The New Ensemble theater company on Friday opens an intriguing new play, “A Picasso,” at the Broken Leg Stage. I caught up with director Heather Parish for an interview. A condensed version runs in Friday’s 7 section. Here’s the extended version:
Briefly put, what is the play about?
The year is 1941, the Germans have rolled into Paris and Pablo Picasso has been ushered into a makeshift office by a beautiful Nazi bureaucrat to authenticate three works of art the Reich have recently “acquired” for exhibition. Soon, the master artist learns that the exhibition is a burning of art designated as “degenerate” by the Germans. A battle of wits ensues between the tough-minded Nazi and the passionate artist over the survival of Picasso’s work– and possibly the survival of the man himself.
What can you tell us about the play’s production history?
Jeffrey Hatcher, a very prolific playwright and screenwriter, wrote the piece when grappling with issues concerning his own art and the critical reaction to it. As such, it tends to resonate with artists of any stripe who put their work out there for public comment.
It premiered in 2003 by the Philadelphia Theater company. A subsequent production followed in 2004 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami starring Lucie Arnaz (who has had a strong regional theater career in Florida) as the Nazi. After that, the eminent Manhattan Theater Club in NYC picked it up with Dennis Boutsikaris and Jill Eikenberry playing the roles. Since then, it has been seen in myriad regional theater companies, including San Jose Repertory in 2009.
Why did you pick this title?
What resonated with me first were the issues in the piece– I love a script with a lot of ideas and questions in it. “A Picasso” has no shortage of ideas to chew on. What is the value of art when the world is going to hell? Is art worth dying for? When should the pragmatic concerns of life take precedence over art? Should artists be political? Should politics regulate art? These are some big questions and I love big questions!
After that, I look at whether the script is a good choice for the Ensemble at this time: Is it a well written piece of theater? Is it compelling? What are the production requirements? Is it a piece that our actors would be challenged by? These among various other reasons made “A Picasso” a good fit for The New Ensemble.
How much, if any, of the play is based on historical fact?
The incident of the play is fiction, but all of the cultural, biographical and historical references in the piece are completely accurate– with the exception of two plot details that I won’t go into here!
Picasso’s studio being checked often for hiding Jews, his work being labeled degenerate, the Jeu de Paume (the ‘Concentration Camp for Art’), the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica, the stories of Picasso’s family and friends. . . .all of these, and more in the play, are factual.
What is your take as director when working with a famous character like Picasso? How closely do you try to hew the portrayal to that of the “real” Picasso as based on first-hand accounts? Or is that even important?
In my opinion, true recreation is impossible. I know. I’ve tried. Whenever we try to slavishly recreate a time period, an historical figure, a moment in the cultural or historical life of our existence, we are really speaking to the assumptions and preconceptions we have about that period from our removed place in time. Research helps and we can be conscientious toward historical fact, but few living people truly know what Picasso was like– even with video recordings of interviews and first hand biographical accounts.
We approached Picasso with a respect for the pre-conceived notions that most people have about the man and what he MAY have been like.. After that, we’ve been dealing mostly with the Picasso that Jeffrey Hatcher put down on the page and began developing mannerisms and speech from there. I will say, though, that we’re a little lucky in that Jaguar Bennett, who plays Picasso, looks a little like the artist did later in life.
Talk a little about your two cast members.
Jaguar Bennett and Chelsea Bonilla, who plays Miss Fischer, are both mainstays in The New Ensemble. Chelsea dove back into acting a year ago at Woodward Shakespeare Festival and I saw something surprisingly steely in her delicate, Nordic being. Deep down she has an edge, a sense of anger, that she’s really been developing for Miss Fischer. She’s incredibly introspective and self-analytical and really pushes herself to learn and grow– which is one of the primary objectives of The New Ensemble for its actors.
Jaguar comes to this role with a sense of gusto and intellectual vigor. He’s always completely committed to his character’s points of view and delivers ideas in a way that challenges the audience to really think. His Picasso is hearty and bullish, which is a great foil to Miss Fischer’s angles and gazelle-like nature.
How will you use the Broken Leg space in this production? How are you depicting the art onstage?
Since the setting is a makeshift office in an underground bunker or vault, the confines of the Broken Leg Stage are ideal. We are trying something rather surreal, though, with the design of the space.
Local luminary artist Aileen Imperatrice has graciously loaned us several of her works to act the part of “Art Confiscated by Nazi’s”. Bringing contemporary pieces onstage may seem to clash with the 1941 setting, but I believe that the discussion of the importance of art during World War II Paris has many parallels to the discussion of art today.
