It has happened before. It will happen again. It’s happening right now. The innovative new work that is changing the way theatre is viewed right in Washington DC’s back yard. Venus Theatre is midway through ‘Fierce14’ with their production of We Are Samurai, a new work by emerging playwright Daria Marinelli. The piece itself fully supports the mission statement of the theatre company currently producing it. which is setting flight to the voices of women and children in theatre for live. I’ve taken a moment to go in-depth with the Founding Artistic Director of the company, Deborah Randall, who is currently directing the show, and find out as much as I possibly can about the process of this incredible piece of work.
Let’s start with a little formal introduction for the readers who are not familiar with Venus Theatre Company.
Deborah Randall: Well, I’m Deb Randall and I am the founder of Venus Theatre. We’re committed to setting flight to the voices of women and children with theatre for a lifetime. We’re currently producing our 49th script that empowers women here at our Store Front, which is 21 C Street in Laurel. Before that I produced through five different states. I’m a published playwright, I’m trained as an actor and a solo performer but I really love collaborating and directing to find the full vision of a script that’s collaborative.
Can you tell us a little bit about this production We Are Samurai?
Deb: There are two ways to really talk about it. One is the convention of the play which is that it takes place in five different locations at one time, sometimes simultaneously. So that’s really fascinating, that drew my interests. The other thing to look at is that it’s written by one of my youngest playwrights, she just turned 26. She studied under Eric En and she sort of gives permission in this new way to experience theatre.
I feel like when we’re raised with libraries and Dewy Decimal systems for reading novels it’s very different from people of the younger generation who grew up with the internet, who were constantly exposed to information. I think that sort of wires the brain in a different way and it makes you look at things differently if you’re from the newer generation where everything is always happening all at once. That’s the rhythm and tempo of this play; somebody who is thinking of a lot of different things all at once.
It gives you a lot of permission to reinterpret the experience of theatre. For eight years I’ve been in this location, shutting the doors, just wanting to do the work. Sort of like Virginia Woolf, in a room of one’s own. So Daria (playwright Daria Marinelli) has sort of challenged me to fling the doors open and invite everybody in and tell them to leave their cell phones on and have them talk to my actors and break every rule that I’ve fought to maintain. I’m challenged by that.
That’s the perfect segue because I was literally about to ask you how is this different from other shows you have produced or directed here at Venus?
Deb: This is the first promenade style piece I’ve done here. I did stage a promenade play called Cigarettes and Moby Dick nine years ago at Warehouse Theatre in their attic. It was written by Migdalia Cruz and people are still talking about it. I could swear only 12 people ever saw that play. It’s really interesting that it still sticks in people’s mind after all this time. I put that play on because I was really rebellious. I was sick of worrying about whether or not a show was going to put buts in seats so I just said “there would be no seats.”
That was a very different play, even though it was a promenade and we did walk the audience through the attic. For We Are Samurai the audience can just do whatever they want. There’s really no rules for this. You can approach it from so many different ways: follow a character of pairing of characters, pick a location and see what happens in it, or wander back and forth through the five locations among the action. It’s different for every individual who experiences the show.
You had mentioned to me previously about Eastern religions and spiritualism. How does that tie into what you’re doing with this production?
Deb: I think when you look at the writer and their intention or the genesis of their work, it turns out that Daria is a descendant of the Samurai. There was a rebellion, a huge murdering of the families and anyone who was related to the Samurai. They were all annihilated. Her great-great-great grandfather, was an infant then. Someone snuck him away and took him to safety in another village. So the playwright is of a lineage where she has Samurai in her blood, which is super rare. It was really interesting for me to hear her start talking about that. I think in a way we all do that, we all tell our story, this is just a part of how she’s telling her story.
I like that intimacy that she has with the work and I feel like—I feel like I just lost my train of thought, what was I talking about? Oh right, Eastern religions and spiritualism and how that all ties in. Because this show is so sprawling; there are four characters and I added three more— we drew ties to the Eastern elements into the show to help bring it all together.
We took each of the locations in the play and had them correspond with one of the elements. We decided the garden would be wood. The kitchen would be fire, the living room is water that is frozen and when the water reacts to the fire it turns to steam. The front is earth going up into air. Our dark Samurai, the three characters I created for the show, they are metal.
I just wanted the movement of the performers, especially the Dark Samurai, to be informed by that idea of the elements. Really going into the energy work of it, looking at how the elements interplay, using those concepts of eastern medicine, I felt like it was true to Daria and her history. There’s no one of Asian descent in the show, but the notion of reincarnation comes into play. I felt like the Eastern elements were a way to be true to her lineage. I feel like Daria is so wise because she’s written a play about war without ever talking about politics or having a weapon.
You’ve mentioned creating three characters that were not originally a part of the show, the Dark Samurai. How did that come to fruition and where are you drawing your inspiration from for their creation?
Deb: Daria is talking about reincarnation and I was worried that that might be really confusing for an audience. I wanted to have some kind of element, an established convention that was sort of a way to look at the veils between lifetimes and realities. These Dark Samurai would be people that could do things unseen to the characters but the audience would be in on it because the audience could see them. It’s also a basic safety issue. If anything goes awry I have extra people on hand. I also think there’s a cohesive thing that happens with the Dark Samurai.
I was reading reviews of when she’s done this play before and one person said it was more of a “happening.” But for me this is a play. It’s kind of random but it’s really intentional when you get down to it. These Dark Samurai, they thread it together for me. Then I just ran with it. I bounced the idea of off Daria, this creation, and she loved it, so thank God for that.
