NEW YORK - Last week, we shared with you our reactions to ''Close Up Space'' and ''Rx,'' two Off-Broadway plays which have transferred to venues in Midtown Manhattan, after first being staged at Chautauqua Institution, as part of the New Play Workshops which take place there.
This week, we'd like to share what we learned from interviews with Ethan McSweeny, who directed Kate Fodor's play ''Rx'' for its New York City run, and who is also resident director of the Chautauqua Theater Company, and then with Marin Hinkle, a successful actor in films and television who made the decision to become a professional actor while performing with the Chautauqua Theater Company.
I remember a story once told me by a friend who had moved to New York. He said he walked a particular route from his apartment to his job, twice per day, but only after he had been doing so for a number of weeks did he look up, and realize that he was walking along the wall of the Empire State Building. Like him, many of us drive past the gates of Chautauqua frequently without fully realizing how significant that place is to the world as we know it today, because we don't raise our eyes from our everyday concerns.
The cast of “Rx:” In front, Marylouise Burke, Playwright Kate Fodor, and Marin Hinkle. Standing are Michael Bekkensen, Stephen Kunken, Elizabeth Rich, Paul Niebanck, and Director Ethan McSweeny.
Before the 2005 season, Vivienne Benesch and Ethan McSweeny took over the artistic directorship of the Chautauqua Theater Company. In that year, Ms. Benesch had just won an Obie for her acting, which is the Off-Broadway version of the coveted Tony Awards, which are awarded for excellence in Broadway productions.
McSweeny, at the time, was being featured in interviews in our nation's largest and most respected newspapers and magazines, for his work as a director for the stage. Titles similar to ''Boy Genius'' were being attached to his name by powerful people in the theater who don't sling such terms lightly.
Now, eight years later, the word ''boy'' has largely dropped out of the picture, but the term ''genius'' is still often cited.
In 2010, we interviewed him in one of the classy backstage lounges at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival of Canada, where he was in the final process of staging a production of ''Dangerous Liaisons.'' He will be returning to Stratford in the summer of 2012 to direct ''The Pirates of Penzance.'' In addition to there, he has directed all over the nation, on Broadway, at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in his native Washington, D.C., at the famed Guthrie Theatre, in Minnesota, at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, and on through a long list of such places, each as illustrious as the last.
Since last season at Chautauqua, a change has taken place in the administrative staff of the Chautauqua Theater Company. After seven years of jointly administering the performing company and the acting conservatory which is affiliated with it, McSweeny and Ms. Benesch have changed their roles with the company.
Ms. Benesch will be handling the administrative role of the artistic director position, a yearlong job which currently has her traveling the entire width and breadth of our nation, auditioning young actors who want to participate in the program, and doing interviews with designers and other backstage personnel.
She is also taking a leading role in reading scripts which have been submitted by young playwrights hoping to be chosen to workshop their new scripts and see them performed in minimal productions on the stage of the Bratton Family Theater. She will be assisted in her heavy duties by Andrew Borba, a familiar face at Chautauqua, both as an actor and in a variety of other roles. He has been serving as associate artistic director, and will continue with that title.
McSweeny, who will be absent for part of the season due to his duties at Stratford, is taking on the title of resident director, and he hopes to maintain a close connection with the CTC, and to direct for the stage here as frequently as possible.
We spoke with the director in the lobby of Primary Stages, the beautiful new complex at 59 E. 59th St., where he was about to watch the second preview performance of ''Rx,'' which he is directing. The play had its first performance the previous evening, and McSweeny was dealing with a long list of situations, all of which needed his attention before the second audience trooped in to fill the small theater's seats.
Nevertheless, he agreed to meet me, 30 minutes before the curtain rose. Not surprisingly, to anyone who is familiar with life in Chautauqua, barely had we begun to talk when our interview was crashed by a woman who has been a longtime visitor to the Institution, who insisted in involving herself in our conversation, completely changing the subject on more than one occasion, despite having been told plainly that this was an interview.
Many Chautauquans tend to feel that they own the Institution's artistic professionals, and certainly the handsome McSweeny, who has been described more than once as resembling in appearance Canadian heartthrob Ryan Reynolds, is a particular favorite.
McSweeny pointed out that he has worked with playwright Kate Fodor a number of times, through her two plays which were explored during the Chautauqua New Play Workshops, and as director of the same two plays when they made the transition to Off Broadway productions. He also worked with her through the commission for a brand new play which was awarded her by the CTC to be written during the 2011 season and presented in a full production, not a workshop, during the 2012 season at Chautauqua, tentatively July 20-29.
He said that his greatest challenge with ''Rx'' at the point of our conversation was that it had been written with an unusually large number of short scenes, requiring many rapid set changes, and that was occupying his attention at the moment.
