Memorial Play

About an hour before our Opening Night I found out that my grandfather had passed away. It’s a good thing we were doing a play about death… Pop was my Dad’s Dad, and he and my stepmom, Pam, got the call from my grandfather’s nursing home in Louisville, Ky while they were driving up from Baltimore to Philly to see the show. In the telling of the telling of this story, my Dad thought for a moment that they could hide this sad news from me on such an important night, but I was standing outside the theater and as they stood waiting for the light to change half a block away on the other side of 17th, I could tell that something was very wrong.

They stayed and had dinner with the family friends that had also come up for the big night, and then with my encouragement drove home to get some rest and make plans to fly to Louisville the next day.

We were doing a play about death after all. I thought it would be too hard for them to watch. It was a pretty tough night for me as well.

Here’s what’s pretty amazing. Just four days earlier Pop and Dad and my brother Alex came and visited me. It was the first time my 97 year old grandfather had ever been to Philly. Which blew my mind. See, my Dad hosts this epic Kentucky Derby party every year. So epic, that my grandfather flies to Baltimore FROM Louisville to attend. And this year was no different. On my end, it would be the second year in a row that I would have to miss because I was in tech rehearsals that weekend. When we’re in tech for a show we have 2 days back to back where we bring all the technical elements together – these rehearsals are 12 hours long and a pretty big deal – regardless I got grief for missing out on the event of the year. Again.

But this time, and I’m not sure where the idea originated, but somehow this time my Dad and I started talking about bringing Pop up to Philly to see me while he was in town. The Derby is on Saturday, but I had Monday off and he didn’t fly back to Louisville until Tuesday. It’s not a far drive, he would be able to see me, my bright orange house, the theater, have a good meal, and then they could head back before it got too late. Which is exactly what we did. They rolled up around noon and pulled up in front of the Orange House and my Pop got to come inside for a sit down before we headed out to lunch at Village Whiskey where he ordered their Hot Brown, which he was quick to point out was not AT ALL what a Hot Brown was supposed to be, but that it was awfully good despite the difference. I recommended he have a Kenzinger with the meal, which we both did. It was a perfect day and we sat outside for a bit while Dad went and got the car so we could drive down to the Off-Broad Street Theater so he could see where I’d been spending all my time. Our set for the show was pretty much up, and I turned on some stage lights and he sat in the house while I told him about Azuka, and Failure and how exciting and hard and wonderful it all was. He told me he was proud.

Our last stop of the day was the National Constitution Center, I had often talked about the NCC during my time there, and my Dad and I knew he would really love the Freedom Rising performance, which he did. My good friend Felicia was performing in the last show of the day, there were maybe 4 other people in the show with us and we were sitting all the way up in the back, but it was like she was performing just for us. After the show she came over for hugs and hellos and Pop said that he thought everyone in Congress should come see this show, maybe it would inspire them to get something done.

Then three generations of Heishman men dropped me back off at my little orange South Philly house where there were lots of hugs and kisses and wonderful things that mean even more in hindsight when you understand they were the last ones. That day was truly a gift, the only regret being that we didn’t get to sit and have one last Maker’s and water together, but since there had been plenty of those in the stories of the months and years prior, it is a small regret, and one that’s easily forgiven.

Dad and Pam came back up to see the show this past weekend, after spending a week packing up almost 100 years of memories of a life well lived. I was nervous and excited and sad and happy. You know, ALL OF THE THINGS. I was worried that my Dad, who had been so very close with his Dad, would have a hard time watching the show. It was, of course, a play about death, but it is also so much more than that. It’s a play about life, and love, and living and loving, it’s a play about how we come together in times of great sadness and pain and help each other move on, move forward, and finally, when we’re ready, reclaim life. So, in a lot of ways it is a good thing we were doing a play about death. Sitting together in the dark theater watching the story of The Fail family come to life and eventual death, was exactly what we needed.

My Pop lived to be 97 years old. He survived a Great Depression, served in WWII and lived through many other wars, he saw the world change in remarkable and unimaginable ways. He outlived his wife of 60 years, my amazing Mimi. He was an avid bowler, a remarkable and prolific singer, and he drank a bourbon every day. He passed away peacefully in his bed having lived a long and full life. This play has become for me a great and mighty tribute to him. And I raise my glass to J.W. Heishman, knowing that he is looking down on all of this with love.

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Meet Kevin Meehan

Azuka snagged the chance to ask a few Failure: A Love Story related questions of our cast and crew.
So…without further ado…

Meet Kevin Meehan (Mortimer Mortimer)

What is your favorite time of day?

