Working in the Theatre: Colossal – Olney, MD

[opening music] [ambient music] [percussive music] [Andrew Hinderaker] Colossal is the story of a star football player the University of Texas. He is the son of a very famous modern dancer and grew up in his father’s company and we joke that the story is a little bit like the “anti-Billy Elliot.” He defied his father by choosing football over dance, and it’s as a star player at the University of Texas that he suffers a catastrophic injury on the field. The play itself is structured like a football game: there’s a pregame, there’s four 15-minute quarters, and a half time show. It’s a game between this character pre-injury and this character post-injury with the larger question of, “Will he live his life in the past when he was a vibrant mover, when he was in a relationship, will he have the courage to defy his father? Or, will he be able to move into the present of his life when so many aspects of his life been redefined?” If it was a play that was going to be set in the world of football, it would have to live on a grand scale: a much larger scale than it’s typically seen in the American theater. I had a mentor, a man in Kirkland down in Texas who really helped me embrace that and challenged me to write an un-producable play: to dream the play as big as I wanted it to be. So, this play emerged that was really a fusion of spoken word and movement, that drew heavily on dance, that spoke the language of disability, that demanded a huge cast, a drumline, intense physical choreography. I began to script that. I was very lucky at the University of Texas because I had a number of extraordinary resources. I was able to partner with the dance department, I received support from the football team, and really at the core I was working with director William Davis. Will’s background is in movement, he’s a former dancer, so we really synced up and and began working on this piece almost from its inception. My other partner was an extraordinary actor named Michael Patrick Thornton. So, those were really the building blocks of Colossal. [Will Davis] The playwright, Andrew Hinderacker and I, we went to grad school together. We actually had both moved to Austin from Chicago, but we didn’t actually know each other before Austin. When we got to Austin and I met Andrew, I had this immediate senses like, “Ah, here is another artist who works as hard as I do. Thank God we can get some things done.” And so, we started making work together. We had a couple of early workshops, we were very fortunate to take that piece to the Kennedy Center’s MFA New Play Workshop two years ago which was where we started folding in drums and started folding in some other languages. And then, we did this massive
workshop production in Austin about a year-and-a-half ago now. So now, we’re here to premiere this piece at the Olney Theatre Center and I couldn’t be more thrilled to have this as a… a capstone production to three years of collaboration. [Davis in background] Is everyone warm? No… Okay, okay. [laughter] [Jason Loewith] The script on its own is just that, it’s flat on a page. You add a director, something happens. You add one actor, something else happens. But then, you have all of these other elements that needed to be added in order to write the production. And then, it’s who’s in the audience that writes each of the individual plays. With Colossal, we already have so many great advantages by bringing this team of three people together. But, what we bring to the table in terms of the designers that we can bring, the audience that we can bring, the resources that we can bring, and hopefully the artistic mentorship and expertise that we can bring by giving notes in the preview period are going to add up to something that is far greater than the sum of its parts. [background dialogue] [Hinderacker] I feel very fortunate that Colossal is the recipient of a Rolling World Premiere from the National New Play Network. Its very first production will be here in Olney, Maryland, the Olney Theater Center, directed by Will Davis, and then immediately after we open this show, Will and I go to Minneapolis to begin a second production with a completely different cast and design team at the Mixed Blood Theatre. That’s extraordinarily exciting because it would be a different physical space, it will be a different audience, and it’s a chance for me to continue to work on the play, to take what I learned from this experience and particularly from seeing it in front of an audience in production, and then bring that to Minneapolis. And then next year in 2015, it will be at the Dallas Theater Center in March directed by the artistic director Kevin Moriarty, and in Southern Rep in the Fall of 2015 directed by Southern Rep’s artistic director Aimee Hayes. [Davis] You know, it’s so incredible to be able to put this particular show together and make decisions that fit this show, these people, these bodies, this audience, in a particular way, and then also have this second train running which is, “Well, okay. There’s another production I’m going to do of this
