A Life in the Theatre Opening at Month’s End

Sep. 13, 2016
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James Pickering, David Sapiro, Jill Anna Ponasik
James Pickering, David Sapiro, Jill Anna Ponasik

David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre is a stage drama in which the theater spends some time looking at itself in the mirror. It’s more than that, though: two real actors onstage play two fictitious actors on and offstage in a studio theatre environment. Simple, right? Cozy. There’s a lot of work that goes into making that compelling, though. The talented David Sapiro, seasoned local actor James Pickering and Milwaukee Opera Theatre artistic director Jill Anna Ponasik are putting together a production of the comic drama for the Alchemist Theatre this month. Sapiro and Pickering star as the pair of stage actors--one firmly established and the other rising to prominence professionally. 

The production had its genesis when the Alchemist’s Aaron Kopec and former Milwaukee Rep Resident Pickering were both working at Door County’s Door Shakespeare.  The two got to talking an decided to do Mamet’s 1977 drama on the intimate stage of the Alchemist with Pickering playing the older actor. “I love the way the...professional story and the personal stories sort of intertwine,” says Pickering. “[Mamet] does it really skillfully I think. To me, that’s what keeps the audience going.” 

Sapiro, who has done numerous shows at the Alchemist, was given the role of the younger actor. “Until it was mentioned, I hadn’t even heard of the play,” said Sapiro. “I know...the big plays that Mamet’s famous for, but I had not heard of this one...reading it I’m more and more in love with it every time. It’s so true.” Reluctant to direct the show, Kopec called-up Ponasik, who loved the idea of working with a smaller cast than usual. (This is Ponasik’s first time directing a non-musical show. ) 

“I’ve directed 29 operas,” Ponasik deadpans, “so I’m a natural candidate for this.” All kidding aside, she’s excited to be working on something outside her past experience. “I’m grateful that I get a chance to do something new. It’s such an adventure.” The consummate professional, she made certain to email everyone before things got settled to remind them, “you do realize...that I’ve never directed a play before...you realize that there’s no music in this...”  For Ponasik, this opens new avenues. “In an opera, every moment has been articulated, so the amount of time you have for everything is stated for you...a quarter note equals 114. That’s how long your show is going to be. That’s how the scene goes and you fill it in when you bring it to life. But with a play...like whoa...we could play this a thousand different ways. You make the tempo. You make the music with your voice and your body. That’s what’s really exciting. It feels like an exciting frontier.” She’s interested in the universals that go beyond the stage, “The power dynamics that are so present in Mamet’s most famous works are clearly evident here as well, but we also talked about kind of the conveyer belt of existence: that acceptance of mortality, what it means to be ambiguously successful..for the mature actor who has risen to a certain height or a shifting point,” Ponasik says. “The new talent is coming up right behind him and that’s something that all of us cope with in our own lives.” 

Of course, the show presents difficulties for anyone. Typically actors have a character to hide behind. (Sapiro is possibly best-known for playing Bob Dylan at an Alchemist show. Pickering is possibly the Rep’s best-known Scrooge in its annual A Christmas Carol.) Here the actors are playing...actors. “One of the great joys of acting is researching these different characters, but this is one...IS our own experiences...On one hand it is easy because you don’t have to go very far to find the motivation and the experiences to relate to,” Says Sapiro. “On the other hand, that’s what makes it difficult. Playing a version of yourself is more challenging because you’re revealing more of your true self than you would if you were hiding behind a Dylan or a Scrooge...”

This is also going to be an interesting challenge for Pickering, who hasn’t done anything in a space this cozy in years. When thinking about the size of the 64-seat theatre, Pickering estimates that something like four Alchemist Theaters could fit inside the Rep’s studio. Though it’s smaller than he’s been used to lately, Pickering has performed on this scale before. He mentioned doing a show with Theatre X back in 1977 in a much smaller space on Water Street, “This is an amphitheater in comparison.”  

That being said, Pickering doesn’t see this as getting back in touch with an earlier part of his career. “One of the reasons why I wanted to do this play is because it just seemed like the next thing to do,” Pickering says, “It’s not really a throwback. Since the dissolution of the Rep’s Resident Company, it has been fun to work at all the places where I couldn’t work before largely because of the schedule. There were projects that I wanted to do elsewhere that I simply couldn’t.” 

The work has already started, but it’s going to slip into the bulk of its process in the coming weeks as Pickering, Sapiro, and Ponasik work with Kopec to develop a complete, cohesive package. With two actors and one director, they have quite a bit of time to work through things without any distractions. “We have 40 hours of rehearsal plus tech.” Ponasik said. This not including all the time that was going to be spent exclusively between Pickering and Sapiro. It should be an interesting dynamic. Kopec and Sapiro are quite familiar with the space and quite happy to learn from he experience of  Pickering, who will be working on one of the smaller stages he’s worked in a very long time. Ponasik is also working on a smaller scale than she’s used to. Prior to rehearsals, she’s blocking out what times she’s going to get to work with which talent. Here it’s all focussed-in on two actors who will be onstage for the entirety of a 90-minute drama without intermission. With the two of them onstage for the whole show and nowhere to hide and very few props to work with, Mamet’s stage drama about life on the stage. Everything should come together quite well on a small canvas that stretches into a much larger world beyond under the influence of four talented people. 

Alchemist Theatre’s production of A Life in the Theatre runs Sep. 30 - Oct. 15 at the Alchemist’s space on 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. For ticket reservations, visit thealchemistheatre.com.

(The full audio of my interview is available for direct download here. The audio isn't terribly good, but it was a fun half hour conversation with four very cool local theatre people. Fascinating to talk to a group of people who will be working together so closely on a project like this in the month to come.)  

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