“I hope it is funny and sexy — and moving, too.”
I had asked playwright Joe Calarco about Separate Rooms, his newest work; in particular, what about it would pique the interest of audiences.
“First of all,” Calarco had begun, “It’s a superstar cast.” That cast begins performances on Feb. 22nd.
“What I like about it and what I hope it generates?” Calarco answered his own question: “A younger audience. It is about people of a certain age: circling thirty, in both directions. I hope they’ll recognize what can happen in your life when you hit that point.
“That’s one of several reasons I like that the company is young,” Calarco continued, referring to 4615 Theatre Company, which will present Separate Rooms at Highwood Theatre in Silver Spring.
“It’s not an expensive ticket, [the cost is under $20] and I’m hoping that we get a younger audience in, because I think we need more of that audience in the theatre.
“Separate Rooms has a long history. The characters were created many years ago; around when I wrote R&J.” Calarco’s reference is to the oft-produced Shakespeare’s R&J, his best-known work.
“The theatre where I was resident playwright in New York was called Expanded Arts, which doesn’t exist anymore. The space was basically a gutted-out deli, and there’s a hallway that goes into the back of the theatre. And I was just staring at it, watching Twelfth Night or something. And my brain started to go, ‘Well, where does that hallway lead to?’
“And that’s where I had the idea of a coatroom and a party. Then I asked, ‘Well, why are they at this party?’ And I imagined a friend has died, and this is an impromptu gathering after the memorial service, and we are introduced to this group of friends and what happens to them when loss visits them in a new and shocking way. It’s that period of life when you’re all young adults and one of you is no longer there. That can bond friends together or start to splinter them apart. It was my Big Chill. So, I wrote a short one act play. I called it Party Talk.
“And that was it. It was done there, in this tiny theatre, for a few performances. And then, I didn’t touch it, because it was a nine character one-act, which is basically unaffordable.
“And then, I saw The Norman Conquests, and I got the idea that I should write the other room: what’s happening in the living room at the same time as what’s going on in the bedroom. And I thought, ‘I’ll call it Separate Rooms.’ And then I just didn’t write it,” Calarco laughed.
“And then, a few years ago, a friend of mine experienced a very sudden death of someone very, very close to him, who was very young, and he was wanting to do something to address that. And I said, ‘I have this old one-act; why don’t we read it?’
“And so, we did, and I remembered how much I liked these people. So I wrote a second act. And that was the play. The first act was what happens in the bedroom; the second act was what happens in the living room.
“I did a reading of it at the Geva [Theatre Center] in Rochester, New York, a couple years ago. It was five days of rehearsal. Kimberly Gilbert and Vanessa Locke came up from DC to do it. And the night before the reading, we did a read-thru, and I thought, ‘You know what? It’s a bit of a gimmick, and the audience doesn’t understand the gimmick until they get to the second act.’
“And I asked, ‘Well, what if I restructure it?’ And so, that night, I completely ripped it apart, and now, time functions in a very different way. We have full flashbacks to years before, and we have flashbacks to minutes before. And the character of Him, who Alex Mills is playing, was greatly expanded. He’s the thru-line of the entire play now. During that reading, I learned what the play was.”
I asked Calarco to talk about how 4615 Theatre had gotten on his radar. “Well, Jordan and I went to the same college — years apart, of course.” Jordan is Jordan Friend, Artistic Director of 4615 and director of Separate Rooms.
“He reached out to me a couple years ago, and he just wanted to sit down and talk to me, and we did, and I liked him very much. I saw some of their work, and I just thought it was very exciting, and I thought the space was very exciting.
“It reminded me of where I originally wrote these characters: when I lived in New York before quote-unquote success came. My friends and I had a ferocious desire to just make plays, young plays, and we did them in difficult, raw spaces downtown, and there was a kind-of great, carefree, bold ‘Let’s do it!’ energy to the work.
“But then, when I did some of the rewrites several years ago, because I was getting older, the characters got older, and one of the reasons I was excited about 4615 doing it was that they’re a young company, and their energy felt refreshing, and it brought back memories of what it was like to first create theatre when I was in my twenties.
