I hear that Florrie Bagel, Parker Drown and Sam Ludwig are wowing audiences and critics with their powerful performances in Speech & Debate at Rep Stage. This is a change of pace for these three sensational singers, giving them a unique opportunity to display their excellent acting skills in leading roles. Here they talk about the powerful play now at Rep Stage.
Joel: Introduce us to the characters you play in Speech & Debate.
Florrie: My character’s name is Diwata – She’s a theatrically passionate high school junior, who much to her dismay, never gets her chance to shine in a show. In a wine-cooler infused audio-blog-rant, she complains about her drama teacher, which eventually links her to Howie and Solomon (who just happen to tune in to the podcast). After another disappointment in casting for the school play, Diwata decides to use the budding Speech & Debate club as a venue for her artistic expression, roping in Solomon and Howie along the way. The club itself really isn’t the focus of the play – it deals with the secrets we all hide, trade, or blurt out and the roles that communication, sex, adults and hypocrisy play in the lives of these three students.
Parker: I play Howie, an openly Gay high school senior in Salem, Oregon. He’s new to Salem, has no friends, and has found his way to cruising the Internet. In the play, the main issue that Howie tackles is keeping his private life private.
Sam: My character Solomon is a high school reporter who is interested in hypocritical closeted gay public figures. In a similar vein he is also drawn to stories of sexuality between adults and adolescents. For him the play is kind of about figuring out (much like a real reporter) what he thinks about those particular subjects.
Did you know about Speech & Debate before you auditioned?
Florrie: No, actually.
Parker: When I heard about the audition I didn’t know about the play at all, but got excited when I read up on it via the Internet. What I was able to find really intrigued me and then I got some sides emailed to me and I immediately fell in love with the writing.
Florrie, you had your callback audition after Jane Pesci-Townsend’s memorial service which we both attended. How did you get it together after going through that emotional experience?
Florrie: I had read the play and prepared some sides. I was honestly just relieved that I didn’t have to duck out of the service, and was able to attend the whole thing. She was/is such a force and continual inspiration in so many people’s lives. I saw her perform as Miss Hannigan in Annie when I was 5, and she was what initially sparked my love of theatre. She was truly the reason for this path that led me to this callback in the first place-so I suppose honoring Jane beforehand was fitting. I went into the callback prepared, so I felt relaxed and emotionally connected. Diwata is a character who ‘owns her shit,’ and Jane always did that – encouraging you to let your guard down and own who you are.
For the initial audition I sang “I’m a Star” by Scott Alan because I figured, Diwata thinks that she is a star and is positively boggled that nobody can see, so that would be a fun choice. I also did a monologue about a girl’s quirky obsession with Madonna: her music, her persona and courage – it seemed to echo the passion that Diwata has for the Arts.
Parker and Sam, talk about your auditions and what you performed in them.
Parker: For the auditions we had to come in and sing 16 bars and do a monologue. I actually don’t remember what monologue I did (the audition was like 8 or 9 months ago I think), but I know I sang “This Is Not Over Yet” from Parade. I was then asked to stay and read one of the sides and as luck would have it, Sam and I were paired together. This was on Saturday and then I think that following Monday I was offered the part and immediately accepted.
Sam: If I remember correctly we just had to do a song and were given sides. I was given sides for both male characters and basically didn’t even take my Howie sides seriously at all. I don’t think they even had me read for him. I bet I did “Lost in the Wilderness” for my song. Not sure.
This play covers some pretty serious ground – how do you think it plays as a comedy?
FIorrie: I think it plays really well as a dark comedy. There’s quite a wide array of difficult topics and raw secrets blended together rather nicely with the honesty of teenagers yearning to express themselves in sometimes ridiculous mediums. Karam’s writing is witty and quick and very much in line with how teenagers speak.
Parker: I am in love with the play and the writing style of Stephen Karam, so I think it is a perfect little comedy. I probably read the play about 7 times before rehearsals started and I laughed out loud every time…then when we did the read through there were scenes that I couldn’t get through cause Florrie and Sam had me crying. What I really appreciate about the writing and structure of the play is the fact that there are so many serious issues that the kids deal with, so when the comedy comes out it is such juxtaposition that it’s even more hilarious. Karam really understands a way to get people laughing and caring about his characters so that he can tackle serious and uncomfortable issues with out it being overwhelming and heavy.
