BWW Interviews: Talking Marriage and Mamet with Alan Campbell and Lauren Kennedy
It was recently my great pleasure to sit down and talk with Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell, of Hot Summer Nights | Theatre Raleigh, about their current production of Race, and their unique creative relationship for the production. The two are married, and this was the first time that Alan has acted in a play which Lauren directed. The two discussed how they met, how they keep their talent crushes alive, and how they worked together to create this emotionally-charged piece of theater.
The couple met doing the American premiere Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles in 1993. Lauren was “fresh out of school,” while Alan had been a working actor. Alan recalls, “I had been living in Los Angeles for almost ten years working in television, I was on a show called Jake and the Fatman for about five years, and Three’s a Crowd. I started in New York and had gone to LA and was cast in Sunset from LA. I auditioned in LA and got the role in the premiere production, which was supposed to be LA-based, and then moved to Broadway. We circled each other for all those months that we were in the show, and then started dating actually right about the time [Lauren] left.”
The two didn’t necessarily set out to work on Race together in this capacity. I asked them about how they chose this project and how they ended up working together as director and actor. According to Lauren, “Well, we always try to do at least one thought-provoking drama that sort of anchors the fluff of the summer choices, that most people want. You know, they want something lighthearted in the summer. That’s great, and we love doing that, don’t get me wrong, but we always like to anchor it with something a little bit more artistically challenging and thought-provoking.”
Alan adds, “we like to mix it up. We did Boeing Boeing, and then we did Dames at Sea, which is a musical, and then we like to do something serious because it brings in a different type of person. We have people who come here to see Race that probably wouldn’t come to see a musical and vice versa.”
As to why they chose Race in particular, Alan says, “I like David Mamet, and I had acted in Oleanna here before we took the theater over, and it had done really well down here. It kind of surprised everybody.” The success of Oleanna, particularly the conversations it sparked between patrons as they left the theater, was motivating for Alan. He continued, “I’m doing more plays these days than musicals and Lauren gives me this slot. We consult about it, but I was passionate to do this play. I thought doing this play in Raleigh at this time, with an African American president, and all those issues being at the forefront might be interesting, so we got the rights and decided to do it.” When Alan decided he wanted to act in Race at Hot Summer Nights, they had planned on working with a different director. When the theater lost that director, Lauren decided she wanted to direct it. The two agree that when they do hard-hitting dramas at Hot Summer Nights, “we see people that we don’t normally see for our other fare, which helps us grow our audience.”
When discussing the particular challenges of directing and acting in Race, Lauren laughed as she said, “I think Alan would probably say learning the lines is the biggest challenge, because it’s very wordy.” She continued, on a more serious note, to say, “although it’s only an 85 minute play, David Mamet crams a lot of words into that, and it is rapid-fire dialogue. It comes at you fast and it jumps back and forth. He really writes like he must have been thinking, so he’ll make a statement, and then he’ll go back and qualify it, and then he’ll come back to his point. So, it’s not as linear as some writers, but that’s what makes it cool, and makes it naturalistic. I think the main challenge for me as a director was just making sure that we were presenting a fair fight, because whether David Mamet likes to admit it or not, I think he writes plays to try to figure out how he feels about a subject. And so I think he wrote Race to try to figure out where he stood in the conversation and the debate. That being said, I think we need to have our audiences have that same experience, so for me to create a very fair fight and you to not know which way it’s tipping one way or the other. We want to make sure that the audience leaves here only with their own history and with the information we’ve given them and be able to talk about it and debate it and discuss it. Not only race in general and how we view it and how it affects our society, but also who’s in the wrong in this piece, and who did it and who’s corrupt and who isn’t.”
When asked if this was the first time they had ever worked together in such a capacity, Lauren joked and said, “I mean, I tell him what to do all the time.” And Alan added that he does exactly what Lauren says. Professionally speaking, this is the first time Lauren has directed Alan in a piece.
