BWW Interview: Creators Discuss FIRE IN A DARK HOUSE Opening Tonight at the Whitefire

BWW Interview: Creators Discuss FIRE IN A DARK HOUSE Opening Tonight at the Whitefire

FIRE IN A DARK HOUSE opens tonight at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks and runs every Thursday through November 15. Co-Creators Mona Z. Smith and Traci Mariano chat with us about the play and their collaboration.

Written by Steve Peterson

You live on opposite coasts and have worked together before. How did you meet and how did this partnership come to be?

We met at graduate school, at Columbia University in New York. Mona was starting the MFA program in playwriting. Traci was in her second year in the MFA directing program.

Traci interviewed Mona for a job at the Miller Theater, and Mona showed up with her 10-month old daughter in a stroller. We got along like a house afire right from the start. Traci offered Mona the job, but Mona felt conflicted because Second Stage had offered her a work-study position. Traci said, "What? Are you crazy? Go with Second Stage. They do new plays!" So Mona took her advice, and she's been taking Traci's advice ever since!

That fall, Mona's first full-length play -- a very early, and very different version of FIRE IN A DARK HOUSE -- won Columbia's John Golden Award. This entitled her to a full production of the play in the spring. Mona really, really, really wanted Traci to direct that production. There were very few women in the theater department, and that first meeting with Traci made a huge impression on Mona. So, about six months after their first meeting, Mona showed up at Traci's door to make the ask. At the time, Traci was in the middle of tech rehearsals for an incredibly complex, brilliant, Brechtian version of Hamlet. Her first response was, "Are you kidding? No." But Mona was persistent, and persuasive, and a bit pitiful, actually, and finally Traci relented and agreed.

That was the start of a beautiful friendship and a rich and rewarding collaboration that has endured for 25 years -- through graduate school, jobs, a transcontinental move, marriages, children and more children! Aside from being with our families, our favorite place to be is with each other in the rehearsal room, creating work.

What was the genesis of this play?

Mona wrote a much different version of this play in graduate school at Columbia. The inspiration for the play -- then and now -- is a fascinating family story her grandmother told her many times when she was a child. That story, about Mona's great aunt Rose, was something of a mystery, and questions about Rose lingered in Mona's mind for many years. Fire in a Dark House imagines one possible answer to those fascinating questions. We can't answer them here: It would be a major spoiler!

What drew you to the subject matter, and why did you want to bring it to the stage?

We loved the idea of working on a wartime romance set during World War I. We believed it was important to stage Fire in a Dark House this fall for many reasons. We wanted to celebrate the 25th year of our collaboration, a rare and beautiful thing for two women in theater. We also are marking other milestones with this production. The true events that inspired this play happened almost exactly 100 years ago, including events that involved members of Mona's family. This fall also marks the 100th anniversary of the World War I Armistice. And finally, we believe this story explores themes that resonate today, including what it means to be an American, an immigrant, a young Dreamer, and a patriot.

What do you want the audience' take away' to be? Is there anything else about FIRE IN A DARK HOUSE you want us to know?

This play is in part about waves of anti-immigrant sentiment that periodically sweep this nation. In World War I, anti-immigrant fervor targeted German Americans, throwing their families and communities into turmoil.

German Americans came here from many different countries. They practiced many different faiths - Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Mennonite, Hutterite, Amish. Some were sophisticated city-dwellers; some were farmers; some helped to build small towns all across the nation. Some came in search of religious or political freedom; others for economic opportunities; and others simply for the chance to start afresh in the New World. Some had been in this country since colonial times; some were the first generation born here; some were immigrants fresh off a boat from Europe.

All of them were Americans. All of them spoke German, or had German-sounding names. And that made all of these "German-Americans" suspect once the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917 and sent troops to fight in World War I.

Right now we are in a another period of American history where immigrant groups are under attack. We think Fire in a Dark House raises important questions -- about America, our freedoms, our principles, and what we want to stand for in the global community. And we think these questions are especially important to consider during this important election season. Our cast is hosting talkbacks after every performance, and we welcome everyone to please join in the discussion!

For tix and info call 800-838-3006 or visit: The Whitefire Theatre is located at 13500 Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks. Please arrive early to find street parking.

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From This Author Don Grigware