On the second and fourth Sunday of every run during a Wilson Stage production, Geva hosts a Sunday Salon between the Sunday matinee and evening performances. This free, public event allows audiences a more in-depth look at the plays on our stages, and an opportunity to ask questions of our actors.
Last Sunday, May 7th, following the 2pm matinee of Other Than Honorable, Literary Director and Resident Dramaturg Jenni Werner moderated a lively discussion with the entire cast: Jessiee Datino (who plays Grace Rattigan), Aimé Donna Kelly (Lydia Walsh), Elizabeth Rich (Dr. Brenda Kurtz), Juan Francisco Villa (Hector Nunez), Barbara E. Robertson (Alvina Croft), John Wernke (Billy Rattigan), and Jason Kolotouros (Gideon Kane).
This past Sunday’s salon was all the more special, with a guest to offer his perspective on Other Than Honorable: Heath Phillips, a U.S. Navy veteran and survivor of military sexual assault (MST), now works as an advocate for social organizations and members of Congress (including our own Senator Gillibrand) fighting against rape culture in the military. You can hear Heath talk about his MST story here (warning: graphic language about sexual assault).
After Jenni led the panel through a round of introductions, the discussion got underway:
Jenni kicked off the conversation by asking Heath what he would take away from this production. Heath related that he moved to tears throughout the show, seeing how closely Other Than Honorable conveyed his own experiences with MST. Heath was particularly impressed by how accurately the play encapsulated chain of command issues in dealing with sexual assault in the military. In his advocacy work, Heath encounters a lot of MST survivors whose superiors sweep the issue under the rug or cause other professional complications for MST survivors seeking help, making it impossible for a justice system enclosed within the military to pursue justice fairly. Heath was also struck by Lydia’s story, and how her trauma paralleled his own experience. He also related to Grace’s dependence on alcohol, having recovered from 20 years of alcoholism himself; addiction, Heath said, is a common way for MST survivors and PTSD patients to “mask what happened” and suppress their pain. Overall, Heath was clearly deeply moved by Other Than Honorable, saying he had “never seen a play like this” and that seeing his own military experience reflected onstage “really hit home” for him.
Several audience members at the Salon were also veterans or family members of veterans, and they could relate to both the story in Other Than Honorable and Heath’s perspective. One mother of a veteran with PTSD talked about how her daughter has been working through self-loathing and other mental health issues similar to those Heath described. Another woman, a veteran from the Army Reserves, said the play’s depiction of the military and service members was “spot on.”
Other Than Honorable cast members (L to R: John Wernke, Barbara E. Robertson, and Juan Francisco Villa) greeting U.S. Navy veteran Heath Phillips (center) after the Sunday Salon, and thanking him for his service.
Researching the World of the Play
A lot of this particular Sunday Salon focused on the company’s research on military culture and MST. When an audience member asked the cast, “As actors, how much background information do you have to learn about the situation, in order to play these parts so authentically?,” Barbara enthusiastically turned to Jenni (who is also Other Than Honorable’s production dramaturg) and said, “We have this amazing woman who has been our guide!” Barbara then talked about the “big, fat packet filled with all sorts of information” that Jenni sent out to the company about a month before rehearsals began, in addition to the research the cast absorbed from their director, Kimberly Senior, and playwright, Jamie Pachino. This contextual information is vital to an actor’s process, Barbara said, because “it has to be part of our knowledge in order to play these people.”
Jason noted that it can be challenging to do all the research an actor would like to do with the limited amount of rehearsal time afforded. And, in addition to all that research, Jason noted, “We have other practical things we need to do as well, like memorizing our lines, getting on our feet, learning blocking. But we try to do all of that all together, and I hope that, at the end of the day, we’ve done enough research to be authentic.”
This moment also provided Jenni an opportunity to talk about her job: “My role as the dramaturg is to help give the creative team as much understanding of the context of the world they’re trying to create as possible. When I work on a play, my job is to read the play with as much curiosity as I can and try to ask every single question that I possibly can think of, and then try to find the answers to those questions. And most of the time, during the rehearsal process, I will discover that there are hundreds of questions I didn’t think of asking. But that’s my job, to try to figure out a way to help the cast find a way into the play.”
Another audience member wanted to know if the cast specifically contacted active duty service members in preparation for their roles. Although active service members didn’t visit rehearsals, Geva and the creative team ensured that there were military perspectives included at each phase of the play’s development: Playwright Jamie Pachino was sure to talk to many active service members while writing the play. In addition, Other Than Honorable’s scenic designer, Jack Magaw, was U.S. Army Captain, and provided the company a lot of insight on military procedures and behaviors. And, Geva’s costume shop manager, Amanda Doherty, enlisted help from a friend currently in the JAG Corps to ensure the military uniforms’ authenticity. In addition, the cast immersed themselves in testimonies from military members and those who work with soldiers and veterans: Jenni arranged for Patricia Bennett, a Military Sexual Trauma Specialist and Counselor from the Rochester Vet Center, to come to rehearsal and talk to the cast about her experiences working with military sexual assault survivors. Both the actors and Jamie also drew inspiration from Invisible War, a 2012 documentary chronicling dozens of military sexual assault survivors’ stories.
