By Megan O’Connor
It’s Awards season again and Brelby Theatre Co. couldn’t be prouder of our artist community and the amazing work they’ve done this past season. We at the Brelby Buzz wanted to chat with all of our talented nominees and get a sneak peak into their process, their experiences in theatre, and the opportunities they’ve found working in local theatre and at Brelby that helped them along their artistic journey. We’re so proud of all of them and wish them all the best at the AriZoni Awards!
Best Director of a Play – Louis Farber (Peter and the Starcatcher)
Brelby Buzz: What was your experience working with the stripped down aesthetic Peter requires?
My experience was good. I felt that not only does the show allow for a bare bones approach, but the environment and budget constraints at Brelby encouraged it too. It also gave me and the actors a lot of freedom to really collaborate and play and use our imaginations to the fullest. In the end I feel like we embraced the aesthetic in a way that gave us the freedom needed to creatively execute the script and tell the story, while providing a much needed structure to make it accessible for an audience.
BB: How does it compare to shows you’ve directed in the past?
The only other play that I have directed that was similar in aesthetic was THE TOMKAT PROJECT at Stray Cat. Again, it was a script that called for quick transitions, actors playing multiple parts, and several different locations. So, we took a minimalist approach to set and costumes as we did with STARCATCHER. A hat here, a scarf there and lots of cubes in lots of different formations. I love the freedom and creativity plays like these require. It’s a challenging and rewarding experience to direct them.
BB:How did the response audiences had to Peter stack up to your expectations as a director?
It exceeded it. Obviously, one can feel like the product is good and fun, but audiences are made up of people and people are sometimes tough to read and plan for and please. I was very pleased that the response from the audiences was so overwhelmingly positive. That kind of response is great for Brelby and, I think, it makes everyone who worked on STARCATCHER feel like we made the best choices in presenting the play.
BB: You’ve primarily worked with your home theatre Stray Cat, but you’re currently rehearsing, “Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)” at Southwest Shakespeare Company; what advice would you give to valley artists about the theatre scene in AZ and taking/making opportunities available to them?
My advice would be to get out there and audition for different theatre companies. Submit your writing to different companies. Send companies your resume as a director or stage manager or designer. Roll up your sleeves and take a backstage or crew position. Volunteer as an usher, become a board member, or simply buy a ticket and be an audience member. There are lots of opportunities to support and to get involved, but you have to be proactive. Every little opportunity and contribution makes a difference. So, stand up, take a deep breath and get involved.
Best Overall Production – Peter and the Starcatcher
Brelby Buzz: You and Brian have a deep connection to Peter and the Starcatcher–tell us a bit about it and your decision to include the show in your 2017 season.
Shelby Maticic: We were so lucky to catch the original Broadway cast on one of our trips to New York. The show was magic. Pure magic. It heavily influenced us as theatre makers, and I think it shaped the way we approach most of our shows. If the audience becomes a part of the magic, and truly believes that a rope can become a doorway, or a piece of fabric is the ocean…then just think of the possibilities. We knew it was a bucket list show for us, so I signed up for alerts from the licensing group that carried it…and one day the rights popped. I applied within 5 minutes.
BB: How did the response audiences had to Peter stack up to your expectations as an artistic director?
SM: The show was very well received. It was so lovely to see so many people fall in love with the story the way that we did. It was one of the most challenging acting roles I’ve ever taken on. The dialogue is fast and interwoven. It’s truly an ensemble piece, which was part of why we loved it so much. We were so happy to have such a lovely group of artists help create the world of the show. I look back on that production with incredibly fond memories, and I’m so happy that the zoni adjudicators liked it enough to recognize it as one of the best overall plays of the season.
BB: Brelby provides so many opportunities to valley artists. Explain your process of allowing artists to apply for positions and how you choose designers and directors to help create the best production your theatre is capable of.
SM: We accept rolling applications from potential designers throughout the season. It’s been important to Brian and I since founding Brelby that we create an environment where artists feel safe to fail, and sometimes that means taking on a design role for the first time. We allow artists to try their hands at different elements, and sometimes they decide it is not the right fit for them…but sometimes they find something that they excel at and continue to pursue for years. We also have several incredibly experienced designers who continue to return to us because they like our atmosphere and they love the chance to design for original works. The goal is always to make sure that the production team is balanced, so that if we have green artists, they have a build in support system to work alongside as they learn the ropes.
