3 Questions with Director Dale Heinen

Dale Heinen is a director, dramaturge, and company member at Playwrights Local, whose work has been seen in Cleveland, Chicago, Glasgow, London, New York City, Dublin, Tokyo, and Brazil. For several years she was a dramaturge for Soho Theatre in London’s West End, and prior to that was co-Artistic Director of an equity off-Loop theatre in Chicago. Dale teaches at John Carroll University in Cleveland and has a BA from Northwestern University and an MFA from Middlesex University (London). She co-founded BorderLight: the Festival of International Theatre, Cleveland (www.borderlightcle.org), which will launch in 2019.

Dale will be reuniting with playwright Les Hunter for Down By Contact, which opens on August 17 at Gilmour Academy in Greater Cleveland’s eastern suburbs. In this new, contemporary drama, a down-and-out retired quarterback must decide between his allegiance to his former teammates and his love for his family. Struggling with the debilitating brain disease CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), he tries to save the last vestige of his glory days: his lavish home. The lives of retired players and their families inspire this site-specific production, which will be presented in Gilmour’s stately Tudor House.

Down By Contact is a co-production of Playwrights Local and Dobama Theatre. It features cast members John Busser, Corin B. Self, Liam Stilson, and Margi Zitelli. Performances run August 17 – September 3 at the special location of the Tudor House at Gilmour Academy. Find more information here, and purchase tickets here.

We’re thrilled to catch up with Dale and get her thoughts on this upcoming show.

What do you think is at the heart of Down By Contact? Who are the main characters and what conflicts do they face? 

This is a four-person play with an interesting set of dynamics. Carson, the main character and a retired quarterback, is in conflict with all of the other characters, who happen to be his nearest and dearest: his son, his wife, and his best friend. Carson is also hugely conflicted within himself, as he faces hard choices that involve trade-offs between love, loyalty, money, truth, and finally, life and death. All of Carson’s perceptions and choices are colored by CTE. As his mind wanes, and he struggles to hang on, the world becomes a much more confusing and frightening place.


As a director, what’s exciting about staging this show in a site-specific venue? What might audiences find compelling about this experience?

We were so excited when Tudor House at Gilmour Academy agreed to present Down By Contact. From the moment you pull into the drive and see this imposing manor in its green surrounds, it feels like a privileged and very different place. For the theatergoer, the experience starts there. A venue like that captures the imagination and prepares the audience to enter the world of the play. It helps us see how this family lives, and how they are seen by others. The audience will move up the magnificent staircase and imagine what it’s like to be the person who lives in this space. The feeling people will have is that they are spying on a family in their own home. No amount of set budget can create that experience! And of course, the house plays a pivotal role in the story. It represents Carson’s glory and success, which now hangs in the balance as his fortune dwindles and his mind deteriorates. One can viscerally feel what’s at stake, at least materially, when in this grand house. But of course, Carson and his family stand to lose much more than just their home.

There are technical challenges that go along with producing site-specific work. For example, on a summer evening when the sun goes on after curtain, or during a Sunday matinee, how can we create the illusion that it’s the middle of the night? We don’t have total control of the light in a home like Tudor House, so how do you create a blackout? And, being an old home, it would be easy to overload a circuit with theatre lighting. And more questions: where is the dressing room? How are entrances and exits handled? How are audience sightlines when there are no risers for the seats? And so on. But for me, the challenges are well worth rising to because the surroundings are so evocative, and they help tell the story.


How did this second collaboration for you with playwright Les Hunter come together? How were the two of you able to arrange this co-production with Dobama Theatre and Playwrights Local?

Les and I had a great experience working together on another play of his that Playwrights Local produced in 2016, To the Orchard. That worked well for me as a director because Les contributed so much to rehearsals, most of which he attended. His knowledge and insight – everything that went into writing the play – was available to me and the actors. It allowed a full immersion into the characters and the world. Some of that could have been gleaned by research, but having the playwright with us to shed light on the inner workings of his play led to a truly rich process, and a much deeper understanding of the work. Whenever I direct a play’s premiere, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to honor and enhance the writer’s vision. Les and I were lucky to agree on what that play could be and who we wanted our collaborators to be, and we made those decisions together all the way from casting through to the opening. In fact, for Down By Contact, we’re working with the same assistant director and sound and costume designers!

Les and I are both members of Playwrights Local. I’m on the staff, and Les is on the board. Because of that, and our joint history of working with Playwrights Local, we were able to enlist Playwrights Local as a producing partner. Les and I presented To the Orchard at both Playwrights Local’s space and Dobama, so we felt comfortable approaching Dobama’s leadership about a co-production of Down By Contact. In addition, Les is part of Dobama’s Playwrights’ GYM. So, there was a nice history of collaboration between these companies already, which is a natural partnership since both theaters produce new work to a high level of quality. Both companies are excited about the play’s topicality and novel location.

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