Five Minute Call with The Seeing Place Theater: Sociology, “Organic” Theatre and Following in the Steps of Strasberg

In a lobby crowded with costumes and medical equipment, extra seats and stacks of old programs it is clear what’s happening at the Seeing Place Theatre on 54th Street: tech week. The independent theatre company was only days away from the first performance of their most recent revival, a production of Men in White, scheduled to play November 8th through 24th, and preparations where heavily underway. Amid the piles of props and toolboxes were Erin Cronican, the managing director and founding member, and Brandon Walker, the founding artistic director. In 2009 the pair founded the repertory theatre with hopes of creating a “home for actors.” Today audiences are served with productions that are directed, produced and performed all by the group’s integral troupe of players. Cronican and Walker took the time to talk about what its like to play multiple roles–both onstage and off–, the theatre’s strong commitment to community and their unique, “organic” way of creating true-to-life art.

How was the company was formed?

Brandon Walker: We started in August of 2009. We started with a production of The Credeaux Canvas, which had basically grown from the excitement of a friend of mine about doing the play. She wasn’t working at the time and she just really wanted to do the show and put a cast together. We read it on our [shared] birthday, June 27th. Then we felt like we had to keep going. That sort of excitement is what’s always pushed me to do this. This company has been based around the ability for us, actors, to do our work. Normally what happens [when making theatre] is that all of the rehearsal work is performance-driven. Most plays are blocked; the plays we do are organic. That doesn’t mean that there’s no elements of staging, but basically we’re living from moment to moment. We spend a lot of time delving into the script, and delving into the world of the play. We try to stay specific while also trying to make the show not look the same from night to night.

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You aren’t a regular theatre company in that you describe yourselves as “a base for actors.” How do you find that the creative process is different when everything is actor-driven and there aren’t directors and producers at the helm?

Walker: Well that’s the thing, [Erin and myself] are also directors and producers. In any rehearsal process you either come in and are given your blocking, or you come in and find your blocking. Then you repeat it until you have a sort of pristine element to what you’re presenting. Then the acting element becomes you trying to show the work as if it’s the first time. For us, its about living the play.

Walker went on to explain the unique way in which the actors at The Seeing Place stage plays. Blocking–the movements, actions and predetermined tracks the actors move about on onstage–is not planned. The actors are encouraged to improvise every time they act a scene. Nobody is limited to a certain set of actions. By performing in this way Cronican and Brandon feel as though they are better able to emote genuine feelings to the audience, and create a more genuine work of art.

So from rehearsal to rehearsal, and performance to performance, are things quite different?

Both: Yes.

Erin Cronican: The things that we commit to telling and doing the same every time are our objectives. We have a physical behavior and language, which we try to keep consistent. We discover in the rehearsal process the traits within our characters that may not be in relation to the action of the scene, but they make the characters more real. All the actors have physical [motives], but it might not matter when I go up and get water in a scene, or if I stand or sit, or when I cross to the door. It allows the scene to be lived that way. But the story we are trying to tell stays the same. We do really intense improvisational work to get that practice in our bodies.

Do you find that audience reactions are different every night because what each audience sees is a little bit different?

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Walker: It’s the same story, and we have the same objectives, so I would say its pretty consistent. If anything I would say its more consistent than the current model [of performing] in that what we’re doing on stage is so true to life that audiences have a very easy time connecting with what they’re seeing.

Do either of you have a specific moment where another actor or action has really caught you off guard because it was so unexpected?

Cronican: All the time. My favorite story was in a production of Three Sisters, I was playing Masha and Brandon was paying Andre. I found a piece of paper on the floor that had never been there. Most of the time when something like that happens you pretend its not there. You say, “Oh, I didn’t see that because it’s not a part of our play.” Instead I decided to read it and found that it was the proposal vows that Andre had written to Natasha, [another character in the play]. At that moment in the show my character was upset with Andre so I tried to use it against him. I spent the rest of the scene trying to let him know I had something on him and that had better keep his mouth shut [laughs]. And it was great because it was still within the story of Masha, so its not like I was upstaging anything, but I learned something that night about the relationship between Masha and Andre. I discovered a whole new group of possibilities.

Your current season is titled: “Loss: The Awakening of a People.” Why did you choose that theme?

Cronican: There were a number of plays we were interested [in producing] and we found that a number of them revolved around a death. We started to think about how, in the wake of a loss, it can bring a group of people together. I was thinking specifically about Matthew Shepard and The Laramie Project–the play we’re doing in the spring–and how this is the 15th anniversary of his death. Without [Shepard’s] death the progression we’ve had for gay rights and for the prosecution of hate crimes would not be the same. It managed to band together a community of people trying survive and struggle after that. I think of all the voices trying to get heard and the amazing thing that the Tectonic Theatre Project did to join people together. We hope that this year our community can really learn about the power of theatre to transform lives.

You’ve said that your theatre “has a high level of commitment to the sociological aspect of theatre.” In your own words can you explain what you feel the sociological aspect is?

Walker: I’ve always felt that theatre is hands-on sociology in that we’re coming together to learn about each other and the human experience.

Cronican: We’ve actually found that there are a lot of people who feel that they are not represented in the theatrical art form. Last year we did a play called Love Song, and it was written about five years ago. We were doing the first New York revival since it ran off-Broadway. It was about mental illness, and [audiences] would just stay in the lobby for a long time afterwards because they just wanted to talk about the fact that they had somebody in their family who was that way–the same mix of depression and mania. People all of a sudden felt like they had access to being able to talk about these things. I think that’s a great example of one of the sociological elements of the theatre we make and strive to make.

Do you feel as though there is a unifying mission statement behind this company?

Cronican: I would say that we’re committed to being a place of growth for actors, writers, directors–and more so actors who do those other things (writing, directing) as well. We want to give them an artistic home.

I was reading about your weekly reading sessions, can you tell me about those?

Cronican: For our ensemble, which is twenty-seven members, every Monday we have sort of a “home-base night.” We either do a reading, a workshop, or a master class. It allows them to be learning and growing with one another and developing the language of ensemble. Then from that ensemble we cast our shows.

You were just granted the rights and will be staging Men in White and Dying City. Those plays have only rarely been revived. Do you ever feel like there is onus put on you to represent those works well?

Cronican: Totally. I’m directing Men in White, and previously the most notable director who did the play was the first, and that was Lee Strasburg… So when people hear about this play they’ve heard stories. We’re a small company with not a huge budget, but we want to represent the work well. It’s nerve wracking. Its nerve wracking to be building the set of a hospital and knowing that it cant be totally 1933-esque, but still finding a way to make it [believable for an audience]. We do have amazing resources. Mount Sinai Hospital banded together a team to help us put some things together, and then some wonderful prop and set places that have allowed us to rent some vintage items… The community has really banded together to make this show happen. It’s amazing.

As actors and directors and producers all at the same time, what would you say is the biggest challenge playing multiple roles?

Cronican: Time management, energy… sleep [laughs]

Walker: I mean, to a degree its not about what you want to do. It’s about what you have to do, in order to be able to do what you’re passionate about.

Are you equally as passionate about all the different roles?

Walker: I think for both of us we’re actors first. I really enjoy directing a lot, but I don’t think I could set acting aside in order to just direct.

Cronican: If I received an offer through the ether to pick either directing or acting, I would pick acting in a heartbeat.

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