Sam: Excellently during the funny parts. Less so during the serious parts. Though, I gotta say we have had some people laughing at places where I never would have thought. Church giggles I suppose.
What are your favorite scenes?
Florrie: I really enjoy all of our scenes – I kind of don’t want to spoil anything… I just love the interplay in our cast, so any scene when we’re all together is definitely a favorite.
Parker: I mean all of them are so different, but I love scenes 7 and 8, because it’s the first time that Sam, Florrie, and I are all in the same room together, and…things go down…oh, not to mention there is a full musical extravaganza in it that I think is headed for the Broadway
Sam: I mean I like the scenes where we’re all together best probably because the play takes over in a way and we’re all so comfortable with each other that it’s like a machine. Also it’s when we’re doing the totally surreal funny stuff. Much of which I’m not directly a part of so I just get to sit back and enjoy it
What’s the most difficult scene to play, and why?
Florrie: There’s a section of a scene which includes some serious portrayals of some characters in The Crucible. It’s so absurd, it’s always a mild struggle to keep a straight face.
Parker: I don’t think there is one particularly difficult scene, but the overall pacing of the show and the speed at which these kids think and twist and turn and act and react is pretty remarkable and challenging. So staying on top of that rhythm and pacing every night, while keeping it genuine and honest is what I try to focus on.
Sam: Usually the most difficult part is not laughing. Also, the whole play I find very complex and demanding. I couldn’t pick a scene.
Speech & Debate was written by Stephen Karam, who also wrote columbinus about the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. What do you think he is trying to say here about high school?
Florrie: I haven’t read columbinus, but I look forward to reading it. I can only say from Speech & Debate that Stephen Karam is not afraid to tackle tough issues, and doesn’t shy away from the fact that teens are capable of a lot more than adults choose to believe.
Parker: I think he makes points of “privacy” on the Internet not actually being private, and that the Internet technology is easier for kids to turn to than adult interaction. But mostly, I love what he is trying to say about the need for high school to be a place for not just kids to be open and honest, but for adults too. I think Sam’s character, Solomon, sums it up nicely, “We’re showing people that, ready or not, we’re going to discuss things that are affecting us in real terms, adult terms, and we won’t apologize if it makes you uncomfortable.” We as adults need to help create an environment in schools where kids can talk about issues actually affecting them and have it discussed in a way that doesn’t sugar coat it or avoid it as a “taboo topic”, so that they can make informed decisions and be prepared for life’s speed bumps.
Sam: Plenty. The play is basically a dissection of three real life modern high schoolers. How they view sex. What adulthood means to them. What they find acceptable and taboo. How they relate to each other and the world. I mean, really there’s, like, a lot of stuff going on in this play.
Can you sense when the audience is uncomfortable with the subject of teen sexuality? What has been the audience reaction, and what has surprised about the reaction?
Florrie: Well, to be honest, during the show I’m not really focused on their reaction. However, I’d say the audience is definitely on board with us.
Parker: I think the audience might feel confused and uncomfortable to start, because of the way the first scene is presented, but I think that Stephen Karam does this intentionally so that through all of the humor later on there is an underlying uneasiness. This way the humor is not just about a few laughs here and there, it really gives the audience a way to relax and be more open to the topics he wants discussed and debated.
At first the biggest surprise for me regarding the audience response was how ageless the humor is. And now that we’ve been doing the show for audiences of all ages I just appreciate how clever Karam is, because there is humor for everyone, across the board…well I mean, I wouldn’t bring the little ones, but you get what I’m saying.
Sam: Eh, sometimes kind of. The audiences have been great really though. Open-minded. They’re there to see a piece of modern theatre. I mean I honestly don’t think there’s anything that would scandalize most people out there who actually enjoy going to see plays. But then, of course, I’m not a parent.
You all are accomplished musical theatre performers, and I hope all your fans will turn out to see you. How hard is it to play actors who can’t – really – sing or dance, but have to do both and doing pretty awkwardly.
Florrie: Well as far as Diwata is concerned- She has definitely studied belting styles of Broadway greats, but she doesn’t really know what she’s doing-She’s often in discovery mode, trying new things vocally- trying to riff, but taking it a tad too far. It’s extremely fun to not be wary of sounding weird – Diwata’s not afraid of trying anything. Fear is simply not an option. In the dance department, she doesn’t believe that she IS a bad dancer. I’d say she’s just over-zealous. She’d tell you about her 10 years of jazz-slash-modern dance… She’s quite the theatre nerd, so she’s well versed in different dance stylings and musical theatre clichés. She performs with an honest passion and adds her own free-flow moves as she feels them. She just goes there. I just have to dive into her weirdness. It’s quite freeing to play her.
