Written on May 16, 2016
Now playing at the Logan Fringe Arts Space is Perisphere Theater’s debut production; David Mamet’s OLEANNA. Programming Coordinator Melanie Harker sits down with the cast (Greg Thompson and Nicole Ruthmarie) and artistic director (Heather Benjamin) to talk about the process for a play the New York Times has called “a war of words colliding.”
Melanie Harker: What is your relationship to Oleanna? To David Mamet’s work in general?
Greg Thompson: Nicole and I have been working overtime to put a hit out on Mr. Mamet. We love him, and we hate him. He’s a genius – an evil, evil man.
Laughter erupts in the room.
MH: Okay! Talk more about that.
GT: It’s hard! I mean it’s hard dialogue. I did know the show before. I had read it and seen it.
Nicole Ruthmarie: I did not know Oleanna at all. I read it on the metro on the way to the audition. Maybe the callback? [Heather] suggested I should be familiar with the show, and I thought, “Oh, I’m not familiar with ANY of David Mamet’s work.”
MH: If you can think back, what were your first impressions of the script?
NR: “Huh, this is really fun.”
GT: I remember seeing Oleanna done live and thinking it was cool and interesting. I remember marveling at [the script] – it’s a lot of stuff and it’s pretty bold; two people for 90 minutes and a lot of monologue work. Reading it at first, I thought I could never do that. Here I am now – trying to do that.
MH: Heather, as artistic director you chose this to be the debut performance for Perisphere Theater to produce. Why choose Oleanna? Why do this play now?
HB: We were looking at small-cast shows, because frankly you do that as the first show for a company. This show wasn’t on my radar at first, but I was having trouble finding appropriate plays that I thought would be fun to do. A college friend of mine reminded me how much I loved this play in college, so I re-read it. I had revisited Oleanna a few times over the years, but this time, it resonated with me a little differently. There’s been a lot in the news again in recent years about universities and the disconnect we have between teachers and students. There’s been a lot of volatility. A lot of the lines spoke to me in that way of being very relative to things that are happening now and I thought it would be an interesting, challenging, actor-y piece. I come from an acting background, so I like pieces with complex characters, and I also thought it would be the kind of play that DC would appreciate. This is a town that likes stuff that is intellectually stimulating, challenging and tackles issues.
MH: Especially because the play is said to have drawn so much inspiration from the Anita Hill / Clarence Thomas debacle in the early nineties.
GT: What’s interesting about that, and I didn’t know that it was later that [the play] got overhauled and influenced by it?
HB: Mamet wrote a draft before the hearings and then put out another version after. [The play was] affected by that, but I’m not sure if it affected the entire trajectory of how he wrote it. The play has often been seen as a diatribe against political correctness, but I also feel like it’s a story of the consequences of what happens when people don’t listen. If you spend all your time talking and not listening, then that’s not good. Nobody wins and it can end up having really big consequences. That’s how we’re looking at it in this production.
MH: All three of you so far have used variations of the phrase “this has been so much fun/cool to do!” which as an audience member is very interesting word choice for such a dark show.
GT: For me [as an actor] it’s an incredible challenge. One thing for me that is frustrating and also exciting about it is you read it and go, “who the hell talks like this?” It’s bad enough that Mamet has us repeating ourselves, and we go on and on – then you just get it in your mouth enough that you can really start to play with it and you go, “oh my god, it feels so right.” It’s weird. You struggle so hard to wrap your head and your mouth around those phrases… but then, like this afternoon, when we were really hammering the third act, we realized, “Oh, this is really fun! I can’t wait to just do it!” That speaks to how well Mamet writes. He gets it on a level that may not be obvious until you really get under its skin and then you start to realize what’s really going on.
HB: Mamet writes very smart characters. I feel like they have a lot of really quick pivots and tactic changes. For actors who are trained in putting all of those different things into rehearsing a script, it keeps you on your toes.
NR: I agree with Heather and Greg… What I really find fun about it is once we really get going, I love what comes out of us. In acts two and three, when I get angry at Greg, when I get very frustrated with him, I actually do get angry and frustrated at him. Yesterday we did it, and he cut me off because of whatever, but I was really into it. [To Greg] I was having so much fun being mad at you! Another fun thing is every single time we go over the script there’s always a new discovery. Always a new piece. There was something today when we were rehearsing, we realized what a role reversal takes place.
MH: I did a lot of reading of past reviews about the show. It’s interesting to see how audiences react to the piece.
HB: It’s like everybody thinks the play is about something different.
MH: Right! Exactly. Talk a little bit about what you hope the audience’s experience, post show, will be.
NB: I want there to be arguments. I want there to be disagreements – hopefully not directed at us? Laughter. But I would love for the audience to go home and talk about the play, just to hash it out. Probably some of those arguments won’t end, just like in the show. It goes completely unresolved, there’s no nice little bow at the end – and that’s what I want for the audience. I want them to talk about it, I want them to argue, and then I want them to not ever find an end to that discussion.
GT: I agree. I also kind of hope that it wakes people up. Right now especially in this election cycle, hearing people bandy about “political correctness,” and who started it and who did what… I mean it’s just very timely in lots of ways. Especially right now, I think it’s fascinating to see that now we’re really asking questions about sexual violence: what does constitute that, how do we have those conversations, what do those conversations look like today versus twenty years ago?
NB: And what’s going on in the show with the way that we’re cast – he’s a white man and I’m a black woman – and there is a long time history, a history that most people don’t like to talk about, about the relationship between a white man and a black woman. And then the whole conversation of, “did some kind of inappropriate sexual incident occur” between these two characters, that’s a whole other layer to the situation because, again, this is history that we don’t talk about.
GT: This goes back to the conversations and the arguments: will people break walls down, will they actually come out on the other side better having seen it or having engaged in those conversations? I kind of want to be a part of all of them, because I want to hear what they have to say. I just wish we could give them all recording devices and say, “Hey, could you drop this in the mail in a few days?” and let us listen to what YOU took away? We have our own ideas, but what will people really see? We all hear it through our own filter.
HB: I want the audience to have a visceral response to it. Even if they don’t go home and talk about it with their spouse - though it would be great if they did - or stay for our chats, I want them to be struck by something in a way that they haven’t been before. About the dynamics of power and where people draw their power from, and if they don’t have it to begin with, how do they take it? There are so many different strands to explore in this play.
GT: One of the questions I remember thinking when I saw it was, “Who’s the victim here?”
HB: That’s one of the interesting things about this play also: the many near misses. There are so many moments when the conversation could have gone completely differently, but it doesn’t. The two characters just side-swipe.
NB: Or the phone rings.
HB: Or Greg just doesn’t shut up.