Already coming off the successful run of Mama
in February, Plan-B Theatre immediately launch into their next production, A/Version of Events
, which starts tonight at the Rose Wagner. The play centers around a road trip as the two individuals in the car explore painful memories, discovering different roads and speeds in which to heal and recover while trying to make it to their destination. Today we chat with playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett, director Christy Summerhays, and the show's only two actors in Carleton Bluford and Latoya Rhodes, about bringing this play to life and the impacting messages within. (All pictures courtesy of Plan-B.
Matthew Ivan Bennett, Christy Summerhays, Carleton Bluford & Latoya Rhodes
Gavin: Hey everyone, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.
I'm an Aries with Leo rising. My moon sign is Libra. That means I'm supposed to be quick-tempered, physically attractive, with a deep need for peace. I think astrology is mostly bunk, but I happen to be a quick-tempered, more or less handsome guy who thinks about inner peace every year for about two weeks following New Years' Day.
I am from North Ogden, I grew up in entertainment
and I love the business of telling stories. I've sung with some amazing people like Luther Vandross and Natalie Cole. I've taken master classes from Ben Vereen, Frank Wildhorn, and Neil Patrick Harris. And I'm surrounded by the most hard-working, imaginative and talented people of ever.
I was born in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and grew up in Kaysville. Along with acting, I love to sing, dance in the street, doodle Picasso-like pictures and write poetry or screenplays when I have time. Love star-gazing, moon praising, and long walks through the city listening to people's conversations as I pass them by.
I began directing as early as high school, but my first professional directing experiences started in Opera. I've directed a few special projects for Plan-B, but this is my first time directing a play in their regular season.
Gavin: What have all of you been up to in theater over the past year?
My last big hurrah was Radio Hour Episode 9: Grimm
. I didn't get as much hate mail as I expected. I was compared to the Zucker Brothers by one listener. I'm still unsure how to take that.
Carleton: I've been working on getting my documentary, 2%
– which begins filming this month – off the ground. My play Mama
ran at Plan-B last month and I was in The Rocky Horror Picture Show
at Pioneer Theatre Company last fall. I didn't do much more than that but write and I was previously in New York.
Well, I just closed Carleton's play Mama
last month with Plan-B, which was a magical theater experience to start off this 2015.
I was privileged to be part of Plan B's "Season of Eric" last year starting with playing Mrs. Alving in his adaptation of Ibsen's Ghosts
and then acting in the premier of his original play 3
. I also work in film, where I acted in a few movies and continued work on a documentary series which highlights artists of all kinds and from varied cultures.
Gavin: Matthew, for those who aren't aware, what is Trisomy 18, and how did it affect your brother?
It's a chromosomal condition (affecting the 18th chromosome) with different degrees of how serious it can be. Only a small number of babies born with it survive. Many don't live long enough to be born. Basically, it's a condition where a baby has an extra chromosome in some or all of his cells. In the case of my brother Benjamin, it affected him internally and externally: he had a hole in his heart, a hernia, and limb deformities.
Gavin: I read that the play was inspired by your brother's short life. How did the idea for the play come to fruition?
Journaling one day, I had an image of a liberal Mormon couple in a car. (I'd been throwing around ideas for plays with characters I knew well.) Seeing them in the car, I felt right away that they had some mountainous pain in their past, and then what came was the pain around my brother's death, and the pain of other child deaths that had been shared with me.
Gavin: What was the process like for you when writing it and turning something so personal into this production?
Well, with every process I have to work hard to suspend my own ideas and let the characters' thoughts and feelings emerge. Writing A/Version
, it was hardest to do that with Cooper, whose faith is upheld by losing a child. So in this process I went to talk to people with healthy religious faith—to my parents and then to a friend. In a way, I had to work to make the play less personal and more inclusive of other people's experiences. But I also had to, draft by draft, allow myself to feel my own anger and grief and more deeply and not edit myself as I wrote. In that, it was helpful to get constant feedback. My colleagues, like dramaturg Heather Helinksy
and producer Jerry Rapier, knew how personal the play's root was. I got nudges from them all along the way, encouraging me to let the grief be present without trying to solve it.
Gavin: Christy, what were your initial thoughts on the play when you read it, and what made you want to direct it?
I'm always interested in pieces that explore difficult subject matters in an honest, human way. I was also interested in facing the daunting challenge of directing a play where the actors spend 60% of their time in a car. My belief that to keep an audience captivated all you really need is two people, really connecting, really trying to get something from each other, really LIVING would be put to the test! Of course, if you don't begin with a script that is honest and good and speakable for the actors you might as well not even make the attempt. Matthew's writing is full of all the good things of life—the ups and downs, the subtleties, and the crashing waves. It has been a joy and pleasure to work with his script. I was also excited to work with Latoya and Carleton. I knew almost from the beginning that these would be my actors and that was a great help as I prepared. They are actors with great heart and passion—they have brought more to play than I could have imagined.
Gavin: Carleton and Latoya, how did you feel about being cast for this show and what did you think of your first read?
Well, to be honest, I was raised a different way and so the character of Cooper was very, very alien to me. He upset me and I thought he was kind of a douche. Through the revisions and opening up my paradigm to try and understand the struggles of others, he came into focus. The play is hard. It's a tough subject but one that everyone will relate to. It's one of those projects that pushes you and as an actor is good to be pushed, to test yourself. It was a surprise to me when I was cast, I even asked Jerry if he was sure about it, but I'm thrilled and excited to give it my best.
