Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Blog Exclusive Interview: Nathan Robbel of the Right Brain Project

The much discussed problem with the new play process in America is one of lots of development that rarely leads to actual production. Plays get workshopped to death. Well, this isn't happening at the Right Brain Project. Not only has artistic director Nathan Robbel programmed a three-play season of world premieres, they are all by the same playwright: Randall Colburn. The season started with Pretty Penny, which I really enjoyed. It now continues with Hesperia, the surprisingly tender story of a former porn star who seeks a redemptive future in the midwestern town where she was born. I talked to Robbel about why Right Brain chose to devote their season to Colburn's work and the process they've been using to bring his plays to life. I'll be seeing the show Friday, so I'll report back.

How did you first encounter Randall's work?
I was first introduced to Randall through a mutual friend of ours who felt I would take to his scripts and his style. She had been familiar with his work for some time, and I had directed her in a number of projects in the past few years. The first time I saw his work, however, was at a short play festival with Dream Theatre Company. The piece was short, obscure and non-traditional. But I remember being impressed at how quickly and efficiently he was able to create deep characters with so little.

What made you decide that he fit with Right Brain's mission and aesthetic, and how would you describe them?
The primary tenet of our mission statement has always been to find unique and unexpected ways to connect the audience to the actor. Whether that has been through breaking the fourth wall, physically touching the audience, or simply delivering something non-traditional, we've always felt that theatre should be a communal experience beyond simply sitting in the dark and watching a story unfold. It excites us when we can find ways to get the audience closer to the story, characters, and the overall "theatrical experience" than might be expected.

As far as our aesthetic is concerned... The short answer is that our aesthetic is highly influenced and dictated by our resources. We're constantly asking ourselves how can we best serve the story and deliver a satisfying, sometimes larger-than-life theatrical experience within our limitations - and how do we turn our limitations into an advantage? We've often labeled our shows (rather tongue-in-cheek) as "epic minimalism." Instead of apologizing and finding ways to hide our limitations, we choose to embrace them and find ways to weave them into the fabric of the production as a positive means to an end - which is telling a story as strongly and as emotionally truthful and resonant as possible. I would like to think that if our productions were mounted in a larger space or with significantly larger resources, that they wouldn't be nearly as effective. We strive to make choices that embrace what we have to their fullest potential.

Randall's work fits this mission and aesthetic particularly well. Take Pretty Penny, for example. While I'm always hesitant to apply labels to scripts, one could call the script grounded in realism. It could easily be done on a huge budget with multiple sets and loads of props to accurately depict the "real" world, and that may be the obvious choice. And we could have exhausted ourselves attempting to make that happen. But due to our limited budget, we chose to forgo all of those things. By committing to miming everything in the show, hopefully the audience accepted the convention from the very first scene and instead concentrated fully on these characters and their inner struggles. Suddenly Randall's characters, which are full of nuance, complex motivations, and deep-rooted issues, were a force to be reckoned with. There is literally nothing in between the audience and the psyche of these people. We watch their faces and their eyes, as there is nothing else on stage to see. Suddenly quiet moments between characters become extremely important. In fact, a scene can become ABOUT those quiet moments. And when we're forced to slow down and give over our full attention, a great actor can take us with them on their emotional journey. Randall's work is full of these tender, quiet moments, and given what we have to work with, they become the centerpiece of the production.

And from there, why a full season of his shows? It's a pretty big risk to take on someone who isn't well known to the general public.
Truth be told, it just felt right. When I saw a staged reading of Hesperia, it knocked my socks off. There was so much nuance happening just in between the lines of the script - it didn't need any bells and whistles. In fact, I can only imagine that layering in elements of that sort could only detract from what I was witnessing. I felt close to these actors, and their struggles resonated. It was powerful stuff. In an intimate space like ours and with committed, excited actors, I knew we could fully harness what I felt Randal was trying to achieve with his scripts. It just seemed right.

