boring after all.
Gavin: For the cast, what were your initial thoughts on the play when you first read it?
David: When initially approached about the play, I was struck by how much I didn’t know about this story and how interesting I found it that Grant and Twain had known each other so well, and the role that Twain had in getting Grant’s memoirs published. I thought it an extremely interesting premise for a play.
Morgan: I was part of the reading we did last year, and after the reading I was blown away by the response we got from the audience, they loved it, I didn't have a clue.
Kathryn: I had the privilege of being in the reading, so I had a slight advantage at the audition. Although I know that is not always a guarantee! Three other really strong actors were called back for Julia, so the competition was tough. I squealed and jumped up and down when Keven called to tell me I had the part. After the callbacks, it took them a couple of weeks to decide, which is longer than usual. There are always a lot of factors that go in to the decision, so I was nervous. But here I am, and I have a fabulous costume to wear as well!
Gavin: What was it like for each of you auditioning and eventually getting your parts?
Kathryn: Since Julia is a historical character, it has been a treat to get to know her, mostly through the letters from Grant to her. Unfortunately her letters to him did not survive. But there is a lot of information on her, and of course Liz herself is such a great source of information. I know that physically, I'm much different from Julia. She was very short (I'm 5'8") and she was cross-eyed as well. But she had a vivacious personality and LOVED being First Lady. She also grew up on a plantation in Missouri, so her family had slaves. But the main thing for the purpose of this play is her relationship with her husband. Theirs was a powerful love story. I have tried to take what I found out about her and use that as a backdrop in my choices. She is a fierce protector of her beloved "Ulyss."
Morgan: This was my first iPhone audition. Scared the crap out of me. Twain is an icon, quoted all the time, and I knew nothing about him, I should not admit that, the more I read the more worried I got, this is a rock star.
David: I was fortunate enough to be able to count on my past relationship with the director, Keven Myhre, and his knowledge of my work. I was in Jackson, Mississippi, playing Scrooge in a production of A Christmas Carol when Keven first reached out to me. I always enjoy working at Salt Lake Acting Company and coming back to Utah to work. It not only provides an interesting job, but an opportunity to visit family and friends. What’s not to love?
Gavin: How has it been for each of you fitting into these historic roles and developing their personalities?
David: I did a fair amount of research on Adam Badeau to understand historically, what his relationship was to Grant and the role that he played in Grant’s life. All very interesting. I also researched Grant - fascinating - and re-watched several episodes of Ken Burns’ Civil War television series; as well as a terrific American Masters episode on the life of Ulysses Grant. In the end, though, my character and the way I approach playing him comes from the playwright’s words. I try to make an honest authentic character from what Elizabeth Diggs has put on the page, setting that in the historical context that I have researched. And, since this is a world premiere, I feel a great responsibility to the playwright’s words and getting it right - putting across what she has put on the page. Honoring her play, that is.
Morgan: For Twain our dialect coach has guiding me to a Missiouri dialect which a little different than Southern.
Gavin: What's it been like interacting with each other and putting the play together as a group?
Morgan: Rehearsals are my favorite part of the process, we have a great cast, "fresh meat" is always fun to play with, being back at SLAC is like coming home!
Kathryn: I'm delighted to be back on stage with David Spencer and Morgan Lund, having acted with both of them in previous productions. Ryan and Brien are wonderful to tread the boards with, and then there's Marshall! When I first saw him, I thought, Okay, I can love him!! The chemistry is important, and I think we have that. You tell me!
Gavin: Considering the play is world premiere of sorts, what kind of pressure does that add to make it right the first time for audiences seeing it for the first time?
David: I’m looking forward to having audiences now and learning from them - what elicits particular responses, etc. They’re our teachers now. And I’m very excited about this part of the journey.
Keven: Having the playwright in the room is a luxury beyond luxuries for a director. Her depth of knowledge from years of research in developing this script was invaluable as we took words from the page, gave them voice, realized the characters and put scenes on their feet.
Kathryn: I'm excited that this is a world premiere and I hope we do justice to the work. Liz has been a big part of the rehearsal process, and Keven has the experience to pull it off and stay calm in the middle of any creative storms that might occur (although they haven't occurred - this cast has been civil and respectful). Opening night is sold out, and that's great. I hope the word of mouth is positive, as well as the reviews, so that we will continue to play to full houses and that people feel connected with this aspect of civil war history that they might not otherwise be aware of.
Morgan: It is all a process, this is our truth. Next time it will be another truth.
Gavin: What are all of your thoughts going into opening night?
Morgan: I hope my fly is up.
Keven: Everyone has done a great job working toward the collective goal of a successful show. There are always opening night jitters. I hope the audience members all show up, love it and tell their friends to COME SEE THE SHOW!
David: I’m very happy and honored to be part of this terrific company of actors and designers and technicians and those that are leading us. It has been a great ride so far and I’m looking forward to four weeks of playing the play and learning more each time we perform the play.
Gavin: What can we expect from all of you over the rest of the year?
Keven: Don't miss the upcoming productions of 4,000 Miles, Loss Of Appetite (a fundraiser to sustain SLAC's mission of promoting new work, which means it's a party and a play all in one night) and, of course, Saturday's Voyeur 2014.
Morgan: I will just as grumpy but I will be older. I will continue to audition.
Kathryn: One week after we close this show, I go into rehearsals for Hedda Gabler with Sting & Honey Company, where I play another Julia, Tesman this time.
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Keven: Don't miss the panel discussion about Grant & Twain (Financial Deception, Inequality, Media Circus: 150 Years Later, is the Civil War still defining us?) on February 23 at 3:30 p.m. or our next free reading that is part of SLAC's New Play Sounding Series, Road To Eden by Sean Christopher Lewis on February 24 at 7 p.m.
David: Break a leg, everyone. And enjoy the play!
Morgan: Clean air is a problem, and we need to take the lack of it as SERIOUS PROBLEM!
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