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Play or Poem; It Takes a Village

A Q&A with the Cast of 'A Play Is a Poem'

#5780

L-R: Nellie McKay, CJ Wilson, Sam Vartholomeos, Saul Rubinek, Micaela Diamond, Ro Boddie, Ethan Coen, Max Casella, Joey Slotnick, Miriam Silverman, Jason Kravits, Peter Jacobson, and Neil Pepe at the first rehearsal of 'A Play Is a Poem'.

Photo by Benedict Evans.

To portray the vast canvas of American periods and locales on display in A Play Is a Poem—Ethan Coen’s World premiere collection of short plays onstage at the Mark Taper Forum September 11 – October 13, 2019—it takes a large and capable cast. In just under two hours, the action onstage goes from the East Coast to the West Coast—twice—and spans the course of a century.

Luckily, the tight knit cast mixes and matches throughout each of the pieces, giving the opportunity for most of them to wear multiple hats throughout the show. We asked them what the process has been like and how they’ve tackled the varied and vivid settings of their pieces.

Ro Boddie: Gadsden in At the Gazebo, Steve Tudik in The Urbanes

What inspirations have you drawn from for your roles?
Music has always and forever will inspire and influence the characters I play. For my character in At the Gazebo, I listen to a lot of blues. Junior Kimbrough and Muddy Waters particularly. For my character in The Urbanes, I listen to Ray Charles.
When someone says “Americana,” what’s the first thing that you think of?
All the joys and the pains throughout America’s history; the ugly and the beautiful phases that have shaped America into what it is today.
In your mind, what distinguishes theatre from other performance mediums?
The fact that an audience gets to witness, in the now, human beings battling with some life-altering event. And regardless of whether or not the character succeeds or fails, Tuesday night’s show will be completely different than Wednesday’s, or Thursday’s, or Friday’s, etc.
If you could travel back in time to meet any American artist, who would it be?
It would probably be Prince, in the early ’80s, in whatever recording studio he’s in.
L-R: Ro Boddie and Max Casella. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Max Casella: Cal in The Redeemers, Cabbie in The Urbanes

What was your first reaction after reading the script?
Oh my God I have to do this. Such delicious writing.
What inspirations have you drawn from for your roles?
None. It all comes from the text and myself.
What is your favorite thing about this cast and creative team?
Such a great group of actors. I love them all.
If you could travel back in time to meet any American artist, who would it be?
Maybe J.D. Salinger...
L-R: Sam Vartholomeos and Micaela Diamond. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Micaela Diamond: Lindy in A Tough Case, Dorothy in At the Gazebo

What was your first reaction after reading the script?
My first reaction was that I needed a dictionary immediately! The pieces are quite stylized…as expected with Ethan Coen…so trying to read that nuanced brilliance through the page was difficult. Once I understood what they were saying, I was drawn to both of these women; they are beautifully traditional to their own centuries of time.
What inspirations have you drawn from for your roles?
For Dorothy, I took inspiration from Margaret from Light in the Piazza: wanting more than what she has in life, traditional, you can feel southern heat in both of their skins. There’s a bit of Elizabeth Taylor in her too: Suddenly, Last Summer, the youth, the wanting to know more about this world outside of Natchez, Mississippi, the mid-20s wonder about life.
What is your favorite thing about this cast and creative team?
Oh, they are spectacular. They are all veterans of theatre and film and getting to watch all of their specific processes has been quite a privilege. I love how we aren’t finding the end. They keep playing with Ethan’s words, hoping to lift them in a different clever way I never could have thought of.
What inspires you as an artist?
Stories that make you feel something you didn’t expect or know you could feel…so many Coen brothers movies do that. It’s quite a gift.

Peter Jacobson: Johnny Branco in A Tough Case, Movie Executive in Inside Talk

What was your first reaction after reading the script?
My first reaction to Inside Talk [which is set in Hollywood’s executive suites] was that I know these people, I know them well. And this is very very funny.
In your mind, what distinguishes theatre from other performance mediums?
Taking the time to dig deep into the character, the material. And then the audience, the immediacy of the work’s impact on others. Wonderful.
What inspires you as an artist?
Great material and being around real talent. I also love the camaraderie of the theatre; this is a very fun group.
If you could travel back in time to meet any American artist, who would it be?
Shakespeare...oops. Uh...Buster Keaton.
L-R: Peter Jacobson and Jason Kravits. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Jason Kravits: Lou Wald in Inside Talk

What inspirations have you drawn from for your role?
My play is about show business, and the desperation that comes with it…a feeling that everyone I know has in one way or another. It's not a hard reach to find experiences in my own life that parallel this character, albeit in different ways.
You were last here at Center Theatre Group for the pre-Broadway run of The Drowsy Chaperone in 2005. What is it like coming back?
I love playing here. It's a beautiful space and warm, friendly, supportive people. And a smart, receptive audience base as well!
When someone says “Americana,” what’s the first thing that you think of?
I think that's a loaded word these days. Americana to me is about diversity, all the various pieces of culture that made their way over here from everywhere else…in good ways and bad. I think that word has become associated with a dreamy nostalgia for a very specific cultural point of view, and that has never rung true for me.
If you could travel back in time to meet any American artist, who would it be?
Arthur Miller, Sammy Davis, Jr., Leonard Bernstein, Nina Simone, James Baldwin…so, so many more.

