The Offstage Presented Onstage

By Annie Sears

Thirteen actors. Two theater companies. One ambitious production. A.C.T. and Crowded Fire Theater co-commissioned playwright Susan Soon He Stanton to craft a piece specifically for our M.F.A. class of 2019, and beginning February 21, their collaborative work will be presented in The Rueff at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater.

Directed by Crowded Fire’s artistic director Mina Morita, Both Your Houses puts the backstage world of a regional theater center stage. Luis is trying to come out as gay, but what if he loses his family? Nate is producing his own film, but what if it doesn’t succeed? Emma wants to start a romance with Reggie, but what will happen when the run concludes? And the primary conflict: the artistic director has questionable relationships with several actresses. But this is the only theater in their area. If they don’t work here, they don’t work anywhere. What will it cost them to speak up, and is it worth it?

Tackling such complex issues has been a group effort. The team began the process with a reading at the 2018 New Strands Festival. Nearly a year later, it’s ready to be staged in full. “That was a skeleton,” says actor Carlos Andrickson. “Now it has muscles, tendons, and blood.”

M.F.A. students read Both Your Houses at the 2018 New Strands Festival. Photo by Jay Yamada.

Fleshing out this script has required courage from everyone involved. Actors shared their personal experiences so that Stanton could incorporate them into her story. They’d ask questions about their characters, and Stanton would develop their backstories. “Both Mina and Susan have been wonderful collaborators,” says actor Will Hoeschler. “I have huge respect for writers who show their work when it’s in its most early and raw stage. It requires a level of vulnerability to ask others to share their opinions about your work.”

Stanton has been working from New York and London for much of the rehearsal process, so she’s been Skyping into rehearsals, even if that means working at 4 a.m. her time. After hearing her words aloud, Stanton rewrites and sends new pages to the following rehearsal. “Susan has an awesome way of listening to the experiences of the people in the room and then coming back with pages that reflected that listening,” says actor Jerrie R. Johnson.

Lines are added, cut, altered, and redistributed among characters daily, which requires a different kind of focus to staging a finished work. Because Stanton needs to hear the melody of what she’s written, actors have to be word-perfect with an ever-changing script. “You have to be patient in learning,” says Andrickson. “I’m the kind of actor who usually begins delving into who the character is when I’m onstage and I have another character across from me. What they say to me, and what I say to them—the words are what matter to me. Sometimes, you don’t get that right away in this process. It’s a challenge.”

Micah Peoples and Carlos Andrickson at the 2018 New Strands Festival. Photo by Jay Yamada.

Creating a new work involves as much excitement as challenge, especially because actors get to originate their characters. “I’m Dominican, and my character, Luis, is Puerto Rican,” says Andrickson. “In those cultures, being gay is very frowned upon. So this role is multi-faceted and complex.” For Andrickson, it’s important to illuminate this culture onstage. “I never had any Dominican role models in the arts growing up. As I develop as an artist and delve into my values, I want to create and embody those roles so people who look like me can see themselves reflected onstage and realize that they can be anything they want to be. It’s why I do what I do.”

This is your last chance to catch the M.F.A. class of 2019 together, so get your tickets and join us for Both Your Houses, opening February 21 in The Rueff at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater.

Director Mina Morita at the 2018 New Strands Festival. Photo by Jay Yamada.

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