back-to-back in which I can make a whole other set of choices if I wish.” It’s kind of an incredible gift because I can pull through to Minneapolis the things that just feel true and right and that we absolutely must be true production to production, and that’s already true here pulling from that workshop production in Austin. [Hinderacker] We created something that was maybe not a play and maybe more of a theatrical experience, an event that people could come to. At its core, Colossal is a character-driven, intimate piece of theatre, but one that lives in a really epic scale. [Davis] So, it’s epic. This play is an epic, epic piece. But what needs to happen inside of that are these moments of very focused and closed up intimacy. That’s why we’ve designed this play for the audience. Like, you’re sitting on the 50-yard line. [Loewith] The fact that we have chosen to do it in our hundred-and-fifty seat lab as opposed to our 420 seat mainstage, that was a deliberate choice in order to make sure the patrons, the people that were going to experience, were going to experience it right there. It was going to hit them viscerally: the sound, the movement, the sweat, the blood on these people, these players is going to be right there for them. [onstage dialogue] [Davis] I think this play happens to you. I think it is a bit of an assault and then embedded… in the best possible way, an assault, and then embedded inside of that are these moments of very vulnerable intimacy that are between a father and a son, between two men who are trying to figure out how to love each other, and in between this main character himself and what about his past and his identity that he’s willing to shed to take a risk and take a step forward. [onstage dialogue] [Loewith] The play immediately spoke to me as a tale of masculinity and a question of “what makes a man?” “How do you define what a man is?” And you also have three different visions of what it is to be a man. The whole setup of the play immediately asked that question, right? There’s a father, Damon, a legendary modern dancer and when you watch Steve Ochoa, the actor who is performing Damon doing his warm-ups, doing these beautiful moves, holding his body in ways that the body was not made to be held, expressing himself, his story, through his body and that language, you think, “Wow, that’s one way of being a man: is using your body to tell a story in this beautiful artistic way.” But, the father was rejected by the son. Young Mike turned away from modern dance and went to football. [onstage dialogue] We think of football as a real masculine vocabulary: guys banging into each other, right? And you’re going to see that, you’re gonna be part of that, you’re gonna be on the sidelines actually watching a football game tackles happen. That is certainly another way of expressing masculinity. And then finally, you have this gentle soul, Older Mike, played by Mike Thornton, who comes on stage in his wheelchair quiet, reserved, emotionally blocked off from the world, trying to figure out how he can be a man and what it is to be a man for him. [Hinderacker] Mike’s an actor who uses a wheelchair. About 10 years ago he had a spinal stroke and we’ve worked on a number of projects that are specific to disability. But, when I realized that this was a role that would be, I reached out to Mike and he really graciously shared his story, his experience, and that character began to be built around his body. [Loewith] This is a guy, the actor Mike Thorton who had a freak spinal stroke in 2003, and even though the play is not his story, we are asking him as producer, as playwright, as director, we’re asking him to relive the moment of that break every night, seven nights a week, in front, in the public, in front of an audience. That is an enormous thing to ask a person to do. And to live in that moment for an hour and a half in front of all of these witnesses takes great courage: great artistic courage. [onstage dialogue] [Hinderacker] This piece is absolutely taking a look at the prevailing paradigm of masculinity as expressed through the sport of football. I often say that football is not just the national pass-time, it is the most popular thing that we have of any kind in this country. It lifts up a very particular brand of masculinity, and parts of that form of masculinity are to me exciting. This world and parts of it are extraordinarily troubling, and I think that this is a play that looks at it from all angles, that both celebrates and criticizes football, and what it’s teaching young men to become. [onstage dialogue] [Davis] I’m coming from a very particular perspective on that. I’m a trans-identified person, artist, human in the world, and for me and this show is immensely wonderful because my experience as myself, as Will Davis moving through the world, is about performing masculinity. From what I can see, we’re all performing our gender in one way or another. We’re all getting up in the morning and putting it on and then going out and asking people to see us as we want to be seen. [onstage dialogue] We’re