Kathleen Akerley on Pol Pot & Associates and stretching her wings

For almost all of the last fifteen years, during the dog days of August, the devoted and discerning DC theatergoer knew that a stimulating experience would be in store at the Callan Theater on the Catholic University of America campus. In residence for its one-show-a-year season would be Longacre Lea Productions (LaL). Maybe it’s doing Stoppard or maybe Pinter. Or maybe Akerley.

Kathleen Akerley, Artistic Director of Longacre Lea

Kathleen Akerley, Artistic Director of Longacre Lea

Akerley is Kathleen Akerley, who runs the company, directs each summer’s play, and, on occasion, writes the play. (Longacre Lea, the company’s name, is, in fact, a cheeky key to the correct pronunciation of her name.) In recent summers, the plays have indeed been written by her, as is the current offering.

Pol Pot & Associates, LLP is a nifty stimulation of brain cells and a buzz-worthy theater treat. If you’re smart, you’ll catch it,” John Stoltenberg wrote in his review at DCMetroTheatreArts.com. “Stocked with rich character dynamics, the scenes are funny, poignant portraits of friendship, empathy and hope,” wrote Celia Wren in The Washington Post. “It’s a tough play. It’s a very fine play. It’s worth the work you’ll have to do to process it,” was how Trey Graham ended the Washington CityPaper notice.

That devoted and discerning theatergoer won’t be surprised that words like smart, tough, and funny would be applied to Akerley’s latest. However, here’s the good news for anyone who might have read about LaL and been scared off by words like these, or anyone who might have seen an earlier Akerley play and felt that it was dense or even impenetrable: this play is, by all accounts, her most accessible yet.

I spoke with Akerley about the play, the company and other things. She told me that, aware of her reputation for being “evasive, obstructionist, even whimsically obfuscating,” it was a goal of hers this summer to create a play that was true to her and the company’s established aesthetic, but also engaged the audience in a conversation of sorts, and wasn’t off-puttingly obscure. She thought a lot recently about what draws her to work of that kind. And she engaged her company in the conversation as well, to ensure, in part, that she had not gone too far in an opposite direction. (She said that when she made an edit this summer, one of her long-time actors reacted by saying, “But this explains things!”) She reported that there’s been an unusually high number of audience members who say, “I don’t have questions. I think I get it!” At a run time of two hours, twenty minutes (including intermission), it’s also easily the shortest of her plays.

It’s hard to say, Akerley told me, where this new approach has taken LaL, but the result seems to be encouraging. Her cast is made up of actors new to LaL and others who are among its most senior alumni. Both groups expressed excitement when reading drafts of the script, remarking on its playability. (And every review agrees, she noted, that the ensemble work is strong.)

Michael John Casey, Chris Davenport and Michael Glenn (Photo courtesy of Longacre Lea)

(l-r) Michael John Casey, Chris Davenport and Michael Glenn in Pol Pot, LLP (Photo: Kathleen Akerley)

Akerley spoke about her admiration for Terry Gilliam, the American animator who went from being a member of the Monty Python troupe to directing a series of wonderfully creative and idiosyncratic films. (Brazil is, it could be argued, his masterpiece.) Gilliam is not afraid to make “choices that are big, even if they are wrong, and just accept that some people will hate them.” She noted her impulse to emulate artists who not only don’t care that some audiences won’t respond to their work, but who “vigorously court” detractors.

Nevertheless, Akerley admitted that “we are undeniably chemically wired as animals” to have a reaction, fueled by adrenalin and self-protection, when someone gets in our face and slaps down our work, as when she hears, “Your plays are too wordy and have no dramatic tension.” Akerley wishes that exchanges like that could become a conversation that would be productive, but recognizes that, when people are so dug-in to a point-of-view, such an expectation is “silly.”

She described a woman who was “really angry” after a recent matinee and who accosted her not only about the play on view, but about her past work as well. (One wonders why the woman keeps coming back!) Akerley saw that, in a way, it was the woman’s own form of artistic expression, to walk up and react so passionately. If she had spoken with calm detachment or indifference, it would indicate that she hadn’t been moved on some level. (The button to this micro-drama involved uber-theatergoer David Tannous interrupting the exchange by telling Akerley, “This is wonderful; your best one yet!”)

(l-r) Michael John Casey, Jonathon Church, Kira Burri in Pol Pot, LLP. (Photo: Elliot Homburg)

(l-r) Michael John Casey, Jonathon Church, Kira Burri in Pol Pot, LLP. (Photo: Elliot Homburg)

Akerley told me that she is so fond of the play and so loves the production and the cast that on opening night, she found her mood spiraling downward amid the post-show pleasantries and chit-chat, until the actress Coleen Delaney, who had been in the audience, eventually found Akerley and said that she had been sitting outside by herself thinking about the play and hadn’t wanted to talk about it until then. It’s clear that a reaction along those lines (“It made me think, I wanted some time, now I want to talk to you about it”) is the sort of reaction that means the most to Akerley. And might have been just what the doctor ordered on that particular night.

