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November 9, 2017

Every Good and Excellent Thing Lives on the Razor Edge of Danger


Below, Dámaso Rodriguez on directing The Skin of Our Teeth at Artists Rep in Portland, OR in conversation with Tappan Wilder of the Thornton Wilder Family.

Tappan:  Let me start with the standard question, Dámaso… When did you first encounter Thornton Wilder?

Dámaso: My knowledge of Thornton Wilder began, I’m sure like most people, when I was taken to see Our Town.  I grew up in the Dallas Ft. Worth area and saw a grad student production of the play at SMU– and that was my intro to Thornton Wilder.

Tappan:  I see.  So you came to Wilder in what we might call the “Usual Route.” Were you at all familiar with his one act plays? I know students often encounter them early on.

Dámaso: Yes, but not until later in my case. I’m especially familiar with The Long Christmas Dinner because for the first play of my first season at Artists Rep three years ago, I directed The Big Meal by Dan LaFranc. Do you know that play?

Tappan:  Indeed I do.

Dámaso:  He very directly says he was inspired by The Long Christmas Dinner, so I got to know the Wilder play by directing Dan’s modern riff on it.

Tappan:  Short plays aside, how did you find your way to The Skin of Our Teeth?

Dámaso:  I did it on my on my knees.

Tappan: Do tell.

Dámaso:  In my mid-twenties, I shifted from acting to directing, and as a directing intern at a theatre called A Noise Within, I found myself playing the Woolly Mammoth. On my very first day the Artistic Director called me to the lobby and asked me, “How are your knees?”  And I replied , “Um, my knees are fine.”  Then he said, “We’re looking for someone to play the Woolly Mammoth.”  In the end I played both the Woolly Mammoth and the Life Guard as well as changed scenery. And that was my introduction to The Skin of Our Teeth.

Tappan:  Who directed that Skin?

Dámaso:  Geoff Elliot and Julia Rodriguez-Elliot.  They were – and still are – the co-artistic directors of A Noise Within.  It’s a marvelous place.  In fact, I still direct there—I just did Romeo and Juliet this past January.

Tappan: I’ve been there.

Dámaso:  That’s right they produced the Wilder-Ludwig The Beaux’ Stratagem not so long ago.

Tappan:  Yes, they did. It  was a  wonderful show. And worth adding that Wilder abandoned the adaptation of  the Beaux’ for Cheryl Crawford in 1940 in order to write The Skin of Our Teeth. I like to say that the door to the madcap Skin was through a madcap late-Restoration comedy.   But to get back on track: You then  moved to the nearby Pasadena Playhouse?

Dámaso:  That’s right.  I spent many years there, eventually becoming the associate artistic director and running Furious Theatre, a company residence on its second stage.  At that point, a lot of my work as a director focused on edgy, in-your-face contemporary plays. Then, with Pasadena Playhouse and returning to A Noise Within, I started getting back to classic works.  When I eventually found myself in a position to start pitching plays to theatres as a guest director, I always pitched the Skin.   Especially around 2008—with the recession going on I thought, boy these are our dark times now and we should do this play. But I always got people saying, “I love that play” or “I would love to do that play but it’s just not something we can afford.”

Tappan: The Skin, I have to point out, isn’t exactly a cheap date.

Dámaso: True. I also got an interesting response from an artistic director of a major theatre that was a big eye-opener for me—It’s a response that I now understand as an artistic director.  He said, “We love, love, the play, but when we do a classic playwright it needs to be THE title. We need to do Our Town so that we can also afford to do our world premiere of this that or the other.”

Tappan: So, you carried a title around…

Dámaso: …for a long time, always bringing it up whenever I got the chance to talk about plays I’d like to direct. Finally, I got this job in Portland, running a theatre company where we do a wide range of plays—we do eight plays a year from really new work to classic work—and what excuse do I have?  None!  And here I am at last doing The Skin of Our Teeth in a 220-seat theatre on a thrust stage without fly space or wing space.

Tappan: How do you think it plays in a smaller space?

Dámaso: I’m finding that the play can benefit from intimacy, and I’ve enjoyed pulling it off.  My hunch and my hope is that theatres, as they are downsizing through the years, also realize that smaller work is often not as exciting to audiences, so you get rewarded for taking the risk.

Tappan: Well you’ve done a brave act. What about casting? Did you have any challenges filling the parts?

Dámaso: No. I’ve had the advantage of thinking about Skin for a long time and here in Portland we have an impressive pool of professional actors.   I also have a company of resident artists at Artists Rep, so the play is stacked with actors familiar to me and to our audiences. In fact, I have a couple of people in the cast, in small roles, who have been doing plays at our theatre for 25 years or more.

Tappan: It sounds wonderfully community-based.

Dámaso: Well, it feels like a community. It feels like “our play.” Which is very much the point, from my perspective. It’s like it’s us doing The Skin of Our Teeth. I have a short hand with this cast because I’ve worked with these actors before in many roles.  Everyone was just in, even when the play was operating on a level that no one understood in the moment.  Everyone just went with it.