My inspiration for them? There’s the lost soul and that was inspired by the woman in black. She was that lady who walked from Kentucky to— I can’t even remember where, but she just walked and walked for weeks and weeks and weeks. I think they said she had PTSD and she was a war veteran. She had these glasses on her head and this stick; and one of my Dark Samurai is inspired by that and I’ve been calling her “the lost soul.”
Then there’s “the muse” and she’s the woman with the flute. The Dark Samurai represent metal so I gave each of them a metal. The Woman in Black, I gave her cast iron. That’s her metal and it’s heavy. The muse, her metal is silver, so we get this music and this whole ethereal aspect. The guy who is most like a ninja, I told him his metal was brass. He really is the Samurai, that image that archetype. Each of them represent an archetype that we automatically read something into even if at first it’s just visually.
All of the Dark Samurai have music in a sense. It feels like music is spiritual in a different way. The Lost Soul has a percussive stick and she sings this song out back in the garden pretty briefly, actually. But these musical elements— the flute for the muse, the Samurai guy at the piano, and the beating of the stick for the lost soul— this helps to show that they dwell in the place between where the notes are. I felt like it was sort of a binding element.
How do you think this show in particular speaks to the mission statement of your company?
Deb: Like I said, the writer is so young and so brave. I feel like we’re giving her an opportunity that she might not otherwise have. Then we’re pulling in two extra women where before there were three and now there are five. The sexuality between the women is really empowering in a way. After the last production here, Light of Night, it was so dark and sexual in a scary way. For me it was these people in isolation desperately needing to make contact and that’s where the sensuality and sexuality was grounded in that show. But I think for these young women it’s empowering to them to stand in who they are in their sensuality and sexuality without being objectified. That this is just an extension of their expression; to me it’s almost like a moving painting. It’s something that’s really beautiful that flows through them.
The three speaking characters of the show are each so different. They’re all in their 20’s. There’s the spiritual seeker—just trying to figure out what it all means while knowing that it all feels off and just trying to get things balanced. Then there’s the domestic; I can cook it, I can fix it, I can make it. And then there’s the garden. The person connecting with nature.
One of the things we discussed was this about the trees. Trees are growing up and down at the same time. There’s this root-leaf tension that’s constantly going. That gets represented in my actors as they take on elements of their location. So Daven (Daven Ralston who plays Regan) has this natural growing tension with her and then Ann (Ann Friastat who plays Josaphine) acts like that fire in the background to Daven, trying to tame that constant tension and growth with her flames. And then the earth at the front has the elemental approach of “Me, me, me, me, me!” which I think reads very strongly in what Cathryn (Cathryn Benson who plays Elias) And I just think those three rhythms working together in women are really cool.
You said that the play talks about reincarnation, do you believe that energies that might transcend or reincarnate have genders?
Deb: I have no idea. Really, I don’t know. But I think that if I have to guess just in terms of this play and the world that I’m painting? Yeah, they do. They lean one way or the other just so that we can understand what they are. That’s where I think the archetype comes in. We look at this thing and we automatically think we know what it is, when it could be something different. A lot of times in my work I deal with the triple goddess, which is the Maid, the Mother, and the Crone. The triple aspect— the curiosity, the nurturance, and the wisdom, all trying to find their life together. The triple goddess goes to the archetype of what it’s like to be a child, to be young and not know verses what it’s like to have knowledge or really know something the whole time.
What has been the biggest challenge for you directing something that is this out of your comfort zone?
Deb: I didn’t anticipate the exhaustion. And that might be true of every show I do? But the syncopation of it, the symphonic element of it— usually we come together in one room and that really only happens at the end of the play for this show. Feeling that spread and really trying to create a cohesive animal over that spread, that really took a different energy from me.
You were saying something before the show started about there being an ‘ego’ challenge in this as well?
Deb: Yes! Yes, it just hit me maybe two or three weeks ago during the process. People are only going to see 30% of what I’ve directed. That’s just weird to know that you’re working to just throw it away. That’s what’s so brilliant about Daria though. She’s so willing to do that, and she’s so generous as an artist. She’s given us full permission to improvise, just whatever works. That generosity— when you get older you can be a little bit more guarded about things— but just being around that younger generosity…it made me look at my own ego. You have to throw away a bunch of what’s being done, but that’s how it goes.
What is it you are hoping people will take away from this experience?
Deb: I hope they see how ridiculous these wars that we wage are. On every level. It just keeps repeating, and it seems sometimes to be so significant, but it never is. To get a little spiritual here, life is like a huge gift. And theatre teaches us that it’s about the moment and what you do with that singular moment. That’s life, and we as a culture or a society, we throw our moments away for what we think are noble causes. But what we’re really doing is giving up the gift.
I hope the audience can see that and say “that’s ridiculous!” Because it is. To me this show is a comedy because it’s so ridiculous. When I approached Daria about staging it as a black comedy, she said she had never viewed it as a comedy. It’s hilarious. That’s why I got the comedy of doors and the slamming, to really draw out that humor. It’s this dark comedy to me of how we take ourselves so seriously that we actually kill. I think that’s ridiculous. I think every religion teaches that whatever you do? Don’t kill anybody. And seeing that turned on its head in this show should point out to people how we need to be less ridiculous and hold onto those moments instead of throwing them away. I hope people come see this show and see that in this show.
We Are Samurai plays through September 28, 2014 at Venus Theatre— 21 C. Street in the historic district of Laurel, MD. For tickets call the box office at (202) 236-4078 or purchase them online.