An accomplished teacher and educator as well as a talented director, Stevie Zimmerman has become rather adept at bringing out the creative potential in people. So it’s fitting to have her at the helm of The Pitmen Painters, Lee Hall’s 2007 play about the unlikely rise of an art movement among a largely untrained group of Northumberland miners turned studio artists. The award-winning drama is currently in production at 1st Stage through October 13.
Zimmerman spoke with DC Theatre Scene by phone about the various challenges she’s embraced — cultural, linguistic, and technical — in bringing the show to life in Tysons Corner. The interview, which has been edited and condensed for this article, offers a glimpse down the tunnel at a mysterious, fascinating set of characters. Fortunately Zimmerman’s with us to light the way.
Hunter Styles: The Pitmen Painters has a cast of eight, all of whom need to play characters of a particular class and period. What are some of the challenges you’ve worked through in rehearsal?
Stevie Zimmerman: From an acting point of view — apart from all the work that an actor will normally have to do anyway — this group has been given by a very particular accent. It’s from the northeast of England, just north of Newcastle, and it’s called the Georgie accent. Now, I can do a variety of English accents, but this isn’t one that I’m personally able to do. So I’m proud that they’ve done such a good job getting into it.
It mattered to me that these men all sounded as if they came from the same place. These are guys who haven’t traveled — they’re part of a tight-knit community, and they’ve been working here all their lives. They haven’t had the opportunities that many of us take for granted, and they don’t have a lot of access to knowledge outside of their local world. In other words, they’re ignorant but not stupid. Getting that across has been very important to us.
Styles: And this makes for some fun in the show, that surprise of watching a group like this dive headlong into painting.
Zimmerman: Right. These are men more of facts than of feelings. They expect to sign up for a class, pay a certain amount, and then go and get a certain amount of information out of it. But that changes, of course. Eventually they start creating their own art and bringing their own lives into it. They have no cultural reference points, and they’re untutored in any technical art skills, but the stuff they create is really remarkable.
The play is set nearly 100 years in the past, and we’re also working within some very rigid class distinctions in England at this time. So it’s been interesting to work through those challenges.
Styles: Tell us a bit more about class. How does that play out in the show?
Zimmerman: It has to be clear that the five miner characters at the play’s center are a close group. They know each other really well, and two or three in particular have really gone through a lot together. These are guys who work underground and risk their lives together every day — that’s just the way they operate.
Then, introduced into this isolated community are three other characters who are completely different — they’re highly educated, very well-off, and unused to spending time with people like this. Mainly we experience that through a very upper-class woman who gets to know these lower-class men.
The actors and I talked about the extent to which she’d be comfortable with them, whether she could possibly have a genuine and open friendship with them. This is where we have to take some significant questions of class into account. It’s a bit like the conversation that would happen in America during this time period about a friendship forming between a white woman and a black laborer.
Styles: What were rehearsals like with this group of actors in particular?
Zimmerman: The process has been enlightening. I just directed a production of Yasmina Reza’s Art this summer, so I’ve spent a lot of time recently sitting with actors talking about art.
It’s a diverse group of actors, which is perfect for such an interesting set of characters. We have people who work regularly all over the area, like Matt Dewberry and Dylan Myers. But we also have Ryan Alan Jones in the cast, who is still new to professional theatre — he was in Candide at Spooky Action recently. And for one of them — Jason Tamborini — this is his professional debut.
Putting together a strong cast is always a challenge. I’m happy to say they’ve worked really hard. They’re a fantastic group.
Styles: You originally hail from the UK. Do you think being English impacts your approach to directing this show in any way?
Zimmerman: I think my English-ness gives me a bit of built-in authority to some extent, although the actors may beg to differ on that. I do think I have an instinctive feeling for when things are playing right.
We’ve touched on a lot of dramaturgical points so far, but it’s equally important to remember that the play is just as much about relationships — and discovery, and personal journey — as any other play. It’s very individual. So my own English-ness has had some part in the process, but it’s not the most important part.
Styles: I got a chance to speak with Tewodross Melchishua, or Teo, who is in charge of designing for the three projection screens alongside scenic designer Steven Royal. Teo mentioned how he’s using the paint canvases onstage as screens for projecting the paintings that these characters are creating. He told me: “I see myself as a mirror. It’s my job to reflect back the great work these men did in a way that hopefully creates a nice mix of the literal and the theatrical.” What do you think? Can you tell us a bit about the value of projections in the show?
Zimmerman: Projections are an essential part of the production. It’s really important that the audience sees the artwork, in part because this isn’t artwork that’s familiar to anyone. These guys received a certain amount of fame in England, but their images aren’t famous images.
And their paintings were actually quite small. A lot of their earlier paintings they did on bits of board at home. None of it was done on a grand scale. So it’s important that as they’re examining each other’s work, we get to see what they see close up, though the projections.
Styles: This is your second time directing with 1st Stage, the first time being their 2011 production of By Jeeves. They’re clearly very different shows, since By Jeeves is a musical farce. Which project do you find came to you more easily, given your background?
Closes October 13, 2013
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2 hours, 25 minutes with 1 intermission
Fridays thru Sundays
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This show now is closer to what I’m accustomed to doing. It’s a very word-centered play. It’s about taking the audience on a journey through some big ideas. The play is set in multiple locations, but it’s clear that the show is intended to have a clear flow, so it’s not intended to have complex sets and multiple big scene changes. We’re trying to make those spaces and create a sense of atmosphere without bringing much stuff onstage.
Styles: Since The Pitmen Painters is a show of big ideas, what’s one central idea that you hope the audience takes away with them?
Zimmerman: I hope audiences leave challenging some of their notions of who can make art and what makes art. Even though the play is set almost a hundred years ago, we still have these preconceptions… Basically we think that you have to be well-versed in technique and art history to be able to create a certain caliber of art. But that’s really not the case, as long as you can find a way to express what’s inside you.
As a society we still have these assumptions about who can go where and do what. We need to think more imaginatively about people’s potential. So to that end, it’s not even just about the art. It’s about giving everybody the opportunity to express whatever they have inside them.
While The Pitmen Painters is the true story of a group of men who sought instruction in developing their paintings, their work would most likely fall in the “outsider art” category.
The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore houses a vast collection of work by untrained artists.