3 Questions with Director Dale Heinen

Director in Residence Dale Heinen comes to Playwrights Local after long stints as a dramaturge at Soho Theatre in London’s West End and as co-Artistic Director of an equity off-Loop theatre in Chicago. Her work has taken her to New York, Dublin, Tokyo, and Brazil. Since returning to her hometown of Cleveland, she has directed at Playwrights Local, Lake Erie College, and Cleveland Public Theatre.

Dale began working on This is NOT About My Dead Dog with playwright/performer Amy Schwabauer in Playwrights Local’s 2016 Play Lab.

Read her thoughts on this upcoming production, opening January 13 at Waterloo Arts, below.

Find more information on This is NOT About My Dead Dog at http://www.playwrightslocal.org/this-is-not/.

What excites you about working on a one person show? 

I’ve directed three other one person shows before: one in Chicago, one in New York, and one that was performed in London and other UK cities. All have been new plays, and two were adaptations. What I love about this form as a director/dramaturg is that my focus isn’t divided in the ways it usually is: between actors in a scene, between actors and the writer. There’s an uninterrupted, uncomplicated flow of information and ideas. It’s a very efficient way of working.

A challenge to this form is that it’s very demanding of the performer/writer. They’re wearing two hats, and must place an unusual amount of trust in one person to guide them towards performance readiness. I think it would be easy to be led down wrong paths. There needs to be a lot of trust on both sides, in fact. Rehearsals are demanding for the performer, as they’re always “on.”

Drama is typically built out of two or more characters acting on each other. Here, one actor has to create all of the characters and all of the conflict between them, and keep the energy and momentum going nonstop.

Sketch by set designer Elaine Hullihen

What can you say about Amy Schwabauer and the story she’s telling with this play? 

I think this is a story that everyone can relate to because it’s about the bumpy, and at time ridiculous and painful, transition from childhood to adulthood. This is a very personal play for Amy, yet it’s interesting–as the rehearsal process has progressed, we now speak of “her” and “she” rather than of “you” when referring to the Amy of the play. We draw from her personal experiences as we rehearse (in particular to detail moments), but we may deviate from history when it doesn’t push the story forward. Amy has pushed past the person she depicts in the play, which allows us to coax it into a piece of art that stands apart from biography. Even so, it can be bruising when we rehearse some of the more painful memory scenes.

By definition, a good actor can access those dark places, but in this case, these things really happened to Amy. That also gives it teeth and guts.

We continue to make small script changes in rehearsal as we evolve the piece from something that was more akin to standup towards a more theatrical form. It retains a strong storytelling aspect and is still funny, but we’re finding ways for the character to act rather than to narrate. It’s been great fun to discover the visual side of this play, which also leads back to script decisions.

Much of the development process is about clarity – which may mean reordering scenes, cutting superfluous material, and adding bridges so that themes and images link up.

Sketch by set designer Elaine Hullihen

What design approach are you taking with your collaborators, including set designer Elaine Hullihen, lighting designer Stephanie Kahn, and sound designer James Kosmatka? 

None of the designers had worked together before, but two had collaborated with Amy on other projects. That’s key, because Amy (as the creator) has an important voice in the design aspect of the play. Early on she had an idea that the set could have elements of a childhood bedroom. Elaine, the set designer, came up with something that has echoes of a girl’s childhood bedroom but also functions for the many scenes that aren’t set in a bedroom. It’s a memory space that exists somewhere in Amy’s own mind, with pieces from different stages of her life.

Amy manipulates the elements in the way that helps her share her story with the audience. The lighting and sound design take their cues from the play’s imagery and setting. All of the design elements flow freely between the real, the remembered, and the imagined.

Stephanie, the lighting designer, was drawn to the play’s koi fish/water imagery, especially the moon on the water at night, and the idea of an attic full of memories with light streaming in from a small, high window.  The lone whale separated from its pod is another key image.

James, the sound designer, is manipulating and mixing various whale sounds as a recurring theme (each species has its own sound!), and metamorphosing popular music in ways that express the play’s arc towards chaos.

These are a few of the ways in which we’re trying to make the inner life of the play manifest for audiences.