Sometimes one can be so deeply involved in a passion that you forget why you love it. If you’re lucky, something happens that reminds you. For me, this reminder came while I was sitting in the house at the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach, the light board on a folding table to my right, a pile of coiled cables to my left, waiting for the rehearsal to begin.
The cast of the LTVB’s upcoming production of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People were buzzing onto and off of the stage as lights flickered up and down again, warming up, checking props, asking about their costumes, and generally exhibiting the nervous excitement that comes with the dawning realization that, after eight weeks of work, they open this Friday. This sort of energy cannot be found anywhere other than in the thay-at-ah. Nor can the people, who in the span of about sixty seconds took the topic of conversation from women envying men’s ability to pee standing up to ancient Greek mythology and back again.
cast image | Little Theatre of Virginia Beach
Tonight is the cast and crew’s first full rehearsal following the grueling and generally unsatisfying but entirely necessary process known as Tech Weekend, when the show the actors have been rehearsing since September and the technical elements such as lighting, sound, and scenic transitions are smashed together in a maelstrom of hectic and disordered splendor as part of what we theatrical types euphemistically call the “creative process.”
In between coordinating the cast and crew, harried and sleep-deprived first-time director Matt Downey found the time to sit down, run a hand through his hair, and unburden himself on me.
“I believe the three greatest playwrights of all time were Sophocles, Arthur Miller, and Henrik Ibsen,” says Downey. “I believe Ibsen was greater than Shakespeare.” Them’s fightin’ words in my neighborhood, so I asked him to explain himself. “They were the ones who went against the grain. Theatre was supposed to model strict propriety, but then you have Ibsen with Hedda Gabler shooting herself, Nora Helmer walking out on her husband [ed note: spoilers], and then THIS.”
“There were some people on the Board [of LTVB] who wanted this to be the traditional classic play for this season,” says Downey. “But I want to find hidden meanings in things. I once had a college professor say to me that a great director will make the new seem familiar and the familiar seem new.”
Hence his decision to use dubstep and EDM to stitch together this one hundred-plus-year-old play. Downey says he was inspired by the films of Baz Luhrmann, particularly The Great Gatsby.
“It connected the young people in the audience to a story that was so far outside their time. People are always saying ‘Our season subscribers are older, we need to appeal to them.’ Well, if you keep doing that, you’re eventually not going to have a theater. You need to bring in fresh blood, you need to bring in new people.” That’s why the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach will be presenting a student-oriented performance on the first Sunday of the run, which will feature a talk-back after the show. And Downey, who earned his BA from Liberty University and his MFA from Regent, intends to give that audience plenty to ask about.
“I want the audience to be uncomfortable and yet safe. This is Ferguson. This is Baltimore. This is the crisis in the Ukraine.” I asked him why then set this play in period rather than move it into the modern day. Downey told me frankly it was because he thought period costumes would particularly flatter the actresses that he cast. “I wanted REAL women in this show,” says Downey. “I want to create reality. Theatre needs to mirror life.”
In holding up his mirror, Downey claims a definite stylistic aesthetic. “I totally ripped off the shadow work from The Lion King,” he says. “Julie Taymor shits glitter as far as I’m concerned.” And LTVB’s presentation of what most institutions of higher learning would lead one to expect would be a dry and wordy ordeal is instead an ambitiously outside-the-box affair.
“There are going to be people in the audience who are going to say the music was weird, the set was weird,” says Downey. “You cannot please one hundred percent of the audience. My hope is to see one person after the show sitting as if in a sanctuary just taking in the emotion. The world is such a broken place. But we can be and do better, and that’s what I hope this show inspires people to do.”
Inspiration does not seem to be something with which An Enemy of the People finds itself in short supply. Nor does ambition. Downey told me how when he was first selected as the director of this play, he launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to go to Oslo for research.
“I believe that seeing other parts of the world, other parts of society, is what gives young people, especially, a better grasp of humanity.”
He didn’t reach his goal, so rather than taking the trip, what money he did raise went to augmenting the production budget.
Downey mentioned he’d used Suzuki and Viewpoints training for his staging of the show. “It helped me overcome nineteen years’ worth of bad habits,” Downey claims. “The intention was to give my ensemble a sense of purpose. I have seasoned actors in my lead roles, and my ensemble are almost all new people.”
I asked him to describe what it was like working with a mixed bag of experience. “I could not have gotten a better cast,” Downey replies. “I would rather have one inexperienced person who wants to be here than a dozen professional actors who couldn’t care less. I am the most blessed director in Hampton Roads. I’m exceptionally proud of what we’ve created.”
“I have actors who have studied under Stella Adler, and I have construction workers who’ve never set foot onstage. And together they are making magic. This is why I left New York. This is what will save the arts in America.”
Lofty ideals. I hope this fledgling director’s vision resounds with the community. Go see An Enemy of the People at the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach and let us know what you think.
An Enemy of the People opens this Friday, November 13 and runs through December 6. There will be a talk-back with the cast and crew after the performance on Nov. 15. You can purchase tickets here.