Hey Theatre Fam!
Jon Jon back, after seeking out some of the talented and friendly company members of We Happy Few. These frequent collaborators are presenting their latest offering, The Dog in the Manger, opening next week.
I’ve been to a few We Happy Few productions, and have always been struck by the closeness of the casts, production teams, and what feels like a whirlwind of collaboration that radiates out from each of their productions. Having crossed paths with several of their members before, both in social and professional capacities, I managed to get a few thoughts on their upcoming work.
Kerry McGee, directors Hannah Todd and Bridget Grace Sheaff, and actors Raven Bonniwell and Kiernan McGowan took some time out of their busy production schedule and lives to help me unpack a little of what’s going on over at We Happy Few for this upcoming show.
I notice the tagline from your website is: “If I raised my voice, would any of this change?”, and that sparks, immediately, in my head, the conversation surrounding #metoo. While I’m not sure that the timing for The Dog in the Manger is inherently intentional, did part of the spark come from the idea that people are starting to speak up about abuse, harassment, and injustice?
Hannah Todd: Although the timing of this was certainly not intentional – we had no idea when we scheduled this show back in the beginning of 2017 that this would all be happening now! –it certainly connects to some of the themes we are exploring in the show.
Raven Bonniwell: We really wanted to explore the role or privilege that the play deals with. When we selected the play, we knew that it felt like a timely discussion, but didn’t realize how timely it would really be.
Hannah: It deals with privilege: how those in positions of privilege have the power to shape the world to their desires, while those without privilege don’t have that same power.
Raven: The play doesn’t focus on harassment or abuse, as #metoo does, but it does question societal structures that seem to keep those patterns in place.
Hannah: It doesn’t provide any easy answers. It ends with a question, with an injunction, with a hope. And hopefully, with #metoo being a prime example, we are entering an era when a raised voice actually can effect a change in how privilege shapes our world… Or maybe I’m just being optimistic.
What about this play speaks to you?
Hannah: Well, first of all, in addition to all the serious issues and questions, this play is freaking hilarious. My stomach has been hurting from laughing so hard in rehearsals. And the experiences of love won and lost, which are being acted so beautifully by the cast, cut right to the quick. But the underlying conversations about the societal structures that dictate who can do what, who can love whom – which are so deeply ingrained that it’s hard to know how to even begin questioning them – also strike a deep chord.
Raven: This play is hilarious while also touching on some very real issues. It’s definitely a different way to look at these issues.
Hannah: As someone who has a lot of privilege, it is so easy for me to just sit back and accept things, to not raise my voice, to just go about my life not paying attention to how the structures that benefit me hurt other people. This play challenges me to pay attention, to raise my voice too.
The Dog in the Manger
at Capital Hill Arts Workshop
Opens November 8, 2017
Details and tickets
We Happy Few has a very distinct style of performance and creation. The shows I’ve seen flow in and out, with entrances and exits in all directions, and have always made immaculate use out of Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW): Do those stylistic choices continue here?
Hannah: Oh yes, absolutely! CHAW is a super fun space, and once again we’re using it in a pretty non-traditional way, which has been really exciting to figure out.
Raven: We really enjoy really stretching the limits of the space and using it differently each time.
Hannah: This play in particular is FULL of people coming and going in rapid succession.
Raven: There are a ton of moments in this play where characters overhear things they weren’t meant to.
Hannah: … interrupting conversations and monologues, people change their minds and emotions every minute, news travels at the speed of light, time passes very strangely…
Raven: …also changing characters between one scene and the next.
Hannah: So there is most definitely a very robust flow in and out in all directions!
I notice the cast is a mix of We Happy Few Regulars, and a few new faces. How do you go about assigning roles and casting?
Bridget Grace Sheaff: As a collaborative company, our staff is made up of what we call “Artistic Administrators.” Our roles double both as business positions and artistic positions. Our casts will almost always include a company member, though their role is not necessarily predetermined.
We hold auditions for everyone, even company members, and it is the alchemy of the particular production that dictates who we end up casting. We are looking for casts that want to try new things, for people who are generative and creative in their process, and for people who want to tell the story.
