When Richard Henrich, Spooky Action Theater’s Artistic Director, was looking for a new play by a woman playwright to run this season, he reached out to one of his favorite directors, Rebecca Holderness, to see if she had anything in mind.
Luckily, the director knew the perfect play.
“I have a long standing relationship with New Dramatists in New York City and I often call Emily Morse who is the artistic director and ask her for recommendations for plays. She sent me Last of the Whyos by Barbara Wiechmann, a New Dramatist alum,” Holderness says. “I read it and immediately added it to a pile of plays I was interested in.”
Holderness was drawn to Whyos because of its scope and the interesting story that it told.
“I have a reputation, affinity and interest in plays that have a wide scope of directorial demands—either physical theater or one with lots of tones—and I was immediately interested in this work,” she says. “Some people like small plays and some people like a big play, and I like a big play.”
Adding to its appeal was the fact that it had never been staged before, so Holderness was looking forward to directing its world premiere.
“You do go into it a little differently because the writer is present and it’s the first time the play has been seen, so it’s incredibly important to do everything you can to serve the exact vision of the writer within the constraints of whatever the production situations are,” she says. “I might have more of my sense with a play that had been done over the years, even one done 20-30 times, but this is the first time the writer and audience have seen this work, so it’s my job to put the play up as written.”
One of the conversations Holderness had with her cast during rehearsals involved her feelings that a new play is a “live thing,” and how the energy is different than that of a play done before.
“The biggest challenge is committing to the journey overall and I mean that in the biggest possible way,” she says. “It’s complicated from a design point of view, from an acting point of view and there’s a lot going on with this journey.”
Last of the Whyos is a highly visual and cinematic play, that tells the somewhat complicated story of Eddie Farrell, king of the Whyos gang in 1880s New York, as he slips through time to confront his future self 100 years in the future and unleash energies long held in check.
“When you are invited into this play, you’re on a real journey. I think the questions in the play are quite compelling—questions about healing, about end…I think it’s a play that demands a lot of resources,” Holderness says. “It’s an interesting play to spend time with. I really like the combination of traditional, in-your-face events partnered with some more poetic events. It’s fun to figure out how to give people an experience of time travel. It’s not like an episode of “Dr. Who,” but it does have some elements to get back into that kind of theatricality.”
That all adds to the enormity of the play, and Holderness is thrilled to be involved in a play that presents somewhat of a challenge in size.
“In Milwaukee, where I’m living now, there are lots of questions about less when it comes to the arts. We are living in a world with smaller shows, fewer theaters and less money,” she says. “I think this is a play about more. It’s a big cast, a big set, a big play, and it has a lot of juicy visual, spiritual material. Plus, it’s in a small theater.
When does that ever happen anymore? When do you get that kind of experience? This is something people will want to go see because it’s not your everyday play and not in your everyday theater, so it’s worth the trip.”
Of course, Holderness is no stranger to Spooky Action Theater. She previously helmed Nelson Rodrigues’ Wedding Dress and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, both to critical acclaim.
“They have a huge commitment to a certain kind of vision and I have a strong alignment with that vision, so it’s an exciting and comfortable place for me to work,” she says. “I find their choice of plays, even the ones I don’t do, courageous in an exciting way.”
At the conclusion of the play, Holderness says audience members have three options: some will say, ‘that was nice, let’s have dessert,’ some will say, ‘let’s have dessert and talk about the play,’ and some will sit in the seat for the moment, think, and then go have dessert and talk about the play.
“The latter is what I’m hoping for, those separate moments of experience and wanting to talk about it more,” she says. “I want them to be entertained and hip to the challenge of the play and walk away interested in talking about the play and the satisfying experience they have with its beauty.”