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BWW Interview: Malinda L. Beckham, Doug Williams and Donna McKenzie Talk World Premiere of THE BOUNDARY

Howard Block and Mykle McCoslin in THE BOUNDARY.
Photo courtesy of Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.

This weekend, Dirt Dogs Theatre Co. presents THE BOUNDARY, a story about a married romance writer whose world is flipped upside down when a former flame, now on the run from the FBI, suddenly re-enters her life, desperately needing her help. The play, a comedy and a political thriller, explores some pretty big questions about love, trust, and stability. Today we talk to director Malinda L. Beckham and playwrights Doug Williams and Donna McKenzie about the evolution of THE BOUNDARY, the unexpected collaboration between Williams and McKenzie, and why it's so hard to direct a politically-themed love story.


The origin of THE BOUNDARY can be traced back to over 25 years ago, when Williams, a former press secretary and journalist, began work on an "angry political narrative" called A MORE PERFECT UNION.

Doug, what from your past experiences (as a journalist and press secretary) has inspired or informed first A MORE PERFECT UNION and then THE BOUNDARY?

Doug Williams: Journalism and politics kind of lit up my anger and passion, both of which are evident in the play. At the time, I believed journalists truly could change the world for the better; they were the white hats, and my idols were reporters who were willing to take on the power structure and everything that implied. In politics, whether campaigns or in the Senate, I saw an opportunity to pursue the greater good. Those two attitudes pretty much inform Christian Robb, the character in the play wanted by the FBI. But at the same time, journalism and politics have changed a lot, and not for the better. That has been maddening and exhausting, both of which have found voice in Christian as well, and to some degree, Samantha, who is struggling with having her passion replaced by comfort.

THE BOUNDARY had a long gestational period. What happened in those 20 plus years and what led to you revisiting it and finally completing a draft in 2013?

Doug Williams: When I first began work on the play, I was deeply involved in theatre - acting, writing, and even some directing. But as the years went on, I sort of drifted into other areas. I'd written a play about Barbara Jordan, probably the most prominent African-American woman in politics of her era, and that eventually became a screenplay that was optioned in Hollywood, starting me down the scriptwriting path. And I'd wanted to write a political conspiracy novel, which I did, but it took a long time. Then I wrote another novel that was published in June 2014. So while it wasn't a conscious decision, playwriting just got back-burnered. Then, as I got older and hopefully gained a little more understanding about how life works and the strange turns it can take, I decided to revisit the play.

It was in May 2015 that McKenzie, a well-known Houston radio and media personality, entered the picture. The two knew each other from a literary group and, after attending a table read, McKenzie approached Williams with questions, lots of questions, and thoughts about the characters.

Donna, what was it that so inspired you at that table read?

Donna McKenzie: I was struck by the possibility of an honest portrayal of mature themes - the nature of relationships, the nature of choices, and the question of whether our characters can see themselves outside of choosing anything beyond a longstanding norm. I was intrigued by the humor and the smart, witty presentation of the characters, and I felt it was so important that these characters have the depth and the respect that should be afforded to them in real life. My attention was greatly on character development, to take these worthy characters in varying degree of crisis and pre-crisis and to understand what will happen to them when they face what they will face.

Travis Ammons and Mykle McCoslin in THE BOUNDARY.
Photo courtesy of Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.

Both you and Doug say that the collaboration has been great, and that the two of you were "in sync about 95 percent of the time." You're clearly a creative person, but did you expect or intend to become a playwright, a collaborator, when you shared some of your questions and thoughts with Doug last year?

Donna McKenzie: Not in the slightest. I have been a writer my entire life in one form or another, and have a background in theatre and directing, radio and event hosting, and other kinds of narratives. But I regard myself more as a communicator, regardless of the medium, and it's always been important to me to clarify that communication. Any art form is meant to bridge the distance between one human being and another and to speak to our shared experience, no matter how difficult, in a way that opens the heart.

Malinda, what aspects of the play did you connect to the first time you read it?

Malinda L. Beckham: The fact that the play was an original script, yet to be produced, was my absolute first attraction. Once I dug into the script, however, my attention was drawn to the strong position of the female protagonist and the questions of the head and heart. I felt that this play was screaming for a voice and that the voice would tell a story that people would connect with on different levels. Some would connect to the rational logic and others would override that aspect in favor of a connection to the passion of the heart. Either way, I knew the story needed to be told and the message received would be as individual as the person watching it.

And specifically, why was THE BOUNDARY a good fit for Dirt Dogs?

Malinda L. Beckham: Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.'s mission statement includes a vow to honor playwrights. What better way to honor the playwright than to work directly with them to hone and develop not only characters, but places, sights, and sounds that bring the words to life. Dirt Dogs Theatre Co. wants to be a part of the process of bringing the play from page to stage and assist where we can to give first viewing to playwrights, so that they can experience the play's evolution and develop the script based on what they see and hear. When we first met these two [Doug Williams and Donna McKenzie], we knew that their passion for the script matched our passion for the stage.

And how has your past experience directing politically-themed love stories helped you with this production?

Malinda L. Beckham: Politics are a lot like love and carry the same theme as this play; head and heart. Some people approach politics from a thinking position while others from a feeling position. This play examines the importance of both positions separately and how they must merge in order to form a "more or less" perfect union, whether that be in a relationship or a country. When directing THE COLUMNIST for Theatre Southwest, I learned that political subject matter has to be treated as part of the story, rather than having the story be about politics.

What is it exactly that makes these types of shows so challenging?

Malinda L. Beckham: People tend to be very tied to their political position and you run the risk of not hitting the "political nail on the head" for every audience member. Politics can be polarizing and that must be balanced with something universal (such as love) that serves as an equalizer for a politically diverse audience. I enjoy the balancing act and though I aim to always tell a story and never "send a message." I really enjoy it when that story ignites discussion.

Please talk a little about the staging and what audiences can expect if they go see THE BOUNDARY.

The cast of THE BOUNDARY.
Photo courtesy of Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.

Malinda L. Beckham: After deciding to direct the play, my first question was how to stage it. In the first act alone we move between ten scenes in seven different locations. Four of those locations are only used once. We decided to make permanent sets of the living room and the office of the CEO. We did this by flanking the stage with these two locations elevated on platforms and used the center space to play the rest of the scenes (which includes a bar, a television studio, a bookstore, and a coffee shop). This allows us to flow between scenes without much set-up or take down, keeping the play moving along at a nice pace. A big shout out to our stage manager, assistant stage manager and our acting crew for keeping things moving.

And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from this show?

Doug Williams and Donna McKenzie: The reaction has been gratifying. One person told us that seeing the play prompted a deep discussion with her husband and opened up a new dialogue about their relationship. Someone else said that at some point in the evening, everyone in the audience was going to turn to their spouse or significant other and ask, is that us? And we overheard one audience member saying that most marriages have problems, spoken and unspoken, and this play hit them all. If we're encouraging those kinds of conversations, we've done our job.

Don't miss your chance to see THE BOUNDARY this Thursday, March 31, at 7:30 p.m. or Friday, April 1, or Saturday, April 2, at 8:00 p.m. Midtown Arts & Theater Center (MATCH), 3400 Main Street, Houston. For tickets or more information, please visit http://matchouston.org/events/boundary.


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From This Author Natalie de la Garza