Arts DEVO goes Rogue
To put it simply: “Good scripts attract good actors. Looking at the quality of this cast should say quite a bit about the play itself.” Combine that bit of wisdom from one of Rogue Theatre’s founders (and total theater badass) Joe Hilsee with the fact that the script in question, The Seafarer, will be directed by him and that the cast he’s referencing includes a collection of equally badass local theater vets—Jerry Miller, Roger Montalbano, Jeff Dickenson and Rob Wilson—as well as highly touted newcomer Shawn Galloway, and it should be abundantly clear to any local theater fan that this is the must-see production of the season.
The story, by Irish playwright Conor McPherson, is a dark comedy about four guys holed up together on Christmas Eve, drinking and playing cards, when a very dark stranger crashes the party.
Hilsee had a lot to say when I asked him about the play (opening tonight, Dec. 3, at 1078 Gallery), and I had little room to accommodate in the print version, but here on the Internet …
Arts DEVO: So, damn! You have yourself an ensemble here. As director, do you just nap during rehearsals? Can you give me your impression of the work so far, and what might be in store for local theater fans?
Hilsee: The interesting thing about getting such a veteran cast together is that I actually get to do more work—at least the kind of work I like. So many times a director has to level the playing field so everyone is at the same level—the team is only as fast as the slowest runner. With five guys that have all been doing this for as long as they have, it opens the boundaries quite a bit. I don’t have to spend time in rehearsal doing the acting work for them. They all know how to bring a lot to the table, and I just get the great job of telling them what is working and what needs to go in a different direction. I think, just as important as the acting chops, these guys all have a great sense of the material. All of us are over 40 and living lives we did not imagine for ourselves when we were young and pertinent. So we spend a lot of time in rehearsal talking about those times when, perhaps, different decisions could have been made in our lives and how those turns led us to where we are now.
This play has thatwonderful Irish quality that we all lead lives of quiet desperation. And we see—quite literally in this play—that it is all in how you choose to play the cards you are dealt. All of these guys involved in the play love the play and understand the play, and it is this recognition of a great piece of contemporary literature that has brought us all together to work on the project.
Tell Chico about the new guy in this crew, Shawn Galloway.
Shawn and I used to hang together back at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland many years ago. My favorite all-time acting story is about him. All of [those in] the acting company at the festival were classically trained at prestigious acting programs—almost all with master’s degrees and seven years of schooling and a few years of apprenticeships at a lesser Shakespeare festival before even being considered at the Oregon festival. Well, Shawn one day decided he wanted to be an actor and heard the best theater in the country was in Ashland, so even though everyone told him he was crazy to think he could get a job there with no schooling, he shows up in a Greyhound bus with 200 bucks in his pocket and a bike in a box. And five years later he was playing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet on the Ashland stage. That’s how good he is.
He went on to act around the country for years, but like many of us found that the vagabond lifestyle of the freelance actor does not mix well with marriage and children, and he soon changed professions and moved to Chico on my recommendation. After years of prompting, I finally came up with a project that he could not refuse. That is a good thing for the Chico theater-going community.
Did you consider acting in this production? It had to be tempting.
There are very few projects I would not want to act in. Usually when I am acting there are one or two roles I would love to play. But with this script and this cast I have been given an opportunity few directors in this community ever get. So, I am happy with where I am.
Can you tell me who plays the Devil? Was there any jockeying for the part?
Well, the Devil is played by Jerry Miller, because he is the only one who has a legitimate claim to actually having dealt with the dark one. There is no other way to explain his talent. It is not natural. The casting pretty much fell right into place. Everyone was more excited to be a part of it rather than voice any concerns about what part they would have in it.
I think it’s refreshing to see a play set around Christmas that deals with some very dark themes. Not everyone’s holidays fit so neatly into the traditional stories. Any thoughts on how this story fits into the American holiday season?
The play is actually perfect for Christmas holiday season: the coming together of family; the ending of the year; and the prospect of something new right around the corner. For most of us, once you get past a certain age, these are the ingredients you need for something pretty heavy. So often in American culture and literature we get only half the story—the good stuff that is to come—and we’re encouraged to ignore looking back on anything unpleasant in the past. And this is exactly where we find Sharkey; with his family [home] for the holidays and thrust into a position where he has to account for all of his past failures. There is definitely an optimism at play here, but it most certainly is not that brand of optimism for which Americans are known.
You’ve been involved in locally produced works by at least a couple of contemporary Irish playwrights—more than one Martin McDonagh production and now this one by Conor McPherson. … What draws you to the Irish?
I love the Irish sensibility. They absolutely value the art of story-telling first and foremost, which is valuable to me as a director. There is always a pronounced sense of humor even (perhaps particularly) in the midst of misery. In fact you do not find much separation between tragedy and comedy. Every good story has strong elements of both. And they seem to understand that good story-telling should fight such easy categorizing to begin with. I like that. Add to this great mix a very comfortable relationship with the supernatural—banshees, leprechauns and the like—and you have all the makings for some great theater.
This play, The Seafarer, captures this sensibility perfectly. The play is set up as an impending tragedy centering around a few pathetic characters, yet the play is filled with so much humor, and the heart of the play is filled with such good intention, that the audience will have no choice but to see their own lives in the lives of these characters. The devil shows up and demands a soul, and within the context of the play it all seems perfectly reasonable. It doesn’t seem like a stretch at all. In fact, the audience will understand that we all, at some point in our lives, will come face to face with every choice we have made. Hopefully we will all come through it the [with] same sense of perspective that Sharkey attains. … There but for the grace of god go I.
This play is super hot. It was nominated for a bunch of 2008 Tonys and it just debuted on the West Coast a year ago. Is it difficult and/or costly to get the rights so soon for a play like this?
I have had my eye on this one for a while. In Chico, it is mostly about being the one to call dibs first. Kind of like [McDonagh’s] Pillowman a few years ago—Rogue knew we would want that one, so it was a matter of announcing we would do it before anyone else did.
DEVOtion •Fame looms: Chico’s AVL Looms add to their stack of fame this week when a segment on world-renown loom-builders will be featured on the Science Channel’s How It’s Made program. The first showings happen Friday, Dec. 4, 6 p.m., and Saturday, Dec. 5, 9 p.m.