When theatre is evocative and moving, audience members can’t help but wonder what it’s like for the actors who help to make it so, particularly when the subject matter is intensely poignant and relevant to the outside world. Spotlighters Theatre’s current production of Dog Sees God, addresses a great many issues that plague today’s adolescent culture, everything from homophobia and bullying in the LGBT+ community, to teenage substance abuse and mental health. TheatreBloom takes an exclusive look inside the production with Actor Reed DeLisle on being a part of this extremely relevant and important theatrical work. WARNING: This interview contains adult subject matter and potential plot-spoilers.
If you could start with an introduction of who you are, who you play in the show, and what work you’ve done in and around the Baltimore theatre community in the last year to familiarize the readers with your work, that would be great.
Reed DeLisle: This will be fun for you. My name is Reed DeLisle, I’m 22 years old and I was raised in Howard County. In Dog Sees God at Spotlighters Theatre I portray Beethoven. Besides that I have been on Investigative Discovery, as a rapist, you might recognize me for my eyebrows in that show. I’ve also been on House of Cards, you’ll see the back of my neck in one shot. I’ve been a Pirate in Ocean City for the past two years on the Duckaneer. My pirate name is Skittles and I wish I could tell you why my pirate name is Skittles, but I really don’t know at all.
What generated the interest to come and audition for Dog Sees God at Spotlighters?
Reed: I had done excerpts of this show in college. None of the big scenes that I have in the show, but when I was doing excerpts in college I was also Beethoven. I got a small taste of it and I wanted to do it ever since. I’d actually been looking for auditions for the show, and I finally found one at Spotlighters just on a whim. That brought me to the attention to the theatre and to the play as a whole and everything like that.
What has working in a show like this meant to you as an individual? There are a lot of other issues addressed throughout the show, but one of the main recurring themes is the LGBT acceptance; as an individual who identifies as a heterosexual male, what has taking on this project been like for you?
Reed: The reason this show has been as important to me as it has, besides Peanuts and nostalgia, is one of my best friends in middle school, high school, college, and even now— he has always struggled with his sexual identification. He’s had a lot of adversity and overcome it. He has struggled with his sexual identity, overcome those struggles and become empowered by them. He’s taken the journey of Beethoven but in a positive way. So when researching the show, I discovered that the previous portrayals of this character really stereotyped him. They made him very flamboyant, almost like Screech from Saved by the Bell. That’s not what it is. The Beethoven’s of this world are not stereotypes. They’re people. They struggle. They have doubts about who they are, where they’ve been, who they want to be. I thought doing this role justice was doing my friend justice. It was my way of showing him how proud I am of everything he’s been through.
What did you do to hone and develop this character in that way that you were just talking about?
Reed: I did a lot of research. The HBO production of The Normal Heart really helped, especially with Mark Ruffalo’s character. You know he’s gay, he talks about being gay, but there are very few moments where he enacts a flamboyant gesture or any of the hallmarks that people have come to outwardly associate and stereotype with being gay. This façade that he has for himself protects him from society. There are very few moments where he allows his actual self to creep through that. I’ve drawn a nice parallel between his character and Beethoven.
It’s about deciding who Beethoven is in front of other people verses who he is when he’s by himself. I talked to GSA’s at high schools about what they wish would have happened differently in their lives, even now with all the progress we’ve made. I worked their responses into this portrayal. I think I should also put out there that I never really viewed or labeled the Beethoven character as gay. He’s never had affection. To a young boy, a dad kind of shows you how to grow up and what’s right. His dad abused him. His dad never showed him love that wasn’t malicious. Beethoven has never known affection. All of his friends disavowed him; they cast him out. He’s completely by himself and then all of the sudden here comes CB who not only listens to everything that Beethoven has to get off his chest, but also apologies.
While everything is in the moment and the kiss happens— I don’t think Beethoven is registers that it is a man who is kissing him. I think he’s registering it as “this is affection that isn’t meant to hurt.” And that’s actually really sad because of the irony of the play. I think Beethoven could possibly be gay, but he doesn’t know that. The only thing he definitely identifies himself as is a musician.
Do you have a musical inclination or background?
