Getting InterAct-ive: An Interview with InterAct Story Theatre’s Artistic Director Ali Oliver-Krueger

So many of us have great memories of our first outing to the theatre. A musical or a play— perhaps even a play designed specifically for children? InterAct Story Theatre, a local children’s theatre company that specializes in bringing a unique theatrical experience to young audiences, is making memories with their current production of One Gold Coin— Una Moneda De Oro. In a TheatreBloom exclusive interview, we sit down with current Artistic Director Ali Oliver-Krueger, currently directing One Gold Coin, and chat about what the show has to offer for young audiences.

Thanks for giving us a minute of your time, Ali. If you’d give us a quick introduction we can get started!

InterAct Story Theatre's Artistic Director Ali Oliver-KruegerInterAct Story Theatre
InterAct Story Theatre’s Artistic Director Ali Oliver-Krueger

Ali Oliver-Krueger: I’m Ali Oliver-Krueger, I am the executive and artistic director of InterAct Story Theatre. And I am the director of One Gold Coin— Una Moneda De Oro. I think the last shows that you had seen, Amanda, over the last few years were both shows that I had wrote.

And this show, One Gold Coin— Una Moneda De Oro is not one that you wrote?

Ali: This show is different in that it is in fact not a show that I wrote. It was written by our founder, Lenore Blank Kelner. One thing we like to do at InterAct is rotate or cycle through new, original rep, as well as what we’re loving calling “InterAct Classics.” These are things that have been part of our classic repertory that over the years have really helped to establish our style. They have helped us define that concept of truly interactive theatre where there is no fourth wall. They have created lots of opportunities for kids to be a part of the action from where they sit. Our quick-change transformational style, our way of not getting hung-up on the gender of the character versus the gender of the actor, all of these things that we have been doing for decades have come out of these pieces. We really like to be able to go back to those roots and honor those roots. Sometimes we have the opportunity to take these classic pieces of our rep and reinterpret them or take a fresh new look at them. That’s what we’ve done with One Gold Coin.

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And One Gold Coin comes from where in your classics rep?

Ali: It was written by Lenore Blank Kelner and it was written in 1999. The company was founded in 1981, we’re about 35 years old so this is not one of the originals from the dawn of InterAct time, but it’s still in there from a while back, and it very much rocks the style of InterAct Story. By being able to re-examine a classic like this one, we’re able to take these pieces and bring them to new audiences. This was a play that was part of our educational touring repertory. We go to the schools and we put the show on there. I want to say there have been three or four touring productions of this show in schools since 1999. But this will be the first time that InterAct will be doing it in a theatre.

Where are you performing it this time around?

Ali: We are at the Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center in downtown Silver Spring. We’re still sort of this landless theatre company— not to be confused with The Landless Theatre Company— so let’s call us nomadic. As this company with a really long touring heritage that doesn’t maintain a bricks and mortar facility and as so much of our work is really about going out into the community, it’s exciting to be able to do work in our own home town.

Would you say you’re looking at settling down here?

Ali: I don’t know if we’ve settled into our permanent home yet. I think that’s always going to be a little bit of experimentation. We’ll be trying on a lot of dresses before we finally settle on one; we want it to be the perfect fit! Our home base, our home turf of Wheaton does not have a performing arts venue in it. But we’re looking around. We really want to put down roots in our home community. So we’re starting with this here. Last year we launched the Wheaton Family Theatre Series.

What is the Wheaton Family Theatre Series?

Ali: That was a series of five free performances for kids and families featuring theatre for young audiences, storytelling, music, and dance. We were at the library. Now the library’s torn down because they’re building a new library, but that’s going to take a while. What we’ve done for our second is we’ve created this “Moveable Feast for the Arts.” We’re going to different venues and places in Wheaton— restaurants, schools, etc— and we’re pretty jazzed about that.

It sounds like you guys are keeping very busy over at InterAct Story!

Ali: We definitely are. We have this show, One Gold Coin, we have the Moveable Feast for the Arts within the Wheaton Family Theatre Series. We’ll be premiering a new play in October that we’ll be showcasing in schools. It’s called The Legend of Pufferfish Pat: A Tall Tale for Mad Times.

Did you write The Legend of Pufferfish Pat?

Ali: Yes. Well, I’m writing it. It’s not quite done yet. It’s a western tall-tale about anger management issues. Because it’s a play that I’m writing, with my partner in crime (InterAct Story Theatre Technical Director Peter Oliver-Krueger) there will be a lot of geeky whizzbangery in that one.

