Story and Pictures by Phil Laubner
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Breadwinners tells the story of Alice, a financially-strapped housewife who, recently widowed, is forced to move in with her daughter Molly. Molly is a dominatrix.
If it serves his idea, director and playwright Peter Davis is not afraid to take risks, twist convention, or mix genre and form. In 2010 I covered his non-linear adaptation of Ken Greller’s This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, and admired his use of a live actor to play another characters secret statue. Far from being lifeless, the statue was a captivating lynchpin for the script, it was performance art within art.
The following year I covered his direction of Nancy Murray’s original debut play, Asking Questions. At one point, the lead character’s memory and her daughter’s present reality simultaneously merge together. Two scenes, two ideas, performed at the same time, creating a more powerful third idea, and all acted out seamlessly. It was thrilling.
This year Peter Davis has decided to direct and debut his own play. Instead of using a traditional theater, Davis will present the work in a loft at the Load of Fun building. I recently had a chance to sit down with him and some of his cast to talk about the play.
Present were Peter Davis, writer/director; Barbara Geary, actor (Alice)/co-producer; Chris Krystofiak, actor (Molly’s submissive); and Andrew Syropoulos, production manager.
Jessica Ruth Baker who plays Molly (the daughter) was graduating from UMBC during this interview and unable to attend.
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Phil Laubner: I recently did an interview with a pop-up art gallery called Plywood. Their idea was to present art in a mobile gallery that was as clean and as professional as a permanent location. When I heard what you were doing and where, I thought—wow—is this the same type of thing? A professional pop-up theater?
Peter Davis (Playwright and Director): We are a kind of pop-up. There’s no brick and mortar to it. We’re doing the play here because we like the space. The space is good for the play, and Mara Neimanis (In Flight Theater) is a generous spirit. We’re not trying to convert it into a theater. We’re keeping it simple. Being autonomous is fun.
Chris Kysztofiak (Actor who plays the Man): Everybody says the story is everything, and unless you strip it down like we do, you might lose focus. We do only what’s needed.
Barbara (Co-Producer and plays Alice, the mother): It puts a different expectation on the audience. Coming in here where it’s not obviously set up like a theater space, they’re going to have work a little harder. There’s an intimacy because you’re working together with the audience. They can’t separate themselves.
Chris: They can’t hide in the shadows like they could before.
Phil: So the ideas are the most important thing, rather than the frills, the props or the staging.
Peter: This story has some big ideas. We’re selling how emotions and relationships affect power, control, and love. These two women work it out. They don’t need a lot of set or props to do that.
Barbara: We set a certain bar for ourselves. Be compelling and the audience isn’t looking for the frills. That’s a challenge to us.
Phil: Is it thrilling to you that you can make this thing happen in such a DIY way?
Peter: If we can do theater with our friends, on our own terms, for a story we all believe in and not be beholden to anyone, then that’s great.
Phil: Peter, when did you first produce the play?
Peter: 1988. Chicago.
Barbara: The world is such a different place now.
Phil: Breadwinners is about a woman that goes through a transition where she regains her power, she stands up for herself. Since 1988 we’ve had two woman Secretaries of State. There are more women in management and places of power than ever before. Have these changes played into your desire to bring this play back?
Peter: It’s a big question. Back then, we thought women had made great strides. And yet, today, there’s still a war against women’s reproductive rights. To me the play is as relevant as it ever was. We’re speaking to issues around family, power, control, and love…those aren’t things exclusive to women, but in this play they are about women.
It’s a mother daughter story, a play about role-playing. The power struggle is really more domestic and interpersonal than political, or, ummm, professional.
Barbara: What’s interesting? Power issues for women, right? Peter gave us the script, and Jessica and I we’re like: “How about we change this?” (Laughs) “Or that?” It was a two-way street.
Peter: I lean on the actors for relevance. Not just the larger picture, or is the play relevant socially, but is it relevant to them? Can they utter the words and embrace the ideas authentically or not?
I learned theater that way from Mark Medoff (who wrote Children of a Lesser God). He was great at making the most of having actors to work with and an audience to get feedback from.
Barbara: It’s been an interesting journey with the play in terms of character growth. I think about Chris’ character, expression was not written in for him, for his character. As we have been working together, what Chris has brought to the process…he, I think, is really the crux for the change in Alice (the mother). He’s become the catalyst.
Peter: I rely on my intuition and try to encourage everyone else to rely on theirs.
And anytime someone makes a proposal I want to say, “yes, and…” and see what happens. I’m the director, I can always change things. First, I want to say “show me.” With practice, and a concept to guide you, your intuition starts sending A-game.
The leap of faith it takes is huge. I’m looking for people I trust to make that leap with me and I’ve got them sitting with me right here. Jess is absent, but she’s been a big part of that too.
Phil: I have a question for (stage manager) Andrew. As an actor, what’s it like to be on the other side?
Andrew (Production Manager): I’m used to stage managing and tech. It’s a nice break from acting, a different challenge. As soon as we walked in here, I looked at Peter and said, “I don’t want to change a thing.” The way the play is and all this acrobat apparatus around-it’s perfect. The set’s done! As we kept going with that, we decided not to put curtains on the windows, let in natural light. Create different moods at different show times.
Phil: Barbara, you’re relatively new to Baltimore. How’s your experience with the theater scene?
Barbara: It’s been really interesting. I found that there’s a lot of physical theater here, like Glass Mind or Single Carrot who approach it not so much from a psychological place as more from a physical place which is where I come from. So when we speak there’s a common language.
And then there’s the city itself, its environment and architecture…there are spaces here I envision doing shows, like the loading dock outside of Area 405. It would be amazing to do something there, something lit by torches! I really like the guerilla idea that you can go into a place and make something amazing happen and then disappear.
Phil: Barbara, for someone with such tenure in theater, you don’t feel like it’s a step back to do the DIY thing?
Barbara: No. I guess I don’t have the stereotypical ambitions of someone with the same range of experience. Interesting projects are what I look for. There’s a lot of really interesting stuff happening in Baltimore. All different kinds. I got to tap into the Baltimore Rock Opera Society and teach a workshop. Their show (Valhella) is a complete fusion of joy and intention, people coming together because they love it.
If that can happen in a city like this, that it can be supported, that’s a great sign.
Andrew: It never was like that before. All these theaters that happened: Single Carrot-
Andrew: That was not here. It was only Spotlighters, Everyman, and Vagabonds.
Peter: If you have an idea and a passion for it-
You can make something happen.
Here there are places that will listen and take your ideas.
Barbara: That’s also the thing about Baltimore. A lot of these theater companies that are starting up operate in that kind of ensemble communal way. Rather than the auteur: “This is mine. You are all my minions!” It’s more…people have juice, they feed off of each other, and are excited about the idea to be creative together. I think that’s really healthy.
Peter : And it solves all problems. If there are like minds working together, they’ll overcome any obstacle.
Phil: Do you want to keep doing productions together?
Peter: I’d like to keep collaborating with Barbara on projects. We each have a couple of pieces of our own that we feel strongly about. We talk about them and float ideas back and forth. It keeps our eyes open for people to work with and places to perform in. Opportunity will present itself and we’ll be ready.
Phil: That speaks of that positive sea change in Baltimore. Just to have that certainty is a wonderful thing.