living in this interesting pivot point where we’re starting to see some professional athletes, some NFL players, come out, be openly gay, and we’re seeing the fallout of that. There’ a moment in the play where Young Mike is trying to say to Marcus, “You know, it’s okay. You and I, I don’t know, but we could admit our feelings to each other,” as I think he’s somewhere hovering around that line. And Marcus says, “You don’t understand. This is my life,” by which he means football, and Young Mike says to him, “Things are changing,” and Marcus says, “Changing ain’t changed.” I think that is the germane pivot point moment I’m talking about where we are culturally: that things are beginning to change, but changing it changed. It’s a funky moment for gender in America right now, and it’s cool to work on this play and knowing that when I started this process I was a completely different person with a different name and a different pronoun and when I think about how this play has sort of sign-posted my transition into a Will Davis-type animal… it’s a very proud legacy for me. [Hinderacker] When you embark on a production that’s this large and a play that demands these many resources, there are inevitably going to be challenges. Essentially, the play is asking the entire creative team to really seamlessly and strongly integrate a number of languages: a heightened football vocabulary, a modern dance vocabulary, the movement vocabulary of disability and spinal injury, to draw all of those languages together and to do it in a way that feels as muscular and economical as possible, you need a team that is working in sync. I feel very fortunate to be part of this team for that very reason. It’s a really extraordinary design team, it’s an extraordinary group of choreographers, an unbelievable cast of committed actors who since day one have been physically and emotionally exerting themselves, and so so lucky to be working with Will Davis who is a really visionary director in American theater. I think we’re going to be hearing a lot from Will in the coming years. So, the challenges thus far have been exciting ones. I have no doubt as we move into tech and if we put this whole piece together there will be moments where we think, “Oh boy, these pieces are not all falling into place, we are not a well-oiled machine,” and those moments will will be frustrating certainly. But, I think they speak to the challenge of the show and the potential reward if we pull all those elements together. [Davis] The play will take no baggage. It will take no softness, no sogginess, no curved lines, no missed beats, no gentle acceleration. This play, like football, is about sharp edges, stopping on a dime, and exploding off the line. So, the challenge there is just the challenge of precision. The way we work in the theater, you get three weeks max, maybe? We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have a fourth week funded by the Edgerton Foundation. The challenge is about repetition and needing to actually condition your body to perform this play, because it’s a play that quarter-to-quarter has to top itself. It’s got to take the energy of the first quarter, pull it, and double it in the second quarter, and pull that and double it in halftime, and pull that and double it in the third quarter, moving on and on until we get to the end! And then, it’s out and done. [Davis, in background] The queue for you to take your shirt off will be, “You’re gonna have sex again at some point, you know that, don’t you? Stand up.” [dialogue] [Loewith] There are dozens of cities around the country where there are artists who are willing to make new work, take risks, and bring that work to their communities. Hopefully, because we are doing this as a rolling world premiere, it’s not going to stop just in our community. It’s going to go on and around, and it will hopefully go to New York, and Los Angeles, and Chicago, and all the places that I’ve worked before, as well as small theaters and small towns all across the country. So, I really appreciate the fact that the American Theatre Wing is dedicating this project, is looking at this project as a way of championing not only the birth of new plays, but the birth of new plays in the regional theater in all different parts of this country. [Hinderacker] This play, this production, this series of productions are the result of my colleagues and the American theaters saying “yes” when they had every reason to say “no.” This is a piece that you’re told that you shouldn’t write. “You shouldn’t write a play that demands this many resources!”, and throughout the writing of this piece and throughout the development of this piece have been surrounded by people who have said, “Yes, keep dreaming that definition of theater bigger.” I think that theater can be so exciting when intersects with all the forms of live performances: sports, and performance art, and comedy, and magic, and dance, and music. I’m hungry to engage in that kind of art, hopefully be a part of it. [closing music]

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