Tell us a little bit more about One Gold Coin. It’s a bilingual play, yes?

Ali: It’s a play with dialogue in both Spanish and English. The original play was a play written in English with Spanish vocabulary in it. We looked around and realized that a huge percentage of the population of the community that InterAct Story Theatre serves is LatinX and Hispanic. Especially where we are, here in our home base where we are very tied in with our community culture, there is a huge Salvadorian population. So we set this in El Salvador. We were so fortunate in that one of the artists that we work with regularly, Cecilia Esquivel, is one half of Cantaré, which is a Latin American musical duo. They are a WAMMIE (Washington Area Music Association annual awards) Award-winning Latin American duo and they do a lot of great children’s music. She and the other half of Cantaré, Dani Cortaza, compiled and arranged and recorded beautiful music for this show. We had a team of people lovingly creating translations so that we’re working in Spanish and English in a really seamless way. It’s a way of honoring the roots of InterAct, honoring the culture that we are so fortunate to be able to interact with on a regular basis.

One Gold Coin is also a play that is very gentle and warm. You won’t see some of that whizzbangery that you’re used to seeing at InterAct productions. But this show is infused with so much beautiful music and so much heart. Oh! And there is a magic show!

That’s a wonderful segue for you to tell us a little bit more in regards to what the story is actually all about!

Ali: Sure! One Gold Coin— Una Moneda de Oro is very much about— hmm. You know, there’s a song that shares this theme. And it goes, “Believe me, when you see me, you’ll think that you need me…but here what I say, when you give me away, something better will come your way… algo Bueno the llegara.” And that’s a song that comes from inside the coin. Doña Teresa, who is a healer, travels on foot from village to village in these remote mountain villages of El Salvador, carries with her this gold coin that she wears around her neck. She’s in these very poor places and she comes because she has this job of healing others. But her second job is to give this coin away to someone who truly needs it. The magic of the coin is twofold. One— how do you decide who really needs this coin? She says, “Oh, I don’t have to decide, I will know when I see it.” And the second magic of the coin is that the magic really comes from giving the coin away and not hanging onto it.

This play is about trying to figure out this idea of giving freely and unselfishly. There is idea that there will always be somebody who needs it more even when you think you have tremendous need. Into this mix we have this character, who in our production is a teen. He’s an older teen, well, a young man; he’s somewhere in that indeterminate range between older teen and young adult. His name is Juan. But he goes by Juan the Thief. He is really this youth who lives on the outside margins. The actor who plays him, Javier del Pilar, has done a beautiful job of thinking through what life has been like for Juan to bring him to this point. And whatever has brought him to this point in his life, Juan has heard about this magic coin and he has decided that this coin is going to be his ticket out of this village. He firmly believes that if he gets out of this village that his life will better.

Juan decides that he’s going to steal this coin. But to his surprise, Doña Teresa sees him and welcomes him and offers to feed him and she sings the song to him. And then she gives him the coin. And that sets him beside himself because what do you do with that? Of course she tells him that he must then give the coin to somebody else and he sort of brushes that aside saying, “Yeah, I’ll think about that” while fully intending to keep it. But then something happens! And we see how that something that happens then passes through the hands of several different characters, who then each in turn have to make different decisions about what to do and what happens. Juan makes increasingly desperate bids to make certain things happen, but over the course of his travels he meets these other characters and he becomes increasingly uncomfortable. He becomes increasingly unhappy with this sense of who he is and what he needs.

Javier del Pilar (left) and Elle Sullivan (right) in One Gold Coin Una Moneda de OroAmanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom
Javier del Pilar (left) and Elle Sullivan (right) in One Gold Coin Una Moneda de Oro

He starts questioning where these feelings are coming from. He sees one character and he has heard that she knows where this coin is, whether it’s true or not, but she looks really sick and he wonders, “Oh, I wonder if I should wake her? No! I have to have this coin!” You know, he starts wondering what are the things that he is comfortable with, what is he willing to do to get the things he needs? Juan is constantly confronting that. Am I willing to threaten this person? Am I willing to go after a kid? Is this the person that I really need to be? By interacting with Doña Teresa and other characters who inexplicably treat him kindly, when he is used to being treated like garbage or like a dangerous thug, Juan has to wrestle with himself. I find that arc that Juan goes through to be one of the most interesting things in this play that’s about giving freely even if you have desperate needs.

What is it that you really love about this story?