Kerry McGee: It’s really exciting to take a cast of people that know each other and work together well and throw a couple new faces into the mix and see what happens. It is a way to find that perfect mix between actors that share a comfort level and can trust each other on stage, and keeping everything fresh and new.
Bridget: As most of our productions require actor tracks that play multiple roles, our casting has a fluidity and a spontaneity to it, much like the actors we look to work with.
Kerry: We’ve been very interested in making sure that our casts reflect not only the story we are trying to tell but the greater DC community as well. It’s hard to look at classic texts through a new lens, when we don’t have people with different perspectives working on them. It’s disingenuous to assume that we could do that.
Bridget: We strive for diverse voices in our processes to help highlight the unique perspectives of our texts.
Kerry: So we try to cast a wide net with our casting calls, and then we have the luxury of getting to choose between many talented people who can speak classical text, move, and do character work, because everyone in a We Happy Few play has to play multiple characters in a single show.
So, actors: Who do you play, and what’s something you love about this/these character(s)?
Raven: I play the Countess Diana in the play. I love how torn she is between the rules society has created and love. It’s a pretty perfect example of how we create rules for ourselves that then we have to rebel against. She really has to get creative.
Kiernan McGowan: I play Teodoro, a servant who is torn between following ambition or love, or sometimes both. I think the thing I love most about all the characters in the play is that they are really messy people. They say things that are impulsive and petulant, they don’t always make the best decisions for themselves, and they vacillate back and forth between what they want. They’re like real people, mistakes are made and no one knows how anything is going to work out.
We Happy Few productions often require you to wear multiple hats over the course of the show. What are ways you aim to differentiate the characters, so as to make sure that the audience doesn’t conflate you with another one of your roles?
Raven: My doubling in this particular show is fairly small – my primary track is Diana, but I double with a minor character named Furio in two scenes. We really played with doubling high status characters with low status characters and Furio is one of the lowest. It’s a lot of fun because they are so different and I get to play with big vocal and physical distinctions.
Kiernan: I only have one line as a secondary character in this one so I’m not the best for this. I will say that from a company perspective we always strive for clear storytelling and letting the actors stretch themselves is a really joy of our brand of storytelling. Big physical and vocal choices are always the best, the world is full of characters and strange people. Our plays should be as well.
What’s a moment in this production that you’re excited to share with the audience?
Hannah: Oh man, so many but I don’t want to spoil anything!! There are some truly heartbreaking moments, and some super sexy moments… Also, as my co-director Bridget, and the whole cast, and anybody who’s worked with me will tell you, I love bits. So there are definitely some bits in there that I hope delight the audience as much as they delight me.
Raven: I have way too many favorite moments right now. Rehearsal has been such a delight for this process. I don’t know that I’ve ever laughed so hard so consistently.
Kiernan: My favorite moments are definitely the little bits that we’ve created with each other. In the background of every scene there are always little jokes and rivalries. It’s a really funl world to be a part of.
Raven: We all keep saying “Oh! That’s my favorite line” or “That’s my favorite part!” and it changes daily.
Kiernan: This show feels like a total whirlwind.
Bridget: And I will say this – if you keep an eye out, you may recognize some characters from We Happy Few shows past….
Raven: I’m also looking forward to the conversation this play creates. I am excited to share the laughter and delight that is this play, but I’m also excited about the conversations that come next. What actions we take.
I have a healthy and growing interest in the processes of designers, and am always happy to share what findings I can. The workings and machinations of designers are often some of the unsung heroes of productions, and I love how theatre artists, time and time again, utilize lights and sound to full bring a world to life. To this end, I specifically sought out two designers on this show; people I’d worked with before, in order to get a glimpse into their work as part of the process. While you never (well, super rarely) see the lighting or sound designer on stage in the performance, it’s often easy to forget their roles in building the world. Jason Aufdem-Brinke built the lights, and Robert Pike built the sound for The Dog in the Manger.
Jason, I think you’ve got one of the more impressive resumes, especially for relatively unconventional and perhaps difficult spaces like CHAW and the Anacostia Arts Center. How do you approach your work knowing that you’ve got a rather intricate space to light?