And as far as risk is concerned... I fully believe that if one does work they're passionate about, and does it well, the audience will eventually come. I strive to never compromise what feels right artistically for the RBP. Sure, when one considers we could be doing more established work that may draw in larger audiences, there's a risk to devoting an entire season to one local playwright. But I believe in Randall's work, and I believe that we're a worthy vehicle for his scripts. We can only hope that people catch on, and will appreciate what we're doing. I've been completely satisfied thus far, and I believe our actors and our crew feel the same.

Had you done any readings or workshops of his stuff, or did you just jump in to produce?
We held a reading of Pretty Penny for our own sake very early in the process. It was kind of an opportunity to hear it out loud, chat about it, and give Randall a chance to approach the script again with fresh eyes. But really, most of the work on the script came from Randall, our wonderful dramaturg Jamie Bragg, and me chatting about the script and what we wanted to accomplish, and what was within our means to bring to life given our resources. Because this was a new work, our rehearsal time was extended by about a week and a half or so, in case we encountered the need for re-writes. But really, that was about it. I went with my gut. I loved the script, and I loved his style, and I had to trust that our audience would as well. And I felt we could successfully work together as an ensemble to make this work efficiently. In the end, we were extremely lucky to find the cast we did, as they were highly professional, willing to play, and they jumped right in. And we've been just as lucky with the cast and crew of Hesperia. I couldn't be happier with the enthusiastic people I'm working with. It's a joy to produce with people so excited about a project.

Pretty Penny is about a young woman who starts a job at a no-limit phone sex line. It looks at desire and identity, without being exploitative. Do Hesperia and the third play of the season explore similar themes? What can we expect?
Hesperia most certainly follows a similar theme, but down a slightly different path. While it's a very different show, both in terms of story and presentation, its themes are connected, and these characters definitely feel like they exist in the same world - just very different corners of it. Pretty Penny's characters are in various stages of attempting to redefine and reinvent themselves on their own terms, to varying degrees of success - and sex and sexuality is the catalyst. Hesperia explores a woman's attempt to do the same, but more specifically she is trying to find a purity and an innocence that she feels she has strayed from. She is seeking redemption, and in many ways, a return to childhood. She latches onto the small town of Hesperia and the Evangelical Christian environment that permeates the town to do so. But like Pretty Penny, Hesperia delves into some uncomfortable places - specifically in its raw depiction of sexual desire that is refreshing and almost disturbingly innocent in a way I've never before encountered in a script.

Our third show of the season, entitled Halfshut, will hopefully go to some similar places as well. I can't outright say what to expect, except that we're striving to blur the line between actor and character more than ever before, and we hope to continue to dwell on similar themes of identity and the role that sexuality plays in that.

So give your final pitch: why is it important for you to produce a full season of Randall Colburn's plays, and why should audiences come see it?
When so many new scripts attempt to tackle big ideas, political or social trends and upsets, Randall's plays are simple and there is a familiarity to his characters that he achieves through small moments. And it's these small moments that we can all relate to. A song that was playing at our prom when we knew we were in love, or the awkward anticipation of holding someone's hand, or the remembrance of an event that touched our heart. These are good people, with their own private struggles, and our vulnerability can be seen in those small moments. While we're surrounded by large political and social issues, at the end of the day, when we look in the mirror, we're there with ourselves and those private struggles. And really, when we connect to other people, it's these small, personal struggles that we all have in common. We hope audiences will see a show, relate to the character, and by proxy, relate to the actor willing to be vulnerable in such an intimate space. All we have are each other, and if art can take us on a personal journey with another person, that's a beautiful thing.

Hesperia opens July 15th and plays through August 15th, running Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 8 PM. All shows play at the Right Brain Project, 4001 N Ravenswood, which is accessible by the Irving Park Brown Line stop, the Irving Park, Damen, and Lincoln buses, and the Ravenswood Metra, as well as boasting ample street parking. Tickets are $15, $12 in a group. Tickets at 773-750-2033 or

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