“And that led me to go back to what the initial impulse for the play was. I do that all the time as a director: I’ll sometimes ask writers, ‘Can I read your first draft? What was your original impulse?’ So, it was good to go back to the original energy of these characters when I first wrote them.”
I wondered if the script was still in flux, or if it is considered pretty set. “ Nothing’s ever set, when it’s a world premiere,” he chuckled.
I allowed as how the set must be a challenge. “Well, it is a challenging conceit structurally, and the new structure makes it even harder, because you’re constantly going back and forth in time all over the apartment. I think it’s great what Jordan and his designers are doing, because time is swirling around Him, and the fact that the set is fractured and has to reconfigure itself mirrors the writing in terms of the journey that Him goes on, and the journey the audience watching it goes on as well.”
Calarco is a playwright with a national reputation, as well as the Resident Director and Director of New Works at Signature Theatre, so it’s quite the coup for a young company like 4615 to score this premiere.
closes March 17, 2019
Details and tickets
“I was completely floored when he entrusted us with this stunning play,” Friend confirmed. “Working alongside Joe has been an absolute joy. He is an extraordinarily generous artist, both in how much he gives to a process and in what he brings out of others. He’s become a true part of the 4615 family, and all of us, myself especially, have learned a great deal from working alongside him.
“As for his writing, if you haven’t experienced any of his plays before, you’re in for something truly special. Joe’s work is ferociously heartfelt and thought provoking all at once, and this play mixes humor and sorrow in a way that is both deeply human and wildly captivating.”
Friend also seconded Carlarco’s praise of the cast. “We’ve assembled a cast that is absolutely out of this world; the kind of rogue’s gallery of talent you can’t even dream of. Joe has given each and every one of these actors a character that seems to extend far beyond the reaches of the pages, and he’s molded the script throughout the process. The result is something that feels spontaneous and inevitable all at once.”
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Friend also referenced the alma mater that Calarco and he share. “Joe and I are both alums of Ithaca College’s theatre program, so I’d been aware of him, and greatly admired his work, before I moved back to DC to start 4615. Once the company got going, I invited him to our most utterly insane show to that point: Waxing West, Saviana Stanescu’s vampire-driven immigration fantasia.
“I think that play was, in many ways, a great primer for Separate Rooms. They have absolutely nothing in common plot-wise (other than New York City), but both deal with time and space in demanding and unusual ways.”
Ways which, Friend echoed Calarco, “are particularly challenging (or exciting, I’d say) for a smaller company and venue. The thrill is in the solutions, and how our parameters both define and enrich the story we are telling.
“And this play is exactly the kind of story 4615 wants to be telling: epic, form-shattering, and thought provoking, with a fiercely honest emotional core, and a flair for old tales that came before. We’re a company concerned with the echo chamber of storytelling: how we pull from past stories, and what the old stuff tells us about where we are now.
“Joe’s play is about, among many things, a man confronting the mythology of his own past, and it’s presented to the audience in a disarmingly direct way, as if gathered around a fire. That makes it a deeply human and personal realization of 4615’s mission, and the perfect show for our first world premiere.
“Joe’s work deftly mixes feeling and thought, and that’s driven our rehearsal process. There is a lot of history to these characters preceding the events on stage, so the cast has spent a lot of time digging into shared memories and building up relationships that feel lived-in.
“On the flip side, the play’s time-hopping, room-jumping structure requires highly specific design and choreography. It’s an exciting juggling act, to build a deeply intimate, character-driven piece that requires the technical precision of a musical.”
The other playwright Calarco familiar to DC audiences is Joe’s sister Renee, one of the founding class of The Welders. “We’re very close, and it’s been great. We exchange each other’s work all the time. You know, I directed two plays of hers. It was such an easy experience. Everything I write, I give to her to read. She does the same.
“People ask often and expect there to be something weird about it, and there’s nothing weird about it at all. It’s just very comforting and very helpful. We’re actually working on something together at the moment, that I can’t really talk too much about, but that’s very exciting, to actually write something together, so, yeah…it’s amazing.”