Best Lead Actor in a Play – Brian Maticic (Peter and the Starcatcher)
BB: From personal experience, I know how much you love the play Peter and the Starcatcher, but if you could explain it for those who don’t know and tell us what attracted you to the role of Black Stache.
BM: Shelby and I were fortunate enough to see the original cast of this show on Broadway, and it was the most impactful theatre going experience I’ve ever had. “Peter and the Starcatcher” has this incredible heartfelt whimsy to it, but it is matched by the depth and honesty of its characters even in the face of this fantastical story. The Play moves. It’s a full two hours, but flies by with the audience hanging on every word. When I got to the end of the show and jumped to my feet to applaud I was completely overcome by the power of theatre. The show had incredible spectacle, but it came from the story and the action not from over the top sets or effects. This was theatre magic in its purest form. It spoke to me and has informed much of the art I have created since. The role of Black Stache spoke to me in particular. The style in which the character is written plays to my strengths as a performer, and the Omigod monologue was quite literally the funniest thing I had ever experienced. I had tears falling down my face and my stomach ached from laughing. I knew from that moment that at some point in my career I needed to play this role. Honestly, if I was presented the opportunity, I would play it again and again and again.
BB: Brelby provides valley actors lots of opportunities to work with an incredible team, such as the one for Peter. What was it like to be directed by Louis Farber, Brelby’s First Guest Director?
BM: Louis is incredible to work with. He has a clear vision of what he wants and is very very good at communicating the subtext that he’s looking for in a way that actors can digest. He is super enthusiastic, and to be honest, his own biggest critic, which I think is a big part of what makes him so good. Beyond his obvious skill and passion for the projects he gets involved with, he was very respectful of Brelby’s atmosphere and working to make the process as positive and uplifting while striving for the best production possible.
BB: Black Stache is a dream role of yours. What’s it like to have that dream come true? Does it change anything you bring to the rehearsal room or performances?
BM: Thrilling. Every night there was a moment when I slammed the trunk closed on my hand before launching into the “omigod omigods” that I had this overwhelming reverence acknowledging that what I’m doing in that moment, very few people get to do. To really live a dream, to get to perform something you have obsessed over and hopped for. Every night that feeling hit me and I promised myself I would make the most of the opportunity every time, every performance. The audience response just put it over the top. I definitely put a ton of energy into this part, and this character, but I try very hard to throw myself fully and completely into every part I play. So I don’t know that the opportunity changed what I brought to the rehearsal room, but it made me truly appreciate and treasure every second I got to spend in the dressing room.
Best Supporting Actor in a Play – Devon Mahon (The Oz Chronicles)
Brelby Buzz: You’re known to be relatively method when you take on a character. What was your process like for embodying a non human character in The Oz Chronicles?
I try to change up my acting style a little bit for each show, but a style that I’ve grown fascinated with is Animal Endowment. I have this friend from college that I look up to immensely for acting, and she would utilize the Animal Endowment style with every character she portrayed. Essentially you take a character and while exploring you decide on an animal that best represents them. During off time you start to play with what it would look like for your character to be 100% of…let’s go with rooster. Then you start to play with other percentages like “Ok, my character is 60% human and 40% rooster, what does that look like?” You keep playing with these until you have something believable (ie. 85% human and 15% rooster), and now you have a character with interesting quirks or movement who is still believably human. With The Oz Chronicles I did the exact opposite! I was playing The Hungry Tiger and I got to see what it was like to add human like characteristics to animal. All of the fun came with movement – when grounded on all fours I would focus on how the joints would move for a tiger as it stalks prey, and when on two feet I would explore a more human approach that still had sway to balance. Costume and makeup REALLY helped me find movement – I mean you add a tail to anyone and it’s a game changer.
BB: People are familiar with “The Wizard of Oz” and the world of Oz, but it was completely reimagined for this play. How do you approach building a world that audiences are familiar with but in a new way to honor the playwright?
