Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2008

Q&A with Brent Hazelton

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Milwaukee Rep Artistic Associate Brent Hazelton has extensive experience in theatre, with a resume featuring work in a list of states in nearly every major region of the country (as near as I can make out.) This week his first work with Milwauke’s Windfall Thetre hits the stage in the form of THE VAST DIFFERENCE—a comedy by Midwest playwright and Hollywood actor Jeff Daniels. Hazelton took osme itme out to answer a few question about his wrk on the production.

Russ:This is your first time working with Windfall. How did you get involved in the project? What attracted you to THE VAST DIFFERENCE?


Brent Hazelton: This is my first time working with Windfall, but far from my first experience with the company. I've admired the ensemble's work for many years now, and they're responsible for some of my favorite theater memories--seeing their production of RHINOCEROS and feeling like I finally understood not only that particular piece of theater, but also feeling a larger comprehension of the Absurdist style drop into place; sitting next to then-Marquette student Dwyane Wade and enjoying with him their excellent production of THE LARAMIE PROJECT; and always feeling personally welcomed to one of their performances by at least one of the members of the ensemble, even when I was still just basically some dude off the street. One of the things that I admire most about the Milwaukee theater community is that it is, first and foremost, a community: energetic, interrelated, welcoming and supportive. In that support, one of the other real gifts of the theater practitioners in this city is their collective willingness to allow their colleagues to evolve throughout their careers. In general, we don't allow ourselves to pigeonhole one another into specific roles--"you're just an actor," "so-and-so only works at Chamber," "you're a great carpenter, but we'll never hire you to design a set," etc. That mindset just doesn't exist here, and it's wonderful, particularly for someone like me who moved to Milwaukee as an actor, became an administrator and is now working toward honing his craft as a director. And that willingness to embrace individual growth is really the root of the opportunity that Windfall has given me. Thomas Rosenthal, who plays the lead (George Noonan) in the show, has been a great friend to me for the better part of ten years now. About 18 months ago, we were driving home from a pickup basketball game, I think, and talking generally about our individual professional futures, and I mentioned that I was moving toward trying to carve out a career as a director. Thomas held onto that knowledge, and, I assume, mentioned me as a potential collaborator at a Windfall planning meeting, and things just went from there. I've admired Thomas' work since our first collaboration together (as actor and actor), and I've been eager to work with him again since then, a feeling which has grown commensurate with his own artistic growth over the past seven years. So it really is Windfall's embodiment of the traits that make me so proud to make theater here in Milwaukee--in particular, their desire to continually expand their circle of collaborators and their willingness to see people in new professional lights--that is at the root of the opportunity that they've given me.
As for the play itself, many years ago in my mercifully short-lived past life as an actor, I was fortunate enough to work with the fine folks at In Tandem on another Jeff Daniels piece, APARTMENT 3A. At the time, my knowledge of Mr. Daniels didn't extend much beyond an awareness of him as "the other guy" in Dumb and Dumber (clearly I had a great deal to learn about my chosen industry...), and my mind was a little blown that that guy could write such a well-structured, funny and ultimately touching piece of theater as APARTMENT 3A. So after the show closed I read some of his other plays, one of which was THE VAST DIFFERENCE. I was immediately attracted to it, and it's stayed on my shelf for a long time. I'm not generally much of a re-reader of plays unless I'm working on something or seeking something on which to work, but it's a script that I've frequently come back to in the ensuing years for no reason other than pleasure. I identify and connect with the protagonist, and as I've gotten even a few years older since my first read of it, the different levels at work in the play have revealed themselves in the context of my own changing life circumstances, and re-reading it has always proven to be an increasingly richer experience for me. Plus, I think it's a hell of a lot of fun. It's a play that I've aspired to work on for quite some time, and now I've got the remarkable good fortune to be directing it for a theater company that I've admired for a long time--and with an excellent cast of actors, to boot. When Windfall asked me to suggest some titles that I'd be interested in directing, it was the first play that jumped into my mind; not only since it seemed a piece in keeping with the overall style of their body of work, but because George is such a terrific fit for Thomas and his skills. This is one of the other real attractions for me of working with Windfall--the bulk of my professional experience has been at The Rep, a company organized around a resident ensemble of actors. To work with Windfall, an organization structured on much the same fundamental principles as The Rep, feels completely comfortable. And the fact that I could identify the lead actor in the show before we even finalized a play choice is a situation with which I'm not only comfortable, but frankly hardwired to accept as the surest path to a successful production. The irony is that out of the acting portion of the Windfall ensemble, I only get to work with Thomas on this one--but I'm hoping very much to have the chance to work with Carol, Larry and Sonia in the near future.

Russ: The press release has a cast list, but it doesn't mention who plays what. Judging from promo pics, Thomas Rosenthal plays the man with five daughters, who is everyone else?

