BWW Interview: Counter-Productions Theatre Company's Creative Team Previews LONELY PLANET
Counter-Productions Theatre Company closes the 2016-17 season with a staging of Steven Dietz's Lonely Planet. Ted Clement (Company Artistic Director), Michael Ducharme (Lonely Planet Director), and R. Bobby (Lonely Planet Dramaturg) join BroadwayWorld Rhode Island to preview the production.
BWW: What attracted you to staging Steven Dietz's Lonely Planet?
I am drawn to stories that explore what it means to be human. This story finds hope and renewal despite a culture in spiritual and political denial of the devastating effects of a disease raging unchecked through the margins of society. Lonely Planet examines the complexities of the grieving process. Two gay men use humor to find meaning in the midst of unfathomable, yet deeply personal, human suffering. I admire the simplicity and beauty of playwright Steven Dietz's language along with his heightened sense of theatricality. The play is enormously well crafted and great fun to play and to watch!
BWW: Counter-Productions has a reputation for promoting artistic collaboration. How did Lonely Planet encourage that creative process? In which ways was it most challenging and most rewarding?
One of the things we pride ourselves on is our openness to suggestions of projects by our collaborators. We've always encouraged our peers to share their interests with us because we believe that theatre is a creative conversation from selection to production. Lonely Planet is one of those projects. It was introduced to us by our dear friend and collaborator Michael [Ducharme] as a play that he's always wanted to direct, and after reading it, seeing what a beautiful play it is, we were thrilled to be able to give Michael the opportunity. His passion for the piece has been inspiring, and his vision has led the cast and crew to a remarkably creative place.
BWW: Lonely Planet was published in the mid-1990s, and the last two decades have seen leaps forward in terms of AIDS treatment and societal perceptions of individuals diagnosed with the disease. What challenges does that passage of time bring when presenting the play to today's audience? What stood out to you the most in terms of what hasn't changed in those years?
While it is true that there are many more people living healthfully with HIV today, unfortunately not much has changed over the past 25 years in terms of stigma, fear, and lack of knowledge about HIV, which leads to risky behaviors. People of all ages are still contracting HIV, and currently there seems no end in sight. Even Pre Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), taking HIV medications by uninfected individuals, is not 100% effective as a prevention tool.
This play tells the story of how one man, Jody, gets tested for the first time. We have no idea how risky he's been. But his journey to test and his friendship with Carl reveal deep truths about how the loss of their mutual friends affects them personally. Yes, HIV ravaged the gay community in the 1980s and early 1990s. Too many people died. This play's message of hope, regardless of the circumstances, just may make Lonely Planet even more relevant and timely today.
BWW: The success of a two-person play depends greatly on the strength of the performers. What attributes did the Counter-Productions team look for when casting the roles of Jody and Carl? What drew you to Jim O'Brien and Chris Plonka during the casting process?
We've been fans of Jim O'Brien for a long time. His work in Rhode Island theatre is, in our opinion, beyond comparison. He has given some the best performances that we've ever seen, so we were basically looking for any opportunity to work with him. We were completely thrilled when we learned that he was interested in playing Jody, knowing that he would bring magic to the role. He has. Seriously.
Chris Plonka is a fantastically talented actor with the most remarkable range and a sophistication beyond his age. His work in our Frost/Nixon was superlative, earning him rave reviews, and his performance as a pseudo-Kirk in our science fiction production The Final Voyage of X Minus One was legendary. This young man is the future of theatre in our state.
These two actors are a phenomena on stage. Their chemistry is palpable. Their energy is electric. The sincerity of their performances in this play brings the whole crew to tears every night of rehearsal.
BWW: Lonely Planet deals with hard-hitting issues - fear and acceptance, isolation and community, and, quite literally, life and death - yet the play is categorized as an "absurdist comedy." How did Counter-Productions approach the razor-fine line between drama and humor? How much of that balance already exists on the page? What develops as the actors inhabit Dietz's words?
The playwright, Steven Dietz, has given us a script that eloquently walks the fine line between humor and pathos. His razor-sharp words provide all that is needed. Of course, having two amazing actors inhabit these roles creates an experience for the audience that will be fully satisfying. You will laugh, you will cry. This play has it all.
The play is beautifully written, inciting laughs and tears in equal measure. The characters are wonderfully human, delightfully flawed and vulnerable in the most appealing ways. The subject matter of HIV/AIDS is a serious topic, not to be taken lightly, however the play takes a light-hearted look at the lives of these characters who are living in fear. That's probably the biggest challenge, to honor the lives of those who died at the hands of this horrible disease, while allowing the play to be as funny as it needs to be. Fortunately we have a skilled leader at the helm, a group of seriously devoted crew members, and a pair of incredible actors with the skill to pull it off.
BWW: Would you give us a sneak peek of what's coming next for Counter-Productions Theatre Company? Are there any summertime projects in the works? What stories or themes will you be exploring next season?
In the 2017/2018 season we will explore plays that question existence and its value. In the fall we'll produce Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, a play that I've always wanted us to tackle. It will be directed by the brilliant Valerie Remillard, who's been studying the play for a decade. Val is ecstatic to finally put her extensive knowledge of the work into practice, and we couldn't be happier to have her.
In the spring we'll focus our energies exclusively on new works. We'll begin with the staging of two new plays that we've previously produced as staged readings. The first is Le Dernier Repas (A Love Story) by David Eliet. David is the founder of Perishable Theater, which previously inhabited our beloved 95 Empire, and serves on the faculty of Stonehill College. The play is a dark look at the lengths to which people went to survive the terror of the Holocaust. It will be directed by Rufus Qristofer Teixeira, who helmed our multiple award-winning Picasso and the Lapin Agile. The second is Isabella by David J. Valentin, a local actor and playwright, who I've been working with since he was my student at CCRI. This play paints a harsh picture of life "on the streets" for a young girl who finds her salvation in her own writing. I'll direct this sad and powerful play myself. Each of these plays will be produced in a one-week workshop format.
We will end our season with our third annual staged-reading series, entitled Readings in Spring: An Exploration of New Works. This year we will focus on works by female playwrights.
Lonely Planet opens at AS220's Black Box Theatre, 95 Empire Street, Providence, on April 28, 2017. General admission tickets cost $20. For a full calendar of performances and to order tickets, please visit www.cptcri.com.
Counter-Productions Theatre Company is now accepting submissions for Readings in Spring: An Exploration of New Works at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pictured: Chris Plonka and Jim O'Brien.
Photo courtesy Counter-Productions Theatre Company.