BWW Interviews: Mildred's Umbrella Artistic Director Jennifer Decker Talks RED DEATH
Award-winning theatre company Mildred's Umbrella is producing RED DEATH, an absurd black comedy inspired by Raymond Chandler, Franz Kafka, Kurt Vonnegut, and Edgar Allan Poe. As if that isn't enough, the cast and crew read like a who's who of Houston theatre. With all this talent, this production is bound to be good. Expect deft direction from Jennifer Decker, quality acting from Bree Bridger, Karen Schlag, and Christie Guidry Stryk, exquisite costume and set design from Jodi Bobrovsky, and a sexy, thrilling, and smart play written by Houston favorite Lisa D'Amour. And that's just who I could remember off the top of my head.
BWW: First, congrats to you and Mildred's Umbrella for receiving an International Center for Women Playwrights' 2014 50/50 Applause Award! How does it feel to receive an award like that?
Jennifer Decker: It feels great! To be recognized for our work by people who don't personally know us is amazing.
BWW: The award is specifically for theatres who produce the work of women playwrights at least 50% of the time in a particular season. Was this difficult to achieve?
Jennifer Decker: I am drawn to plays that have female protagonists and good roles for women. More often than not, women have written these plays, which makes it happen organically.
BWW: Do you think these sort of incentives still need to exist?
Jennifer Decker: I think its getting better, but they still need to exist. Traditionally, the major roles in plays are for men, and the stories are about male characters, with women as love interests or accessories. If women write plays, they tend to at least balance it out more. There is no reason why a woman can't take a journey in a story that isn't about being female, just about being human.
BWW: Let's talk about the journey in RED DEATH. How would you describe this play?
Jennifer Decker: RED DEATH follows the journey of a woman, Jane, who is working for a mysterious secret panel to find the origin of evil. She connects everything concerning evil with a childhood experience, and uses her own interpretation of her mission to determine how she finds it.
BWW: The main character is "searching for the origin of hate, the root of denial, and the basic human weakness that causes us to fear death." Those are huge themes! How can you honor the play's purpose without straying away from the excitement of its genre, the thriller?
Jennifer Decker: The play is more of a black comedy than a thriller. The themes are dark, so it is important not to be too heavy handed with them. I found that by dealing with the text honestly, and not trying to push anything too hard, the suspense and the humor came out on its own.
BWW: I've also seen the play described as "one part Raymond Chandler, one part Kafka, and one part Kurt Vonnegut" as well as a "21st-century riff on Edgar Allan Poe's Masque of the Red Death." Seeing that, I'm not sure what to expect!
Jennifer Decker: Audiences can expect to be on the edge of their seats trying to figure out the mystery of death, while also being entertained with the absurdity of life. [I Laugh] The story isn't the same story at all as the Poe story. This play is modern. You can see the inspiration throughout the play if you know the Poe story, but the plot and characters are different. There is definitely a Kafka influence - conflict between parent and child, dealing with bureaucracy, themes of alienation, etc.
BWW: I hear Jodi Bobrovsky is working on this production? I was a big fan of her work on POLLYWOG and FULL GALLOP. What can we expect from set design?
Jennifer Decker: Jodi's work is always amazing. She has created a strikingly beautiful set made of recycled and found materials that is simple enough to use for 7 different locations. Visitors to our building have mistaken it for an art installation. I always know if I have her involved, the set will be wonderful, and she did not disappoint this time.
BWW: I can't wait to experience it! What challenges does this piece pose to you as a director?
Jennifer Decker: Some challenges were to keep the acting natural in absurd situations, to interpret some of the more vague themes in the script that are left open, and to keep the play running at a pace that keeps the audience interested without losing important information. A physical challenge was to create 7 completely different locations with a total costume transformation of the lead actress without making the audience sit in the dark for more than a few seconds at a time.
BWW: How did you accomplish this? What is your process as a director?
Jennifer Decker: My process is to read and discuss the play with everyone involved before I set my vision in stone. You never know what insight an actor or designer will have that enhances what you already think of a piece. I don't set blocking in stone right away, because I want to develop each character and scene a bit first and see what happens naturally. Then I can shape the piece based on our collective interpretation of what happens in each scene and the story as a whole. I insist on honoring the text. If the playwright used particular punctuation, or strange line breaks, there is a reason it was written that way. I might be a little nitpicky with that sometimes, but I was trained as an actor, and came into directing later, so the acting choices are important to me. I also believe in letting artists help in the creation of the play (actors and designers). There's no greater waste to me than a play with fabulous artists who aren't allowed to create.
BWW: You're the artistic director of Mildred's Umbrella as well. What challenges does a play like RED DEATH pose to a company, and how do you problem solve for those challenges?
Jennifer Decker: All plays are a challenge because we don't have a full staff or the budget for bigger production elements. I solve this by wearing many hats myself, taking risks to let people try jobs outside their normal area (one of our usual tech operators is stage managing for the very first time on this one, and turned out to be amazing) and hiring the most creative people I can find to make the design wonderful with the small budgets we deal with.
BWW: I'm sure a lot of artists would like to know how you kept a theatre company afloat for a decade? Do you have any words of advice or encouragement (for us)?
Jennifer Decker: I guess because I'm crazy? [She Laughs] I don't know. I started with $500 of my own money and a script written by a friend. We've grown over the last decade, but it happens more slowly when you have to struggle for funding. I don't know the kind of people who have money to donate large amounts. But I do it because what I have built means a lot to many of our patrons, female playwrights, and the artists who work with us.
My advice is not to start a company if it is a vanity project. Its not as easy as it might look. If you want to star in shows, go work on your craft and become a better actor, and people will cast you. If you start a company, it is about the art, about collaboration. It shouldn't be an ego thing or it won't last.
Looking for a good time? See RED DEATH this weekend at Mildred's Umbrella.
WHO: Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company
WHAT: RED DEATH
WHERE: Studio 101, 1824 Spring Street, Houston TX 77007
WHEN: October 9-25, 2014, Thursdays-Saturdays. All shows at 8pm. NO LATE SEATING.
PRICE- $20 general admission/ $12 Students, Seniors, and "Industry". Pay What You Can Monday, October 20, 2014.
MORE INFO/RESERVATIONS: www.mildredsumbrella.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or (832) 463-0409
Photos by VJ Arizpe, courtesy of Mildred's Umbrella