That’s an interesting question, I believe if setup right an audience will suspend their disbelief and go along with you on a journey to any land so long as you capture their attention OR give them something with a little mystery. If you mention Oz everyone has some idea of what that might look like – yellow brick road, Emerald City, etc – but for this show we were adding a “But what happens next?” and a “What else could this be?” SPOILER ALERT – kind of – the way in switch the story unfolded still rang true to Oz, but it added two other well-known lands and posed the question, “What if it’s all the same place?”
BB: Brelby is known for producing original scripts; What appeal is there for an actor building their skills and resume to work for this kind of theatre?
A theatre that takes on new works should definitely have an appeal for actors to build their resumes and skill sets! It’s nice to work on something fresh and know that there is no preconceived notion from an audience on what your character should look like – you don’t have to feel stuck like you need to create a carbon copy of what another actor did before you (Don’t do that!). But I think the greatest appeal for me being at a theatre that does new works is that the playwright can be in the room. How cool is that?! You can actually meet the playwright and discuss the piece – and furthermore you may influence the changes/edits that follow to help the play become even better the next time.
Best Supporting Actress in a Play – Alexandra Utpadel (Blacklisters)
Brelby Buzz: You have been seen on the Brelby stage in numerous shows, including last year’s Postcards from the Apocalypse which you were also nominated for, but you do amazing work for many other theatres around Phoenix. Brelby is known for producing original scripts, what appeal is there for an actor building their skills and resume to work for this kind of theatre?
It’s funny – when I was young and imagining my life as an actress, I pictured doing nothing but big blockbuster musicals over and over. Heck, I didn’t even think about doing plays. Doing original works was not anything I was ever interested in. I look at my resume now, and all I can do is laugh long and hard at my sweet, summer child self.
I still adore musicals, but I’ve really come to love and appreciate the challenges of an original script. There’s no cast recording to listen to, no shaky camera bootleg recording you can watch on YouTube. You have to build everything from the ground up. Your character ends up coming completely from you. It’s a little terrifying, to be honest. With that terror, however, comes this overwhelming sense of relief, you know? There’s no one you have to compare yourself to! No one in the audience is going to come in with preconceived notions of your character because it’s brand new. It’s this strange, contradicting rush of panic and freedom.
I think the thing I find the most rewarding about being in an original production is the sense of discovery. Nothing can be stale because absolutely everything is brand new. You’re constantly uncovering secrets about the world of the script, characters’ truths, questions for the audience – things you can take for granted in an established work.
BB: Blacklisters is a very difficult piece with lots of compelling questions about society and humanity; describe how you approached the subject matter of the play and your portrayal of the character, Boise.
Difficult is putting it mildly. See, I’m an optimist. I see the glass half full, I watch Disney Junior shows without a trace of irony, and I think everyone has a capacity for goodness. That’s not the case with Blacklisters. The play sees all that light and hope and says, “Nope.” Then it promptly shoots it in the face.
That’s… Um. Well. I didn’t mean to use such a blunt and horrifically violent image. It’s just that blunt and horrifically violent about sums up Blacklisters. It’s not so much a black and white world as it is black and very, very dark grey. Each of the characters has a spark of light and good humor inside them, and that spark is soundly extinguished by the play’s end. It’s brutal. As bleak and merciless as the script is, however, I think there is a lot of truth in it. Even an optimist like me can admit that. Things are not always sunshine and rainbows – especially today. I wish the world of Blacklisters didn’t feel so close.
In terms of approaching such serious material, I tried my best to go in with a clear head. I let myself get immersed in the darkness of the play – but I made sure to detox afterwards. You can’t let yourself drown in a part. Self-care is superbly important with a work like this. Feel the terror, live the violence, and then go home and cuddle a cat.
As for Boise, I think “caged animal” would be the best way to describe her. She’s been broken by the world, and the wounds have healed over in ways that still hurt. Then she takes all of the pain inside and she turns it into rage. Noah even introduces her as “the angry one.” She is furious, defiant, and willing to bite the hand that feeds her if it gets the voices in her head to stop. She’s definitely a predator. That’s how I see her, at least!
BB: You are widely recognized as a great person to act with and to work with in general due to your personality and nature; What was your backstage process like during this play? What advice would you give to other performers regarding work ethic and building a stellar reputation?
