Theatre Graduate Students Abbey Siegworth and Aleisha Force Star in Dallas Theater Center Production
Students Star in Neil LaBute's The Beauty Plays
The Beauty Plays at the Dallas Theater Center (DTC) consist of a trilogy of playwright Neil LaBute’s work, including Fat Pig, The Shape of Things, and reasons to be pretty. Each play seeks to examine social norms about physical appearance, dating, and the darker nature of human relationships that are so characteristic of LaBute’s work. This year, two theatre graduate students, Abbey Siegworth (M.F.A. ’10) and Aleisha Force (M.F.A. ’12), are starring in these plays and shared their thoughts on the process.
Could you explain the casting process for the shows, i.e., how SMU students were cast in this production at the Dallas Theater Center?
Aleisha: SMU is fortunate enough to have a partnership with the Dallas Theater Center, which is a member of the League of American Resident Theatres (LORT). Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty and Casting Director Lee Trull also do a very good job of keeping SMU students on their radar, so some casting offers can be made without an audition or simply with a callback for a particular show’s director. I am fortunate enough to be a member of the first SMU grad class to benefit from this partnership for all three years I have been here. For this trilogy we’re calling The Beauty Plays, all eight female acting graduate students (four in their 3rd year and four in their 1st year) were called in to read for two “acting tracks.” Each track had a role in two different shows, but each of the three plays has a separate director. So the casting decisions had to be unanimous in that the actresses cast had to be right for two completely different roles.
Each of the six cast members is cast this way, and each plays two characters that are as different as night and day. Only six actors for three full shows that run for three months?! I did not envy that casting committee's task!
Which roles are you playing?
Abbey: Evelyn, In The Shape of Things, I play Evelyn. In reasons to be pretty, I play Carly.
Aleisha: In The Shape of Things I play Jenny, who is engaged to Phil (Lee Trull), who is best friends with Adam (Steve Walters), who begins dating Evelyn (Abbey Siegworth). Jenny is sweet and kind and really just wants everything to be nice and people to get along. We learn in the course of the show that Jenny, like many women her age, isn’t so certain about things. She has doubts. She isn’t yet her own person.
In Fat Pig, I play Jeannie, who is coworkers with Carter (Steve Walters) and who is dating Tom (Regan Adair) who begins seeing Helen (Christina Vela). Jeannie is a very direct person with clear life goals and plenty of discipline. She has done everything society/beauty magazines/the media has told her she needs to do to get what she wants (looks, career, a man), and when she doesn’t get it--again-- she comes undone.
Can you explain the rehearsal process at the DTC? How many shows do you perform in a week?
Abbey: As opposed to a rehearsal process at SMU, the shows at Dallas Theater Center rehearse in less than half the time. So, whereas at school you have more time to “marinate” between rehearsals, try different choices, etc., the amount of freedom with that is limited because the schedule is that much more demanding. There’s frequently a day or two dedicated to table work, and then we block the scenes on our feet and hopefully have the “shape” of the movement of the play done within a week to a week and a half of the first day of rehearsal. Things move quickly.
Once we’re up and running, a typical week will have eight shows (every night Tuesday through Sunday, and then The Beauty Plays have matinees every Saturday and Sunday). Other shows such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream were more “student matinee friendly,” so there were a handful of weekday shows during that run as well.
Aleisha: As DTC is an Equity theatre, the rehearsals are six days a week and performances are eight a week. We started rehearsing The Shape of Things first and rehearsed it exclusively for a couple of weeks, then added Fat Pig rehearsals. After The Shape of Things opened and played eight shows a week, days were then entirely devoted to Fat Pig rehearsals. So we’d rehearse one show all day, then eat dinner and do the other show at night. Then we added reasons to be pretty. It opened Friday, April 9th.
From February 2nd to March 19th, I was rehearsing and/or performing two shows a day, six days a week. And since then, I have been performing both shows on a rotating schedule and will continue until May 9th when both of my shows close. reasons to be pretty runs through May 23rd. DTC rehearses all of their shows according to the six-days-a-week/eight-shows-a-week Equity rules, but usually actors are only rehearsing one play at a time. We’ve got three plays taking turns in the same space. The Repertory experience is not one that I have had before, but Abbey Siegworth, who has done summer Shakespeare many a time, can tell you that this is normal.
What about Neil LaBute's writing makes his work relevant and/or necessary at this time?
Abbey: LaBute’s writing reflects pretty brilliantly the way we speak today. Characters interrupt each other dictated by slash marks in the script, they trail off, switch topics mid-line. In this trilogy, he confronts the nature of physical beauty and how our society operates with regard to that topic. LaBute is interested in going beyond the line of “safe” conversation about this topic, too. He creates scenarios that make audiences squirm in their seats. His characters treat each other with an uncomfortable level of honesty, cruelty, and candor. Sometimes the only way to “wake up” people is to shock their system a little bit. Neil LaBute can always be counted on for this.
I mean, we could continue to just accept the “way things are” when it comes to categorizing and treating each other by the way we look, or we could take a good, long, hard look at the mirror LaBute is holding up. These plays may not change the world, but they introduce some hard truths that are difficult to deny, and they make it hard to leave the theater not questioning the status quo.
Aleisha: He doesn’t write heroes or villains. He writes people who are mean and nice at various times, but not evil or angelic. It is rather simple for a playwright to write fictional characters who say what we’d all really like to say but don’t ever get a chance to (like characters in movie monologues often do). Those types of characters always have a level of polish and fit into a mold and are easily judged by the audience as “good” or “bad.” But LaBute actually writes like people talk--messy, sloppy, loud, interrupted, overlapped, not grammatically correct and insecure. In The Shape of Things, he gives the characters many qualifiers and fillers (e.g. ya know?, I mean, like, maybe, etc.) that come with people who are young and unsure.
In Fat Pig the characters attack quickly-- just like smart, aggressive, successful late 20s folks in a major metropolitan city would. And none of it is clean or perfect or meant to make some profound statement. There is no music swell or camera trick that highlights the perfect moment in which some dreamy character walks up and says “nobody puts Baby in a corner.” These are messy true moments between two or three or four people in a work place or a living room and they are honest and raw and, in some cases, brutal.
Is there anything that you discovered about yourself as an actress while working on The Beauty Plays?
Abbey: I have been greatly challenged by working on these two plays! As an actor, I'm learning ways to maintain a long run. In The Shape Of Things, I've been particularly challenged to truly play what’s written, meaning, you can’t make a character “sympathetic” because you don’t want the audience to hate you (maybe they’re supposed to hate you, or better yet, maybe they’re supposed to think they should hate you, but they’re not quite sure). Either way, I’m learning more and more what fun it can be to dive into the world that was written. I’ve learned and continue to learn many other things, but these are what come to mind today.
Aleisha: As this is my first year of grad acting training, this was my first opportunity outside of class work to put into practice some of the lessons I am learning. Acting training is not some checklist of skill acquisition, though. You don’t master some skill and then assume you have it down. Career ballet dancers go to the barre every day and world famous concert piano players run through their scales. It may sound silly, but I discovered that every night, I get to learn how to try to get what my character wants (a basic tenet of our training program here) and I get to employ my listening skills ( another basic tenet). Those may sound trite or simple, but throughout my acting career, I will revisit basic principles of acting each and every time I do a show.
And any show that I don’t feel I “nailed,” I can trace the challenge back to the basics.