The hour of the pearl. The moment between day and night when time seems to stop and examine itself. – for all you Steinbeck fans, a little nod.

Describe one thing you had to share with your siblings.

When we were both of age, my brother and I had to share the family car. It was an 1989 maroon Plymouth voyager. The thing lasted forever. But once I was able to drive it became somewhat a point of contention. Also it was the car my father used so his need trumped both of ours. Also this meant we had to drive my younger sister places.

What is one other book, film, song, or work of art that reminds you of ‘Failure’ and why?

Rothko paintings. They’re self contained and totally engulfing. You stand there and stare into the color and it wraps itself around you. Like a memory. And looking at a Rothko you only have the memory of the moment before which is the color and that leads you to the next moment which is the color. It’s like a snake eating its own tail.

What is your favorite moment when working on a new production?

When you get to the point where you know the piece well enough to know what you don’t know.

Any childhood pets?

Yeah – we had a bunch. At least 3 hamsters, hermit crabs, a turtle. But the dog I grew up with was the best. Her name was jasmine and she was this brown mutt with a weird lump on her head. She was calm and lovable and I was probably a little rough with her was I was little and wanted to play. I’ll never forget the day in the 5th grade when we had to put her down. She was just old and everything was failing her. We kids said our goodbyes and went to school while my dad took her to the vet.

Kevin Meehan (Mortimer Mortimer)

Kevin Meehan (Mortimer Mortimer)

Meet Amanda Sharp

Azuka snagged the chance to ask a few Failure: A Love Story related questions of our cast and crew.
So…without further ado…

Meet Amanda Sharp (Costume Designer)

What is your favorite time of day?

Very early morning, around 4 am, when it’s still dark, but the birds start to wake up and greet the day.

Describe one thing you had to share with your siblings.

Only child, and I don’t know that I share very well.

What is one other book, film, song, or work of art that reminds you of ‘Failure’ and why?

The Peasall Sisters.*  They’re three sisters who sing folk music in beautiful 3 part harmony.  They are reminiscent of the place between dreams and reality much like the Fail Girls themselves. They have a haunting quality to their voices, and they seem of another place and time, which works well with the theme of memory and surrealism that we focused on so heavily while in process.

*Azuka Note: Here’s a link to YouTube for a video of the Peasall Sisters – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tg1CyWSJ7E4

What is your favorite moment when working on a new production?

More than anything else, I really love doing research.  Image research specifically.  I think feeling inspired is my favorite sensation, and when I do research, it gets really intense.  I hoard images of other people from other times, in old photographs or fashion plates. I bookmark what’s de mode in sub-sub cultures, and I rip out photo-editorials from big, thick, fashion magazines.  All the images help me see this person coming to life inside my mind.  Then it needs to be talked over and actualized.  It’s the most fun for me.

Any childhood pets?

I had a cat named Keke, I found her under the Christmas tree when I was two.  We were best friends, siblings even, and oh man did we love each other.  I used to cut baby doll clothes to fit her and push her around in a stroller.  Any cat that sticks around after that deserves sainthood. We were best friends until she died in 2009

I also had a Leopard Spotted gecko named Rizzo in fourth grade and my mom killed her by accident by leaving the window open on a cool spring day so that Rizzo could “Get some air”.  She froze.

Amanda Sharp (Costume Designer)

Amanda Sharp (Costume Designer)

Future History: An Interview with Playwright Philip Dawkins

By Sally Ollove, Azuka Dramaturg

Azuka was lucky enough to be able to bring Philip Dawkins to Philadelphia, but not until after FAILURE: A LOVE STORY had opened. One of the unique challenges of working on new plays in the new world is the tension between the proximity and distance afforded by the Internet. On the one hand, Philip was so accessible by email—questions could be asked and answered. And the answers were so visceral as to give an illusion that we were all old pals. On the other, he was more or less a disembodied figure sending words our way with no body or voice to ground him.

Which is all to say, that when I sat down to come up with some questions to send Philip for this interview, I wanted to send really “interesting” ones as a means of forming some tangible connection—which I can imagine might have been a little overwhelming to receive. Philip handled it all beautifully, though. Here’s a taste of what I mean when I say “visceral” responses:

AZUKA: FAILURE engages with one of Chicago’s most notorious historical incidents as well as one family’s memory of their own history. When do you most feel history present?