Last summer was the summer without LaL. I asked Akerley if that hiatus was a one-off, or if the productions that we have come to expect to end our summers might become more intermittent. “That was definitely its own event,” she told me, a break determined by “life things,” but it’s “not a helpful rhythm to be in, needing to remind people that we are around. I wouldn’t want to do that again, and start getting like the cicadas. One thing gained from the year is a different sense of attachment. I stand mildly prepared to learn, with respect to anything, that it could use a change. But I like the way things are right now.”

The way things are now includes some expansion. LaL has tenaciously resisted advice to expand its season into a year-long (or even a twice yearly) enterprise, or to acquire the trappings of an incipient theatrical institution. After all, that’s what all small companies want to do, isn’t it? Grow the season, grow the budget, grow the staff, get a space, get a bigger space, because, bigger is better, right?

That’s never been Akerley’s agenda. Now, however, she has hired the company’s first ever Managing Director and initiated a film wing. Something Past in Front of the Light, the LaL play from 2011, is being filmed over the next several weeks. (“I’ll pretend you don’t know,” Akerley said, mischievously acknowledging the fact that I had acted in that play, will repeat my role in the film, and look forward to shooting my first scenes this weekend.) Akerley says that, as regards filming her plays, the intention is that “we will make more, this isn’t a one-off.”

Séamus Miller, the new Managing Director, is also the Executive Director of the film wing, and one of the actors in the current play. So LaL is not going to challenge Arena Stage anytime soon on the “number of employees” front. It’s more like LaL is morphing from an organization essentially run by one person (aided by a devoted core actor and designer company) into one run by two people. Akerley points out that the current production is more polished thanks to her new hire, proclaims herself very grateful to have him in place, and concedes that she was wrong not to have acquired an MD sooner. That said, “I know that I enjoy the lack of formality” that one has come to associate with her company. It reminds her of being 8 or 9 and putting on plays with her sister for the neighborhood because “It pleased us to be telling a story. I don’t have a strong impulse for the part of our work that is ‘socially conscious’ and that involves an education wing, community benefits, all those values. I respect them, but I don’t share them. All I want to do is to go into the back yard and tell a story. And I’ve found collaborators who readily join in that energy.”

Managing Director Miller (speaking of collaborators) is one of three LaL virgins in Akerley’s current cast, the others being Daniel Corey and Kira Burri. Daniel Vito Siefring has been frequently on the LaL stage over the last several years. But four of her actors go back to very early LaL days: Michael John Casey, Michael Glenn, Chris Davenport, and Jonathon Church. (All have been acting less frequently than they did in those early years, as each has started a family.)

While extolling the virtues of all four, and expressing great delight in their current involvement, Akerley made special mention of Church, who had been away longer than the others. “Not to single him out, but he has been gone from our boards, and from DC’s boards, for awhile. His whole family had to do a lot of rotating baby-sitting [to make his participation possible] and it’s so nice to have him back. He has such good questions, he’s so positive, his work ethic is so high without being hard on others. I guess I’m saying to DC, ‘Find him baby-sitters!’”

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POL POT & ASSOCIATES, LLP
Closes August 31, 2014
Longacre Lea at
Callan Theatre
3801 Harewood Road, NE
Washington, DC
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $15 – $18
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
__________________

Akerley acknowledges that some folks will pass through and move on after they reach a point at which their increasingly professional expectations exceed her backyard ethos. As an example, she told me that in her “ideal world,” there would be no need for contracts, no need to spell out the expectations and sign on the dotted line. Why isn’t it just taken as a given in life that we understand and honor a commitment to, say, act in a play, she asked. Acknowledging that on the contract front, she “won’t win,” she said that she wishes there were fewer of those sorts of formalities involved in what should be essentially a creative endeavor, not a legal obligation.

But wait a minute. Isn’t it strange that a lawyer (who, incidentally, has just written a play about a group of lawyers who leave their firm and form a kind of commune) would be the Artistic Director who bemoans the necessity of contracts?

“Being a lawyer was one of those incidental things that happened to me. People don’t come out of the womb lawyers. I’ve also been a key cutter, a burger flipper, a sports photographer. Those things, when you stop doing them, they go away.” But everyone (including critics reviewing the current play) love to bring up her past profession, to her obvious chagrin. “Law school was paid for, that’s the only reason I went. And, when we were studying contracts, I was kicked out of the Law Library during the first year because I was laughing out loud while reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I never really had the right brain for it.” Short pause. “I wouldn’t have minded being a judge, though…”

 

Comments

  1. John Stoltenberg says:

    What a wonderful read; thanks, Christopher.

  2. Roy Englert says:

    Excellent story about a fascinating playwright and her work. I saw the same performance David Tannous did, and I loved the play. As I said to Kathleen (whom I’d never met before), it was a busy play, but it was fascinating. I enjoyed it a lot. My own 33 years as a litigator, and 13+ years as a founding partner in a law firm, probably enhanced my enjoyment, but I also enjoyed things like the allusion to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in the very first scene.

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