FringeNYC 2008 Preview: The Umbrella Plays

"The Umbrella Plays"

"The Umbrella Plays"

Stephanie Janssen and Daniel Talbott are both working actors. The former has recently appeared in Potomac Theatre Project’s production of Crave by Sarah Kane, EST Marathon 2007 – in Israel Horovitz’s one-act play, “Beirut Rocks” – and the New York premiere of Horovitz’s The Secret of Mme. Bonnard’s Bath. The latter has been seen both regionally – in the world premiere of Mark Saltzman’s Rocket City at Alabama Shakespeare Festival, McCarter Theatre’s recent revival of Tartuffe – and here in New York – in the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production of Marat/Sade.

But, there’s more to both of them than just their acting resumes. Stephanie is a budding playwright, and Daniel frequently directs productions for his theater company, Rising Phoenix Repertory. This summer, these two longtime friends team up for the first time on Stephanie’s new work, The Umbrella Plays, which is premiering at this year’s New York International Fringe Festival. The production opens at walkerspace on Friday, August 8th, and features a cast of New York notables including Mark Setlock, Jan Leslie Harding, and the author herself.

Stephanie and Daniel took time out from their busy schedules to pay us a visit here at the ol’ blog and talk about their debut collaboration. Check it out below…

Stephanie, what exactly are The Umbrella Plays?

Well… The short version is that The Umbrella Plays are six short  plays – four scenes and two monologues – about an umbrella, but of course that’s not the whole story.  In truth it all started about two years ago when I was feeling like a bored out-of-work actress, and decided I should try and write something for my other bored out-of-work actor friends and I to work on. I’d always had this idea that i’d like to make a play one day with umbrellas, just because I like the look of them and for whatever reason I find them sort of romantic and theatrical and evocative. So, I played a little game with myself – how many stories can you tell about an umbrella, and how many different ways can you make an umbrella important in someone’s story?  And after a few months, I had these six stories – actually seven, though one of them has been axed for various reasons. The idea really became about taking this common, insignificant object and finding ways to make it essential, endow it with some meaning outside of itself, the way we do with all kinds of little things in our lives.  And of course, once I started thinking about what umbrellas functionally are – a way we protect ourselves from bad weather, I started thinking about this idea of bad weather more metaphorically, what that means in our lives, and about the ways we seek shelter from those things, and trying to find ways to tie the simple and functional to the emotional, personal counterpart.  So to me the plays are really about that searching for shelter from various storms. But that said, they’re also often quite light, quite playful, and ultimately optimistic.  And the result is these six snap-shots of life, which overlap and collide, these disparate people making their way through their lives,  getting drenched in it all and drying off again, as best they can.

How did you two come to work together on this production?

Daniel: Stephanie and I have known each other and been really good buds for a long time, and just recently had gotten close to being cast in a play together, and at the callback were talking about how much we’d love to work together on something. I really thought it’d probably be as actors first, but then Steph brought up that she had this play that she’d written that had just gotten into the Fringe and she needed a director and I was like, “Hire me, yo!”

Daniel Talbott & Stephanie Janssen

Daniel Talbott & Stephanie Janssen

Stephanie: Daniel and I finished school (him Juilliard, me NYU) in the same year, and have known each other for ages the way people do, through friends and work, but have never had the chance to work together. When I submitted this project to the Fringe, I was the only person attached to it and truthfully had no idea what I was doing.  I contacted Daniel after the piece was accepted, to see if he had any recommendations for directors,  knowing how savvy and plugged in he is (which I have always envied and admired about him). It never occurred to me to ask him to do it, only because I know he’s always busy with a million things of his own, and I couldn’t imagine he’d have the time or possibly the interest. He responded to my email right away, and said he’d like to suggest himself for the project. I was shocked and thrilled, and leapt at the chance to work with him. So, in a way it was a happy accident, but my goodness, I couldn’t be happier to be working with him. I tell him all the time, though I’m sure not enough, that I’d be utterly lost without him, and I’m not being hyperbolic. Now, of course, the thing is to see if we can survive each other! (Kidding of course. We’re very happy, though he teases me mercilessly, but probably I deserve it).

Daniel, you usually direct for your own company, the prolific and ubiquitous Rising Phoenix Repertory. This time you’re jobbing out. Why so?

It’s actually weird that I’ve directed so much for RPR in the last couple years, not because I don’t love it or want to do it, but because when we all started out I tried to make a really active choice to only be the artistic director for a long time and to try not to act or direct for the company cause I wanted to make sure everything else was taken care of, and we have such wonderful other folks and I never wanted it to be the crazy “me” show. Since we all make our living as actors and directors and playwrights and stuff outside the company, and have been lucky enough to be working and gone a lot, our schedule is a tad chaotic and I wanted to make sure that we all kept the company going in between jobs so it’s just kind of worked out that way. Pretty much it’s been whenever there’s at least a few of us around in between other jobs or something we all try to bust our butts and do something, and we all love working together so much that whatever it takes for us to do that, and whoever’s doing it, that’s what we do.

I consider myself first and foremost an actor and artistic director but I really love directing too and want to work with as many different companies and on as many different projects as possible, so hopefully I’ll get a lot more chances to job it out and do that with a bunch of other folks in the future while always having RPR as my home base.

What would you each like audiences to experience and take away from The Umbrella Plays?

Daniel: I love how intimate and detailed these plays are and I really dig the people and couples that are moving around inside Steph’s play. She brings so much of herself and her humor to her work and my hope is that we’ll all embody these people enough that the audience will want to listen and get involved with what they’re all working on and saying and going through. I hope they see people who they share the city with onstage – people who they may not know but who they’ve definitely given second looks to when they see them on the street, or in the park, or on the train.

Stephanie: Oooh, this is a hard one. I guess I just hope people can see a little of their lives in the stories on the stage,  can see some of their own struggles and joys in the tiny but rich moments of life we’re sharing. And I guess I hope too that people might leave thinking a little differently about the very small things in their lives, the seemingly ignorable things in their lives, and think that it’s possible that the small things, the umbrellas and what not, aren’t so small after all. There are real, human stories in almost all the little nothings filling up our lives, I think, if we’re bothering to look for them.  And of course, it wouldn’t kill me if people had a few good laughs and enjoyed themselves for 75 minutes or so. I mean really, isn’t that what we’re all hoping for anyway? A few hours here and there with something to make us think a little, feel a little, laugh a little?  Well, it’s a start, if nothing else, we could do a lot worse, couldn’t we?

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