Supporting creative work by women
Jennifer Gordon Thomas returns to the New York stage in the Unlikely Ascent of Sybil Stevens, Kari Bentley-Quinn‘s new play opening in February at the Secret Theatre in Queens. Well-heeled audiences will remember Gordon Thomas as Jo in Mac Rogers‘ award-winning play Universal Robots. She was part of a terrific cast that was nominated for the New York Innovative Theatre Award for Best Ensemble. She is also a well respected director and producer.
Gordon Thomas spoke to Works by Women about working on the Unlikely Ascent of Sybil Stevens, her next creative plans with Mac Rogers and the power of letting go.
WORKS BY WOMEN: Tell me about the Unlikely Ascent of Sybil Stevens.
JENNIFER GORDON THOMAS: Sybil Stevens is a flight attendant, a Chicago Cubs fan, and the sole survivor of a commercial airline crash. The play is about her navigating her way through the aftermath of being the only survivor after that crash, the pain, guilt, and the notoriety that comes with that, and her attempt to move forward. That sounds dark, so I should also mention that it’s very funny too.
WBW: What drew you to this project?
JGT: Honestly, I knew nothing about this project prior to going in to read. I haven’t been auditioning much in the last few years and recently decided I both wanted and needed to flex my audition/performance muscles. A mutual colleague sent me in to audition for Kari Bentley-Quinn (the playwright) and Christopher Diercksen (the director), neither of whom I knew. When I really sat down with the play I had to laugh because I realized it’s the kind of story to which I’m drawn frequently: death, a love story (whether that’s romantic or familial), and “the end of the world”. In this case, “the end of the world” is Sybil’s life prior to the crash. Getting to explore the effects of a trauma, the volatile ups-and-downs, what trauma does to interpersonal relationships, what it does to one’s sense of self, has been interesting and challenging. Also, I get to do some physical and character work in this one and I love it!
I’ve found working with director Christopher Diercksen to be fabulous, thus far. He knows the play inside out, having worked to develop it with Kari, so he’s already down the road and just waiting for me to get there. Leading, not hammering. I love that. I’m also having a wonderful time with my fellow actors Sean Williams, Jordan Tierney, Samantha Fairfield, and Yeauxlanda Kay, all of whom are so truthful moment to moment, and total professionals.
WBW: What theater inspires you?
JGT: I never know what’s going to inspire me when I go to the theater. I can be inspired by individual parts of a show: a lighting design, or stage pictures, but that feeling one gets when one is *completely* inspired, where you say to yourself “That play made me want to create something!” that rarely happens…but when it does, it’s magic! Inspiration like that could come from any genre, but the commonality is generally a world in which I become immersed. Sounds simple, but we know it’s not.
WBW: You are an actor and a director. How do you approach work in either discipline?
JGT: If I haven’t been much of an actor lately, I’ve been even less of a director. Directing in New York, at a certain level, requires one to be a producing director, which I always found stressful. Directing a project, for me, would require me to fall in love so thoroughly with the play, and have such an immediate, clear vision, that I’d be willing to forego all life for a while, because that’s kind of how I approach directing. It’s completely immersive for me, and I have to be obsessed. If I’m not obsessed, then it’s not a play I want to direct. I’m much happier focusing solely on acting right now, though I think any facility I have with acting stems from my experience and training as a director.
Acting is also an obsessive thing for me, but I can do other things at the same time, whereas being a producing-director just won’t allow for that. I think my approach to both is similar: it’s all in the text. It’s all in the “music/rhythm” of text. Chris, Sean and I were discussing this in rehearsal. A play has a rhythm. A character has a rhythm. Finding those rhythms is the jumping-off point. A great director will feel the rhythm upon first read, before rehearsals start, and then give the actor the room they need to either find or express that rhythm. Sometimes the words don’t fit right in your mouth and you have to find it and where it comes from. You need time and a safe place to do that. You need trust; the final and most important approach to both disciplines. It’s imperative, as a director, that you trust your actors to do their job. If your actors sense you don’t trust them, it’s blown. The whole thing falls apart. And vice versa. You, as an actor, have to trust that your director is going to make it look good and sound good. Everyone has to let go and focus on their own thing. Otherwise it’ll be a huge mess and relationships will be ruined. So, to make a very long story short: let go, let go, let go. That’s my approach.
WBW: What’s next for you?
JGT: I’ve been working with Mac Rogers to develop a short play he wrote a few years ago into a screenplay/web series, which should be done very soon. Then I’ll I have to put on my producer hat, take off the producer hat and put on my actor hat, take off my actor hat and put on my producer hat again, etc. It’s exciting, but lots of work. I have a ridiculous cast lined up, and Mac is supremely talented. My goal in life is basically to do everything in my power to make it so Mac Rogers can write without having to have a day job.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theater?
JGT: On a broad level, the same ones women face in any profession in America: gender politics, equal work, equal pay, work-life balance, being taken seriously i.e. that we can act, write, produce and direct projects that have nothing to do with “women’s issues”, romance stories, vaginas, our periods, or baby-making. On the micro-level of acting, I’m still not seeing a dearth of juicy roles for women in their 30’s and 40’s – arguably the most vibrant period of a woman’s life. It’s as if every play is written with roles for women in their 20’s or for women who can play someone’s grandma. This is one of the reasons I love Mac Rogers’ work. He writes fascinating, strong, middle-aged women like nobody’s business. We need more of that.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
JGT: What give me hope are all the smart, talented, funny, strong women I know currently working their asses off in the NYC theater scene. If my Facebook and Twitter feeds are any indication of what is happening in the rest of American theater, the future is bright.
The Unlikely Ascent of Sybil Stevens plays February 6 – 23, 2014 at the Secret Theatre. For tickets and information, visit the Secret Theatre’s website.