BWW Interviews: Stark Naked Theatre Talks FAITH HEALER and THE GOOD THIEF

BWW Interviews: Stark Naked Theatre Talks FAITH HEALER and THE GOOD THIEF
Photo by Gabriella Nissen.

Stark Naked Theatre Company is kicking off 2014 with two plays, Brian Friel's FAITH HEALER and Conor McPherson's THE GOOD THIEF, being performed in repertory. John Tyson is directing both productions. FAITH HEALER stars Philip Lehl, Kim Tobin, and John Tyson, and Santry Rush is reprising his role in THE GOOD THIEF. In the midst of their busy rehearsal schedule, I got to speak with all four artists about the two plays.

BWW: What was the inspiration for programming FAITH HEALER and THE GOOD THIEF in repertory?

Philip Lehl: Well, I think the simplest answer to that is that John (Tyson) proposed FAITH HEALER to us (Stark Naked Theatre Company), and as we read it, we fell in love with it. I certainly remember seeing Santry do THE GOOD THIEF before, under John's direction. I'd thought, "God, these two plays share so much tonality, thematically. They're both by Irish writers," and I know John or Santry had mentioned to us at one point that they had wanted to remount THE GOOD THIEF somewhere inside the loop. So, it just made sense in a lot of different ways. They were ready and willing to do it. [Looking at John Tyson] Does that jive with what you remember?

John Tyson: Yeah. We had approached you about the possibility of using your space when you weren't using it. We'd rent it from you to do THE GOOD THIEF. So, separately we had been talking about FAITH HEALER, and it was your idea to say, "Why don't we do them in rep?"

Philip Lehl: [Pointing at Kim Tobin] Probably her idea.

John Tyson: Her idea. [Kim Tobin Laughs]

Philip Lehl: Who knows. [Pauses] But it's just such a perfect fit. The two plays demand simplicity in their setting, and that is something that could be done in repertory. If we were talking about doing, I don't know, MIDSUMMER'S NIGHT DREAM and THE RIVALS in repertory, there's no way we could do it. But these plays, yes.

BWW: Because of thematic similarities, hopefully audiences will elect to see both works. What do you hope that audiences take away from the shows?

Kim Tobin: I think, in line with an aesthetic of acting being part of our mission, these plays demand attention to acting. I think that in that vein we're asking people to come watch acting and to come watch storytelling. That's what you're going to see. Our audiences have been very wonderful about that. They've constantly come and been excited about storytelling, been excited about the acting, and been excited about what we've given them in terms of really fun and relevant storytelling in terms of different kinds of issues to be put on the table. But these plays are poetic and very detailed storytelling, I believe, and have an even more complex and exciting... demand. That's not the right word...

John Tyson: But, that's what I was thinking though. Both of the plays are direct address plays, where the characters talk with the people that are in the room with them. They ask that the audience listen very carefully, think about what they're hearing, and make some decisions about what they're hearing. Especially in FAITH HEALER where the three characters talk about the same basic events, they contradict each other, and the audience is asked to think about, "Well, what does that mean? Does that mean that people are lying?" No, not necessarily. Memory is a funny thing. A lot of this is about what you remember and what you chose to remember.

Kim Tobin: And how you experience your own life.

John Tyson: Yeah.

Kim Tobin: And I think it requires more participation than most plays by the audience, itself. That excites me a little bit more on one level, I think, and scares me a little more on one level. That's neat, and that's a kind of new experience for our regular audience.

John Tyson: They're very challenging plays for the performers and for [In Unison With Kim Tobin] the audience.

Philip Lehl: I think we're finding in rehearsal that you can't fake your way through these plays. You have to be totally [Pauses] naked [Kim Tobin Laughs], or these plays won't work.

Kim Tobin: Right, so circle back around to the aesthetic challenge of what we're trying to do. So, it's very true to that, which is very exciting for us.

BWW: FAITH HEALER's plot is delivered through four lengthy and dense monologues...

Philip Lehl: Wait a minute. Dense?

John Tyson: Lengthy? [Kim Tobin Laughs] Lengthy?

BWW: Right now, I'm just going off of what I was able to find online.

John Tyson: Four monologues.

BWW: Four monologues, okay. [Kim Tobin Laughs]

John Tyson: Those adjectives are dangerous.

Kim Tobin: Don't remind us. We're trying to forget that part. [Laughs]

Philip Lehl: Actually, I do kind of quibble with that because I don't think it'll feel that way. I don't think it'll feel dense. I don't think it will feel lengthy.

John Tyson: All the stories that they tell are very straightforward in one sense.

Philip Lehl: It's not like it's hard to understand.

BWW: I also saw the adjective lyrical used to describe the monologues. These lyrical monologues make the shows unique. What has it been like preparing for these productions?

