Politics of the Stage: An Interview with the Cast and Director of BPF production Commander

“The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation.” ~Justice Anthony Kennedy, SCOTUS ruling 6/26/15. The nation has finally legally recognized gay marriage in all fifty states, but is the country ready for its first openly gay president? In a sit-down TheatreBloom exclusive interview with the cast and creative team of Commander, a new work featured as a part of the 2015 Baltimore Playwrights Festival, we delve into the nature of the play which features a Rhode Island Governor gearing up to run for president.

Let’s start with an introduction from you three and then we’ll get into the questions.

Chelsea Dove making her Directorial debut with Vagabond Players and their BPF production of Commander
Chelsea Dove making her Directorial debut with Vagabond Players and their BPF production of Commander

Chelsea Dove: I’m Chelsea Dove, and I’m the Director of Commander. In the past I’ve done a lot of Stage Managing at Vagabonds. I’ve actually just finished stage managing for Born Yesterday. I also stage managed Rabbit Hole, Art, and The Foreigner with them. This is my directorial debut.

Mark Scharf: She directed a lovely staged reading for me.

Chelsea: Yes, I did direct a staged reading of Mark’s new work, The Quickening at The Comparative Drama Conference.

Area actor/playwright Mark Scharf playing Governor Ned Worley in Commander at Vagabond Players
Area actor/playwright Mark Scharf playing Governor Ned Worley in Commander at Vagabond Players

Mark: I guess since I inserted myself there, I’ll go next. I’m Mark Scharf and I’m a playwright and an actor. The last play of mine that I’ve had produced in the area is Fortune’s Child, which you reviewed and interviewed me for, over at Baltimore Theatre Project. As an actor I appeared in Art, here at Vags, which opened the season. And now I’ve just closed the season with Born Yesterday.  And now I’m here with this. So I’ve gotten to work with Chelsea at least three times now.

Thom Sinn: Hello, again. Thom Sinn here, making his debut at Vagabonds with Commander. Recently at Cohesion Theatre for their inaugural season I was in 13 Dead Husbands. Let’s see, what else? Fells Point Corner Theatre… I did Circle Mirror Transformation…two or three seasons ago, I know, but it was so very memorable. I’m also a Pumpkinhead. I have done probably five shows in the last season or two with Pumpkin Theatre and I’m hoping to do more, so think good thoughts for their continued existence.

Tell us a little bit about this show, Commander, and how you each ended up as a part of the project.

Chelsea: Well, Commander is a play written by Mario Correa, he’s from New York, and he submitted it to the Baltimore Playwrights Festival. Steve Goldklang directed the read-through they did at Fells Point Corner Theatre as a part of their day-long event where they read through three play submissions. I stage managed that. After the read-through, he approached me and said that Vagabonds wanted to do a BPF play this year, they wanted to do Commander, and he wanted to know if I’d be interested in directing it. Of course I said yes. I’ve been wanting to step up and try directing for a while so it was the perfect opportunity with perfect timing. The board approved it, everybody loves the script, and it just sort of worked out. Then it was on to casting.

Ah, yes. Casting. Which we heard so much about. Now, Thom, you actually came out for auditions?

Area actor Thom Sinn making his Vagabond Players debut in Commander
Area actor Thom Sinn making his Vagabond Players debut in Commander

Thom: Well. Sort of. Back to 13 Dead Husbands and the most beautiful girl in the world…Casey Dutt, who was involved in the staged reading of Commander, at some point the question was put to her. “Gee, Casey, we are casting Commander and do you have any thoughts on men who could be in the show?’ She and I were in that show that time, and I think I gave her $60 and some chocolates— no, she just mentioned my name. I received a phone call from Steve, and I read for him. Gave him the $60 and chocolates! That’s right, and then I was cast, and very happily so, cannot mention that enough. So, shout out to Dede, the most beautiful girl in the world!

Right. And then there’s you, Mark. Another accidental to this show, no?

Chelsea: Mark stepped in and saved us all at the last minute.

Thom: Thank you, Mark!