Entering into this creative partnership, Alan hoped that there wouldn’t be too many disagreements that arose, noting that “it’s a different dynamic when you’re married and you live together,” and happily admits that those disagreements really didn’t come up during the rehearsal process. Giving credit to his fellow cast members, he said “good actors, from Lauren’s standpoint, and from a producer’s standpoint, they do a great deal of the work for you. If you cast right, a lot of it gets done naturally. [This cast] understood their characters and they understood their place in the play.” He went on to add, “I trust [Lauren] because I think she’s a very talented director. I’ve seen proof of it before. She’s coached me on auditions and stuff, and I just completely trusted her to stand apart and see the big picture, whereas the individual actors many times it’s difficult to do that.”
Would he do it again? “In a minute,” he says, although adds that, “maybe a musical might be scarier, because she even knows more about that,” to which Lauren chuckled.
How did these gifted singers handle the difficult dialogue, which is sometimes referred to as “Mamet speak?” Alan says that “I get it in my mouth almost like learning music. It’s like learning stuff by ear… You have to trust that it’s in your mouth, it’s in your head, it’s in your body… There’s a music to it.”
Lauren agrees. “It’s very true. He’s written the phrasing in.” She went on to give an example, “there’s a speech that Alan says where it says ‘I know there is nothing that a white person can say to a black person about race that is not both incorrect and offensive.’ Literally, it’s in the script, it’s “I know. Period. There is nothing. Period. That a white man. Period. Can say to a black person on the subject of. Period. Race. Period.’ It’s fascinating because he’s really telling you to take the time to think of the words. It’s so measured and so important.” They both agree that his rare use of pauses and very specific dialogue features are challenging, but that it’s helpful to approach the words like music.
After discussing the challenges of doing this work, I asked them what has been the best part of doing this piece together. They agreed that they enjoyed the opportunity to spend time together. With other commitments, work engagements, and parenting, they seemed to really enjoy being able to spend quality time together in the creative process.
Alan noted that the process has reminded him how talented Lauren is, and he finds that talent attractive. Lauren feels the same way about Alan. Having met doing Sunset Boulevard, Alan remembers the first time he acted with Lauren in a leading role, and that her presence on stage was something that attracted him to her, that he was attracted to “her and her talent both.” He said, “I think every now and then when you’re doing dishes and you’re paying bills, and you’re raising a child, you know, and you’re getting the oil changed in your car, to remind each other as a couple what caused that first not only emotional spark, but intellectual spark.” These days, he has a “growing respect that she can direct anything.”
I asked Lauren to sum up the experience of seeing Race and what she hopes the audience will take away from the show, to which she replied, “I think that the real thing that I would love for people to take away is that, though we have come so far, there is still so much farther that we have to go in our relationships with people of other races and other creeds, or sexual orientations or whatnot, that it’s so good to be reminded that it’s still prevalent in our society today, that there’s still much to be learned and to be talked about, and we can laugh at ourselves because of the way we think, and the more you see someone else saying, like he said, what you think in your mind, and you hear it out loud, and you hear how ridiculous it sounds, it teaches you, and you become more self-aware, and hopefully become a better citizen.” She mentioned her own experiences working on this show, and feels strongly that working on this show has made her a more understanding person.
Alan adds that Mamet is “holding up a magnifying glass” to society’s issues about race. He elaborated by saying that even though we want to be egalitarian about race, that’s just not where society is yet.
This conversation reminded me, in a roundabout way, of Hot Summer Nights | Theatre Raleigh’s next production, which happens to be Avenue Q. When I mentioned it to Lauren and Alan, Lauren laughed and started singing one of the show’s most well-known songs, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” She noted the beauty of theater is its ability to reflect us in so many different ways. She said, “that’s why Alan and I really love producing theater, you know, equally or more than performing. It’s because we really think about our audience, we really think about our patrons and what kind experience they’re going to have. And it’ll be fun because we’re really hitting an older generation with Race, and you know, flip side for Avenue Q, were going to hit a young[er] demographic.” Although Alan stepped in to note that they have been pleasantly surprised by the audiences at Race, noting that there have been younger people in the audiences as well.
Although Race isn’t quite a comedy in the way that Avenue Q is, it certainly has some funnier moments. Lauren talked about the power of laughter, especially in a highly charged piece like this, “when you laugh, it opens your heart more. Physically, you feel your muscles being warmed, and you’re ready to take in the message of it more, so I think it’s a really, really important tool.”
Race runs through August 5. Avenue Q starts August 15 and runs through August 19. For tickets and more information, visit www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org.