Okay, holy non-sequitur, Batman, but I don’t like to think about high school. I’m not sure anyone does, really. I mean, the fashion choices, the navigation of social groups, the anime phase… It’s brutal, man. But there is one thing from high school that I remember fondly. My drama department would always hand out awards at the end of the year. It was my senior year, and I knew, I just knew that I wasn’t going to get any of the acting awards, because I wasn’t popular enough for that. I resigned myself to the fact that I would leave high school without leaving a mark on anyone.
I was right about the acting awards. They went to people who were louder and more socially adept than me. But then one of the teachers came to stage and announced a new award that they made special for this year – and that the award was going to me. It still sits on my shelf at home. It declares proudly: “You Are Nice to Work With.”
I may not have been popular or have really understood how to use eyeliner – but I did my best to treat people with respect. I still do. The fact that people actually saw that and recognized that, well, it meant – means – the world to me. As silly as it sounds, I want to live up to that award I received back in high school. I try my best to be humble and respect everyone.
You may not like the wig you’re wearing. You may not like your scene partner. You may disagree with everything your director tells you. But you leave your opinions at the door. You walk in, and you put on that wig, you work with your scene partner, and you take every note you’re given. In the end, you’re all working together to create art, and that is always more important than whatever petty feelings you might have. It’s all about respect. Respect that your designers have a vision you can’t necessarily see from your side of the stage. Respect that your scene partner was cast for a reason, and they can’t do their job if you don’t do yours. Respect that your director is only giving you notes to make the play the best that it can be. Respect your tech, your fellow actors, your audience. Aretha, Queen of Soul, please take it away: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/Find out what it means to me!”
Oh, and if you REALLY want to build a stellar reputation, find yourself a good chocolate chip cookie recipe. Master that sucker. Trust me – it will take you places!
Artistic Specialization – Mia Passarella (Puppet Design – The Oz Chronicles)
Brelby Buzz: The puppets you made for The Oz Chronicles were amazing! How did you learn how to build so many different styles of puppets?
Thank you so much! It was honestly such a feat to design and build them all, so it really means a lot to be recognized like this. My puppet education was a lot of trial and error, a lot of experimentation, and a lot of late nights stumbling with wire cutters and hot glue. I started by doing a ton of research on the inner mechanics of many different styles and watching a loooooot of YouTube videos on their construction. Then I promptly ignored almost all of it. Just kidding. But I did learn early on that I would have to modify most of these techniques because I did not have the same caliber of materials, resources, or expertise to be able to follow them precisely. So I improvised A LOT and really experimented with various techniques to find simpler, inexpensive (yet still effective) solutions on how to build these things. Knowing what I do now, I probably would execute things a bit differently, but isn’t that just the plight of being an artist?
BB: You are primarily an actor, but have a resume filled with a variety of designer credits; how do you use your acting background to inform your designs, and vice versa because we know that theatre is a collaborative art.
I think being an actor or having acting experience is extremely beneficial for a designer. Actors are the ones that have to interact with your designs. They have to wear the clothes, walk on the set, use the prop, and perform with the puppet. So, it can certainly be informative to approach a design with the mindset that whatever I create will in a way become an acting partner for the performers. That is ESPECIALLY true for puppetry. Also, just understanding functionality is way different when you’ve been a performer. Making designs easy to use, apply, and perform in can be incredibly important. You want to service everything else that is on stage and service your actors that will be using your designs. I also tend to ask myself questions about the script and about the design in a similar way that I would when acting. How will this benefit the story? How can it portray the tone and emotion of the scene? What is its relationship with the other characters? And of course, what is their personality? And I think asking those questions can benefit the designs and enrich them in a way that helps them fit into a cohesive narrative.
BB: Brelby is known for producing original scripts; What appeal is there for a designer building their skills and resume to work for this kind of theatre?
There’s so much creative freedom that comes with working on something that has never been produced before. As a designer, you really get to shape the look and feel of a brand new show, which is something that not many theatre artists actually get to do frequently. Theatre is a unique art form in that we regularly reproduce work that has been done time and time again. As a designer, sometimes it can be invigorating to be given the task of giving something done many times before a fresh and original outlook. However, I know that I find it difficult and sometimes a little frustrating to try and ignore past productions and not let them inform the decisions that I make. New works give a completely blank slate and opportunity to invent your own unique artistic language without the burden of the past constantly looking over your shoulder.
