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A look at Cygnet Theatre's "A Behanding in Spokane"

January 26, 2012 1:10 p.m.

Guests:

Lisa Berger, is directing “A Behanding in Spokane.”

Kelly Iverson is an actor performing in “A Behanding in Spokane.”

Vimel is an actor who also performs in the play.

Related Story: Hands Will Roll At Cygnet Theatre

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

SAUER: Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has crafted a comedy based on the absurd premise of a man spending decades searchingly for his missing hand. Signet theatre's a behanding in Spokane opens February and runs through the 19th in old town. Martin McDonagh has a flare for marrying comedic elements with shocking violence. His work has been compared with that of Quentin Tarantino. I keep wanting to see a beheading in Seattle. I'm not going to say that.
[ LAUGHTER ]

SAUER: Premiered on Broadway in 2010, now hangs its Southern California debut. Joining me today are director, Lisa Berger, and four of the cast members. Welcome to you all. Thanks for being here on midday. And this is not the first dark comedy you've directed what. Draws you to this kind of material?

BERGER: You know, I get asked that question a lot. One of the local critics told me that she thought I was the queen of darkness. And I said okay! I'll take that title. I guess I'm drawn to the challenges that darker plays present. I actual want to go into the rehearsal process a little scared. And that tomorrow scares me. Can I really do this?

SAUER: Yeah, well, tell us a little about it. What's so scary about this play?

BERGER: What's scary about this play? What I mean is I'm scared by the content.

SAUER: I see.

BERGER: Can I do this? Can I direct this? I like to be pushed that way. I like the challenge of that. Those plays tend to have characters that have a lot of moral ambiguity. I'm drawn to that. They explore the darker shadow side of our human nature. And always, always I want to find the humanity in those stories.

SAUER: Okay, okay. Can you tell us just a little bit about the story itself?

BERGER: Well, I actually love that you mentioned Quentin Tarantino, because we talk about him a lot in our rehearsal process. I do think the play as a little Tarantino flare. It's a lot foul-mouthed, like a Southpark episode. The story itself, I would say it's a deal gone wrong. It's actually the deal that these two, Kelly and Vimel, their characters are trying to make. Of it's a deal gone wrong. And then at its heart, I think it's about a man who is - well, are not just him, I think all of the characters are trying to find something that they've lost.

SAUER: All right, well, let's hear a scene from the play. This is Jeffrey Jones who plays Carmichael performing a monologue from the play. She explains how he lost his hand.

NEW SPEAKER: 'Cause 27 years ago, almost to the day, a young lad of about 17 or so who lived in a town named Spokane, Washington, was happily playing catch outside of his mamma's house when six hillbilly bastards he did not know drove up, and they took him, and they dragged him to a beautiful mountain side outside of town where a bunch of rail road tracks crossed over a river there. And for no reason that was ever specified, without even a word, in fact, they held this boy's hand down upon those rail road tracks. This boy is me I'm talking about. And they held him down, him screaming and hollering as any boy would, as a freight train came up from the pine tree distance, and they med him watch this train, him hoping even at this point somewhere in his mind that they were only kidding, but they weren't kidding. And he watched the train's thunderous approach. And he watched as it hacked his hand clean off at the wrist. And as he lay there screaming and the train faded off toward Spokane, they picked up this hand, this hillbilly detritus, and they took it with them. And when they were about 300 yards away, they turned smiled and you know what they did? They waved the boy goodbye. They waved the boy goodbye with his own hand.

SAUER: Well, that's got us laughing here. And Tarantino indeed! It sounds like it's right out of pulp fiction. Is this the kind of humor that you enjoy in this play?

IVERSON: Absolutely, yeah, I'm also drawn to the very dark comedies. There's something that you find yourself laughing in spite of yourself at it. You feel a little guilty about it. Yeah, absolutely.

SAUER: And Vimel, can you tell us about your character?

VIMEL: My character goes by the name of Toby. He's a very quick-witted street hustler. He's the gentleman who's really out for himself, for the most people, trying to get exactly what I want, and I got my lady here by my side, and we're partners in crime, kind of a Bonnie and collide type thing.

SAUER: Okay. All right. Now, Lisa New Yorker theatre critic wrote about this play in 2010. And I think Christopher Walken was starring in it. And the critic thought it was racist. What's your response to that?

