BWW Interviews: Queensbury Theatre (Country Playhouse) Cast and Creatives Talk OLEANNA
When I arrived at Spring Street Studios, the temporary location of Queensbury Theatre (Country Playhouse), I was greeted by its gracious artistic director Bonnie Hewitt and a bag of her homemade granola. This was not the only treat I received during my time with the cast and crew of OLEANNA, David Mamet's controversial play exploring a brutal power struggle between a college student and her professor. With wit and warmth, cast members Keshia Lovewell (Carol) and Joseph "Chepe" Lockett (John) and director Stuart D. Purdy discuss this provocative play.
BWW: The original play [OLEANNA] premiered in 1992 and was written in response to the Clarence Thomas sexual harassment [hearings]. It has been 20 years [since the show premiered]. How have you made this production current?
Joseph "Chepe"Lockett: Really, do you have to make it current?
Stuart D. Purdy: We haven't tried to update it. It's pretty timeless. It's recent history, recent past. The issues are still valid and, I think, need to be heard. The fascinating thing is you walk out of the theatre realizing that something is wrong but you don't know what should have been right. It's a tough call. It has to do with sexual harassment and gender bias. And I don't want to give it all away [but], for instance, there were things in the script that don't necessarily physically apply. Like the telephones. I did read somewhere that somebody updated it and used cell phones. The telephone in this play becomes a character. It is so crucial to a lot of the moments in the play. And, it's through a desk phone - rather conventional. So that's about the only nod we made to the period. There's nothing in the play that grounds it in any particular time. There's no date. There's no event. It all takes place in an isolated situation in a professor's office.
BWW: We perceive sexual harassment differently today. Do you think that's [relevant]?
Keshia Lovewell: I don't. Coming from a female perspective. The age that Carol is in this play is normally the age when women start seeing where gender bias is really happening in life. Because they're on their own. They're making their way and they're actually having to struggle rather than watching other people do it. The fact that Mamet has set it between these two characters is very smart on his choice. Because it is something that you see very often between professors and students.
Joseph "Chepe" Lockett: And it's not just about sexual harassment. A huge part also is the question of privilege. Carol goes into that again and again as the situation develops. It's not just about the gender. It's about the way John perceives himself in relation to other people, about status and culture. And we don't get into race with casting here, obviously, as much. But it is about power dynamics which are eternal. It's not just about the sexual harassment. Though that's the part, because of its origins, that gets a lot of the press. Though that's constant too. We've heard so much in recent months about campus rape awareness coming up. And that ties into a whole culture of how men treat women and so forth. I don't think it's dated in any way. I think it's just as current as it was when it was written.
BWW: How do you add nuance to such a starkly written play? It can seem very black and white at times.
Keshia Lovewell: I have the answer to this.
Stuart D. Purdy: [Smiles] She's bursting to say.
Keshia Lovewell: Basically, instead of painting the character Carol as someone who has motivation to do it from the very beginning, he has taken that character and asked to let her develop naturally through the situation. So we don't know the whole time if she is being manipulative or if this is actually something she truly believes. Well, we know that she truly believes it because of her group but it's more organic.
BWW: I have the same question about your character (to Joseph "Chepe" Lockett)
Joseph "Chepe" Lockett: I think it's vital that this play doesn't have a hero. And each can be a hero in their own minds. But John doesn't see anything wrong with what he's done. We, as actors, see all kinds of things. In fact, we said early on, "I want to find every way I can irritate you." And Carol has some very legitimate objections. At the same time, she goes way over the top with them. We talk about it, sort of, as Frankenstein's monster. Each of them creates the other which proves to be their undoing.
Bonnie Hewitt: So, while it's not important to have a hero in this - or no absolute right or wrong - I would imagine it would be equally important not to have a villain. Is that correct?
Joseph "Chepe" Lockett: Unless you say we're both villains.
[Keshia Lovewell Laughs]
Bonnie Hewitt: Exactly.
Joseph "Chepe" Lockett: It is a play in which nobody is right, which is part of what makes it, I think, frustrating for some audience members. In a good way, hopefully.
Bonnie Hewitt: Absolutely.
BWW: Well, that was the next question, the play usually provokes very strong reactions from its audience. I have a very strong reaction already. Do you have any expectations about audience reactions?
Stuart D. Purdy: We think they'll leave angry.
Keshia Lovewell: I've told my sister and people who are coming to see the show - if we don't make you want to go punch someone after this then we haven't done our job correctly.
Joseph "Chepe" Lockett: There was a college up in the northeast that did this play. And had a faculty member sitting in the front row watching it who stood up in the middle of the play and said, "You should not be doing this play!" I hope we don't get that reaction. [Bonnie Hewitt Laughs] I hope that we really get people thinking about this complicated situation.
BWW: Why should Houstonians come to see this show?