Tappan: There must have been moments…

Dámaso: Yes! One of the most puzzling was the Moses and Homer section in Act I. But we went
in and explored it, the way we did the whole way through.   You learn to listen to Wilder, especially when the play is breaking apart and Sabina says, “Don’t listen to this play…”

Tappan: That’s one the funniest lines in all of my uncle’s plays.  So glad you mentioned it.  Did Wilder fool your audiences when the play begins breaking up?

Dámaso: I’ll tell you—it was with the audience that we gained confidence to actually appreciate what the play does in those moments. They love it when the actors step out of the play—once they get it.  Because the play isn’t well known, at least in this current generation of theatre goers,  it can take  people a little while to catch on to what’s happening.  For example, when Mrs. Antrobus’ first entrance in Act I is missed, they aren’t sure we don’t really have a problem.  And because we don’t have fly space we can’t make the walls “fly out” as is indicated in the text.  Instead we have a chandelier that slips and comes crashing down, almost hitting Sabina while she’s dusting.  We use a lot of projection in our show and so there’s a projection “glitch,’” and so on. Eventually the audience gets it…and then they love it.   And so do I. In fact, those moments are among  my favorite parts of the play—the breaking of the play and the  seamless and subtle ways the actors get back into the scene, bringing the audience with them.

Tappan: Let me get back to how you mounted Skin in a relatively small theater. Artists Rep isn’t the Hollywood Bowl, I believe.

Dámaso: No! We have only 220 seats.  We have a lot of creative fun with video and lighting.  We use four projectors in ways to expand the scale of our intimate space.  The projectors enable us to transform it in really dynamic ways.  For instance, we see the ice in Act I moving the entire time— getting closer and closer.  And in Act II, I wanted the convention to feel a lot like the conventions we’re going to see this summer…

Tappan: I believe you’re referring to the 2016 gatherings of political mammals in Cleveland and Philadelphia?

Dámaso: Precisely! In Act II, to achieve the “feel” of what we’re going to see this summer, we have a live video feed.  The announcer is actually in the lobby of our theatre live on video being projected on a screen inside the theatre.  And when we get to the storm, it’s kind of amazing—and it doesn’t feel like realism or cinema. It’s animated, a little graphic novel-like and in the hands of our projection designer Megan Wilkerson, I find it works really well.

Tappan: Tell me about Maggie’s speech with the bottle?  It can sound kind of hokey to the 21st Century (God help us)  “sushi-fed sensibility,” as a good friend of mine likes to call it.

Dámaso: That speech is one of the highlights in our production. She just plays it simply and truthfully.  But that’s Wilder—just play it simply and truthfully and it tends to work.  Of course, there’s an absurdity hidden in that moment as she pulls the pantomime bottle out of her purse and throws it into the ocean. Rehearsing it, we didn’t understand it, in terms of the “why” — we just trusted it.  Linda (Alper) pantomimes throwing the bottle and the cast has agreed to where that bottle lands in the ocean.  Then she does her speech and it’s very effective and moving.

Tappan: Were there any real surprises in the audience reaction to this production?

Dámaso: Our audiences are with it all the way to the end.  They stay engaged.  That’s been exciting. We’ve had post-show discussions where audience members have said, “I was confused.”  I then follow up by asking whether being confused from time to time was a negative experience, and they respond, “no!”

Tappan: Thank you for the reassurance.

Dámaso: That said, the Skin goes against the grain of everything they are seeing in theatre these days.  When I remind people that the work premiered in the commercial theatre in 1942 they can’t  believe it. We can’t imagine that happening today.

Tappan: I understand you use actors from the community in this production.  How did this come about?

Dámaso: It was another way to scale up to the show.  I always wanted our Skin to be “our” play—to be all of “us” doing the show.  When the play is falling apart we know it’s us, as indicated by the announcement at the beginning where it says the play is taking place in “our” theatre. So I had this idea that there should be people in it that are recognizable to our community—our ushers, our staff members.  So far we’ve had as many as 10 volunteers on stage as the supernumeraries in the first two acts.  Then four people get to read at the end of Act III. We’ve had 150 people booked into the play so far—board members, audience members, volunteer guild, universities types, and a restaurant owner.

Tappan: Should we worry about breaking the Fire Code?

Dámaso: I refuse to answer. What I can say is that every time someone from the community is on stage, you can feel the energy of that moment. And everyone in the audience knows that the play that night is a genuine one-of-a-kind event.  As I told the cast, I take Mr. Antrobus’ line in Act III very seriously:  “Every good and excellent thing lives on the razor edge of danger.”  And so does the show.  That’s what our guest stars do for us.

Tappan: I can’t wait to see the show. By the way, when the sandwiches turn up with green mold on them, do you identify an actual Portland deli?

Dámaso: No! But we should add that!

Tappan: You should. Theaters do it and it’s absolutely hysterical. And you could even put the owner on the stage to see it all unfold. Thank you so much, Dámaso.

This article is a reprint and was originally published on 06/18/2016 in Wilder Moments. It is also a part of our The Skin of Our Teeth series, a play written by Thornton Wilder.

To purchase a copy of The Skin of Our Teeth, click here, and to learn more about licensing a production, click here.