Mark: You know, I can’t let Chelsea down. I had her back. You know, we talked about it early on, I think she had looked at me originally, but I was going away during the run. So she was able to cast it and everything, but then there was a hiccup—

Chelsea: We had a hiccup. I called him asking for some names of people who might be able to fill the lead quite quickly without a lot of notice, and he called back and said schedules had changed and that he could do it. There was a huge weight off my shoulders at that point, I was very relieved.

Mark: This is three times in a row that I’ve gotten called into shows. I don’t know what that means.

Tell us a little bit about the characters you guys are playing.

Chelsea: Thom is playing Richard, who is a high school teacher and he’s partnered to Governor Ned Worley, the accidental governor of Rhode Island, who is played by Mark.

Thom: I prefer to think of him as unplanned.

Chelsea: He became governor when his predecessor was impeached for money fraud.

Mark: He was thrown in jail.

Chelsea: Yeah, so Ned was the Lieutenant Governor. In the original draft of the script, Ned had won the election. But after the read-through, Mario made a couple of changes to sort of make Ned’s campaign come even more out of nowhere? I think he wanted people to see that he had never even previously been through an election process.

So now we have Ned as the Governor of Rhode Island and then what?

Chelsea: Well the basis of the show now revolves around him deciding that he wants to—

Mark & Thom: Run for president.

Mark, do you have any experience with that?

Mark: I was Vice President of the student body in high school. Does that count? That was a really long time ago…

Thom: Age. Ain’t nothing but a number, baby!

Mark: I was a lot more political when I was…younger. The older I get, the more left I get. I’ll be an anarchist by the time I’m 60, I’m sure.

Thom: Power to the people.

Mark: Burn it all down.

Do you have any political experience outside of the high school student body?

Mark: Nope. I do remember delivering fliers on my bicycle for Joe Biden’s first election. And government youth council and stuff like that, but nothing since becoming an adult.

Thom? What about you?

Thom: HAHA! The Lord Chancellor to a medieval king back at the castle is about as far as I go. That’s pretty much it. What can I say about my political aspirations or involvement? Yeah…minimal.  I pay attention to issues in my state and neighborhood. I’m very sorry to hear about Governor Hogan and his cancer and I hope that he makes it out. I think I support absolutely nothing he believes in politically, but the state of Maryland is now going to be affected because of that, so I wish him well. My aspirations for anything political are virtually non-existent.

Mark: I turn on MSNBC during elections and scream a lot at the television. Well, you know, Chris Matthews and I…

Thom: You two are playing hardball with each other.

Mark: That’s it. We’re playing hardball.

Chelsea: I’m with them. I mean, I pay attention to the issues. I vote. But that’s all.

Without sort of giving away how the play goes, what do you think is the message that the playwright is trying to get across with his work? This is not something that we’ve accomplished yet in America, I think the joke may be that we have to have the first black and first female president before we can have the first gay president.

Chelsea: That’s actually touched on in the play by the political advisor, Frank DeSantis (played by Jeff Murray.) Ned says “We elected a black guy, so it’ll happen.” And Frank says, “Yeah, a black guy who likes women.” I’m hoping that this show might open up some people’s minds. What’s at the center point of this play is their relationship. While the political message is important, it’s much more about the human story of the relationship between Richard and Ned and how the political can affect the personal.

I think it’s interesting that you bring that up. On a broader spectrum— any person in a relationship, regardless of sexual orientation or political affiliation— the way one person dedicates themselves to their career can put a tremendous strain on a relationship. Anyone have experience with that here? You’re both m— well, Thom, I know you’re married…

Mark: I’m living in sin. I have a significant other.

Thom: I have a wife.

Chelsea: I’m single. My mother gets all of my complaints and stress.

Mark: There is some interesting historical information thrown into the show as well about past presidents and political figures who were not openly gay but speculation was brought about. I mean in some cases it makes perfect sense when you line up all the facts and look at the bigger picture.

Great work around for my question there, guys.

Thom: That’s what we do! But back to your original question—

Mark: It’s about this connection between these two men and the pressure that ambition— and what ambition does to a person— and how it can start jettisoning things.