Original Script – Luke Gomez (Blacklisters)
Brelby Buzz: Inspiration for plays can come from a variety of sources; where did the idea for Blacklisters come from?
I’ve mentioned this before and I wasn’t joking when I said the original spark came in college when I watched this Australian show by this comedy group, The Doug Anthony All Stars. In the show they lived in a submarine with all the world’s most valuable art and artifacts and there were also mermaids and cave trolls and nail gun fights. Somehow this urged me to write a story about a group of people who archive banished art. I then thought about the idea of artists being archived as well. At the time I didn’t have a solid plan, I just wrote down this strange idea and let the characters start to interact. It wasn’t until last year or so that I was throwing out ideas in a writer’s circle that this one stuck. I always insist that it’s not an attempt to satirize current events, that never interested me, but I would definitely say the anxieties I was seeing from my artists friends urged me to go back to this idea.
BB: Brelby is known for producing original scripts; what kinds of opportunities did they provide you as a playwright to develop this and other original works and how did you take advantage of these? Did you take advantage of other opportunities provided by other theatres or groups?
Brelby, I can say pretty clearly, is the reason I’m still writing today. The first full length to see production was with their writing circle, I was able to be a part of 4 more. They’ve produced 2 other full lengths of mine as commissions, stuff I don’t think any other theater would’ve done for me. Most of my writing has been with them and they’ve let me do essentially everything from directing to design to a few fairly bad attempts at stage managing. However I did also have a few things that saw life outside Brelby, most of them by the Phoenix artist Franc Gaxiola whom I’ve known almost as long as I’ve known most people at Brelby.
BB: Your resume is varied including writing, acting, directing, and designing and you’ve worked with a number of theatres around Phoenix. What advice do you have for new playwrights, specifically, and artists in general, who are looking to develop their skills and resumes?
Go to Brelby! Hey! Let’s advertise! But seriously, I started working with Brelby and as I built out my experience, I met new people, and through those people I learned about new opportunities and learned from those and so on and so on. The Phoenix theater community is small. The only way to really get involved and develop is to simply find a theater and go. Go and volunteer, ask to usher or work concessions, there is a theater that could always use it. Always. Find the one closest to you, ask a friend if they have one they like, find the one with the logo you like the most. The point is just to be there. Other actors and designers I know have all gotten into new theaters and groups from other people. It might seem like I’m making this sound easy, but is that simple, it just takes time. Also, if you can, try to find a theater group you can call a “home base” one where you feel like you can collaborate with people anytime. I had that with Brelby and it’s not something I can ever really pay back as far as having a theatre home goes.
Original Script – Luke Gomez, Brian Maticic & Shelby Elise Maticic (Quest for Claus: the Musical)
Brelby Buzz: This is the second version of Quest for Claus, the first being a straight play and this most recent production you turned it into a musical! Describe the decision process behind making that change.
SM: I remember having a discussion pretty early on after opening the original version of this…that it felt like it was missing music. I think we knew that it was going to be revised once we saw it on its feet. The straight play version was very cute, but the format and style just lent itself to a holiday musical. When we knew it was time to cycle the show into our rotation again, we had already prepared ourselves for the process.
LG: Shelby describes it very well. After the first run of Quest was winding down we all sort of agreed that there was a little bit more that could be added to the current version we had. I believe I had thought it could use like, one musical number. Maybe two. I was then surprised that it was going to be more or less a proper musical. When they announced it during the season reveal. It was exciting definitely.
BB: You all have worked on numerous projects together and have a pretty good rapport; what was it like to come back to a project that you hadn’t touched in awhile? How did you approach the revisions as a group?
LG: I thought there was a lot more confidence across the board between us when he started working on the rewrites. Overall we’ve had 3 other collaborative pieces we’ve worked on and each of us had at least one full length. So going into a fairly light hearted story that was mostly finished felt easier. It’s was also a script we’d seen as a full production and so coming back to it after 2 years was enough to time really solidify what stood out as really strong and what needed work. It also helped that the bulk of the new material would be by our song-writer Ben (You were awesome, Ben!)
