Twin TEA productions provide stiff challenge for director
Brit Ward leading 'Tuesdays with Morrie' and 'A Way Back'
FARMINGTON — While he was a theater student at San Juan College, Brit Ward made a habit of rooting out lesser-known scripts and putting himself through the curious exercise of hastily developing the material as if he were planning on directing a stage production of it.
The scripts ran the gamut from the bizarre — "David Lynch-style material," he said — to those that were simply badly written. The element they all had in common, Ward said, was that all of them had zero chance of ever being produced here, either because they were too avant garde or because they were simply unworthy of the time and effort required to stage them.
But Ward, in the early stages of what would turn into an obsession with directing, delighted in taking those projects and coming up with plans for how he would lead a production of them. He especially liked doing quick turn-arounds, seeing what he could come up with in a limited amount of time before moving on to the next one.
"I thought it would be fun to put a vision to them," Ward said. "And these were bad plays. I would never want to talk down to another artist, but I wanted to see if I could elevate them."
The point, he said, was to train himself to be a director who could develop a troubled script and come up with something presentable in short order. But by the time he got out of college, Ward had put the exercise behind him and largely forgotten about it. He never thought he'd ever have reason to put that skill to use.
"I honestly through it was totally a waste of time," he said.
Turns out Ward was only half right. This weekend, less than two months after directing the Theater Ensemble Arts production of "Exit Laughing," Ward will unveil the company's production of two one-act plays, "Tuesdays with Morrie" and "A Way Back," that he also is directing.
Ward hastens to point out that, unlike the scripts he worked with in college, "Tuesdays with Morrie" and "A Way Back" are quality material, which makes his job considerably easier. But the short turnaround time is very reminiscent of the drills he used to put himself through, and now he's glad he has that experience to rely on.
"Both are solid, good plays," Ward said earlier this week before putting his casts through some of their final rehearsals before the plays open their two-weekend run. "And 'A Way Back' has never been produced before, but it has a wonderful message."
Ward said he would have preferred having more time to develop both scripts. But when TEA board members approach him in a pinch about taking on directing duties again shortly after he wrapped up his work on "Exit Laughing," he quickly signed on. Not only was there no one else to do it, Ward said he finds it hard to reject a directing opportunity under any circumstances.
"Directing is an addiction of mine, and it's probably getting worse," he said.
But Ward began having reservations about his decision almost immediately. "A Way Back" was the winner of the TEA one-act playwriting competition and had been penned by Albuquerque resident Dennis West. The play focuses on the friendship between two Vietnam veterans and their experiences in the war.
Ward — who said he had zero experience with the military aside from listening to the occasional story shared by his grandfather, a Korean War veteran — simply felt unqualified to lead a production dealing with such sensitive material.
"I do not want to do a job that disrespects anyone," he said. "My first feeling was that I was simply feeling not up to the task."
It wasn't until West visited the set early in rehearsals that Ward's mind was eased. The playwright indicated he liked the way Ward and the cast had interpreted his work and encouraged them to continue. His graciousness and his generosity with his time impressed everyone associated with the production, Ward said, adding that he felt especially empowered by the things West said.
"It made me more confident directing, but it was also liberating," Ward said, adding that when he began second guessing himself about the way he had planned a particular scene to unfold, West was there to reassure him. "He said, 'No, no, no, you have a good concept – go with it,'" Ward said.
Still, the logistics of leading separate productions, and different casts, at the same time were very challenging. Ward said he has found it difficult to refocus his attention from one play to the other almost instantaneously.
"It's very surreal. … My head would always be in a specific space for each play," he said. "Thank goodness for the thematic overlap between them. They're both sad, but they have an uplifting ending. That helped me through it."
"Tuesdays with Morrie" is the story of sportwriter Mitch Albom's weekly conversations with his college professor Morrie Schwartz, who is dying of ALS, and is based on Albom's bestselling memoir of the same name. "A Way Back" explores how a Vietnam veteran struggling with his past is finally able to come to terms with the issues that haunt him with the help of another vet. Ward said West's play offers the notion that communication between veterans in a judgment-free atmosphere is often the best way for them to deal with the trauma of the past.
Veteran casts are on board for both plays. "A Way Back" features Charles Holmes, Tim Bagley, Joey Herring, Michelle Holmes, RJ Macsalka and Kevin Tschetter, while Steven Borstein and David Mayeux star in "Tuesdays with Morrie." Ward said the latter two have been able to rely on real-life experience in this production, as Borstein is a sports journalist, while Mayeux is an astronomy professor at San Juan College.
But he said the two actors are tested emotionally in this production, which demands plenty of vulnerability from both of them. It's a play that routinely elicits watery eyes from actors and audience members alike, he said.
"It's been an experience," he said of his own tearful reaction to the play during rehearsals. "The play is so well written, by the end of it, you don't have a choice."
"Tuesdays with Morrie" and "A Way Back" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Totah Theater, 315 W. Main St. in downtown Farmington. They also will be performed at 7:30 p.m. April 12-13 and at 2:30 p.m. April 14. Tickets are $12 for adults, and $10 for students and seniors. The shows are rated PG-13 for adult language and content. Call 505-326-2839 for more information or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.