PHILIP DAWKINS: When do I feel history MOST present?  Hmmm. I mean,,, that’s kind of a … question.  I mean, we are history. As of the millisecond after I typed this word, it’s already history. But does that word become HISTORY with a capital everything?  Probably not. And that may be for the better. Often HISTORY is something recorded for the purpose of people looking at is as HISTORY, studying it, making it something to cram inside of a textbook in order to substantiate a specific perspective or agenda.  When, really, at the time it was happening, it was just … life.  I think I prefer history in lower case, history that’s not trying to prove anything, but just exists in the past because that’s when it happened. But we do drag history around with us, don’t we?  I think it’s interesting that “history” has become synonymous with “baggage.”

“Oh, me and her? We have history.”  Or

“I don’t hold it against him, that’s history.

When did “history” slip into the vernacular as something assumed to be a bad past, something we recognize from context as meaning: “Don’t ask, it was awful and melodramatic and we’re not talking about it, and I believe I’ll have another mimosa?”  I can’t ever remember someone saying with a big old smile on their face, “My ex husband and I have a long HISTORY!”

I think of the things that are often listed as belonging to history:  A history of violence, a History (meaning “having served time in prison), a History of depression, a history of diabetes.  We don’t so often hear: A history of compassion, a history of inclusion, a history of invitation, a history of bravery.  You know? Wouldn’t it be nice if we did?  Wouldn’t it be nice if the HISTORY we carried around with us like baggage was the kind of history we were eager to open up to everyone we met, instead of the kind of history we were anxious to keep in the past?

“Hi, I’m Philip, I have a history of story telling, a history of educating, and a history of artivism.  Nice to meet you.”

I think we should be living our present in such a way that makes us exuberantly proud of our future history.

AZUKA: As a playwright, there are probably bits and pieces of yourself and people you know in every character. Do any of the characters have certain character traits that you see in yourself?

PD: I’m John N.

Interestingly, my boyfriend, when he first read this play, looked up midway through it and said, “I’m John N.”  And a lot of people responding to this play have mentioned that they’re the John N. in their family.  I think John N. is familiar to a lot of people (myself included) because he’s an outsider. He’s the one who feels tangential to the fury and fuss of the world. But the world of FAILURE, his family doesn’t see him that way, they embrace him fully, they encourage his peculiarities. They love him. Part of the love story of FAILURE: A LOVE STORY is the love that each of the sisters has for their brother, and the quiet lengths each of them goes to protect and encourage him.

I think people are prone to feeling like outsiders, like the ones who never belong. Which is funny because if everyone in the world is standing outside the Popular Circle, then technically, we’re all standing in the Popular Circle.

But, I think there are aspects of myself in each of the sisters.

And don’t tell anybody, but I absolutely, one hundred percent can speak to animals.  Shhhh.

AZUKA: What are some of your favorite uses of the chorus in dramatic history (or contemporary plays)? Why? Were any particularly inspirational to you as you were working?

PD: You know I really dig on the use of chorus in Jean Anouilh’s ANTIGONE.  I dig on the Stage Manager in OUR TOWN, and I think it’s probably clear that I stood firmly on the shoulders of Thornton Wilder in order to reach the world of FAILURE.  I love the way Paula Vogel uses chorus in pretty much everything she’s ever written. Even when she doesn’t specifically designate a chorus, there’s a chorus. For instance, in THE OLDEST PROFESSION, what are each of those characters but individual thespises waiting to step out of the chorus and have their moment, waiting to perform…or to take a final bow?

With FAILURE, I left the designation of who says what in the chorus sections up to the production team because I always want performances of my plays to teach me something about the people putting them on.  I want to learn about other communities through a story about my own.  In another one of my plays, THE HOMOSEXUALS, I wrote about a specific group of folks in a specific stretch of ten years time, and having seen that play performed in other communities, I’ve felt like I’ve gotten all these amazing tutorials on what it’s like to live everywhere ELSE.  In plays about families, I want to see the fingerprints of the family putting it on.  I want to learn about this group of story-tellers almost as much as I want to learn about the story, so, I left the chorus somewhat open, and nondescript. I made the chorus more of a container to be filled with whatever you want. Water, pudding, frogs, teeth.  You fill it as you see fit. That’s what I think the best choruses do, they tell us about ourselves, by telling us someone else’s story.

