A Conversation with Vinie Burrows, Rob Campbell, Matthew Jeffers, Mikéah Ernest Jennings, Gregg Mozgala, and Evelyn Spahr
We sat down with the entire cast of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire on a Saturday afternoon, now playing at the New York Theatre Workshop, to talk about interpreting a play set in 1600s England for a modern audience, stamina, and different types of accessibility in the theater.
Michelle Tse: I want to start with your first experience with a Caryl Churchill piece and when you first became familiar with this particular play.
Mikéah Ernest Jennings: No performance experience with Churchill’s work prior to this but definitely very familiar, generally in school, or study. But this play was new to me.
Matthew Jeffers: I had a similar experience. Caryl Churchill was bible in college. There was always the Top Girls scene. It’s always a staple in scene study.
Greggg Mozgala: I was in a production of Mad Forest in undergrad. But I was unfamiliar this play until recently.
Michelle: What were your impressions of this particular play when you first read it?
Evelyn Spar: I thought it was the perfect play for Rachel [Chavkin] to direct. Particularly because the style of her work, so often people jumping in and out of characters and she’s also not scared of doing really daring things and things that most people would seem as impossible work. So I was like oh, of course Rachel would pick this play. That was my first impression.
Mikéah: I like the immediacy of it. Just reading it, understanding when it was written, and what it was written about, but still really felt like the conversations and arguments and rants [in the play are similar to what we’re] currently discussing politically and personally.
Michelle: I want to get into the relevancy of the play. Even though it’s set in 1600s England, and is very much rooted in religion, as you said, the arguments within it are in many ways exactly what we’re dealing with today. It is also set where a lot of the music that’s used within the show is contemporary music, so I wonder if coming into this production has in any way affected or shaped your view of current politics in any way?
Gregg: I think how it relates to now, not only as it current of what’s happening now in our sort of politics in this country, but it seems like this is a 350-year long conversation. Like these issues have not been fully resolved, they’re still being hashed out and argued and worked on culturally and politically. But I think the main thing for me is feeling that I could be active as a citizen of this country and of the world and that there’s so much discussion of people having agency, and I feel like there’s sort of been a resurgence of that within our political conversations these days, especially [as] it relates to the issues in this play.
Matthew: I feel that a really poignant aspect that has always struck me has been the fact that [the actions in the play and in the real Putney Debates] didn’t come to fruition, so we got to this point in 1600s England, where they reached a level but they weren’t able to fully make it happen. And I think it can be seen as a lesson of sometimes of what not to do when trying to create a new socio-economic landscape. You go through this whole show, and it’s draining and it’s so dense and then at the end, it’s like it didn’t fully happen and I think that’s so heartbreaking but also so hopeful to see the steps that were taken and affected.
Michelle: And the way that Rachel has put this production together does have a very contemporary feel, especially on an aesthetic level. Walking in and seeing the open caption board, and it reminded me of being at the opera.
As you said, Matthew, the language can be very dense for someone who doesn’t come from drama school, who’s never heard of Caryl Churchill. This is a downtown theater that I think perhaps more seasoned theatergoers would visit but were there any discussions on the approach of the language to perhaps make it less alienating to a newer theatergoer?
Rob Campbell: Rachel’s really focused on the sounds for sure, and the softening and contemporizing and taking the sort of sound of any formality out of it, making it that much more present tense. I think part of the objective is to try to make it as if it’s from now even though it’s hard to do that just from the sound of it.
Gregg: It was an interesting challenge. We’re using the choice not to use British dialect throughout this piece too and syntactically this plays very English and very British, so that was a challenge too, approaching the text, just figuring out how that division of a common language is, but how to make sense of that in an American way of speaking even though it was written very- she’s an English playwright. So a lot of that work was making sense and making our brains work. It was a very rigorous approach to the text.
Michelle: And the show is very lengthy and physical, and there are a lot of moments where you guys are within the house and the audience. How much does an audience’s energy affect the energy of the entire show?
Rob: A lot.
Michelle: How do you get through that? I’m sure there are perhaps a matinee or-
Rob: Or Friday night. Yeah.
Matthew: Personally for me, I find it very challenging to muster and maintain that level of athleticism, verbal and physical, when it’s quieter and less engaged. I find it very challenging.
As Rob mentioned, just staying focused. I’ve taken that to heart. Sometimes I’ll be up on the stage and I’ll have my mind wander and I’ll be like, today’s audience…I don’t feel like they’re 100% with us. And then I’ll think about the people on stage, and I do it for them, because everyone is so wonderful here and everyone brings the other person up. I feel I can feed off what they’re giving and that’s very fulfilling to me to know that we could have two people in the audience and if we’re on stage and something is happening, you know- and that’s partially Caryl Churchill’s words but- I think more that matters is what these guys and girls bring to the stage, and that’s at the end of the day for me how I stay focused.