Ali: What I love so much about this script is that it’s done in such a child-friendly way. This play doesn’t dumb this down. It doesn’t soften this overly much for the kids. Sometimes the characters are scared. Sometimes the characters are willing to do some unsavory things, obviously in a family-appropriate way. But at the same time we don’t shy away from the fact that Juan is a thief and that’s what he calls himself. We follow this and it forces us to think about the decisions that put you into that situation and what goes into maintaining that sort of lifestyle.

Interactive audiences are a huge part of InterAct Story Theatre. How does interaction fit into One Gold Coin— Una Moneda de Oro?

Ali: In this play, the audience becomes members of the village of Regalo. Regalo means gift in Spanish. The audience are the villagers who have come to greet Doña Teresa when she arrives in Regalo. They are also the audience members for the “Estelle Excelente and Manfred Magnifico Show”, which you’ll just have to see I’m not going to tell you anything about that. They are definitely InterAct Story’s usual blend of daffy entertainers.

Who are Estelle and Manfred?

Ali: Estelle and Manfred are from the United States. They are New Yorkers. They are taking a break from their jobs at The Big Pineapple Circus to go gallivanting through Latin America, as you do. We’ve had so much fun with these two characters; these are the clowns of the show. You will see a lot of clown elements in there, as you know at InterAct we love to include clowns. Estelle and Manny are being played by Elle Sullivan and by Javier. It’s actually just a three-person cast this time. Elicia Moran plays Doña Teresa, the healer. Elle plays Estelle and she plays Vanessa, a very sick young mother, and Javier plays all of the male parts— including Juan the Thief and Manfred Magnifico.

We’ve been playing with this idea where Estelle and Manny are like, “Hey! I speak Spanish and you’re really good at singing! Let’s just travel around and do a song and dance show with some magic! We’ll earn our living.” They are completely unprepared for what this life has been like. By the time we see them, they’ve been bumming around for a while and it’s been beautiful but they are ready for a decent meal, a comfy bed, and a hot bath. But they don’t have any money. But then they find this gold coin and think that they can take it and make even more money. So they have designed this disappearing gold coin trick for their magic show.

This sounds absolutely fantastic! Is that all of the characters?

Ali: At this point, I think that is all of the character. Oh— well there’s young Edgar, who is an eight-year-old boy who is the son of a sick mother. Young Edgar has heard that Doña Teresa is around and he has walked from the nearby village to see if she will come and heal his mom. But he’s so concerned because he doesn’t have any money so how will he pay her to heal his mom? All of these characters are all just thrown into this mix together.

It sounds very touching.

Ali: It is. It’s such a warm, soulful show. It feels really lovely to do this. This was actually the first show that I was involved with when I started working with InterAct Story Theatre, so for me this is very much coming full circle. And it’s been especially lovely to work with this cast who have just been so warm and funny and wonderful.

What are you hoping that the kids in the audience are going to take away from seeing this?

Ali: Always I hope that parents and kids will be inspired to talk about the themes afterwards. Like with all of the shows that we do, we have some questions for discussion that we feature in the playbill. We hope that the parents will take some time to talk with their kids about what does it mean to be caring? What does it mean to share and to help others? How do we find ways to do that when it’s hard?

I think there is a big cultural literacy to this piece as well. I hope that whatever language people speak that there will be this understanding that we can communicate with one another and be one even if we don’t have the same mother tongue. I think for me, also, the main idea is to be able to see this idea of caring for others, and helping and sharing lived out even among people who are in need, and even when its uncomfortable.

And on that black-belt level of comprehension, I think I want people to be able to look at someone like Juan and see that he is somebody who is redeemable. I want people to be able to see these other characters who are able to treat Juan well, who are able to treat Juan with compassion.

That’s a beautiful sentiment, almost like Juan finding his Bishop after stealing his loaf of bread.

Ali: That is hysterical that you made that comparison. Because we’ve been calling him Juan Valjean in rehearsal! It really is at certain points very much like Jean Valjean. He actually has this monologue at one point that during rehearsal he paused and I just burst out singing, “Who am I?” and we all died laughing. So every now and again Javier will just slip in little bits of Les Miserables and that has just made the rehearsal process that much more fun.

What has working on this piece that is very full circle for you taught you about yourself as a person, as a Director, as a mentor?

Ali: What a great question! I think it’s been a few things. Of course, as you know, I’m in a really different place now at InterAct than I was when I first started, which was maybe 12 or 13 years ago. I’m bringing those life experiences to the table. As I have been writing more than I was twelve or so years ago, I’ve come to really see and appreciate the craftsmanship of this play and to see the interplay of these characters. To be able to really look at this as a communal journey— just like the play itself is about sharing the journey of the coin— I’m now able to share the ‘journey of the coin.’ I’ve seen now a few different casts do this show and it’s been really fun for me to see how every cast has some common threads running through and yet how every cast is also really different.