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Philip Dawkins’ critically-acclaimed play The Homosexuals received a Joseph Jefferson Nomination for New Work after its world premiere with About Face Theatre in the summer of 2011, under the direction of Bonnie Metzgar.  Upcoming productions are slated for ManBites Dog Theater in North Carolina and New Conservatory Theatre Center in SF.  His play Failure: A Love Story premiered in 2012 under the direction of Seth Bockley at Victory Gardens Theatre, where Dawkins is an Ensemble Playwright.  Future productions of Failure: A Love Story are slated at Azuka Theatre in Philadelphia, Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington-Normal in summer, Marin Theatre Company, and many more.  His play Miss Marx or The Involuntary Side Effect of Living received a staged reading as part of Steppenwolf’s 2010 First Look Series.  Other credits:  Dead Letter Office (Dog and Pony Theatre); Yes to Everything! (Chicago, NY,CA, DC); Perfect (The Side Project); Ugly Baby (Chicago Opera Vanguard/Strawdog Theatre Company); A Still Life in Color (T.U.T.A. Company).  His plays for young folks have been performed all over the continent, and are published through Playscripts, Inc.  A graduate of Loyola University, Chicago, Philip is an Artistic Associate of About Face Theatre, an Ensemble Playwright at Victory Gardens, and a founding member of Chicago Opera Vanguard.  Philip teaches playwriting at Northwestern University and through the Victory Gardens ACCESS Program for writers with disabilities.  He also teaches Kung Fu to little Chicago kids through Rising Phoenix Kung Fu.  Hi-Yah!

Meet Brendan Dalton

Azuka snagged the chance to ask a few Failure: A Love Story related questions of our cast and crew.
So…without further ado…

Meet Brendan Dalton (John N. Fail)

What is your favorite time of day?

I love the dawn. There is something so calming about waking up before the rest of the world, and being completely overtaken by the stillness and the silence of the morning twilight.

Nap time is a winner as well. We’re starting to get reacquainted again, and it’s just wonderful.

Describe one thing you had to share with your siblings.

Sharing was a funny thing growing up with my brother, Sean. It seemed like everything I had, he wanted. And everything he had, I wanted. And we weren’t very good at having one thing at the same time, peacefully. I remember when my brother was going through his skateboarding phase… Guess who also had to have a skateboard: Brendan, the trumpet-playing chorus nerd. Though I think I ended up using it more as a luge than as an actual skateboard. I also remember using it as a sidewalk sled when I was still small enough to be tugged around by my puppy, Seamus.

There’s actually still a running joke between me and my brother about our sharing dilemma. I used to always find him wearing clothes that would mysteriously go missing from my closet, and he would try to convince me the items never belonged to me in the first place. Eventually, he told me I should just take it as a compliment on my “style”. Now every time I see him he always finds time to say, “Hey Brendan, nice shirt. Can I have it?”

What is one other book, film, song, or work of art that reminds you of ‘Failure’ and why?

The Royal Tenenbaums is one of my favorite films. And Wes Anderson is one of my favorite writers. I think there are quite a few similarities in these two works. Both writers really have an interesting and similar approach to telling stories, which I’m personally very drawn to, and both pieces also have very distinct and dark senses of humor, which I’m also very fond of. Also, there happen to be a few similarities between my character and Luke Wilson’s character inTenenbaums. That’s all I’m gonna say about that.

What is your favorite moment when working on a new production?

I love the first read-thru. I love hearing other people’s voices instead of my own, bringing the piece to life for the first time. There’s something sort of sacred about that first read – probably the first real moment of unity in the process, where you’re all truly on the same page (pun kind of intended). And you can feel it completely.

I also love getting the piece on its feet. Once you’re up on your feet, it feels like a million possibilities have just opened themselves up to you. You don’t have to think so much anymore. You just get to try things and it fully becomes an exploration.

Any childhood pets?

Oh boy, I hope I remember them all… Five goldfish whose names have escaped me. Three hermit crabs: Spike 1, Spike 2, and Crabby (I got to name that last one). One hamster named Skippy, who loved shirt pockets and yogurt drops. Two parakeets named Sunshine and Rainbow (Sunshine was mine, Rainbow was Sean’s). Two rabbits, Thumper and Lily (a dwarf rabbit), who just loved hopping up and down stairs (though Lily never quite got the hang of it, being small and all). And one very dear friend, brother, and canine named Seamus.

Also, I now have two blueberry dwarf hamsters, Plop and Mervyn, living with me in my South Philly apartment.

Brendan Dalton (John N.)

Brendan Dalton (John N.)

Meet Allison Heishman

Azuka snagged the chance to ask a few Failure: A Love Story related questions of our cast and crew.
So…without further ado…

Meet Allison Heishman (Director)

What is your favorite time of day?