Reed: I do play piano. Music has always been a part of my life. My mom told me when I was little that I should learn to play piano because it would help me in life. I’ve been playing piano for 16 years, I’ve played the drums for 12. I play guitar, I sing, I play the harmonica, and I think that’s the reason that I got cast in this show. Everyone else has these really impressive resumes and I had in my skills section “is a pirate, 16 years of piano.”
Music has definitely helped me through life. Music is a great escape. It’s a great thing to hide behind when you’re stressed or upset. It’s an amazing tool to show how you’re happy when you don’t know how to do so otherwise. Music effects everybody in different ways, even just playing one song to nine people you’ll get nine different reactions. I think music is fantastic. The fact that Beethoven, who never has his voice heard, chooses to hide behind another auditory escape, is great.
You mentioned that you were familiar with The Peanuts and that they held sentimental value to you. How do you think people who also recognize these iconic cartoon strip characters will receive the way they appear and are portrayed in this production?
Reed: I think if you go into the show imagining that you’re going to see CB having a tree eating his kite? Then you’re going to be horribly disappointed. And you’re going to be caught off guard. I think the way to enter this play, knowing the concept and the content of what it talks about, is that The Peanuts characters are your building blocks, a familiarity point. Cast that aside. We play those characters but they aren’t those characters anymore. I think people will find a way to accept that as long as they don’t go in expecting that they are those younger versions of themselves. This is different.
What has working in the unique Spotlighters stage space been like for you?
Reed: It’s intimate. And it’s a square. I realize that I have to give a full body performance. No matter how I stand my back is going to be to somebody and there’s going to be some poor unfortunate soul trapped behind a pillar. So if I have my back to half the audience, I can’t just smile with my face or get tense in my cheeks, I have to engage my whole body. The show is constantly spinning; you see everyone. There is no mystery of the darkness like most theatres, where you know the audience is out there but you can’t see them? You see everyone. I made the mistake one night of accidently opening my eyes to see if they were turning out the lights during my first CB kiss? And I made eye contact with a man. We just kind of looked at each other and then the lights went out. It was terrifying. The audience is so close that you interact no matter what and that’s daunting and that’s terrifying. Logistically you never have a center and that was scary too.
What has been the biggest challenge for you in taking on this role?
Reed: Besides “Revolutionary Etude?” Because of my personal attachment to this play there has been a lot of pressure to do this character and the people he represents justice. Not everyone who is bullied gets to yell at their bullier— wow, I need to find a better word for that. Let me try that again. Not everyone who is bullied gets to confront their bully and say “This is exactly what you did to me. Fuck you.” The faculty doesn’t care, and all too often that happens in real life. So Beethoven gets this chance that most bullied people don’t’ get. He gets to lash out at CB, say all these things, and not only does he get listened to, but he gets an apology. It’s a fantasy for anyone who has ever been bullied, whether it happens in school, at home, or even with yourself. You never get to confront your bully the way he confronts CB.
Beethoven reaches such a low point, he doesn’t see a way out and he takes his own life. That is something a lot of people struggle with every single day. They struggle to make it through and find a reason not to take their own life. In our post-show discussions, when people say that they remember being Beethoven, that’s horrifying to hear but it’s also great to hear because there are sitting there in the audience, which means for them it got better. For them they found their strength and they got through it. Doing this show— it isn’t Shakespeare or like trying to play Macbeth right— but it is a huge challenge because he represents this character who is someone that everyone nowadays can associate with.
The challenge for me has been dealing with the pressure. There’s a lot of pressure because personally I feel like if I do it wrong, or don’t portray him in a way where people can relate to him or see the Beethoven in themselves, if I don’t do him justice then I feel like the show sort of collapses on itself. CB’s plot arch doesn’t connect and the Pigpen character’s anger doesn’t make sense if you don’t see that struggle and understand his low point. I think I rambled there, I’m sorry.
Is there a scene in the show that defines the show for Beethoven?
