I was in Seattle for the summer working for Last Leaf Productions on The Winter’s Tale and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I had the wonderful opportunity to see Intiman Theatre’s production of The Thin Place. I was moved by the production and excited about the process that must have occurred in the unique way in which this play was devised.I was thrilled with both Andrew Russell, the Director, and Sonya Schneider, the Playwright, agreed to talk with me.
Brooke M. Haney (BMH): I understand that The Thin Place was conceived from interviews done by Marcie Sillman. How was that different than a regular process?
Andrew Russell (AR): It wasn’t the typical sitting alone at a computer. Sonya really had to do justice to 15 interviews, a set that she knew she had, and an actor she was writing for.
Sonya Schneider (SS): I admitted to Andrew that I was terrified, but instead of considering that an obstacle, he admitted that he was terrified too.
BMH: It sounds like you guys were a great team.
SS: There were so many incredible people working on it. It was amazing.
BMH: I’m curious how Gbenga Akinnagbe, as the actor, influenced the script or your process.
SS: I think he influenced it very much. Everything from his sex, his race, his voice, his background – all of that – I couldn’t help but consider that as I was writing, and as we were shaping the narrative.
Having him in the room for the first of two workshops, I think it was very influential: to see what he jumped into immediately, what seemed foreign to him.
BMH: What were things Gbenga did that were helpful to you both in your different capacities?
AR: He was intelligently challenging in a really useful way. He would try everything, but if it wasn’t working, he would let you know. Some actors will show you exactly what you want with out anything underneath it, and then some actor’s can’t do it until it really feels genuine, and Gbenga is that kind. So, we could tell pretty quickly what would definitely work and what wouldn’t. This is very useful in a new work.
SS: And he was immediately intrigued by particular characters. He would ask to see more about those characters. So, Andrew and I would examine them further. I’ve never seen an actor grow in the way that he did. Through the whole process, he reinvented himself so much. Also, he came in with so little prejudice around the piece, maybe because there wasn’t a script at the beginning.
Andrew worked with him really, really well. They found a really good vocabulary. And one day, Andrew decided that Gbenga had to take it and it was right around the same time that Gbenga was like, “I have to take it.” The timing felt right. It was great.
AR: And it’s funny how that ownership totally shifted.
SS: I think it was empowering for Gbenga to be there as it was being built. There is something really unique in new work. There are some really deep connections you’re forming with your characters, with your team, your designers, your director. And then the stakes are so high, for everybody, but in theatre that’s a good thing.
BMH: Where is that balance between being the challenging actor? When do I try to make the words work as they are, and when do I say, they aren’t working for me, can we try this instead?
AR: Sometimes the playwright will say, I’m changing that, it’s ju
st not working and the actor will say, just give me some time, I can make that work. And I’ve gone through moments when the actor says this isn’t working, can we change it. I think it comes down to whether or not there is someone who can own it. If the playwright
can say I really believe in this, or if the actor says I’m really behind this moment, you keep it.
But if you encounter a problem and no one really knows why it’s there, then that’s the kind of time that we trust ourselves that it isn’t working. So, you have to kind of give it a chance.
BMH: It seems like such and amazing project to have the opportunity to be a part of.
AR: I was so excited to talk to you, because it was such a personal process.
BMH: And, I think it was pretty personal for the audience too.
AR: One audience member told me she hated it. And I said that was too bad, but okay. Then she said that she hated it, but she talked about it for five hours afterward with her husband. And I thought: “that’s great.” I’d rather you hate it if it means you talk about it afterward!
BMH: Right? Isn’t that what we want good theatre to do?
Interview conducted July 2010.