Thom: I definitely think there is a message there that talks about ambition, certainly, and truth. Ambition and truth and honesty. Who are you willing to be? What are you willing to take a stand for in the face of what others are telling you that you want to or need to do? It gets very complicated. On the one hand, my character Richard says “F*** the complication. Plain and simple, what do you want?” Let’s be honest here.

Mark: Ned g becomes more and more of a political animal. Because before becoming Lieutenant Governor of Rhode Island he was a college professor. He was a history professor who had written a book about Walter Mondale. As he becomes more and more political it’s “which face do I show to which people?” Which truth am I today? Is there an objective truth at the center of things or does it always transform and adapt to the situation? That to me is the heartbreaking center of the show. To me, I think it’s a very funny play, but there is that really deep struggle. There’s a core to this relationship. I love the way that the play withholds that information. You actually get to see it, you’re not told about it— Thank God— later on you get to see it. You get to see why this is and how much really has been at stake and how much is really endangered.

Thom: I feel that Mario has done such a fabulous job of showing a great deal to the audience and letting them decide. He lets them see the dynamics and lets them decide for themselves, “Wow, look who’s acting in such-and-such a manner,” or “Wow, I never would have seen that coming.” The audience is really going to be able to walk out of here with some things to think about.

How is this different from or similar to other work that you actors have done in the past?

Thom: Well, I think in Coyote on a Fence (Colonial Players, 2014) I think my character in that play definitely had his sense of what he felt was “fair” and “right or wrong.” But even with the dynamics that were playing within that play, he still changed his tune somewhat, to a person that was completely opposite of him. Understanding was developed, do we dare say friendship? Even with that character’s opinion on certain matters in that show, the character was able to say “when you don’t know the full story, the surface can lead you to some conclusions that just might be wrong or biased.” Hopefully the audience, from what they get in the first couple of scenes of this show, to what they see in the finale, they will have one of those “oh my God” kind of moments.

Chelsea: Just from a written perspective, I worked on Frost/Nixon. It was the first show I’d ever done here at Vagabonds, six-degrees factor— with Jeff Murray— he is perfect for this role of Frank DeSantis. The character is this cigar-chewing, loud, obnoxious and blatantly opinionated political advisor. And when you say that aloud, the first person that comes to mind is Jeff Murray.  Not because Jeff is any of those things in real life, but because he’s done so well with characters like that in previous roles. It’s been wonderful to dig into this show with him. The show reminds me very much of Frost/Nixon. When it’s up, it’s up. When the pace is moving it’s going. There’s lots of quick scene changes and things are happening on either end of the stage— one location here and one location there. It’s fun to work with.

Mark: And it happens without death-killing blackouts, which I hate.

Chelsea: My Set Designer, Roy Steinmen, and I have sort of figured out a way to have the scenes play with the same furniture. It’s a very bare bones set. The locations are more suggested so that we don’t have too many long blackouts. Playwrights who have written those long blackout pauses have clearly never been on the staging side of things.

Thom: Who would do that?

Mark: I don’t do that! Now, you have them imposed upon you sometimes by directors, but I don’t write them that way.. You cross-fade, change the projection, and keep going. Don’t stop. Every time you have a blackout, you lose the audience.

What has been the biggest challenge in taking on this project?

Chelsea: Blocking! I have learned that I can sit down at my desk and put in blocking notes, but putting it up on its feet, it becomes a very different animal. Sitting at home and putting in notes…I can sort of visualize it in my head? But until I see these people up here moving, and things get stuck— it’s something else. It’s been a beautiful collaborative effort, especially when I get stuck. Thom, and Jeff, and David (area actor David Shoemaker) I’ll put them into a position and have no idea how to get them out of it, they’ve all been very kind with helping me. I was an English major, so character work in talking about the play and dealing with how things are spoken and how things should relate on a person to person level comes easier to me, but I’ve struggled a bit with the visual blocking. The actors have really been wonderful.

