Last week, Playwrights Local sat down with three parts of its To the Orchard team: playwright Les Hunter, director Dale Heinen, and actor Kelsey Angel Baehrens. The following is their discussion of this world premiere production.
Playwrights Local: So tell me about To The Orchard.
Kelsey Angel Baehrens: It’s a play about seeking the courage to live your own truth. And redemption, some might say. Which could be any number of things: being able to tell the truth to the people you love, or to be accepted where you are, finding joy.
PL: And who do you play in the play?
Kelsey: I play Rachel Bergman, who is a young writing student at Brooklyn college, who is gay and also Jewish. Which doesn’t work very well where she’s from. And she has to reconcile her sexuality with her family and the future that she wants.
Dale Heinen: The context is that of an orthodox Jewish family, living in Brooklyn. And the mother, Rachel’s mother, has just passed away very shortly before the play starts. So the play deals with the aftermath of that and what it means to her husband and her daughter.
Kelsey: It’s a sad show. But it ends with hope.
Les Hunter: It really does end on a hopeful note. All of the characters are wrestling with their pasts and who they are, and looking for ways to go forward. And, often, not finding them. But I think by the end of the play they have all found their own tenuous way to start groping forward. Fair?
Dale: Absolutely. And it’s worth pointing out that there’s an element of magical realism to the play, and a lot of humor to the play. There really is a lot of lightness there.
PL: Robert Plant and Virginia Woolf make appearances?
Les: They do make appearances. Not in the same band. [laughs]
Kelsey: That would be cool. Virginia and the Wolves, or something.
Les: Oh, that’s good, Virginia and the Wolves.
PL: Les, you said this was your MFA thesis. Has it undergone some pretty radical changes since then?
Les: It has. I think it’s a much better play than it was then. It’s much more streamlined. I’m excited. I think it’s going to be a great show.
PL: What development has the play undergone?
Les: In 2007, when I initially wrote it, it got what was then called a National Foundation for Jewish Culture Award. They gave me $3,000, which we immediately used on a very elaborate reading. [laughs] And I’m not exactly sure why. But there was a lot of free wine after. [laughs] And we also had a reading at Boston University where I did my MFA. And we had another reading at Brooklyn College for their Building Bridges Festival, which was cool because a part of the play takes place at Brooklyn College. I did my masters at Brooklyn College.
PL: So this is the first production at Playwrights Local.
Les: It’s the world premiere of the play and it’s the first production that Playwrights Local is doing.
PL: That’s a lot of firsts. How has that been?
Dale: It’s also my first full production in Cleveland. I’ve only ever done workshop productions in Cleveland. But working with them has been great. Playwrights Local is a new company, and there’s always a learning curve when producing for the first time, in any new place. But the good news is that there is also a lot of collective experience in the company, which is unusual. There’s a lot of background experience there. And another very real benefit is that it’s experience drawn from working in different cities, and the way things are done there. We’re learning a lot. And so far it’s just been really, really wonderful.
Les: It is really exciting what the company is doing. Trying to do something different than what anybody else, really, is doing in Cleveland right now. I think the challenge has been that, because it’s a new company, we don’t have a lot of stuff. [laughs]
Dale: That’s true. And so we need to acquire lighting equipment and sound equipment.
Kelsey: The cool thing [about] working with such bare bones is that we only have the text, really, and each other to go off of. This is one of my first professional shows ever anyway –
Kelsey: Oh, thank you! And then to be in the world premiere of anything just makes the experience of working feel very purist and important, I feel fortunate to be able to come into rehearsal with my own ideas. It’s really gratifying. Immediately gratifying.
Dale: And of course it’s been wonderful that Les has been here. As we’ve been working very diligently to understand the world he’s constructed. Where is this play set? The world of the play. Because it’s not a world with which people are likely to be familiar. There’s a lot that we didn’t know, that we’ve had to learn in order to give the world its proper dimensions. The life of this community, the life of this family, the way this religion is practiced, the set of beliefs that go with it. And, of course, because all of the back story of these characters is embedded in this religion, we’ve had to also look to the history of this religion.
Les: And all of the dialects. There’s Yiddish, and there’s Brooklyn-ese, and there’s Hebrew.
Dale: There really is a lot. Michael Regnier, who plays the Rabbi [Isidore], he’s been working with a dialect coach. He’s been speaking to a Hebrew scholar, a preeminent Yiddish Theatre scholar. He’s been exploring this character intensely. And he’s been doing it all with a lot of humor, and self-deprecation. He’s been very charming to work with.