SM: Yes, there was a whole new person to add to the mix, the very talented Ben Cleaveland. We started by discussing where songs belonged in the script. We also discussed ways that we could cultivate character arcs, and smooth transitions. Luke, Brian and I have enough experience after years of writing together that we’re able to write remotely pretty well. Working music in was a big challenge, because it was something we hadn’t done before but the end result was incredibly charming.
BB: Brelby is known for producing original scripts and providing lots of opportunities to their artists to build new worlds and originate new characters and ideas. How did this impact your writing, if at all? What scenes or ideas were you most excited to watch other artists bring to life?
LG: It was fun going back to a sort of earlier-ish script and one that was way outside my usual style to revisit and revamp it with a lot more comfort than I felt I had way back when. I was excited to see how our main trio, Nick, Layla, and Jack, would turn out since I feel we put the most amount of work into them for the rewrite. I was also especially excited to see the character of Chris, who is a child character but this would be the first time an actual child would play them, which I felt added an extra level of Christmas sincerity and normally I hate Christmas sincerity. Also when Brian hulk-smashed the scenery on opening night; that was the best night of my life.
SM: We love taking chances and creating things that haven’t been seen before…especially when a holiday season includes multiple productions of the same 4 holiday shows around town. I was excited to see music infused into this world. Watching it as it grew; I just loved seeing the love story play out. Michael Moramarco and Alexandra Utpadel have great chemistry onstage, and their blend was gorgeous. I’m a big sucker for romance so watching that come together was my absolute favorite part.
Original Script – Megan O’Connor (The Pledge)
Brelby Buzz: Inspiration for plays can come from a variety of sources; where did the idea for The Pledge come from?
Who can remember anymore?! I’ve had this idea in my head since I was in college. I tried to write this show in many different forms and it never worked until last year when I chose to think of it as a play. The only things I really had was a picture in my head of the ending. A woman sitting in her car outside of a house watching a man inside with another woman. I knew exactly who they were and why she was there waiting in the car, but that was it. So I started writing scenes and trying to find ways for characters to interact and then realized I needed to write two parallel worlds to work together and that was hard. And then one day I was watching “Fool Us” the Penn and Teller show where magicians try to perform magic tricks for them without them figuring out how they’ve done it and I had another image in my head of David trying to get out of a box and Natty trying to help him and cards flying all around them and the whole show made sense. I had found the thing that tied it together and made it what I wanted. It was a pretty cool experience, one I’d never had before in any other writing and it was great to be able to work with the story and characters in this way.
BB: There’s this thing called theatre magic where no matter what happens on stage or in the course of the show, the audience believes it, but you’ve used real magic in this show. Tell us about the magic in your show.
I think theatre magic is real magic–the fact that an audience goes to a show to be entertained and to put aside their doubt and cynicism to be transported for a few hours is incredible. Writing a show with magic tricks and different illusions gave me the opportunity to try and show the things the characters are going through in a different way. Technically it may have been exposition but it wasn’t outright or overt, my goal was to distract the audience even while showing them exactly what was happening. The show itself, the way I wanted to write it had a lot of layers and the use of magic acts really helped me to tie it all together. It wouldn’t have been the same without that particular magic.
BB: Brelby is known for producing original scripts; what kinds of opportunities did they provide you as a playwright to develop this and other original works and how did you take advantage of these?
I originally pitched this idea to Brian Maticic, just to talk it out and figure out if it was and idea worth fleshing out. He encouraged me to continue writing and to submit the pitch to Shelby who apparently agreed that I should keep going and commissioned the play for Season 9. Before this, I’d been on the writing teams for several Brelby shows including The Age of Eibhleann, Meet the Dryers (also AriZoni Nominated!), and After Hours at Rosie’s Pub. I presented some of my first scenes at the Production Intensive where I worked with John Perovich, Allison Bauer, and Devon Mahon, all of whom had plays this season as well. I worked on different scenes at Write Club and was able to schedule several readings to get feedback and hear the show out loud before auditions and rehearsals. I knew that the resources were there and I requested them and made use of them and for me, it made a huge difference! Writing is such a solitary activity and I’m an incredibly independent person, but I reached several points during this process where I could not keep going on my own. I needed to reach out and I’m so glad the Brelby community of artists were there.