Dusk. Whenever I catch myself outside during the easy shift from day into night it floods me with relief.

Allison_Dusk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Describe one thing you had to share with your siblings.

I’m the oldest, with three younger brothers. We are, all of us, wildly different, which is both more and less noticeable now that we are older. I was really lucky growing up that we had this great neighborhood of kids that would play together out and about the woods that surrounded our house. Sometimes it was hard to share those friends and moments with each other, and sometimes it was the best thing in the world.

What is one other book, film, song, or work of art that reminds you of ‘Failure’ and why?

We talked a lot about Edward Gorey and Lemony Snickett. I listened to some wonderful music from the period and got lost in beautiful images of light and water and time. But there was this one contemporary song that kept popping into my head, that ended up having a real connection to the tone and simplicity of our production, Lulu and the Lampshades – You’re Gonna Miss Me

What is your favorite moment when working on a new production?

It’s different for me every time, for this show it was the first stumble through that we did at the end of our first week of rehearsal. We had packed a lot of work into week one and I know I for one was feeling a little lost at sea, seeing everything beginning to come together was a great feeling.

Allison_Cast

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Any childhood pets?

Yes! We had a mini-daschund named Pixie who was so full of love. I had a hamster named Bowie. My brother Ross used to keep some baby painted turtles that would hatch every year in our backyard, those were pretty cool. When I was 12 I really wanted a pair of love birds, still kind of do.

Allison Heishman (Director)

Allison Heishman (Director)

Meet Isa St. Clair

Azuka snagged the chance to ask a few Failure: A Love Story related questions of our cast and crew.
So…without further ado…

Meet Isa St. Clair (Gerty Fail)

What is your favorite time of day?

While there’s no number for my favorite time of day, there is a word for it: hypnagogic! The hypnagogic state takes place in that cloudy place between sleeping and waking, and it is my favorite time of day twice a day, both at the morning and at night.

Describe one thing you had to share with your siblings.

I was one of those younger siblings who, at least until teenager-hood, idolized her older brother. So sharing was awesome! Even though I had my own toys, my own spaces, my own schedule, I always wanted share whatever Paul had. I had my own room, but I shared his bunk bed. I had my own toys, but I made him share his chemistry set. I had the backyard fort I’d made myself, but I clambered into his treehouse and shared that too. When Paul did a cool school project, I did the same one at home. He once spent a week researching and capturing click beetles for the 5th grade Bug Fair; I spent that whole week combing the yard for beetles too. For me, sharing was a form of flattery. How better to tell Paul that he was the coolest older brother ever than to force myself into his world and make him share? Right?

What is one other book, film, song, or work of art that reminds you of ‘Failure’ and why?

When auditioning for Failure, we were asked to bring in a song. I chose to do a short ukulele rendition of Lisa Hannigan’s “Safe Travels,” a song that, to me, completely captures the sweet and tragic link between loving and dying. The lyrics caution safety in a series of escalating potential threats (we start with “please eat your greens” and end with “the gasoline pump’s not a toy), ending in a chorus of “Safe travels, don’t die.” It’s very funny, but also kind of heartbreaking. You worry about someone because you love them. And when you love someone, you can’t bear to lose them. But it happens. It does. And that’s just how it goes. So all we can hope for are safe travels.

Lisa Hannigan – Safe Travels (Official HD Video)

What is your favorite moment when working on a new production?

My first instinct is to say that my favorite moments of working on a show are the big unifying moments – having an audience in the room for the first time, or seeing the tech components light up our ideas for the first time, but I think it’s actually a little simpler than that. I think my favorite moment of working on a show is the first read through. There is nothing quite like being in a room with the artistic team and saying the words out loud for the first time. The incredible possibility is palpable. And that’s what I love: the first steps of the journey. Don’t get me wrong, the rest of the journey is incredible as well. But a first read has the magic of beginning. And for a play like Failure, which explores the beginning inherent in every ending, there’s something deeply beautiful in the first beginning.

Any childhood pets?

My brother and I were always animal lovers, both of us more like John N. than any other character in Failure. We had your standards – a dog and a cat – but we also went through three hooded rats, a cockatiel, a herd of hermit crabs, and a ferret, not to mention the efts, beetles, and garter snakes that we would temporarily abduct from the backyard and house in one of our many terraria. Each of these animal friends (with the exception of the hermit crabs… there’s just not a whole lot going on there) had such a distinct personality that I can remember our relationship vividly.

Isa St. Clair (Gerty Fail)

Isa St. Clair (Gerty Fail)