Santry Rush: I started re-memorizing about six months ago and still struggle with certain parts of it, but it's one of those things where the words have to be there before you really get into it at all. Most of the time, you can come to a rehearsal kind of half memorized, but that just doesn't work in this scenario. Mainly, a.) because the schedule is kind of tight, and b.) there's not a lot of chance to really get invested in what you're trying to do if you don't have the text in your brain and in your bones. So, preparing for this was a little different for me because I did remember some of it from before, but at the same time, as my schedule got more packed up with my job and everything else that's going on in my life, I really had to carve time out to get ready. Luckily, I started as early as I did, but yes it's an extreme amount of preparation. I would think that probably Philip (Lehl), Kim (Tobin), and John (Tyson) would agree.

John Tyson: But also, you're totally responsible for the energy you bring to rehearsal.

Santry Rush: Sure.

John Tyson: There are days, normally, you're dragging yourself into a rehearsal. Maybe you're not sure what you want to do that day or how you want to do it, and you sort of lean on the other people you're acting with to kind of lift your spirits and make you think on your feet. Here, it's what you bring to the table that day is what arises. If there is going to be any magic, you're responsible for it, and that's kind of a beautiful thing, but it's not my normal experience of acting at all.

Kim Tobin: It can be burdensome.

John Tyson: Yes. It really can be.

Kim Tobin: It can also be very terrifying because quite often, as John (Tyson) said, if it's not there, it's not there by yourself. I can pull a lot of energy off another actor when I'm stage.

John Tyson: [Quietly] And blame the other actors. [Laughs]

Kim Tobin: And I can blame the other actors [Laughs].

John Tyson: When they're in another room.

Kim Tobin: [Laughing] Right! Not in their face, but later, over beers. "Ugh! That John Tyson was just crappy tonight." [Everyone Laughs] It's funny how you can blame an energy of a group. Blame is a bad word, but it feels like it can be a group's responsibility when a show doesn't go well. But when you're by yourself, it's very frightening to think "if I'm not on that train, I'm not on that train alone!"

John Tyson: But let me say to that, the train is a big, forgiving, expansive thing, and that it's a lot like going swimming. There's a lot of room for discovery once you get into these big monologues, and you have a lot of opportunity to find your audience, discover how they are feeling that night, and connect with them.

Kim Tobin: And to adjust and start over at any moment.

John Tyson: Absolutely. It's forgiving in that space, but you've got to be on your toes. There's no doubt about it.

Kim Tobin: But that's part of what makes it great too. Knowing you're interchanging with live, new people every night is exciting too.

BWW: Santry (Rush), you have tackled the one-man play THE GOOD THIEF before at the Mosaic Theatre. What is it like stepping back into this role?

Santry Rush: I had more time to think about it this time, since I knew it was coming up so long. I'm older now. I think that John (Tyson) and I, as a team, have given more time over these past few months to putting more thought into certain parts of it. Last time it was a great, great, great experience, but I felt like we were just sort of at the surface. I feel like we've done a lot more digging this time, and it's actually more-I don't know if I was just more daring then, but it's a little more frightening this time.

Also, we didn't have too many production elements last time. John and I were sort of responsible for everything: sound, lights, video, everything. We have help this time because Stark Naked (Theatre Company) has lent designers to us, which takes a bit of the burden off, so we can really concentrate on the piece at large. It's sort of exciting, and as afraid as I get sometimes, I'm really counting down the days until we get a chance to do it again.

BWW: What unique challenges have you encountered preparing to present the two plays in repertory?

Kim Tobin: For me, some of the publicity was a little challenging-preparing imagery, trying to figure out what to do. Obviously, being in FAITH HEALER was easier for me. When I'm in a play, it's easier for me to do the preparation because I am submerged in it, so the imagery is stronger for me. For GOOD THIEF, I had Santry (Rush) sit down and just go through it for me, so I could find what I thought the imagery was. I had a poster image they used in their first production, and I tried to incorporate a little of what John (Tyson)'s ideas were there to honor their earlier ideas. But trying to get them all out at the same time too was very stressful for me while trying to learn (lines) at the same time.

I think there has been some confusion that there are two shows running at the same time when I was sending some things. I've gotten a couple of people who haven't listed things because they didn't get it. I've had to go back, and they were confused. So, there's been a little bit of, "I guess people don't do this."

BWW: Other than Houston Grand Opera, yeah.

Kim Tobin: Right! So they just kind of ignored it, and I thought, "We're the fourth largest city in the country, and you're not understanding a repertory theatre program?" I mean, you post some things with opera now and then, and some dance companies do this.

Philip Lehl: And the Alley and Stages have two stages, and they often have things running concurrently. It's not that weird. The dates are weird. We have put THE GOOD THIEF around FAITH HEALER for two weeks, so Santry (Rush) is taking dates that we don't usually have shows. Then, the last week of his run is our regular schedule, so that's a little odd.

