TEA will open new production this weekend at Totah Theater
Brit Ward at helm of first company production in 2 years
FARMINGTON — Brit Ward has been directing plays for Theater Ensemble Arts for approximately 10 years, so his leadership of the company's latest production hardly represents a new experience for him.
After taking two years off from directing to concentrate on some screenwriting and novel writing projects, Ward found himself in a familiar role over the past several weeks as he took the helm of "Exit Laughing," the new TEA production that opens a two-weekend run on Friday.
Ward is well acquainted with the demands of putting a show together, but he said his self-imposed hiatus from directing has led him to approach that job in a different fashion this time.
"Actually, it did kind of offer me a new perspective," said Ward, who last directed "Drinking Habits 2" for TEA in February 2017. "I learned a great deal of patience in those two years. I'm more relaxed than I've ever been. It's actually been a relatively peaceful approach."
Ward's direction of this production is different in other ways, too. He directed TEA's August 2016 production of "M*A*S*H" and played one of the leading roles in its April 2018 production of "Dinner with the Boys." Both plays are bawdy comedies that feature strong, perhaps even overbearing, male characters.
But with "Exit Laughing," Ward is directing a small cast comprised primarily of women.
"This is the first time I've directed a cast of mostly women, although I'm hesitant to use the term 'women's play,'" he said. "I don't like to draw those distinctions."
Ward said his style is to approach the material the same way for every production, regardless of the gender of the actors. He laughingly recalled that, for the first TEA production he directed, "Queen of Bingo," a decade ago, he cast men in the female lead roles and had them perform in drag. That helped turn up the comedy heat, he said, but it also made some of the play's poignant moments more intense because the female perspectives of the main characters were being expressed through men.
Ward acknowledged he was swinging for the fences with that move, but he will take a decidedly lighter approach to "Exit Laughing." The Paul Elliott play chronicles a night in the life of four women, three of whom convene for their weekly bridge night even after the fourth member of their group has died. Undeterred, they decide to round out their foursome with their late friend's ashes — appropriated from the funeral home, of course — for a final game that proves to be only the first strange twist in a very eventful night.
"This is an interesting one," Ward said, describing the play. "The best comparison I can give it is that it's a lot like 'The Golden Girls' (a television sitcom starring Beatrice Arthur and Betty White that ran on NBC from 1985 to 1992), but a more modernized version of it. … It ups the ante quite a bit."
Ward said his initial instinct when the TEA board approached him to direct the production was to dismiss the offer, as he assumed the material wasn't for him. But it didn't take him long to change his mind.
"I read the script, and I said, 'OK, I can see why they wanted me,'" he said.
Ward, who describes himself a pretentious art nerd, said the play actually is very well suited to his style.
"I like character dynamics," he said. "It's what my focus tends to be. I like interaction between characters, both good and bad. There are five characters in this play, each one of them has a unique relationship with the person across from them."
One of the primary elements in "Exit Laughing" is death, a subject that typically doesn't serve as comedic fodder. Ward said Elliott handles its presence in his play deftly, using its universal nature as something to which everyone can relate, rather than something to be feared.
"We've all suffered a loss in our lifetime in one form or another," Ward said, explaining that by incorporating that theme in his play, Elliott has given the members of the audience a chance to laugh not necessarily at death itself, but at some of life's absurdities.
The cast features Kiana Poafpybitty, Stephanie Poafbybitty, Annette DiGiacomo, Lori Boettler and Ethan Franklin. The Poafpybittys are a real-life daughter-mother team who are filling the same roles in the play.
"I couldn't resist that," Ward said, explaining his casting decision.
Boettler is a veteran local actor who will be tackling the role of the dimwitted Millie in the play.
"She's one of the most intelligent women I know, and she's playing a dummy," Ward said. "I think it's a role that takes somebody with that kind of intelligence to do that."
DiGiacomo has been one of the organizers of local productions of "The Vagina Monologues" for the past several years, and Ward said she is the kind of actor who likes to launch herself head first into her work.
"Annette will approach any role with an amazing amount of confidence," he said. "I wanted somebody who wasn't going to judge her own character."
The only member of the cast Ward said he hasn't worked with before is Franklin, who will be making his community theater debut. In order to avoid spoiling a crucial plot twist, Ward declined to go into much detail about Franklin's character, although he said he admired the young actor for his willingness to accept the role.
"He has risen to the occasion," Ward said. "He was the only one brave enough to do it."
"Exit Laughing" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, as well as Feb. 15-16, and at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 17 at the Totah Theater, 315 W. Main St. in Farmington. Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for students or seniors. Call 505-326-2839 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610, or via email at email@example.com.