BWW Interviews: THE SHOPLIFTERS at Arena Stage Raises Questions and Forms Connections through Comedy
Arena Stage, D.C.'s venerable theatrical institution along the Potomac River, has established a reputation over its last 64 seasons for presenting works that challenge, engage and entertain audiences. The world-premiere production of Morris Panych's comedy The Shoplifters, which opens its season, seems poised to continue that tradition, all thanks to a shoplifter named Alma and a security guard named Otto.
Shoplifter Alma and her friend Phyllis get caught by Security Guard Otto and his fellow rookie guard Dom. Upon first glance, The Shoplifters' plot may seem like a straightforward story, much like the crime itself. Except that for Panych, the story didn't begin with the crime, but rather the reason behind it.
"I like to write on extensional themes," says Panych. "I was really interested in this character [Alma], this older woman who stole. When someone commits a crime, they're not doing it to just break a law; it usually is an expression of themselves. For Alma, what is shoplifting an expression of?"
From there Panych began to explore the notion of shoplifting as an expression of self. One aspect of society he's quick to lament is the notion that we tend to shade issues into areas of black or white, right or wrong, especially when examining crime.
"I think it's essential for artists to open-up questions rather than narrow them," Panych says. "We're talking about people who don't have money and how they deal with it. These are large questions. When you write a comedy about something, the something becomes more important than the comedy."
For Delaney Williams, who plays Otto, the fact that Panych's script did ask questions is what first attracted him to The Shoplifters. He's quick to note how these questions lead to some unlikely connections being made and praises the authenticity of the characters.
"What we find through the play, especially with Alma helping Otto, is them finding a way to live in the world, being who they are," says Williams. "Because of how out of control every aspect of life is, we find in their relationship a reaching out and a discovering of the release they get from being kindred spirits. We see the intersection of these two people for a reason and that's what makes this play exciting for me to play."
The Shoplifter's journey to Arena Stage started at the intersection of another relationship and that was between Panych and Arena Stage's Artistic Director Molly Smith. After getting to know each other at the Shaw Festival Theatre in Panych's native Canada, Smith asked if he would be interested in working with Arena's Dramaturg Jocelyn Clarke to develop the play.
"I started to work with the dramaturg and it was a really good relationship, he's a smart guy," says Panych. "He's in tune with the writing process, almost like a shrink! He gets you to talk and see where the holes are. From there the play evolved and that led to a reading last year. It was then Molly who decided to do it."
Panych and Williams are quick to highlight the collegial and collaborative nature of working at Arena Stage. Both emphasize that this is not always the case with other regional theaters and an aspect that makes working at Arena Stage special. Although previews begin this week, Panych, who also serves as the production's director, says that rewrites have been ongoing and that the play continues to evolve.
"The thing about new plays, once the actors come into the room and start asking questions, then those questions need to be answered," says Panych. "So yes, I'm going home every night to do rewrites, but the actors are asking good questions. We're also laughing a lot in rehearsals."
The Shoplifter's is not only a world-premiere production for Arena Stage; it's also the opener for their 65th season. In addition to Williams, the cast includes Tony Award nominee Jayne Houdyshell, Jenna Sokolowski who's been seen onstage at the Kennedy Center and Signature Theatre and Adi Stein who most recently directed Marriage, Lizards and Love at the Capital Fringe Festival. Though as a DC-native, returning to Arena Stage for Williams is in many ways like going home.
"Every time I've worked here - and I've worked here with Zelda Fichandler who founded Arena to Molly Smith, who's the current artistic director - it can't get any better than being able to say you're going to be doing something phenomenal in a place that you truly love and will support it fully, like Arena does," says Williams. "Arena Stage gave me this opportunity and has given me many opportunities like it, it's like coming home."