Kelsey: And, then, he takes his time in deciding what he’s going to say. [laughs]. I mean, because you’ve got Rob [Branch, who plays Rachel’s father, Simcha Bergman] and then you’ve got Michael [Regnier, who plays their family’s trusted advisor], and they’re on the complete opposite ends of the spectrum. It’s a fun cast to be a part of.
Dale: And, finally, the fourth character is Tracie Braggs. [Played by Andrea Belser.] Tracie is Rachel’s professor at Brooklyn College.
Kelsey: Who I have a small, big, lesbian crush on.
Kelsey: Yes. It’s rather large.
Les: Tracie is an African American Gender Studies professor at Brooklyn College. She is actually from the neighborhood that becomes the setting for the play. And it’s a fascinating neighborhood – Midwood, Brooklyn – because it is this amazing confluence of cultures: there are Orthodox Jews, and a large Caribbean component, there’s a Pakistani portion, and there’s an African American part of the neighborhood as well. And it’s all kind of smooshed together into these couple blocks of Brooklyn. And Tracie grew up in that neighborhood. She’s left to go do her studies and now she’s come back to teach at Brooklyn College. And when we meet her in the play she’s facing this dilemma with one of her favorite students, but her career is also falling apart at the same time.
PL: The research aspect of this production sounds intensive. Les, how much of that did you undertake alone, in the writing of it?
Les: I definitely did a lot of research. Some of it’s from my own life, I did attend a Yeshiva for a while. But I didn’t grow up in an Orthodox Jewish family, so, there was a lot of stuff that I didn’t know, especially [having] to do with the intersection of the gay community and the Jewish community, I didn’t know anything about that. I spent a lot of time reaching out to people who do come from that world, and who’ve struggled with that splitting of identity. I spent a lot of time with an organization called Orthodykes, who were very helpful. They were awesome, actually. So there was a large research component, certainly.
PL: Dale, do you enjoy being the first to handle a new play?
Dale: Oh, very much. Yes. And for many years now that’s been my focus. I love to work with new writing, new plays. I’m also a dramaturg, so, often, the two go hand-in-hand. I help to develop a play and I then get to go on to direct the first production of it. What’s nice about working on To The Orchard is that it was largely finished. So there wasn’t that, you know, getting new pages everyday and things being subject to such constant change. It’s taken a lot of the stress out of the process. Les has also continued to be very involved, and has made himself available to answer any questions I might have had. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of being a director.
PL: Working with the playwright? Because some directors insist they’ll only work with dead ones.
Dale: But as a director you’re trying to reconstruct somebody’s thought process retrospectively. Meanwhile, you’re performing this gesture of interpreting the work which, because it’s a creative gesture, adds something new to it. For me, with the first production, you want to keep particularly close to the writer’s own impulse in the writing of the play. And with Les there I’m able to ask what informed his decisions, so that I can then try to bring that out more forcefully.
Les: And, for my part, they’re bringing out so many dimensions in my work that I certainly had no idea were there and it has been great to be present, to be able to see that development.
Kelsey: That’s really good to hear! Because from an actor’s perspective – and it may just be from a young actor’s perspective but – the idea that I’m performing a character I’ve never seen anyone attempt before, I often wonder, am I doing the right thing?
Les: You’re doing the right thing. [laughs]
Dale: Les was even at the auditions. He was at the designer interviews. He’s been very involved.
Les: Thank you for having me at everything. It’s been fun. We’ve gotten an amazing cast and crew.
Dale: We’ve been fortunate. People who work all the time are taking a chance on this new company.
Les: And that’s a good way of putting it. Some people have told us that they’re actually keen on working with someone new because they want a new challenge.
Kelsey: In five years, Cleveland’s gonna be an absolute Mecca of work. [laughs] Maybe six years. Give it six.
Les Hunter is Assistant Professor of English at Baldwin Wallace University. He received his MA from Brooklyn College, his MFA. from Boston University, and his PhD from Stony Brook University.
Dale Heinen is an award-winning director and dramaturg, and is currently Director in Residence for Playwrights Local. Dale has a BA from Northwestern University and an MFA from Middlesex University.
Kelsey Angel Baehrens is entering her final year at Baldwin Wallace University, where she studies acting, directing, and creative writing.
To The Orchard is Playwrights Local’s debut production. It runs from May 27-June 5 at Waterloo Arts and from June 10-12 at Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights. Tickets can be purchased at http://playwrightslocal.org/to-the-orchard-tickets/