Reed: There is one moment and one moment alone that kept me up at night with Beethoven. It’s one line and it actually happens when he’s alone with himself, but it’s when he says “Oh My God” after CB brings him the lunch in the music room. He says “give me time” to CB, and that’s a huge thing for Beethoven to say. That’s actually huge for anyone to say about being in a relationship, “okay, let work into this role.” And in the script it just says “Beethoven smiles to himself, says ‘oh my god’ and then goes to play the piano.” It could be a very dismissive thing. But in my conversations with our director, we decided that we had to milk that. That was his moment where everyone had to know how important that was for him. He’s never felt that before, CB just made him feel so important and so unique. You know, he made him a lunch. Someone made Beethoven a lunch and now he’s in a safe place. That hasn’t happened in years if at all. You know he didn’t have lunch-making parents. His father— obviously not— and when situations like that happen, the other parent always feels guilt for not seeing what was going on. Judging by how Beethoven moves and acts, his mom never talked. I think she now works as many jobs as she can to pay for his piano lessons because that’s all she knows how to do to help get him out of that situation.
I think if CB hadn’t had his moment with Beethoven, I think Beethoven would have gone through the rest of high school being bullied, but struggling through. I think that he would have gone to some college far away, joined the music program, and would have really actually been happy. He would grown to be happy and would have become more comfortable with himself. That was the dream I saw in Beethoven that kept him going every day. He knew that was where he could end up so that pulled him through. That “Oh My God” line terrified me. He needed to have joy. He’s a very dark character. He’s bullied, he gets picked on, he’s confrontational, he’s sarcastic. But here’s this one moment of just simple happiness. This is a choice that we made together, I go back to the piano, I start playing the etude again, but then I stop. I smile and I start playing The Peanuts main theme, and I play it happy. We chose to make that moment like that because that’s the first time that Beethoven is experiencing happiness and remembering what it’s like to be happy and have a friend.
And then of course that moment is crushed, literally. Having that moment of happiness really builds the character for him. Because without it you just have this downward trend of bad things that just end in worse things. So having that peak there gives him a moment of joy, which makes what happens thereafter that much more brutal. There’s no silver lining without that happy moment. I think the audience needed to see Beethoven smile. It’s that much more heartbreaking to see him destroyed once you see him smile, and that really completes the arc for him. You know, though, my favorite scene in the play isn’t even my scene. I love Lucy’s scene. It’s just so amazing. She has more lines in that one scene that I think Beethoven does in the whole play.
How have the post-show discussions been informing what you’re doing with your character and with the work in general?
Reed: Everything that I have to say about the topics discussed, I’ve put into the character. I don’t mind talking about my process, or the play. But if you’re asking me— as a 22 year old person who grew up in Howard County— how to fix Baltimore? I don’t have the answer to that. I know there are a lot people who feel the need to try and trouble-shoot or hunt for solutions to these enormous problems in those talk-back moments, but I don’t feel that way. The thing I do want people to take away from the show experience is that if you do see bullying happening, you’ll do something about it. You’ll take an active stance to stop it rather than just ignoring it or pretending you don’t see it. For plays with a social message that’s the best you can hope for. I’d rather people walk away from this thinking about the play itself, the characters, and the subtext, rather than trying to outline all the issues and solve them all.
That said, the discussions are being handled very well. We are having a lot of really great audience participation. The other issue I have with it is that the discussions seem to only focus on the homophobia and LGBT+ issues, and I know that is a big part of the play, but there are so many other huge issues happening here too. There’s drug abuse in teenagers— and that isn’t just in Baltimore, that’s everywhere. The Linus character, who was a philosopher as a kid, now has to numb himself with pot to get through the day. The Lucy character uses fire, a destructive element, to cope— and there’s a lot of subtext going on there.
The play addresses anorexia and bulimia and bullying in that vein. The Pigpen character? His mom dies. She dies somewhere in his childhood and he doesn’t know how to cope with that so he uses that to get laid. Coping mechanisms are a huge issue in this show and they aren’t being addressed in post show, and I think they should be. You know, mental health, especially with Lucy. I’m not sure how we share the focus, though because everyone wants to jump right into the LGBT issues.
Now what makes me so happy about this work is that those moments that I was just talking about, some of them? They’ve very subtle, like with Pigpen’s mom, but they are huge integral parts of these characters and why they act the way they do. I think with the discussions we should talk about our characters individually. I don’t mean sob-story/back-story type things, but maybe “these are the coping mechanisms my character uses to deal with this issue and that issue, here’s what I did to present that in the play and I hope it came across.” I think that would help to broaden the topics of discussion in the post-show conversation with the audience. Beethoven is, and this is just my personal opinion, but he’s a poster child for all th personal hurt that happens in this play. He’s the victim, the epitome of “this is how bad it gets.” But every character in that show is suffering.