Jason Aufdem-Brinke: In tiny spaces inches matter, so, frequently there is minimal, if any scenery. This forces some technical conversations earlier into the rehearsal process, than you’d have in larger / more equipped spaces. With experience has come some confidence in knowing what I’m going to be able to light early enough to talk with directors and give them some time to know what parts of the room they can use or if there are going to be limitations in those parts of the room. That is the case in venues I’m familiar with, like the two you mention.
There is never enough tech time to get everything you want, and, if you’re doing things right, you’ll make discoveries during tech – so you have to be open to scrapping an idea, or building off of someone else’s idea. In WHF those ideas can come from directors, other designers or performers. WHF has a collaborative environment from 1st rehearsal, through opening – that said, there is also a culture of respect – if an idea is presented that’s great for a single beat, but not the overall show, the designer or director (depending on the idea) has final say over whether it happens.
A challenge with tiny spaces is that they tend to have very limited inventory (side note: regardless of how large your venue is, or how much equipment you have, a lighting designer is going to think your equipment is limited. This is a universal truth.)
With that in mind, how do you go about making your lighting choices?
Jason: Process depends on type of show and company. One constant is that it starts with a conversation – whether it’s a early modern production in a black box, or a dance production in a thrust set up, or an opera in a proscenium, or even a bar mitzvah, there needs to be a conversation about what the show is, and what story we’re telling. After that the process depends on other factors… In the case of We Happy Few, there are rehearsal reports to keep up with what is happening in that process, this means developing a plot can be fluid. Other shows there is less communication, so the plot needs to anticipate changes that will inevitably happen.
Paper tech is a fantastic time – some designers find them to be a waste, but wet tech is such a precious commodity – so, if you can get the production team together to talk through the show prior to walking into tech, many of your “does this happen first, or does that” “Do lights and sound go together?” (Side note: “Lights and sound always go together, otherwise the terrorists win.” I believe Andrew Griffith coined that.)
What role do lights play in telling the story?
Jason: Oh man. Everything, and nothing. Lighting is the last design element into the process. So, in an ideal world, lighting is just supporting what is already happening onstage. My background is, “If you notice the lighting, I’ve failed as a designer.” A couple things have changed since school for me.
I’ve worked on several productions where lighting is a character in the show (Literally, there was a production where we created a character out of light).
Working in tiny spaces, you can’t hide the equipment, so, you can see everything… so, you’re going to notice the lights. And the audience expects that.
So, yeah, lighting, along with all the other elements must support, and not overwhelm the story. But without specific scenic elements (life in tiny spaces means everything on stage becomes multi purpose). It’s my job to help the audience know where we are even before the actors begin the scene.
Robert, I’m still relatively new to your work as a Sound Designer, but you seem to enjoy a good mix of soundtrack, scoring, and foley. What are your inspirations when it comes to creating the sonic landscape of a show?
Robert Pike: When it comes to each new project, I always seek inspiration from what’s in front of me: the text, the actors, and the design elements. In building with the tools and influences already available, I’ve found amazing opportunities for canned sound to interplay with live sources (both musical and foley). We’ve discovered that this particular production of Dog in the Manger lives in a canned sound world, but we didn’t know that until we got in the room with the actors.
What, do you think, is sound and soundtrack’s role in creating the world of the show?
Robert: Sound is the most flexible medium in a lot of ways, and I use it as the caulk and grout for the finished piece of a show – filling in the gaps, bridging the spaces, and bolstering the integrity of the production’s frame. My favorite sound designs lift the other elements above it and amplify the nature of the established world the whole team has created.
What is your process like: I’ve collaborated with you as an actor, and I’m curious if there’s any overlap in your artistic process as an actor vs your artistic process as a sound designer.
Robert: The overlap between acting and sound design is all encompassing and I personally feel little difference between the two. I am proudest of (and most excited about) my work when I can step back and see my work tie in with other design elements for the benefit of the story, and for ease of audience understanding and enjoyment to that story.
I’ve been working on having no shame in my art and allowing for open conversation and healthy friction to facilitate a product. The artists who work from that foundation are the ones I respect most.
We’ll have a first chance to see the work come together when The Dog in the Manger opens November 8th at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.