Stuart D. Purdy: Because, as I said earlier, the issues are so appropriate. Plus, it's just very good theatre. It gets under your skin. It provokes you. And I can probably list only two or three plays that I've ever seen that had me as riled up when I walked out of the theatre. And, that's why I think it's a rare opportunity. The only other production I'm conscious of in Houston was at the Alley [Theatre] maybe 8 or 10 years ago, I think. I'm guessing. And I saw that. I walked out of there just fuming. I was so angry at both of the characters. And I resolved at that point - I said - some day I would love to direct this because it's such an interesting exploration in relationships and personalities. I think it would be a wonderful opportunity for anybody in town to see a play of this caliber and of this nature. Usually, it's happily ever after.
BWW: I'm very curious. What are the other plays that were so provocative?
Stuart D. Purdy: Just recently VENUS IN FUR at the Alley.
Bonnie Hewitt: While totally different, it has a similar vibe. It actually does.
Stuart D. Purdy: Yeah. When I said that, I was afraid you were going to ask me.
Joseph "Chepe" Lockett: I think - it's been years since I saw it - EXTREMITIES by William Mastrosimone.
Stuart D. Purdy: Yeah.
Keshia Lovewell: If it's done properly.
Joseph "Chepe" Lockett: Yeah, which is a hard one. And that ties in. I'll give you a few reasons people ought to come see this play. One, it's really hard to do. We can tell you that. There was a movie sure but seeing it live in front of you -
Bonnie Hewitt: It's very different.
Joseph "Chepe" Lockett: - produces much more visceral reactions than having a pause button at easy reach. Houston is a fantastic town for small theaters. We get a lot of attention, obviously, thrown to the big companies downtown but between Queensbury Theatre there are lots of really good smaller theaters in town spread all over, and they do good work. And folks who've not tried one of those theaters before really should because it's a real resource and gift that Houston has. And it's a great piece of theatre. It's a great story. And it's gonna make for a great conversation and stiff drink afterwards.
BWW: I think you've already answered my question: Who is the guilty party - Carol or John?
Joseph "Chepe" Lockett: Yes.
Keshia Lovewell: It's up to the audience to decide.
Stuart D. Purdy: I like his answer - yes.
BWW: Alright, my final question, what advice do you have for individuals wanting to make a career in the performing arts?
Keshia Lovewell: Do it. Just, if you want to do it, you have to get out there. You have to make a name for yourself. Networking has to be done. This is coming from myself who has a degree in theatre and eventually hope to one day use it. [Smiles] I've been out of school about three or four years now. And I still haven't quite hit where I need to be. But all that's holding me back is myself. If you really want it, go after it.
Joseph "Chepe" Lockett: I don't make a career in the arts.
Joseph "Chepe" Lockett: I don't. I said in my bio for the program. God, it's great to use my Master's of Education on the stage. [Laughs] I was a teacher for many, many years. Now, I'm in desktop publishing design. I think that theatre makes a fantastic avocation. The word amateur means "someone who loves it".
Bonnie Hewitt: It is not a bad word. Nor is community theatre.
Stuart D. Purdy: Not at all.
Joseph "Chepe" Lockett: That said, if you want to make a career in the arts, by all means do. There are many forms of remuneration. Not all of them are financial. And, the arts is a fantastic field where non-financial payment [Pauses] where people feel -
Bonnie Hewitt: Gratification.
Joseph "Chepe" Lockett: Gratification: Yes, they do. Absolutely. And if you have that passion, you have that drive. And understand that it is hard work. It is not waiting for the job offers to roll in. Do it. Because it is rewarding.
Bonnie Hewitt: At least give it a shot. Then you know you have given it the shot. And then, hopefully, you can fall back on it as an avocation to satisfy the need if you can't actually make a living at it.
BWW: Any advice from the director?
Stuart D. Purdy: [Laughs] I was thinking you might pass me by.
BWW: [Laughs] No. No. How can I? You're sitting right across from me!
Stuart D. Purdy: I don't have any formal education in theatre or drama. I have a degree in economics which has gotten me very little in the theatre [Laughs].
Joseph "Chepe" Lockett: There's got to be a play for that.
Stuart D. Purdy: I learned and gained confidence by being a part of theatre, through community theatre. I volunteered, and over the years I took on many jobs in stage management and I did some acting and what have you. But, most of my education was in the trenches just observing, watching other people. And when you're stage managing for a director, it's very, very educational because you get to watch the director and see the process and understand. I remember asking a director that I worked with many times - he had resolved a problem during rehearsal, a matter of blocking - how an actor moved and what they said or something. I asked him, "How did you know the answer to that?" He said, "I don't know. It's just there." And so, a lot of it, a lot of success in the theatre is instinctive.
Joseph "Chepe" Lockett: It's a craft. It's not a science. It's a craft.
OLEANNA, produced by Queensbury Theatre (formerly The Country Playhouse), runs in Studio 101 at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring St., Houston, 77007 from June 26 - July 19, 2014 (no performance July 4). Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and on Sunday, July 13 at 2pm. For tickets and more information, please visit www.queensburytheatre.org or https://www.eventbrite.com/e/oleanna-tickets-11730075973.