Thom: As an actor, I appreciate having a director who comes in with an idea, with a plan, and lays it out there, but also says “if this isn’t feeling natural after we’ve tried a couple things, if this isn’t working or feeling comfortable, or if you have an idea— go ahead and lay it out there and we’ll try it too.” As opposed to having directors who— and they do exist because I’ve worked with them— “No, no I really see it this way, I really think your character would do this, I really think he would move here at this point.” With that sort of director I just feel like “Would you just plug me into your brain? You’ve already defined what my character is going to be for me…and I’ll just lip-sync.” It is not like that at all with Chelsea and this cast. We’ve been able to work together, and try different things out and have our suggestions heard.

Chelsea: The whole thing has been very collaborative, which has been very nice. The playwright had sent us some line changes after the initial read-through and he’s been very supportive and collaborative in going back and forth with us.

Mark: In my experience, both as an actor and as a playwright, Chelsea is very good at making people feel very comfortable because she doesn’t approach the script like it’s broken from the start. A lot of directors look at new work with those “It’s new? Let’s fix it!” eyes.

Chelsea: Mario is just so excited about this opportunity! He is the sweetest guy! He came to our read through and is coming to another one of the rehearsals. Anytime he’s in DC he stops by. He’s just so excited to get to see it, and hear it, and witness a full production of it.

Mark: Does that mean I get out of strike if the playwright is going to be in town?

Chelsea: No.

Thom: How much of this set really has to go? It’s pretty nice looking…

Chelsea: The whole thing— we need a blank back wall.

Mark: We can just hang a tapestry…

Any actor challenges you two have experienced?

Chelsea: Sorry, we derailed them there.

Thom: Oh yeah, actor challenges…

Mark: Dealing with me.

I meant challenges for you, Mark. Not Chelsea’s challenge of dealing with you.

Mark: You never know, that might be Thom’s challenge too. I’m special. But seriously? Mine’s logistical. It’s not wanting to let anybody down. Coming i late in the process, it’s a big juicy hell of a part. My first rehearsal— Thom is giving me all this information just by the way he’s saying the lines— and I’m here with a script in my hands just trying to catch up.

Thom: I really appreciate what Mark is saying. I’ve never had to step in like that. I have no concept of what kind of pressures there might be with that. But in just the one time we’ve rehearsed, I’ve just had this sense of “Ahh…“here’s an actor that gets it.” He gets relationship. He gets interaction. He understands the importance of listening, honesty, and adjusting, and all of those things that you desperately hope for in a scene partner. Now, that was just the first time, maybe today he’ll be different.

Mark: Today I’ll be a raging prick. But I mean, to step into something where there’s already a set of people working on it, the dynamic has already been established— you just want to hold up your end, as corny as that sounds. It’s a big part, and this is a big challenge.

Thom: What I feel is a challenge, and this shouldn’t be a challenge, but there’s absolutely nothing I can do about, but because this is the first time this show is being performed…my greatest desire is that when that final scene closes, that the playwright sits back and says “Yes. Like that. That’s what I had in mind when I sat down at my typewriter, my keyboard, my legal pad.” Everyone else will have 1,000 different opinions, and they’re welcome to them, and they can write what they want about it, but I sure hope that the playwright feels that way. He birthed it. That’s sincerely what I’m hoping for, that we meet his desires and expectations.

Mark: I’m hoping that I have enough technique and skills. The last scene is a real challenge for me. I’m tickled to death getting to be a part of it. It’s great getting to work with Chelsea, and to work with David Shoemaker again. We had our little table during Iceman, and I’ve seen Jeff’s work before, I’ve actually tried to wrangle him into a play of mine before, but things don’t always work out that way. Now here I am and I’m really excited to be on stage again. I get to act with Jeff, and with David, and they made it very comfortable.

Thom: I had seen the other three gentlemen in this cast on stage before and had enjoyed their performances. So as I was finding out who the cast was, my reactions were “Oh, cool! Oh, good!”

This play comes with certain LGBT+ community promotional associations. Do you think the show will be well received by the audience, given the nature of the subject?

Mark: I think so.

Chelsea: I do too. The audience at Vagabonds is very progressive. I’m not worried at all.

Mark: I don’t think we’re saying anything horrendously radical.

Chelsea: We’re not even saying anything new.

Mark: This play is about people. It’s about these two guys in this relationship, regardless of sexuality. I mean sexuality is a component, but it’s this truth.