I think the message of the play is “use your friends as a coping mechanism” as opposed to the way these kids are going about it. I think maybe the post-show discussion should be started with “what coping mechanisms did you witness in action and how can you or do you relate to them?” That would also help us really tackle some of these other really crucial issues that are presented in the work.
Do you have similar struggles that you addressed or coped with when you were the age of these characters?
Reed: I have a great family, I have great friends, and my teachers were great. But no matter what there’s always a bully for someone. In a lot of the worst cases, the worst bully is yourself. When you get bullied you start to doubt yourself. And then you get this voice that lives inside your head that says “everything you’re doing, everything about you is wrong.” So in public, I’m horribly shy. I get anxiety attacks, I suffer from depression, and I use music to hide that. I use theatre to channel the feelings that I don’t know how to express on my own. I’ve drank to deal with my problems. It’s very difficult to know what’s the right way to handle your problems and what’s the wrong way. I lost my train of thought…I forgot the prompt question…can you repeat it?
Do you have struggles similar to the ones these characters experience?
Reed: Well, I relate a lot to CB, actually. But that’s a whole different story. Beethoven doesn’t want to be seen outside of his comfort zone. When I see him in the hallway, I see him hugging the lockers with his headphones on, blocking everybody else out and just trying to get from “A” to “B.” But when he’s at he’s at his piano, when he’s in his comfort zone, he can express everything. That’s how I handled the stage in high school. In classes, I didn’t want to talk. In hallways I wanted to get to the Band Room or the Theatre and be done with it. It’s social camouflage. My way and Beethoven’s way of coping are social camouflage.
Can you talk a little bit more about relating to CB?
Reed: There are a lot of characters in this play that I could not perform. I could not play Pigpen. I would have fun as Van— the Linus character— but I would never be able to do him justice. I would love to be Lucy. But with CB, the contrast of how he talks in person and how he writes to his pen pal, that’s very me. He’s very well spoken and he’s very knowledgeable on lots of things and those are sides of him you just don’t’ see in public. Even now, however many years after the comics in their chronology, he’s still very “blockhead.” He’s waiting for people to give him all the answers. But when he’s writing his letter and he’s in his own head he knows exactly what he’s doing and what he’s after.
CB is a chameleon, it really depends on who he’s next to in regards to how he reacts. He’s more empowered talking to Lucy than he is with Pigpen or Linus, he matches whatever energy they have. Lucy doesn’t have a filter, she doesn’t care. Therefore CB doesn’t have to when he’s with her. Pigpen degrades women and talks only about sex and then suddenly CB gets condescending to girls. With Linus he sits and listens and lets him wax philosophical. He’s never himself until he’s by himself, and I feel that way all the time.
If there is a message to take away from this play, what is it you hope people will take away from it?
Reed: Everyone struggles. It doesn’t matter who you are. In one of the post-show discussions someone said “The cool kids do this.” And I guarantee you, those “cool kids” they’re struggling with things that we have no idea about. Just by saying that line “I had no idea what Beethoven was going through I wish he had talked to me.” That’s so poignant and true of everyone. The Pigpen character is no different; no one knows what he’s going through because he doesn’t talk about it. Pain is everywhere. By labeling someone as the enemy or the victim you demean what’s really happening. Everyone needs to be talked to everyone needs to be heard. And when that doesn’t happen that’s when this kind of violence happens. That’s the best way I think I can word what I hope people take away from this show.
What has taking on this show taught you about yourself as a performer? As an individual human being?
Reed: As a performer, you can’t half-ass it. You’ve got to jump into it. I don’t like addressing it in the post-show discussions because I don’t think it’s necessary, but I am straight. There are some very passionate moments in this play that I have never experienced before. I had never kissed a guy before. You know, after the first kiss, we all went out for a drink that night, and Sean (CB, Sean Dynan) asked me “So?” and I laughed and said “Still straight, but it was an experience.” And I asked him what did he think of it. He told me “You’re the perfect hybrid between girl and guy. You’re very gentle but firm.” And you know, if I’m going to get a critique for kissing, I’ll take that one.