Saul Rubinek: Arthur Threadgill in A Tough Case, Jerry Sterling in Inside Talk

What inspirations have you drawn from for your roles?
For the play A Tough Case, I was inspired by my love of 1930s and ’40s noir private eye movies—they have some of the greatest character actors in movie history playing eccentric, memorable roles that were deftly created by a combination of quick sharp writing and bold performances. For the play Inside Talk I'm inspired by a number of movie producers I've worked with in the past, whose hearts are in the right place—I mean, who are passionate to tell stories that matter to them—but they still have to sell to make a living.
When someone says “Americana,” what’s the first thing that you think of?
Cultural references that as varied and complex as the country's history: both the dark and the light—racism and apple pie, the “Stars & Stripes” and xenophobia, Westerns and genocide, the Statue of Liberty and internment camps, Hollywood and #metoo, the Declaration of Independence and Citizens United.
In your mind, what distinguishes theatre from other performance mediums?
Theatre embraces all art forms, lives in the present moment, is ephemeral, and is changed utterly by its audience.
If you could travel back in time to meet any American artist, who would it be?
I just finished reading a biography of Frances Marion, an American screenwriter, journalist, author, and film director—the first person to win two Oscars for writing—now forgotten by the industry she was instrumental in creating. If I could time travel, I'd love to meet her.
L-R: Max Casella and Miriam Silverman. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Miriam Silverman: The Wife in The Urbanes

What was your first reaction after reading the script for your piece?
While The Honeymooners was the reference mentioned to me when auditioning, I had never seen The Honeymooners, so it meant nothing to me when reading the script. What it made me think of was Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty: the scene between the struggling cabbie and his distressed wife, but the funny version.
What inspirations have you drawn from for your role?
Not to drag Odets into it again but why not—I often imagine my character to be Hennie from Awake and Sing! The 15 years down the road scene when Moe didn’t make good and they are miserable but probably still have great sex.
What is your favorite thing about this cast and creative team?
Everyone was hilarious and fun and came at the material with a lot of joy.
When someone says “Americana,” what’s the first thing that you think of?
Old stuff.
L-R: Joey Slotnick and Saul Rubinek. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Joey Slotnick: Wes in The Redeemers, Ed Curtin in A Tough Case, Joey Falcone in The Urbanes

What inspirations have you drawn from for your roles?
Certainly for The Redeemers I thought of the great photographer Shelby Lee Adams who spent lots of time in Appalachia. His images of the people and families are incredibly striking and beautiful and disturbing. For A Tough Case, it was The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep and those brilliant noir films of the 1940s. And for me, The Urbanes evokes The Honeymooners.
What do you enjoy most about working on pieces by Ethan Coen?
I feel incredibly fortunate because this is the fourth collaboration I’ve had with Ethan and Neil. I have so much fun with both those guys. Ethan’s words and characters are so much fun to play! I think we have a great shorthand with each other.
When someone says “Americana,” what’s the first thing that you think of?
State fairs. Corn. Jazz. Though I don’t think any of those things appear in these plays…
If you could travel back in time to meet any American artist, who would it be?
Ooh this is a tough one. The first person that came to my mind was Will Rogers. But now there will be 20 more that I’ll think of…

Sam Vartholomeos: Carter in At the Gazebo, The Writer in Inside Talk

What was your first reaction after reading the scripts for your pieces?
Are they talking about what I think they’re talking about?
When someone says “Americana,” what’s the first thing that you think of?
V8s and big band music.
What inspires you as an artist?
Curiosity. Finding solace in being a student. In not always having the answer.
If you could travel back in time to meet any American artist, who would it be?
Frank Sinatra.
L-R: Joey Slotnick and CJ Wilson. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

CJ Wilson: Gary Allen in The Redeemers, Don Baines in A Tough Case

What was your first reaction after reading the script for your pieces?
I really enjoyed the humor. When I read, "I could say you two born aggrieved and was weaned on a pickle," I knew this would be fun. And that I loved the parts I'd be playing.
What inspirations have you drawn from for your roles?
I grew up in the South—there was a lot of inspiration there. And watching crime noir (The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep) for A Tough Case.
What is your favorite thing about this cast and creative team?
I'm very fortunate in that I've worked with some of the guys in the cast [Joey Slotnick and Jason Kravits], Neil, and Ethan before. It felt very comfortable. It's a great cast with a great sense of humor.
What inspires you as an artist?
I get inspiration from a lot of things: watching my friends perform, Linda Ronstadt's documentary The Sound of My Voice, people watching on the subway, (hope that doesn't sound creepy).
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