BERGER: Well, I read that article as well. As a director, part of my research is to go and read what other people have written about the play. Sure, I think some people are going to find it racist. But I would say the main character is a racist. He's a racist. So he's --

SAUER: So people get that.

BERGER: Right. So he's going to speak like a racist. You know? And I know where -- we're uncomfortable with that, maybe, as a culture, as a society. But there are people in the world who speak the way that this character speaks. And --

SAUER: And there are people who speak in code, and political messages that go that way.

BERGER: Right, right.

SAUER: Vimel, what's your take on this?

VIMEL: I believe -- there's definitely racism in the play, but it's not a racist play. That's not what I see in it. I believe everybody gets it, I mean, from -- every character from every ethnicity, background, everybody is feeling something in this play. And it's definitely -- it's just truthful. I mean, like Lisa just said, this type of stuff goes on in the world, and it's out there, and one thing that you will find is that each of us have our code of ethics, certain things that we will do and won't do as people. So yeah, it's a very interesting piece.

SAUER: As Lisa mentioned, there's some raw language in this play. Did you talk in rehearsals about offending the audience?

VIMEL: Oh, yeah, we dealt with that all the way through.

IVERSON: Well, I think -- it's not like we sat down and were, like, well, this play might be offensive. We all kind of knew. That's certain language in the play that if people are sensitive to language, they will certainly be offended by it. But it's almost more of a producer question. Once we decided to do the play, we have to do it and take the responsibility off of ourselves for offending an audience because we didn't write it. We're just performing it!

SAUER: Yeah, you're not the playwright.

IVERSON: So we can't take that responsibility. Each night going on stage, we can't wonder if we're going to offend. Certainly there's some strong language in it.

BERGER: And if I could add to that, one of my great teachers told me, you know, it's not our job as artists to make you feel good. It's our job to make you feel something.

SAUER: Provoked.

BERGER: To provoke, right and I certainly think this playwright is trying to push the involve and provoke. And so if you're offended, then he's been successful.

SAUER: Uh-huh, uh-huh. And some violence. Tell us about directing those violent screens.

BERGER: Well, violence in theatre is actually very thought out. We spend a lot of time making sure that the actors feel safe, we actually choreograph all of the violence. Vimel has a couple of scenes where he's -- either has a gun in his face or he's being hit with a gun. And actually, every night before the show, we do what we call a fight call, and they go flew the motions of those fights so that when we actually do them in the play, all of the actors are feeling comfortable. We never want an actor to not feel safe.

SAUER: So you get pretty good at pulling punches?

BERGER: Yes. Exactly.

SAUER: Making it look realist, but pulling that punch. Have you been in many fights in real life at all?

VIMEL: A couple. I'm not too much of a fighter. I like to love people.

SAUER: There you go!
[ LAUGHTER ]

SAUER: I'm a hockey player, so they don't punches in those fights. Is that difficult? The violent scenes for you?

IVERSON: They are quite fun, actually, because we choreograph them so specifically that I think it's called for in the may. I think we're probably tame for what we do on the stage as it has to be so controlled as to what would happen if this situation am they're fun by the time we do them because I think they're really called for in the script.

SAUER: And so it is fun, I mean, it's a physical activity.

IVERSON: Yeah, and most of our violent scenes, Vimel and I are opposite Jeffrey Jones who plays Carmichael. And it really is a pleasure to do them opposite Jeffrey because he just gives you so much to work off of. He's truly terrifying, if he wants to be. So it makes it --

BERGER: Yes, you just have to truthfully respond.

SAUER: All right.

IVERSON: It makes our job so easy. And it is quite fun.

SAUER: And that was the Christopher walken character with all his eccentricities. I guess he scares everybody no matter what the play is. Did you see it on broadway?

BERGER: I did not. But I know a few people who did, and they told me they did field like it was a real showcase role for him, that it was -- that the play was really about him. I would say in our production it's not. We've really made a conscious effort to make it the story of these four people.

SAUER: Now, you're a big fan of the myselfer in technique. Can you explain what that and.

BERGER: I'm so happy that you brought that up! Yeah, so I lived in New York for a little while. And while I was there, are I studied at the William Esper studio, and you specifically studied the myselfer in technique, and it's really about really listening, really responding, working off the other person. Finding a heart connection to the circumstance. So it's actually really applicable for this play because so much of this play is about living from unanticipated moment to unanticipated moment.

SAUER: And you got to bring that energy every night so it's not the same thing every night note for note.

BERGER: Exactly.

