Reading the description of Anna Ziegler’s thought-provoking play, Actually, it’s easy to think the story was ripped right from today’s headlines. After all, the plot follows two freshmen at Princeton University whose connection seems innocent enough, until suddenly their casual “hook up” is being argued in a Title IX hearing.
But the play isn’t so much about the event that transpired than it is about the muddy gray area of sexual consent and the dire ramifications of what two people believe happened that could impact the rest of their lives.
When Sylvia Kates first got the breakdown of the play, she was intrigued about playing Amber, the female student in the two-hander production. Despite the gravity of the topic, the play has comic moments and a lot of joy, and Kates was interested in such a well-rounded play.
“This play is really intelligent and will push people to examine what they believe and why they believe it and I think that’s a good thing.” – Jaysen Wright
“I knew Anna Ziegler’s name but wasn’t familiar with her writing myself, but had friends who loved her stuff,” she says. “I read it and I knew a little something about the type of person Amber is. The show has so much fantastic, dense language and that was the beginning of my curiosity.”
Based in New York, Kates came down for the audition to read with several actors, landing the role to play opposite DC actor Jaysen Wright as Tom.
“The amazing thing about the structure of the play is that we do a lot of talking to the audience, so that’s one of the most important relationships,” Kates says. “However, I have found working with Jaysen so dreamy and positive. Having someone I feel I can talk to with safety and ease about when this is weighing too heavily is great. Plus, we have a good time together. When we can all laugh in the room and break up some of the tension, that helps, and we have had a really joyful time together.”
The two didn’t meet until the first rehearsal with Wright calling it akin to “the most important first date of your life.”
“You’re just hoping you speak the same language and you’ll take care of each other, and I feel really lucky to be working with someone like her,” he says. “She’s phenomenally talented, really smart and giving and we communicate in a lot of the same ways. That’s crucial because this play goes to some dark places and it’s important to have someone you trust there with you, and I trust her completely.”
When tackling any new character, Kates has a process to get herself prepared and her mind wrapped around the seriousness of the situation.
“With any play, no matter light or incredibly dark, or somewhere in between, I start with making my imaginative self feel alive and able to dive in,” she says. “Thinking about the story, imagining what it’s like to be the character. For a play like this, the feeling was something so present and complicated and [one] we have all had different kinds of experiences with. For Amber, I tried to create a lot of space to love her and feel warmth and appreciation for her, which makes having to tap into it feel easier for me.”
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Wright was interested in the play because he looks for roles in the theater that complicate perceptions of black people, and don’t confirm preexisting stereotypes.
“I like when they show something new, something different, especially when they are vulnerable,” he says. “When I read Actually, Tom seemed like a different kind of character than I normally see portrayed. Also, it’s a play that really scared me and unsettled me and my feeling is you should run towards the things that scare you.”
Both actors understand that this is an issue people are talking about and there aren’t any black and white answers to some of the uncertainty of the “he said, she said” debate.
“It’s so present for everyone living in this moment, but we’ve been careful as a company to know when it’s time to put that aside and think really carefully about this play and these two young people who are dealing with a situation that they don’t necessarily have the tools to deal with or the language or the emotional maturity,” Kates says. “People are going to bring in what they are reading and thinking and hearing, but this is Anna’s story and we are only dealing with the situation presented in this play.”
Wright adds that this is a specific story about Amber and Tom and not about anything going on anywhere else.
Produced by Theater J
See Actually at Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle
closes November 18, 2018
Details and tickets
“Still, theater asks audiences to bring their personal opinions and feelings and to examine them and challenge them, so certainly with everything going on, it’s impossible to view this play in a vacuum,” he says. “This play is really intelligent and will push people to examine what they believe and why they believe it and I think that’s a good thing.”
During the course of Actually, both characters start to understand themselves a bit better and maybe begin to see the other side.
“Amber also starts to see how much she doesn’t understand,” Kates says. “She’s very intelligent and a highly-verbal character and speaks very quickly, but she’s shielding herself from the world by communicating like this, and realizing that has been a fun part of getting to know her better. She makes some really interesting self-discoveries.”
Kates hopes audiences will leave with a space in their hearts for both characters and see how hard it is for young people today. Wright echoes that sentiment, but adds that it will help people in the way they judge and see others.
“We all think we understand something sometimes when we really don’t,” he says. “This play is out to challenge the ideas people come in with and investigates and complicates our understanding of consent in hard ways. I also think it asks guys to be accountable in a way I haven’t seen done when it comes to sex.”