“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” by award winning playwright, Sarah Ruhl, opened to a sold out house Friday evening at The Playhouse San Antonio in historic San Pedro Springs Park. Situated in the intimate Cellar Theater, this is a black box configuration with seating for fewer than 60 patrons.
Director Andrew Thornton deftly leads the ensemble cast in pursuit of the meaning that a perfect stranger can bring to a death and a life.
Having the opportunity to sit in on one of the final rehearsals, it is duly noted that the cast does an impressive job with challenging material. Ruhl has observed that her characters occupy “the real world and also a suspended state.”
As she said to New Yorker Senior Drama Critic John Lahr in 2008, “Cell phones, iPods, wireless computers will change people in ways we don’t even understand. We’re less connected to the present. No one is where they are. There’s absolutely no reason to talk to a stranger anymore—you connect to people you already know. But how well do you know them? Because you never see them—you just talk to them. I find that terrifying.”
Anyone with a Facebook feed understands that this is an accurate and prescient observation from the playwright who began her career as a poet, first published at the age of 20.
Now, at 40, there are 13 plays and numerous awards and professional accolades under her belt including the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Grant awarded in 2006.
The structure and language of the play seem very casual upon initial observation, but as one absorbs the pace and timing unfolding in the story, the precise nature of the writing comes to bear.
Sarah Fisch, a local freelance writer, carries the show in the role of Jean, the perfect stranger who comes into possession of Gordon’s – the dead man – cell phone. I asked her about the challenge of the role and getting into this character’s head space.
“The temptation is to mask her loneliness and need by making her awkwardness funny. And she is funny. The play is funny. It's harder to let Jean be vulnerable. It's scary to do, live, in front of people. I do relate to her; Jean's an introvert, but she reaches out. She's trying to reconcile her surreal inner life with the lives of other people, who can be just as surreal. She wants intimacy, but kind of at a distance, which I get. She's navigating this paradox, moment to moment.”
Indeed, Jean inexplicably takes on the responsibility for emotionally connecting the self-absorbed Gordon (Matthew Byron Cassi) post mortem with a tightly strung mother (Kathy Couser), a bitchy wife (Meredith Alvarez), a ruthless mistress (Marisa Varela), and his sweet and mostly genuine brother (E.J. Roberts) – none of whom she has had previous contact with.
No spoilers, but Jean does create relationships with these characters, of whole cloth, spit, and magical thinking. The actual connection that she makes with brother Dwight is Jean’s defining moment, a break from the tyranny of the cell phone in favor of a real human interaction.
Fisch acknowledges the difficulty of getting the lines right in this play. Ruhl’s work is very alliterative and there isn’t leeway for ad libbing in a tight spot.
“I ran lines and ran lines; Kathy Couser was a great help with this. I wrote out the entire play four or five times, too, and would check it against the text, correct it, then write it out again. Kind of a nerdy approach, I guess. It's embarrassing, how hard it was. Sarah Ruhl is both pointedly specific, and seemingly casual; she makes use of 'like, you know' that reads like ad-lib, but each word has a purpose. And there isn't much exposition or straight-ahead narrative, but a seeming stream-of-consciousness series of ideas and images. And the text gets even stranger the better I know it. As it turns out, acting is hard work.”
The historic Playhouse San Antonio has come quite a long way over the years. Known as The San Pedro Playhouse until a restructuring in 2012, this is the oldest city-built and owned community theater in the country, and the oldest continuously operating arts organization in San Antonio.
The Greek Revival structure built in 1929 is on a site in San Pedro Springs Park (one of the oldest municipal parks in the country, second only to The Boston Commons) selected by Gutzon Borglum of Mount Rushmore fame. The renowned sculptor kept a studio in San Antonio from 1924 until 1937. The theater is redolent in its shabby glory, always in need of more love and attention, always another chore on the long list begging to be tended to.
Playhouse CEO Asia Ciaravino was a co-founder of the well-regarded Classic Theater, established in 2008. In 2012, she was recruited to The Playhouse as a change agent. Things had been rough for awhile and it was time for a shake-up. I asked what the greatest challenges have been.
“Shattering people's perception of what the San Pedro Playhouse was and shifting it to who The Playhouse is now. People say that they want change but don't know how to handle it. For example, people say they want a more professional place to see and be a part of theatre but when you create infrastructure they have a hard time adhering to rules. An organization of our size has to have standard operating procedures to function at the highest rate possible- lots of people wanted it to stay the way it was because that is what they were comfortable with. Growth can be painful. But I have always loved a good challenge.”
Ciaravino is a charismatic and dynamic leader, even if the insistent task master. In the past two years she has sought partnerships with local nonprofits and corporations to grow the reach of the theater by leaps and bounds. One example is in ticket sales, going from 1,500 tickets purchased to 16,000. Of course, you must keep in mind that ticket sales alone don’t pay the bills.
The Playhouse runs with a staff of 13 theatre professionals, and every person that works on productions is paid. The cost of doing business is $60 a seat, with patrons paying an average of $20. Theater productions are expensive to produce with each show running from $20,000 - $40,000, depending on the scope and complexity of the production.
Ciaravino points out that the theater is understaffed for the amount of work that is taken on in the community, “All of our staff work very hard to produce 10 shows a season. We also do outreach into schools, teach senior theatre, teach conservatory, work with other nonprofits to help promote them and give them tickets to see shows. This takes a lot of logistical coordination. At any given time we have at least two shows rehearsing in the space and one show running. Our next step is to grow staff so that we can serve more people in the community and continue to raise the quality of our work on stage.”
There are ways to get involved in helping this valuable community asset achieve their goals. Buy a ticket to a show (or season tickets if you’re feeling large), take a class (there are programs for adults in addition to the conservatory program for kids), volunteer your skills or your time. If you are looking for something to be a part of and have an appreciation for the theater, this venerable institution is worthy of your time.
Will some say that Ciaravino pushes too hard, expects too much? Perhaps, but it is difficult to argue with a visionary that believes with all her heart and considerable mind.
“The people are stellar, passionate humans that inspire me to work harder and dream bigger,” she said. Her passion for the theater and those she works with is contagious. “I love creating high quality theatre that lights people on fire. I also love teaching children that they are good enough. The confidence built through theater is a gift I want to give every child in the world and I'm starting with The Conservatory at The Playhouse.”
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” runs through June 1, 2014. Tickets are limited. Buy tickets for this and other productions at The Playhouse San Antonio online or call the box office at 210-733-7258.
Summer camps at The Playhouse are beginning soon. Find out how to get in on the fun.
Catch Asia Ciaravino on KLRN ARTS on Friday evenings at 8:30 p.m. Programming repeats on Sunday afternoons at 2 p.m.
*Featured/top image: Scene from "Dead Man's Cell Phone" during rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.