Today’s art is in jeopardy on many fronts: the culture wars in our political life have made it more difficult for artists to create their work and have it shown. And what’s more, the increasing indifference of the public for art could eventually make the disciplines of painting and sculpture almost obsolete– unless, of course, there is a commercial use for the work, then it is “okay”. Art is being subsumed to an obsession with business and unregulated capitalism in this country that can be disturbing.
So when Picasso and Miss Fischer are discussing the worth of art in 1941 Paris, the audience will be confronted with the art of today’s painters and asked the same questions.
For those who aren’t familiar with The New Ensemble, fill us in on this relatively new Fresno theater company.
The New Ensemble is a group of theatrical artists committed to developing engaging work together– work with literary merit, an ensemble approach and a commitment to active and emotional immediacy in performance. The plays we choose tend to be lean in scale, stark in aesthetic, with an emphasis on the relationship between the actor’s voice and body with the text and action.
All players with The New Ensemble– whether Core or Volunteer– get an experience that is intended to challenge and deepen their skills as actors. Audiences are treated to intimate productions focused on rich ideas and invigorating performances.
We’re also an actor-manager troupe, meaning that Core Members of the Ensemble contribute in a variety of ways to productions and act in more than one capacity. In addition to acting or directing, our Core Members often serve as costumers, stage managers, graphic designers, box office hosts, and technical designers. This gives everyone a sense of ownership in the health of the company, as well as a say in the direction the company takes. It helps make us a true “company”.
“A Picasso” is our fourth production as a company in the last year– “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Pillowman” among them– as well as a series of free readings of brand new plays like “Red” and “August: Osage County”.
You have some special events and pricing in place for this run. Tell us about them. You’ve been a strong proponent in the local theater community for better marketing. What are your thoughts on filling seats in shows during the summer?
Yes, in honor of Picasso’s homeland, we’ll be having an informal Spanish Wine Tasting just prior to the show on Saturday evening the 11th. The wine tasting will begin at 7 p.m. and is for a $5 recommended donation. I’m a fan of Spanish wines, so I just thought this would be a fun way to celebrate opening weekend.
We are also having a “Cheap Seats Night” on Thursday, June 16th– all tickets are $5 online or at the door.
Hmmm. . . yes, marketing. One of my very favorite topics! We all struggle to fill seats in Fresno theaters, but if we put a little thought into things, we can at least begin to swing the odds.
For the summertime (or any time), the marketing always begins with your choice of play. If possible, I want to offer something that few others are offering at that time. In summer in Fresno, that means an intimate show with some fresh ideas that haven’t aren’t a rehash of other shows or topics in the area. With GCP doing big summer musicals like “Seven Brides” and “The Drowsy Chaperone” and WSF doing three huge productions this summer, I like to give theater goers a little change of pace– something simple and very personal.
Giving audiences options is a must. Simple options, at that. I essentially have three different ticket prices for this show. If you’re very busy this summer with vacations and projects and, yes, other shows, you can purchase tickets in advance when you know you’ll have an opening in your schedule. And guess, what? As a reward for planning and buying in advance, TNE gives you $5 off the walk in ticket price. But, if you’re the type of audience member that does things on the spur of the moment, you can walk in and pay a little more. AND, if you’re a student or another poor artist like me, you can plan on coming to the Thursday cheap seats night and get the show for $5.
Knowing where people want options and where I can afford to be flexible really helps people make decisions about their entertainment.
The other thing I always tell new producers is try not to skimp on the marketing budget or the marketing time. Get those flyers up, get those handbills out there (both Eric Day and I were handing out handbills for our shows simultaneously at the Dusty Buns line on Wishon!), get listed in the calendars, keep your website updated, get active and interactive on Facebook. . . . give people a reason to come to see your show other than just because you’re putting it on. Fresno theater is no longer in the “Hey Kids, lets put on a show” phase. Producers have to know what they’re about and distinguish their offerings from everyone else’s.
That being said, I still don’t know everything about how to market a show well, but I love to try things out and learn!
Anything else you’d like to say about the production?
“A Picasso is full of stimulating ideas about art, politics, and survival. It is funny, provoking, emotional and only 70 minutes long– short enough to head for cocktails to talk about the play afterward. Audiences will love this show, whether or not they love art– and, they may be persuaded to head across the street to City Arts Gallery or stick around to really look at Aileen Imperatrice’s work showing at the Broken Leg Stage!
Online, advance tickets are $10 and available via Brown Paper Tickets. Will Call and walk in tickets are $15. To reserve Will Call seats, you can call or text TNE at 559.457.9613