Chelsea: Mario has written it in a way that it’s not out to make a statement. He’s not out to change people’s minds, he’s just laid out on the table and said “this is how it would be.” I think he wants people to think about it and talk about it, but he’s not carrying any kind of agenda with it.

Thom: Getting back to what we were talking about earlier, we can leave it up to the audience to ask their own questions and create their own answers. This is one person— the playwright— this is his perspective on it.

Mark: Premise is on stage, conclusion is in the audience. I can’t imagine anybody being upset with this about anything.

What has the process of this experience taught you about yourself as a performer or director and on the whole as a human being?

Mark: It was a leap of faith to go ahead and do this. That was a lesson. I’m here. Going with my gut, this is right, and this is the right thing to do. Trusting myself, and trusting these folks; this is the right thing to do and this is the right place to be. I’m flattered. It’s flattering.

Thom: I don’t know that I have an answer to that question yet, and it’s not that I’m trying to avoid it…but two or three weeks into this process that’s what it’s been for me…an actor putting together nuts and bolts so on and so forth. Once we get to opening night I might have a better answer for you. Ask me this the next time you interview me and I’ll have the same answer.

Chelsea: This is the first time I’ve ever done it, so I’m discovering that I like directing a lot. It’s a chance to take what I’ve seen other directors do when I’ve worked with them and pick and choose and make it my own, and rely on what I’ve seen work and what I’ve seen not work. It’s been a process. I hope that it succeeds and I hope that I get to do it again soon because I’ve really had a blast.

Mark: She doesn’t give line readings. She knows how to talk to actors. That’s not a small thing.

Chelsea: I get to hear, as a stage manager, actors complain about the directors. They say things like “Oh, I wish he wouldn’t say it like that.” Or “Oh, I wish she had phrased it this way or that way.” So I have that always in the back of my mind because I don’t want them to be complaining to my stage manager about me! I focused on how I could have a relationship with them that’s going to work for them, for me, and for the play.

Is there a moment somewhere in the show that speaks to you personally?

Thom: Yeah…but I’m not going to share that with you.

Chelsea: Oh, I think I know which one…and yeah…no. You’re not allowed to share that one.

Thom: There is a particular moment…

Mark: I think I know exactly which moment you’re talking about. And then when you explained how you were framing it, that brought it into sharp focus for me, because I think we’ve both had similar moments in our lives. This character— and again I’m speaking about this character without having the benefit of working with him for weeks— but he’s—

Chelsea: He’s very complex. All the characters in this play are very complex. Except maybe Jeff’s character. He pretty much just lays everything out there from the beginning.

Mark: I just feel like Ned peels things off and you get to the core and the things that get jettisoned because of the things you want—

You are loving that word today, Mark.

Mark: Yeah…jettison. *sings* Meet George Jettison *whistles* Don’t put that in there.

Chelsea: Oh my God. It’s like herding cats.

There are many other theatres that would like to tie up your time and money this summer. Why should you come and see Commander here at Vagabonds?

Thom: Well, A.) In my opinion, set the time and money aside to go see all of them. Go see everything that’s playing. Pillow Book, at Cohesion, Altar Boys at Spots, and whatever else is playing. And ours. Make sure you see ours. First of all, theatre is pretty outstanding in Baltimore— he says completely unbiasedly, it’s not like I work here or anything. But this is a story that is worth hearing. It is topical. It is something that while we talk about how the characters are complex and have layers, because it’s so well written you’re going to get it. You will not be lectured to. No one will stick a multi-colored flag in your hand on the way in or the way out. It is simply a story asking a really wonderful question.

Mark: It’s a good story well told, I think. With these people I think you’re going to see a really nice evening of theatre.

Chelsea: I would second what Thom said, go see all Baltimore theatre this summer, especially the other Baltimore Playwright Festival shows that are going on.

Mark: You’re getting the complete package: a great production with quality in the production itself as well as the writing and the casting. It’s a great show worth coming out for.

Chelsea: Come see the show!

Commander plays through July 26, 2015 as a part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival 2015 at The Vagabond Players— 806 S. Broadway in historic Fells Point Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 563-9135 or purchase them online.

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