SAUER: And the actors must buy into that too, obviously.

VIMEL: Most definitely.

IVERSON: Yeah, absolutely. I've taken some of Lisa's classes, in fact. And yeah, it is a very useful technique because it -- as you say, it can be slightly different from night to night. And it helps if you are so very present that you can adapt to the little switches or the changes that another actor is giving you in that moment.

VIMEL: Yeah. And I'm a musician by trade. I sing. And getting into acting just now, starting to learn, it's helped me out quite a bit knowing exactly how to feel my way through each situation as if I were there really experiencing it for the first time.

SAUER: Kind of -- maybe a jazz approach.

VIMEL: Yes.

SAUER: Playoff the riffs.

VIMEL: Improvisation.

SAUER: We've talked about violence, raw language. It's a comedy!
[ LAUGHTER ]

SAUER: Where do you work the comedy in?

BERGER: So, the key to the comedy that we have been discovering over our preview process is that you really just have to play it truthfully. The play is funny. The play is funny without our help. If we just truthfully live in the circumstance, the audience is going to laugh. And that's really where -- because the situation, the circumstances are so absurd. And so if they just live truthfully, moment to moment, it's funny.

SAUER: Well, that sounds like the challenge every night too in addition to the pulling the punches and the choreography, and the violence. This is going to open this weekend.

BERGER: Saturday night!

SAUER: Are you ready?

BERGER: We are ready. I feel like we're ready, yes. We had a good preview last night. I think we're, you know -- we're on our way. Those preview performances are always -- they're tricky because we're trying to find our way with the play and an audience. So our first couple of previews were a little bumpy because we were trying to find our way, but last night, I felt like the show really clicked.

SAUER: Tell me about that preview. Do you have spies in the audience? Do you have people listening to who's laughing, who's murmuring?

BERGER: Well, a preview essentially means I still get to give notes. Once the show is open, technically I'm not supposed to say anything anymore. Although I have to say it's really hard for me. So really a preview means yeah, we're still working it out. We're still working on it.

SAUER: Now, I've been in several plays where you'll take a time afterward, the actors will come out, perhaps the director, and have a give and take. Did you do that after the preview with this one?

BERGER: No, we haven't yet. We are going to. Do you guys know that?

VIMEL: Yes.

BERGER: Do you know that you're going to do that? Yes, I think so. So there will be an opportunity for our audience to talk to the actors. We've already had what we call a designers' forum, where we let the audience talk to us about the design of the show.

SAUER: And you find that feedback useful.

BERGER: Oh, it's great. It's great fun. I love talking about the process. The process is -- I would say to you, most theatre artists, what we really love is the process, finding our way to the play is the best part.

SAUER: Yeah, and it's a process, and you've only got four actors to work with.

BERGER: Only four, yes.

SAUER: So it's you against the world, it must feel like.

IVERSON: A little bit. We keep our own little insular circle and that's what we were working on, telling the story without letting it get out of control, so to speak.

SAUER: As you go through something like this, do you keep a journal from start to finish, go back and look a couple of months and reflect where you were and how it all came together?

VIMEL: I definitely have. Just from the beginning idea to where we're at now, like, I've looked at it all and everything in between, and it's very interesting to see just how far we've come.

SAUER: See the growth on the page.

VIMEL: Yes.

BERGER: Well, I think too, what we've discovered this week is so many ideas we had in the beginning we have gone back to.

IVERSON: Yes.

BERGER: So like a lot of the times your initial thoughts and feelings about the play, you actually start to go back to them.

IVERSON: Yes.

SAUER: So you tried five other things and your gut instinct was right.

BERGER: That's exactly right.

SAUER: That's very interesting. And you can see that in your journal as you go back through and see how the whole process came to be. That's fascinating. It'd be interesting to do a play about the play, you know.
[ LAUGHTER ]

SAUER: It brings to mind the apocalypse now where Francis Ford Coppola's wife did a documentary and kept an extensive journal on the making of that whole thing. And I find that fascinating.

>> Yeah, again, it's the process. How you get to something. That's what we're in love with.

SAUER: Exactly, yeah. And if you can't work the process out -- well, that's terrific. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. And I want to remind everyone that signet theatre's a behanding in Spokane hopes Saturday, and runs through February 19th at old town theatre in old town. Thank you so much for being here today.

VIMEL: Thank you for having us.

IVERSON: Thank you.

BERGER: Thank you very much.