BH: Thomas Rosenthal plays George, our protagonist. Dave Ferrie plays Earl Noonan, George's decased barber father. I've had the chance to work as an actor with Dave on two previous occasions, and much like Thomas, he's completely perfect for his role. He's also one heck of a fine actor--I'm continually amazed by his grace, simplicity, lightness of touch and overall good artistic taste--as well as one of the most gracious collaborators anyone could wish for. Robert Kennedy, one of the funniest guys currently treading Milwaukee boards, plays a fellow vasectomy patient of George's unfortunately named for one of the worst shortstops in Detroit Tigers history. And then we've got a terrific ensemble of four more men who play not less than five different characters each: Dave Begel, who seems to have inherited many of Jackie Gleason's gifts for outsized yet grounded comedy; Rick Richter, another excellent local actor who I've long wanted to work with and who has a real flair for simplicity and sincerity; Joe Fransee, who's the living embodiment of the husband dreamed of by every mother for her daughter; and Phil Zimmerman, a very talented and promising student in his final year at UW-Parkside who I've been interested in collaborating with since I met him when he was a freshman. And putting up with all of us at rehearsals have been Amy Hansmann, who plays Hala Howard (George's eurologist), and Jennifer LaPorte, who plays George's long-suffering wife and the mother to those five girls, Rita Noonan. I feel deeply shined upon by the theater gods for getting them all together for me one way or another, and they're each turning in strong performances. One of the added levels of enjoyment of the play, in fact, is watching each of those four ensemble guys accomplish some real virtuoso acting across a variety of smaller roles. It's a real treat.


Russ: The space at Village Church Arts is kind of challenging to work with as stage space, backstage area and seating are all sharing much of the same space. It's always interesting to see how the space gets used. How are you dealing with the space issues in this production?

BH: By trying to put the proverbial ten pounds of sugar in the equally proverbial five-pound bag? In all seriousness, I love the Village Church space. It's an architectually very funky room, but I think that it's structural uniqueness lends a great deal of terrific ambient personality to any production that takes place there. And it's so incredibly intimate--essentially just a 25x35-foot room shared by actors and audience alike. That intimacy is one of the things that I strove to take advantage of when configuring the space for the show, which sounds a little silly, I suppose, when talking about a room that size--how can you not create intimacy, right? But we're talking super intimate at points--like move-your-purse-if-you-don't-want-it-to-become-a-prop intimate. We've got just enough room for 64 audience members, nine actors and one terrific story, and, without revealing anything, I think that audiences (both Windfall vets and newcomers alike), are going to be in for a real treat when they walk in the door. Carol tells me that the configuration we're employing is a new one for the space, and I'm excited to add some "fans" by way of the audience (that's a hint...) to the work that we've been doing thus far. Logistically, I think it's also incredibly advantageous, at least for this production, to have the backstage space so easily accessible to the main playing space. The freedom that it allows in terms of actors making rapid entrances from various points in the room is lots of fun. And I'm looking forward to pushing the technical infrastructure of the room a bit, too. One of the other larger positives that the space demands from a director-designer standpoint is to force one to pare one's notions of the physical environment down to the absolutely essential and largely metaphorical, which always (for me, at least), really gets to the heart of that which is unique about theater. So many good plays are ruined by having too much space and too much "stuff" at one's disposal (I remember hearing stories about the Broadway production of THE WEIR, for example, where the bar of this supposedly small Irish cottage pub was a good 40 feet long); I enjoy being in a position where one is forced to think truly theatrically for solutions to problems of scale. Dangerously close to digressing now...


Russ: Over the years, there have been quite a few major works exploring the nature of modern masculinity, but usually they're serious dramatic works--(Mamet's one-act EDMOND, Palahnuick's novel FIGHT CLUB, Peckinpah's film STRAW DOGS.) Does comedy add enough to the exploration of guy-ness to give Daniel's play a fresh perspective on the subject or is this really just a light comedy that mines the ubect mater for comic material?


BH: The nature of modern masculinity certainly isn't exactly new thematic ground, for sure, even going back to such seminal theater works as DEATH OF A SALESMAN or LOOK BACK IN ANGER...one could even argue that OTHELLO is a play about a man trying and failing to carve out a new masculine identity for himself. And it's interesting that you mention FIGHT CLUB insofar as we've probably made reference to it at least once a day during rehearsals. But the vast difference here (sorry, it's late, I couldn't help it), is that our story focuses on a man's questioning of his place in the world in the context of his father's place in his world. Essentially, it's more a play about the legacy of fathers to sons and the sweeping changes in gender roles that occurred between the late 1950s and early 1990s and where that puts the men coming of age at the tail end of it than it is about a more global notion of "capital M" masculinity in a contemporary setting, which I think is where FIGHT CLUB primarily puts is focus. Daniels does a wonderful job, I think, of exploring the roots of one man's displacement in his world based on his own personal history and coming to terms with his father's ideas and beliefs. So it's not simply an exploration of guy-ness, as you say, but an exploration of one guy's "ness" as he moves through his life and attempts to define--for himself--what it is to be a man. And, while I wouldn't want to completely eliminate the women in the audience, since there's plenty of resonance for them, it is primarily a masculine play by, about and for men. I know that sounds like a lot of fart jokes and towel snapping, but it's a much smarter play than that. George is trying to tackle some fairly profound problems and he's finding himself without any sort of real masculine anchor with which to do so. And, while it might not be the most profound of subjects, it's struck a chord with each of us that are working on it (the boys and the girls, alike), and has done so with every guy to whom I've talked about it. Whether we see it that way or not, I think every man defines himself in the context of his father, be it postively or negatively, proactively or reactionarily, and that can be a substantial weight to come to terms with no matter your age, occupation, class or status. In terms of the play itself and the "or" of your question, I've read reviews of the same productions of the play that have seen the script both ways--both as you say, a fresh perspective and as a somewhat silly laugh factory without much uplift. I hope that we're creating a play that falls on the fresh perspective side (that's my vote, of anyone keeping score), but ultimately, that's for the audience to decide.

THE VAST DIFFERENCE opens September 26th at Village Church Arts. 414-332-3963 or www.windfalltheatre.com for more info.

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