Kim Tobin: So, I've had a little bit of issue with people not understanding what we're doing. So, just the literal dynamics of how to put it together has been a little difficult. Other than that, I think, we're okay. We're going to be fine. It's not going to be an issue. The sets are very complimentary. I'm excited about it in that it's something that I want to do again. I want to find opportunities to do it again.

Philip Lehl: (To John Tyson) Is it crazy to be thinking about two shows all the time?

John Tyson: No. They're both small shows. One has a cast of three, and one has a cast of one. It would be immensely more complicated if we were doing, like you were saying, MIDSUMMER and THE RIVALS.

Philip Lehl: (Laughing) Or MOTHER COURAGE.

John Tyson: The only thing I find tricky is to divvy up the rehearsal time. Santry (Rush)'s monologue is an hour and a half long. So, if we stop and start talking about issues in it, we'd rarely get through the whole thing, which is fine with me. I think that's something we only want to be ready to do just before we open, but a lot of questions are raised by the material. When you stop and discuss them, it's time to move on to the next person. That's not a problem, it's something to keep in mind. But, they're, you know, intimate plays, so in that sense, we just put a chair up there and Philip (Lehl) is ready to go. We put a different chair up there for Santry, and he's ready to go.

Kim Tobin: Yeah, I think that for small plays it's not a big deal, but if we had bigger things, it would be more difficult. We'd have to have a day rehearsal and a night.

Philip Lehl: We could have two different directors, two different spaces to rehearse, and two different casts.

BWW: So far, what has been the biggest reward of preparing these works for Houston audiences?

John Tyson: I think working with me. [Kim Tobin Laughs]

Philip Lehl: Absolutely.

John Tyson: I don't want to speak for everybody else.

Philip Lehl: Well, I think I was scared, I think I'm probably speaking for all of us, but I was scared of the play because-I have done one-person, direct address shows before, but there's something about this play, I think because of it's demand, there's nothing to hide behind in this play, and I was scared of it. I think the reward so far, has been finding those moments when that is happening.

Kim Tobin: I think it's been wonderful to work, even though we're not on stage at the same time, on a play with my husband (Philip Lehl) and John (Tyson), who I greatly admire and has been so wonderful to me, has made me feel so safe, and taken care of in this process, and to work on a character that is very different than my natural instinct as an actor. To be able to really embrace that, I feel like I've been given a really new kind of experience as an artist. I just think this material is breathtaking. This sounds cheesy, but I can't think of a better word, but I feel like it's special to work on this material because of the writing.

Santry Rush: I don't think that's cheesy.

Kim Tobin: It's really just the more I say it, the more I like it. Sometime's when I learning the lines like at Onion Creek or at somewhere, I'm like, "I don't want to learn. I don't want to go over this anymore because I'm so tired of going over and over and over and over them out of the context on working on them." But, then, when I go in and work on them as the character and as an artist, I love them coming out of my mouth and being in my body, and that's interesting to me. That's art! [Pauses] And that fascinates me.

Santry Rush: I think it's really fun to do plays. One of the main reasons I started doing plays was because I got to hang out with my friends all the time. That sort of thing is not the same, necessarily, in this type of production, but the other side of that coin is that I do get to really appreciate the other parts of being an artist, which means just engaging with the material and the creativity all the time. And, I'm working alongside three people who I really trust. I've worked on several projects with John (Tyson), some of which we've never even talked about out loud or shown anybody else, but this was something I looked forward to because getting a chance to work with a really close friend, seeing him nightly, and getting a chance to see more of him is always great. Then, I get to tell an amazing story that is not only growing me as performer, but makes me think on the outside. I try to take a little bit of what I'm learning in rehearsal, and as an actor, and as a friend, and as an adult, it's just really nice to get a chance to work on something that really means something. I think it's going to mean a lot to audiences too. I think this is a completely unique experience. I don't think anyone else in this city will have an experience like this very often if you come and see these plays, and that's great. I know John is somebody who doesn't waste time doing things he doesn't think are important, and it's nice to be on that ride.

BWW: Without giving away too much, why do you think Houston audiences should be excited to see these well-known but somewhat atypical plays?

John Tyson: You get to spend a lot of intimate, one-on-one time with four characters who you're not going to meet everyday. It really feels like you're alone in the room with them, and a certain kind of bond is created in both of these shows between the actors and each audience member. Also, there's a lot of weird, dark humor in these plays too. I don't want it sound like they're just a grim experience. They're Irish plays. In the midst of a certain amount of darkness, this humor will arise every once in a while and will tickle and delight the audience members who are paying attention. That's a great combination you don't get all the time. There are not enough Irish plays.

Both FAITH HEALER and THE GOOD THIEF are being produced by Stark Naked Theatre Company and will perform at Studio 101 in Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street, Houston, 77007. FAITH HEALER runs from January 23 to February 8, 2014. THE GOOD THIEF runs from January 28 to February 15. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.starknakedtheatre.com or call (832) 866-6514.

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