But there is a lot with Beethoven that was very hard to dive into. And…spoilers. But standing up and finding the courage to do so with Pigpen at the end— and Dennis (Matt, Dennis Binseel) intimidates the hell out of me. It’s funny because he’s the nicest guy in the world, but when he gets on stage and he glares at me, I’m pretty positive I might actually die. He gets a vein right there in his neck and I call that the death vein. It’s terrifying. So I’m finding courage, and then kissing a guy on stage and trying to develop that relationship amid the confusion that overwhelms Beethoven, it’s a lot. It’s emotionally and physically intense, being invested in that way with another male character and it’s something I’ve never done before. I found myself nervous about other people seeing it, I was worried that they might think I wasn’t doing it right, or doing it justice, or falling into a stereotype.
Then I realized that my struggles with this role are small, compared to the people who are actually coping with coming out of the closet in real life. That was a wake-up call for me with Beethoven and how to portray him. It terrified me even more then. We got through opening weekend, and I’m still terrified of going back next weekend and doing it right.
As a person I’ve gotten much more introspective. I don’t talk during the play backstage. I sit back there with my iPod in, I have a playlist. I find myself flinching anytime any of the actors come over to me. Beethoven is very hard— if characters are hats Beethoven is a helmet that doesn’t want to be unbuckled from my head. I’m sorry, I speak in metaphor.
But this show has taught me, or maybe reminded me? That I’m introspective. Some people are sharers and social and I’m not that way, especially back in the dressing room. I’m in my headspace and I’m in my me space and I think the cast is getting that, I mean don’t get me wrong they’re all great people, but I’m just sort of quietly in my head and like to be left there.
Now, this is going to sound very contradictory to everything I just said, but I’m very grateful to have this role. I think it has taught me a lot about myself as an actor. The responses we’ve been getting, the reviews have been amazingly nice and they understand what we’re trying to do. While I might bubble myself, there is respect among all of us. Fuzz is amazing, I hope to work with him again, and Spotlighters is a great outlet for community theatre.
Why should people see Dog Sees God at Spotlighters Theatre?
Reed: With all the young adult books being turned into movies and destroying our live theatres with an abundance of sad-sob cancer stories, people should know that there is are alternative— I don’t want to say entertainment options— because this isn’t really a show for entertainment, but there are other options. You need to see live theatre, even if it’s not for entertainment. This play is edgy. Kudos to Fuzz because he gave us a sandbox and let us play. But I think that people need to see this show because it is what kids are in schools. The play is edgy enough with the subject matter? But then you throw in all the language. And we aren’t speaking like that or saying all those words that way to be modern or to make you feel uncomfortable, we’re saying it because sadly this is how kids these days are speaking.
The reason to see this play— and you can say all you want about it being community theatre and us doing it for the love of the theatre— but if you’re an actor you should be doing what you do for a love of the theatre regardless. That’s the foundation of why we do what we do. I can’t actually tell people why they should see the play because I honestly don’t know. Fuzz says it best, you’re going to laugh, you’re going to cry, you’re going to feel uncomfortable. You’re going to connect with one of us, you’re going to see what happened in their life, maybe relate it to your own, and that’s going to be something. As long as you can take away some comfort in that— to see that you aren’t the only one going through this sort of thing or dealing with these problems— then that should be reason enough to come see the show.
The play is great, we’re getting great reviews. Great cast, great crew, the set is amazing. I can give you the normal pitch— we’re a great cast, we really bonded, and all that stuff. And I mean it is true, we are great, and we do get along, but you don’t want to hear that. You don’t want to hear me pitch— that’d be the worst pitch in the world. I hope you come see the play, personally me and the cast like performing for audiences! It helps our sense of self, you know? I hope you decide not to go see a sequel or prequel in theatres or binge watch Netflix, and that you come to this very strange play of ours and take something away from it.
Dog Sees God plays through June 28, 2015 at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre— 817 N. Saint Paul Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-1225, or purchase them online.
Click hear to read the review of Dog Sees God