This is the third production of One Gold Coin that I’ve been involved in since I started with InterAct Story. To see the way that our production and the piece as a whole has evolved over time, where we’re really thinking very specifically about culture, it’s taking on new meaning in this time of our current geo-political culture. We have a lot of people splintering. We have a lot of people functioning in cultural silos. This idea that something as simple as one character sitting down with another character, where they are from two different cultures, but are having a conversation. I have really been finding those moments very moving. As we’re hearing all of this “us against them” vitriol on television and in radio, it’s so beautiful to see something like this working the way it does.

I’ve always traveled around a lot. In the past couple of years I have been traveling to places where there are people who don’t have a lot of the advantages that we have. Yet they are able to bring so much heart, and joy, and sharing. It’s amazing that I have been able to travel in cultures where this idea of “let’s not be in such a rush, let’s not worry about having this point of discussion and getting our agenda out there, let’s just sit down and have a cup of tea and chat. Let’s just be.” That was an experience that when I did my first production of One Gold Coin, I hadn’t yet had that. Those things are now things that are really resonating with me this time.

Is there anything else that you want to say about the experience this time around or just about how the show is situating itself, or really anything else we haven’t touched on that you just want to say?

Ali: You would think that I would be more prepared for this question because every single time I have ever done an interview they always ask is there anything else I want to talk about. And of course my mind is like “Yes. Now, what is it?” I can say one thing that I have really enjoyed is this mix of veteran long-standing InterAct Story participants with people who are with us for their first show with us. That’s been really delightful. I became the Executive Director in 2009 and we’re really starting to build this company and this family together. We’ve really seen that a lot here in One Gold Coin, that close-knit company feel that is still open and welcoming to newcomers.

The cast of One Gold Coin Una Moneda de Oro at InterAct Story TheatreAmanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom
The cast of One Gold Coin Una Moneda de Oro at InterAct Story Theatre

Honestly, everybody who is in InterAct always says, “once you’re a part of InterAct, you’re always a part of InterAct.” A lot of our company members are really great caretakers and curators of that sentiment. Something that has been really wonderful for me is having that sense of family and welcoming achieved. When you’re leading a company you’re always hoping to foster whatever that ethos is that is important to you. What we really want to foster is that sense of inclusion and support combined with a sense of free-wheeling embrace of— I don’t want to say risk-taking because I feel like that’s an over-used word— but that embracing those adventures that are off the path in addition to inclusion and support. It’s really been great through One Gold Coin really embracing those feelings and extending that invitation to others.

That’s a beautiful sentiment. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Ali: That question again…but I’ve thought of something this time! Something that really excites me and that I’m very proud to mention is that we are doing our very first Sensory-Friendly performance and that will be happening on Sunday, September 11, at 1:30pm. We’re so excited to be able to offer this opportunity to further our inclusion of everyone in our community.

Why should people come and see One Gold Coin— Una Moneda de Oro?

Ali: Why should people come and see this show? It’s wonderful! But I need to separate all the reasons that I love this show from all those reasons who don’t know the show. At all of InterAct Story’s shows we hope that we’re fostering an opportunity for kids to experience theatre while interactively being a part of theatre by giving us theatre that makes us laugh, that allows us to have a great time, and doesn’t force us to necessarily have the most experienced, polished theatre audience manners, and gives us something to think about after we’ve left. I think One Gold Coin— Una Moneda de Oro gives us that opportunity in so many wonderful ways. It’s an opportunity for us to enjoy this warm, funny, interactive, occasionally madcap, theatre experience.

It’s performed by artists who really get kids. It’s performed by artists who can really get kids excited and interacting but who at the same time know that we’ve got to keep it safe for everyone. We’re able to do this in a way that’s devoid of pressure, that’s not scary or frightening, and really just embraces what it is to be a kid attending a show, whether it’s your first show, or your kabillionth show. We are showing that there is a place here for everybody in the theatre and I think that’s why people should come see the show. Also, these actors are fabulous! And you’re not going to see a better performance this weekend than the performance these three actors are putting out as all of these characters.

One Gold Coin— Una Moneda De Oro plays through September 18, 2016 at InterAct Story Theatre— currently in Theatre II of the Cultural Arts Center on the Montgomery College Campus located at 7995 Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring, MD. Tickets are available for purchase at the door or in advance online.


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