''Since all the problems associated with getting the big blockbuster show 'Spiderman' on its feet, I find that New York audiences are much more aware of the preview process. That makes it easier for all of us,'' he said.
He pointed out that Ms. Fodor had been working on the ''Rx'' script for more than a year, when it was workshopped at Chautauqua, and now she has been revising and shaping it for two and a half years more, before it began its present New York run. ''That long and often tortuous process doesn't show, when people come to the theater - at least we hope it doesn't. But one of the reasons we instituted the New Play Workshops was to make the development of new plays easier and less painful,'' the director said.
I asked if there might come a day when an agreement between the CTC and a Manhattan company made possible more frequent and easier transitions of plays from here to there.
''We'd love to have such an arrangement, some day,'' he said. ''There is no such arrangement at the moment, but the NPWs are very popular at Chautauqua, and we've now had three cross over to New York, so it's something I can well imagine, for the future. Look at the printed program for this play. The name 'Chautauqua' is all over it.''
The new resident director mentioned that a few days after our conversation, Ms. Benesch had arranged for a large group of regular attendees of theater at Chautauqua to attend both ''Rx'' and Molly Smith Metzler's play ''Close Up Space,'' in the city, and to have dinner together and to meet with him and with other professionals with ties to Chautauqua, to further the connection between the two locations.
No question about it, Chautauqua's place in the theatrical profession is growing by leaps and bounds.
Marin Hinkle performs the comic leading role in ''Rx,'' as an upbeat magazine editor who becomes addicted to the pills she is prescribed as part of a drug trial program in which she is enrolled.
If you are familiar with her name, it is probably due to her career as an actress on television. Currently, she is playing the role of Judith, the ex-wife of the character played by Jon Cryer, and mother of the young son in ''Two and a Half Men.'' She has had leading roles in the series ''Once and Again,'' had a continuing role in the soaper ''Another World,'' and has done major guest star roles with ''Spin City,'' ''Law and Order: SVU,'' ''Without a Trace,'' ''ER,'' and ''House,'' to name just a few.
We met with her at an earlier time, before her play began at the Primary Stages theater as well, but in a quiet lounge with no audience participation, as at the McSweeny interview.
Slender and darkly lovely, the actress recalled her decision in 1987 to become part of the acting conservatory at the Chautauqua Theatre Company, which was then under the direction of its founding director, Michael Kahn.
''I was a junior at Brown University. I had done some theater, and played the lead in 'Night Mother,' by Marsha Norman, which had convinced me that I should consider acting as a career.
''The conservatory was in its very early years, and the participants then were mostly college students,'' she continued. ''Since then, Ethan and Vivienne have brought it along to new heights. Virtually every participant is now a graduate of a university acting program, usually with professional experience under their belts. But I came to Chautauqua with my little bit of experience, and the company introduced me to mime and to working with masks, and to studying scripts and dissecting them, so that the full meaning is part of the performance. It convinced me that acting was a career worthy of pursuing, and that I had potential to succeed with it. It changed my life.''
The actress has an unexpected background. She was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to American parents who were in the Peace Corps. One Internet page I consulted humorously listed her ethnic origins as ''Tanzanian.''
When she was 4, the family moved to Boston, where her father become a college dean and faculty member, and her mother eventually became a Justice of the Superior Court of Massachusetts. Her original intention was to be a professional dancer, until an injury at age 16 made that impossible.
Convinced by her Chautauqua experience, she entered the Tisch School of the Arts, at New York University, to study acting, graduating in 1991. She has been married since 1998 to Randall Sommer. The couple has one child.
''One of the challenges of the acting profession is that it's almost impossible to stay in one area and to make a living,'' she said. ''Live theater is the most rewarding part of the profession, but we start our careers with a huge load of college loans, and television and films pay a lot more than the stage, so most of us end up heading out to California, where those things get made.
''I try to do at least one live play a year, to keep my skills honed and my connections in the theater in good shape, but I've had to uproot my eight-year-old and bring him along, and to try and make a home for him, here in New York,'' she said.
It didn't directly relate to Chautauqua, but I couldn't resist asking someone so close to the subject about the recent upheaval on her television show, where actor Charlie Sheen, who had headlined the cast for seven seasons, was recently fired, in a series of scandals which were covered all over the world, and replaced by actor Ashton Kutcher.
''I think there is no question that Charlie Sheen was the lynchpin of our show, and deserves the principal credit for its success,'' she said. ''I can't comment on things which happened in private lives, but it was very difficult for all of us to make the change. Fortunately, Ashton Kutcher is working very hard, and brings something very different to the show, which seems to be popular with the audience, as well.''