Parker: What’s great about the music and dance aspects of the play are that we just have to do them. They are so absurd and presented in such a wonderfully awkward way that if we just do them the awkwardness and “poor quality” reads.
Sam: Just do the opposite of what the reflexes say to do!
Is this your first time doing a straight play?
Florrie: This is my first time doing a straight play, professionally. I did a few in high school, a favorite was Dottie/Mrs.Clackett in Noises Off.
Parker: I was an acting major at Syracuse University and I studied at the National Theatre Institute so I’ve had the opportunity to do many plays. Favorites are Tereus/Hippomenes in Tales of Ovid, Student 2 (Juliet/Benvolio) in Shakepeare’s R&J, Clive in Rookery Nook, and Tusenbach in Three Sisters.
Sam: Professionally, this is my first straight play. I did plays in high school and such. Shakespeare and Neil Simon sort of stuff. This has been quite the delightful experience I gotta say.
I haven’t seen the show yet, but have heard you have some pretty emotional scenes to handle. How is that for you?
Florrie: I just stay true to the arc of my character- the emotional releases come with the honesty of believing these situations.
Parker: I love these scenes, because they truly deal with real and relevant issues and for me that makes it more exciting. These scenes, of course, are difficult and being a typical self-loathing type I always think my work sucks and that I could do them
Sam: It’s cool. As an actor, it’s definitely something I’m into.
What have you learned from director Eve Muson?
Florrie: I love Eve. This is the third time I’ve worked with her, but this is the first play and also the most intimate show. During our rehearsal process, we had tons of time to continue scene work, playing games with dialogue, talking about our characters, exploring new things, raising the stakes. She’s a wonderful teacher, and the rehearsals were fun and fantastic- working together to continually bring out the honesty of these characters and the piece.
Parker: Eve was wonderful to work with. She really took the rehearsal time to allow us to create these characters and she was there to guide us and shape the characters in a way that I think tells a pretty cool and compelling story. What I am taking away from this is how well she explores a play. Eve knows what she wants the play to say and she doesn’t always know right away how to get to the end product, so she really uses rehearsal to play and explore. We kept playing and finding new things that we might not have found if she just came in and said go from point a to point b, and sit here now, and walk there now. Because of this process it truly is playing on stage for me and I feel so ready and excited every night to do the show. Eve allowed me be a big part of creating Howie and the world that these kids live in, and she didn’t just shove me into her vision. She took the time to really create her vision around who each of us are as people/actors/friends. And for that I am very grateful.
Sam: Tons! We really had a great rehearsal process where we got to explore and refine and discuss a lot. Eve is infinitely insightful and really knows how to think like a director, an actor and a playwright in equal measure – which is really admirable I think. Plus she’s totally fun and hilarious.
Has the play given you any new insights?
Florrie: This process in its entirety was extremely enriching. Diwata would probably quote Wicked, saying “I have been changed, for good.”
Parker: What I am taking away from playing Howie is owing who I am as a person and loving that. Also, the value of privacy is something that I am getting new insight on. J
Sam: Ummm, kinda. I mean I suppose. I’m not sure that’s the point. You know? Like, you’ll know what I mean when you see the play.
What’s next for you on the stage?
Florrie: I’m planning on heading back to New York to jump back in and continue auditioning.
Parker: Next for me is Grease at Olney Theatre Center this summer.
Sam: I’ll be at Signature.
What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing Speech & Debate at Rep Stage?
Florrie: I just want them to see these characters for who they are. In addition: if they happened to feel inspired to break out into an impromptu dance number when they got home, that’d be grand too…
Parker: I hope the audience thinks about what Karam is saying about high school, and that they take away the idea of opening up communication with their kids/students and not being afraid to educate them about controversial topics.
Sam: I’m not sure. You know, like I said before, I hope they feel slightly weirder around their kids? That’s the best I got. You really gotta see the play to know what I mean. You’ll probably like it. I really think it’s cool.
Read Tim Treanor’s review of Speech & Debate on DCTS.
Thanks to Lorraine Treanor for her assistance in this article.