The first time I read the play was at Jerry's house, around his kitchen table. Matt and Christy were there as well. On the way home. I remember thinking, “Whoever gets cast as Hannah is gonna be lucky because she is a complicated, layered, complex character.” It was an exciting, real, heavy story. A challenge for anyone, and who doesn't love challenges? Actors crave to get their hands on pieces like that. The next day I got a call, early in the morning, from Jerry saying, "So Christy, Matt and I were talking, and we would like to cast you as Hannah." I was pretty shocked actually. I wasn't expecting that to happen. I was thrilled, and also horrified. Then I found out that Carleton was also cast, and I knew that it was gonna be a crazy, fun, roller-coaster of a ride. It's always an honor to originate a role, and get to work on a Matthew Ivan Bennett piece. So I was honored that he, Jerry, and Christy would allow me to structure, mold, and bring this woman to life.
Gavin: How has it been for both of you to bring these characters to life?
It's been a journey, putting myself in these shoes is difficult. It's also very weighty and is not easy to do over and over again. But it's been healing in a way and working with Latoya is always a blessing so it’s been easy that way. Easy and hard I guess.
Hannah in some ways is like me, and then completely not like me at all. Her free-spirited, childlike heart, craving for adventure, love of music, candy and even her life philosophy resonate with me. There are things she says in the show that I have said in my real life, just with different words. It was really comforting and lovely to connected with her on those things. However, she is definitely a challenge for sure. With someone going through such pain, grief, and in a mental helter skelter, I often found myself asking, "How am I gonna make her likeable, relatable, understood, and find all of those levels of who she is without this huge traumatic experience? Who is Hannah at her core?" One of my main rules as an actor when approaching a character is to not pass judgment, to accept them for who they are in this moment of their lives and honor their past. She is one of the most complex characters I have played. She literally is extremely happy, and then in a blink of an eye can be enraged, or throwing a tantrum. I love that about her. Her complexity is intriguing to me as an actor, and I only hope to give her the levels, texture and respect that she deserves. A welcome challenge. I have learned a lot by just wearing her shoes.
Gavin: Being a two-hander play, how has it been interacting with each other and utilizing each other to enhance your own performance?
It's been really simple. Latoya and I are best friends. Also she's got amazing acting sense, she's a tremendous talent. I know I'm safe when I'm on stage with her. She's always willing to go with me on an impulse, she listens, and we feed off of each other.
Carleton is one of my best friends actually, and this is the fourth show we've done together, but only the second time we've acted opposite each other. I love acting with him. There's a comfort between us that we found this show really needed. The journey we both have to take is extremely difficult, and it is of utmost importance that we trust each other and have each other's back. I knew coming into this process that I wouldn't have to worry about that, which is a gift in itself. You don't often get to do shows with your best friends, and I am lucky to say I have. It's a thrill to watch him work, he's one of the best young actors in town. I watched him perform for years before we got to act together, and it's an honor to share this storytelling with him, and go on this road trip to Chocolate World with him every night. I trust him to catch me when I fall, challenge me, and I hope to give that back in return. Art is never created solo, it is true artistry when shared, and I feel like that when acting with him.
Gavin: What do you all hope audiences will take away from the play?
I guess more awareness of their own way of working through grief—and appreciation of others' ways.
That relationships are hard, but that doesn't mean you can't still love someone. Sometimes the one you love is like Chinese water torture. And maybe you can't be together romantically, but that doesn't mean that love isn't there.
That grief doesn't ever need to be experienced alone. That there are people who often are yearning to be there for you and show up for you if you let them. That pain and grief should not be a seen as shameful or a way to get attention. Grief is real, we all experience it in our own ways, and there is no such thing as a standard time to heal. It can take years, if at all, for that hole to close. I hope we help people to honor those feelings and respect them as they are.
I hope that they will come away having their hearts touched by how hard life can be and how gentle we need to be with each other. I hope that anyone who has experienced loss will come away feeling understood. I hope that anyone who is in a relationship they care about will come away wanting to nurture it and show more love and understanding. I hope that they'll feel that we're all in this together and no one needs to suffer alone.
Gavin: What are all of your thoughts going into opening night?
I'm just feeling extremely proud of Latoya, Carleton, Kris, Jennifer, Phil, Jesse, Cheryl, Randy, and Jerry. I feel we're all in sync. We all know what we want to say.
I hope people enjoy it.
Stay focused, grounded, connected, LISTEN, respond honestly—and most importantly to give and honor the work we all created together. And let each performance live in that moment, until the next.
Mostly I feel grateful that I got to be part of this project. I'm grateful for the learning and growth I have experiences as an artist. I'm grateful for the amazing support of the people at Plan-B—every one of them puts their best effort into what they're doing. I feel so lucky that I got to direct a play that was so well written by a playwright who was also a wonderful collaborator. And, of course the cast, Latoya and Carleton, who have put their heart and soul into this and worked like dogs to pull it off.
Gavin: What can we expect from all of you over the rest of this season?
I wrote a one-act called Wild, Wild Love
for Michael Johnson and Michael Brown as part of their senior project in the Actor Training Program at the University of Utah. It was a blast and they're going to be great.
I'll be doing a reading of a new play at Pioneer called Mr. Wheeler's
, Filming a documentary called 2%
, and writing and auditioning for more shows. Living the dream.
Look out for me in the Play-by-Play reading of Mr. Wheeler's
later this month (with Carleton) and The Music Man
in May, both at Pioneer Theater Company. And later this year Ruff!
with Plan-B! 2015 is shaping up to be one to remember! I'm so grateful.
I'm planning on sleeping for a while, then I've got a film project I'm working on!