Evelyn: Piggybacking off of that, yes it is an extreme challenge but when I remember that there are people that this play means a great deal to and they may not be the person laughing out loud. It could be someone very quiet and be having a very thoughtful moment, and this means a great deal to them. Another thing is that one of the things that Caryl spoke about concerning the structure of the play, is a feeling of universality, that there are these archetypal characters that have a universal connection, and when you get close to the characters, they’re people that you want to protect and have their story known in a way that is not usual in other shows, like you’re another character, cool. But here it’s something about them, that you care a great deal for each of them.
The other thing is about what Matthew said, that yeah sometimes my brain will wander off and I’ll say “no, I want to give to the team” and then I put myself back in the game. You look at someone [on stage] and they can tell that you’re playing, and then they’re playing and then you look around and everyone’s playing a higher game, so it’s always a really good reminder, especially if you love to do this, to keep playing. Someone else will want to throw the ball back at you.
Vinie Burrows: Good health and good nutrition and good solid mental health and good family support. Our family doesn’t have to be our blood family, those who care about us. It’s important to have them in your life. The importance of sanity in this crazy world. Life is energy, life is motion.
Rob: And this is a play about a movement. I think originally this play was developed with a particular ensemble, joint stock, so it was written around those particular actors and that was the root and seed of it. I think that was a very singular event but what we’ve tried really hard to develop here and what Rachel’s really- what she does, one of her strengths as a director is to work collaboratively with an ensemble. I really feel this incredible sense of ensemble with everyone here, not just the actors on stage but everyone behind the scenes, administratively. We are all in this together, the actors are here, the people on the production side are here long before us. You know, they’re the Marines, they’re the first and the last to leave.
Again, there really is this sense of we’re all in this together, we are all hashing this out together. This is a play about movement. This is a play about hopes and dreams and revolution and that idea of “you can.” There is a revelation in this play but you can’t always live in revelation. You can’t stay there forever, that was one thing that came up in rehearsal a lot. Another thing that came up too was that revolution is almost easy, public policy is hard. Right? That was sort of this constant refrain that was coming up throughout the course of rehearsals, and it’s something our characters are going through throughout the course of this play and we as actors are going through as we embody those characters.
It’s been unlike any other experience for me, professionally, to date, in both challenging and incredibly rewarding.
Michelle: Wonderful. I want to end by asking a more general theater question. When the Tony Award nominations came out this year, I remembered thinking that the theater art off Broadway is so different than from what is more commercial art, on Broadway. I wonder what you all wish you could see reach a larger audience? For example, would a Caryl Churchill play make it on Broadway [now]?
Rob: Well it has.
Michelle: I should clarify, I meant in this climate, what do you wish you were able to see and bring to a more commercial audience?
Mikéah: I think in general, what’s missing in particular in this country that we live in, is the level of accessibility that will generate generations of interest and- what’s the word I’m looking for- grooming. Our kids being invited to the theater. Our kids going to the theater. Can their parents afford to take them to the theater? Because of the greater level of access that you have, the more risks you’re going to take. People are going to say, “I don’t know what this show is but it’s on tonight, let’s go see something live.” But if your ticket prices are so bloated that it has to be the special event, but then if it’s a special event it has to be something that someone’s like “oh I know what I’m getting, because I’m spending this much money” and that’s kind of an argument about this current season on Broadway, that it’s all of these kinds of television and movie remakes.
Not saying anything about the shows cause I haven’t seen any of them, and I’ve heard some of them are quite good. But that model exists because people are like “I can’t take the risk of paying $250 for a ticket unless I know it’s something that I already either like or something I understand.” The level of risk is not there. So I would just like to see a greater level of financial accessibility which I think would then promote a greater level of risk-taking in audiences.
Gregg: Accessibility is the sort of word I would say… It’s interesting, if you did a workshop, there are tons of off-Broadway and Broadway theaters committed to accessibility and often times people think of that only in structural access. Brick and mortar access. But one thing, I think, you mentioned the open captioning, and it’s not just a breaking device, that is an accessibility function for a particular population of deaf and hard hearing actors and what not. And even the casting of this particular ensemble embodies a level of programmatic accessibility, which I’ve never seen, been a part of, or experienced in your theater ever.
People don’t look at all those different facets of accessibility together and I think you’re absolutely right Mikéah, this expanding and broadening [of economic access]. When we look at the question of accessibility, you need to look at economics, look at structural, look at programming. So you’re getting at all those things and you’re making theater available to all, the entire community, because if I was a teenage kid or adolescent kid or even an adult and seeing the bodies that are inhabiting these words on [this] stage right now, I would be absolutely blown away and broken open in a way. But if I can’t get in the door, due to whatever reason, structural, economic, whatever, then a great opportunity is being lost.
Michelle: Thank you so much for chatting with me.