Last Sunday, Little Lake Theatre’s new artistic director—and the director of John Cariani’s play “Last Gas,” which has its local premiere on July 9—opened up about topics such as the playwrights she loves, a reptile she probably detests and (yes, she’s already got the wheels turning that far in advance) what she has in mind for 2016.
Talk about “Last Gas,” which has been described as a slice-of-life character study and a romantic comedy. What about the play appeals to you? And what do you want audiences to know before they see it?
“Last Gas” is about a second chance at love. I don’t know that I would go straight to calling it a “romantic comedy,” though. It is funny, but it’s also heartbreaking and beautiful. It almost defies simple classification, much like real life, and that’s what I love about it. I want our audiences to know that this is a special play filled with amazing writing, unique characters, and honest storytelling.
Have you found difficulties or challenges with this play, some that you didn’t foresee, or has this assignment been relatively easy for you and the cast?
Sometimes the more natural the writing style, the harder it is to learn the lines. John Cariani penned some fantastic exchanges that function almost like verbal choreography. These sections are relatively brief, but they require a thoughtful rehearsal process.
Sunny Disney Fitchett, your predecessor as artistic director, put the 2015 season together before you came on board. Were you familiar with most of the plays chosen by Sunny, or did you have a lot of homework to do before the season started?
I would say I knew about half the plays that Sunny selected, and the other half were brand new to me. Regardless of my level of familiarity, I read each script—starting with the ones I had to direct—before our season started.
As artistic director, I need to be able not only to serve my own plays, but all plays in our season, including (those for the) Mainstage, Looking Glass and Family Matinee. And almost as soon as I caught up on 2015, I turned my eye to potential 2016 plays. My reading list is never-ending.
What do you, as a director, look for in a play?
As a director, I look for something I haven’t seen before. I want a play that a playwright had to write, a play that shows me something new or gives me a fresh perspective on something I thought I already knew. Even if I am directing a classic, it should still feel vital and relevant and I, as the director, should have a clear vision of what I bring to the script that is new and exciting.
What are some of your favorite plays, and which playwrights do you especially admire?
I love Theresa Rebeck, so I am very much looking forward to “Dead Accounts” later this season. She writes female characters that are complex and messed up and funny, and I love directing that.
I also deeply love Tennessee Williams. His writing is poetry. Read the stage directions on the first page of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and you’ll know what I’m talking about. And I’m friends with a playwright named Erin Breznitsky, who I commissioned to write the first play of our 2016 season—whose writing will knock your socks off. Her plays can be hilarious and raw and crushing, all in one page. “Last Gas” is like that too, actually.
When did you fall in love with theater?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love theater. As most people know by now, the first show I ever went to as a little girl was “A Christmas Carol” at Little Lake Theatre. Even to this day, I think of the theater as magical.
Were you ever tempted to acting a shot?
I have acted and … I’m okay. With the right part, I can even be pretty good. But I am not amazing, and acting isn’t where my true passion is—although I do make an appearance in this season’s production of “A Little Hotel on the Side,” and that should be fairly memorable. As a performer, my strength definitely lies in improv. I taught a long-form improv class to some of our apprentices last month and loved it.
You’ve been artistic director for a few months, which means that you‘re still getting your feet wet. What have you learned so far?
I have learned so much about the operations of Little Lake, but the most important thing I’ve learned is that our patrons are the best around. I feel confident in saying that no theater has a more loyal, passionate, engaged audience than we do. And they are savvy theatregoers. They have high standards and expect everything they see here to meet, or exceed, those expectations.
You mentioned the Mainstage, the Looking Glass company, etc., and there are several programs at Little Lake, including the “I Can Do That!” acting classes and the summer theater arts camp. In other words, you have a full plate as A.D. Was it all somewhat daunting when you applied for the job?
You’re right—there are a million things going on at Little Lake! At this very moment “Goodnight, Moon” is onstage rehearsing. Our resident designer is in the barn building furniture, our costume intern is working in the attic, and two apprentices are outside helping our technical director get some set dressing ready.
Tonight we’ll have our first true tech rehearsal for “Last Gas” in the theater. Our first was canceled because a bird dropped a snake on a transformer and killed the power to the theater. No joke.
I think at the beginning all of this was a little daunting because I was the new kid and I didn’t know where everything was or even who everyone was. But the team here is amazing and supportive, so that has made all the difference. And if I ever have any questions about Little Lake, (veteran staff member) Leigh Ann (Frohnapfel) has the answers.
You spent a lot of time with Sunny as the torch was being passed. What was the most valuable advice she offered you?
Oh wow, that’s a tough one. I really valued my time with Sunny, not just in terms of learning about Little Lake and my role here, but also in just talking with someone whose love of a place and its people is so evident. We both are passionate about theater for young audiences, which is one of many points we connected over.
If I had to single out one piece of advice as the most valuable, I would say it was something she said concerning play selection when you’re planning a season: Every play that you choose should be one you wish you could direct. As I look at the rough outline I have for 2016, I’m disappointed that I can’t direct each one.
Forming the cast of “Last Gas” are Mike Petrucci, Rebekah Hukill, Mary Liz Meyer, Phil Powell, John Michnya and James Curry.
To purchase tickets for the play, which runs through July 29, phone Little Lake’s box office at 724-745-6300, or take advantage of the opportunity to order tickets online at www.littlelake.org.