Often, the Sunday Salons provide industry-specific insight into what it’s like to be a theatre artist at Geva. When an audience member asked how long the cast had to rehearse the play, Jenni and the actors explained that their four-week rehearsal process was actually longer than a typical rehearsal period at Geva: Because Other Than Honorable is a world premiere, Jamie and the rest of the creative team needed extra time to see the never-before-seen play in time and space, in order to make adjustments to the script and prepare the play for a public audience.
This Sunday, patrons also got some insight into the actors’ backstage lives: One audience member asked Jessiee specifically, “How do you possibly recoup between this show (the 2pm matinee), and tonight’s show (the 7pm evening performance)?” Any actor will relate that a two-show day feels like a marathon; add to that Other Than Honorable’s emotional intensity, and the physical demands on Jessiee who rarely leaves the stage for the entire play, and one can imagine just how physically and emotionally draining two consecutive performances of Other Than Honorable can be. But Jessiee doesn’t complain, and spoke to the support she feels from her “very loving and supportive cast” that powers her through: “We have such a wonderful camaraderie between all of us, so we are able to walk offstage and joke and laugh—truly belly-laugh—which sheds a lot of that tension. With such a wonderful group of people it’s easy to keep it separate: When we’re up here (onstage) we’re working, and when we’re back there (offstage), we’re a supportive, loving family. I feel very lucky.”
Why This Play, and Why Geva?
Towards the end of the discussion, when one audience member asked the cast, “What attracted you to come to Rochester at the end of March to do this play?” it seemed that the questioner was expecting a begrudging answer about Rochester’s infamous weather patterns this time of year. Instead, he was met with the cast’s overwhelming enthusiasm to be performing in Other Than Honorable, and specifically to be able to perform at Geva. Regarding the play itself, John started to answer by explaining that, “To do a new play is the best thing ever. For me, it’s even better than getting a great TV role, even though you make a lot more money in TV.” John in particular has been involved with Other Than Honorable’s development for years, and it’s particularly important for him to work on plays with socially-conscious themes and production values: “I think that the subject matter is absolutely vital and the story must be told. I also think it’s wonderful that we have a diverse cast—that doesn’t happen all the time—and that you have four, really powerful women, saying really strong things, which doesn’t happen often in theatre. […] What better to do than a new play about something that matters in a great theatre? It’s a huge gift. It’s our honor.”
Collectively, the cast was also blown away by Geva’s unwavering support of new work: John and Barbara bantered about Geva’s 2017-18 season, featuring three world premieres, an “amazing” and “unheard of” occurrence in the current national theatre climate. Jason pointed out that this kind of programming was a testament not only to Geva, but to Geva’s audiences as well: He acknowledged that theatres take on a huge risk programming new plays, when script changes up until opening night mean the final product isn’t guaranteed, and there’s no way to predict how an audience will respond without a history behind the play. With all that in mind, Jason concludes, “For Geva to be interested in developing that kind of work means they have a lot of faith in you guys, the patrons here, and are encouraged by it. And so are we as actors.”
Finally, the cast reflected on their positive experience working at Geva specifically. Jessiee said, “As actors doing shows at theatres across the country, you never know what you’re walking into when you work at a new theatre. Geva has a huge heart. Every single person has been on board with us since we’ve gotten here, and has been so supportive and so welcoming and so loving. We all feel so supported in this story that we’re telling, that we were given permission to tell it the best way that we possibly could. Because we wanted for nothing and we had everyone’s support behind us, which is such a testament to the theatre.”
Want to join in on the conversation?
Our remaining Sunday Salons for the season–which are free and open to the public–are on the following dates following the matinee performance:
May 21, 2017 for Other Than Honorable
June 11, 2017 and June 25, 2017 for Million Dollar Quartet
There will also be a post-show discussion for Other Than Honorable following the 4pm matinee on Saturday, May 13th. This conversation will feature Post-show discussion with Rochester Vet Center’s Patricia Bennett (Military Sexual Trauma Specialist and Counselor), and Jennifer Wiese (Readjustment Counseling Therapist/Social Worker).
And, don’t forget about our Prologue series: An hour before each Wilson Stage production begins, we host a free half-hour talk about the play’s origins and context, as well as the creative process here at Geva that led up to the production.
We hope to see you there!