BWW Interviews: Jennifer Decker and Diana Amsterdam Talk CARNIVAL ROUND THE CENTRAL FIGURE
Continuing their 2013-14 season, Mildred's Umbrella Theatre Company is producing Diana Amsterdam's CARNIVAL ROUND THE CENTRAL FIGURE. In the play, Kate visits the deathbed of a close friend and through a series of theatrical dreams and nightmares must acknowledge that no matter how much denial, positive thinking or prayer people practice to avoid death, the existential fears that every human being holds about the end of life will result in the same end... death. In anticipation of the play's opening, I chatted with Jennifer Decker, Mildred's Umbrella's Artistic Director and Director of the show, and playwright Diana Amsterdam about the piece.
BWW: How did you discover CARNIVAL ROUND THE CENTRAL FIGURE, and what led Mildred's Umbrella to produce it?
Jennifer Decker: Broadway Play Publishing apparently has someone on staff that pays attention to what theatres are doing and sends scripts out for perusal. They sent this to me unsolicited, and it sat on my desk for months. One day, I was in the mood to go through the scripts on my desk and see if there was anything worthy of producing for our season, and I came across it. I read it, and decided that I not only wanted to produce it, I wanted to direct it. It has an abstract and constantly moving aesthetic about it that I like, mostly female characters, and a theme with which I felt deeply connected at that moment. This is the second play that the company has randomly sent me that was perfect for Mildred's Umbrella. The first one was Margo Veil, which we did in 2009.
BWW: What was the inception of CARNIVAL ROUND THE CENTRAL FIGURE?
Diana Amsterdam: A cousin-in-law of mine was deathly ill. I went to visit him in the hospital. His wife and family members sat around the bed, and chatted, and chatted. They never really looked at him or acknowledged him. I let my glance stray to his face, and I saw terror, loneliness, and a fixed, teeth-chattering grin. The disparity between the chirping, chattering family and the dying man in bed was just shocking.
A few days later, I arrived at the hospital a little after visiting hours, and somehow wasn't stopped as I made my way to his room. He was alone, and I saw in his demeanor - his face, his body, everything - that he had gone some place I couldn't go: like that look newborn babies get when they seem to focus on something far away. He sat up suddenly and made the most horrible sound of anguish. I really wanted to run away. But, I was there; I was the only one there. I stepped forward toward him, and told him that it was okay, that he was okay... and that it was okay to die. I held him in my arms.
This experience stayed with me and became the basis of the play.
BWW: What was the writing process like for the play?
Diana Amsterdam: This particular play of mine didn't feel like labor. It really did, as writers sometimes say, "flow out of me." I knew I had to install structure into the play, and that happened in the realistic scenes in the hospital. These realistic scenes are interspersed with dream and nightmare sequences from the protagonist's subconscious, as she works through what happened to her when she was younger. As I was writing, I was also working through what had happened to me. I found myself - without making any conscious decision to do this - repeating the end of the prior hospital scene, only changing it slightly. I realized I was reflecting what Kate was experiencing as honesty forced its way in; as she prepared to comfort the Central Figure. I also felt the madness of some of the characters and had a lot of fun depicting their sheer lunacy.
BWW: The synopsis makes the play sound both intriguing and complicated. How are you preparing for producing the play?
Jennifer Decker: The casting (the way I've done it, as the playwright left some of it flexible) involves 13 actors. As you know, David, our stage is not huge. I don't know exactly how the other production was staged, but I have it staged it as one 85 minute piece with no scene breaks. There is rarely a moment where something isn't happening. As one situation is leaving the stage, the next one is coming in. The set involves a hospital bed and a couple of chairs and we have the chorus (a Choir that serves as a chorus of sorts) moving the set into different configurations as they sing and chant. We have original music created by local musician, Andy McWilliams. The movements of the choir have been choreographed by Suchu Dance choreographer, Jennifer Wood and video by Stephanie St. Sanchez. The amazing talents of the people I've involved in this, combined with my own love for group collaboration, has made the process enjoyable and a lot less daunting than what I originally imagined.