Opening this week in The Underground is Playhouse produced Collected Stories. Directed by local Kelly Mullan, the show stars local actors/directors/all-around-theatre-gurus Julie Ahasay and Sarah Ruth Diener. Both have graced our stage many a time, both at the Playhouse, the Play Ground, and now will be portraying Lisa and Ruth in The Underground. And who better to tell you all about the show, their characters, and touch on the themes within than these two! Sarah and Julie were kind enough to answer some questions for us and here’s what we learned:
PH: First off, can you both tell our readers a little bit about yourselves and what characters you play?
SARAH: My name is Sarah Ruth Diener, and I play Lisa Morrison. Lisa is a young graduate student who is taking Ruth’s class and ends up getting a position as her assistant, which becomes a mentor/mentee relationship, which grow into a strong friendship between the two women. The play happens over six years, and we see Lisa’s growth from wide-eyed graduate student, anxious to please her teacher, to blossoming though still unsure writer, to a confident, published novelist.
JULIE: I teach public speaking and interpersonal communication at UMD, lead scene study classes for the Playhouse Conservatory and direct and act wherever they will let me. My character is also a teacher and a working artist. A very well-known writer, she’s sharp-witted and sharp-tongued and is difficult and demanding.
PH: Before we get into questions about the show, can you two tell us what the show is about?
SARAH: The show explores the relationship of two women which begins as a teacher/student relationship and develops into a dear friendship, only to be ultimately tested by paths these two women choose. It is about two artists, and how they share their personal lives with each other, and the lines that are crossed when attempting to create stories that are compelling. I don’t want to give too much away, but it explores the ideas of what is “off-limits” when it comes to writing stories that maybe are not yours to tell.
JULIE: Collected Stories moves through six years of a relationship between two women at very different places in their lives. The relationship moves from teacher-student, to artist-protegee, to friends and colleagues, and finally to…no, I’ll save that last part.
PH: A little birdie told me that you two ended up doing this show after Sarah, you were in a class of Julie’s?
SARAH: Yeah! I took one of Julie’s adult acting classes a year ago, and she assigned me a scene from this show as my final scene. I had seen the show before, and always thought it was an interesting, compelling piece. Julie had been introduced to it by a friend when she was younger who basically said she needed to play Ruth Steiner someday! So when she approached me about doing this show together, I said yes in a heartbeat. Some of my most favorite experiences onstage have been working with Julie as the director, so I jumped at the chance to work with her in a new way.
JULIE: My friend Mark Armstrong gave me this script 15 years ago and told me I should do it “when I was old enough.” In the meantime, I gave the script to Sarah and Beverly Godfrey in a scene study class and as they worked on it, I realized I was old enough and that Sarah was just perfect for the role of Lisa. And that’s how that happened.
PH: It’s a fun parallel between you two in real life, and your two characters in the play. What are your thoughts on teacher/student relationships, especially when it comes to something like your career or livelihood?
JULIE: It is very interesting to consider the relationship between teacher and students. I have taught students from age 3 (Head Start) to people in their 80s (Emeritus College and University for Seniors) and constantly learn as much or more from them as they learn from me. The move from teacher-student to friends and colleagues can be a difficult and challenging transition. And while it is wonderful to see someone you’ve mentored do great work and find success, it can also be hard to watch them fly away and right past you. As Ruth says: “I can’t watch you do the dance I danced so long ago and not think about time.”
SARAH: I have been lucky to have a lot of really great teachers and mentors, particularly in the area of acting. Teachers in school, other actors I look up to, directors I have been privileged to work with. Plus, as a teacher for the Playhouse’s Education program, I have also been on the other side of the coin, as a teacher and mentor myself. I think the relationship that develops between a student and a teacher, especially in the arts, is a truly unique one. There is so much sharing of stories, experiences, emotions, first in an attempt to better one’s skill set, and later because you have reached the point of friendship. To have ties in both someone’s personal and professional life creates a bond that is stronger than most, but as we find out in Collected Stories, can also be more painful when that bond is tested.
PH: How has the process of rehearsing been with just two actors?
JULIE: It’s wonderful. I have directed a few two-handers and acted in a couple as well. When you are working with just one other actor, you concentrate and focus on just one other person and that relationship exclusively. And when that person is Sarah, that’s a pretty great thing.
SARAH: Fantastic. It’s more work to be sure, but we have been able to delve into a relationship that feels really believable. Julie has been wonderful to work with, and I think it helps that we have a similar work ethic. We have had many a Saturday afternoon date to run lines and work on the show outside of rehearsal.
PH: In line with the theme of this show, what do you two think about ethics and morality when it comes to art?
JULIE: One of the things I find fascinating about Collected Stories is that Margulies develops very strong, opposing points of view about what is and isn’t ethical when it comes to telling someone else’s story. Is it right to use what someone has shared with you, especially when that other person is also a story-teller? Are some things off limits? Or do you grab what material you find and go to work? Ruth feels one way; Lisa feels another way. Each member of the audience can decide for her/himself who is right.
SARAH: This play is so interesting because it zeros in on a topic that I feel we rarely see onstage. Within the literary and artistic world, how do we respond to those who “take” ideas from someone else? We’ve seen it often, an interpretation of a play or character that looks surprisingly similar to one you’ve already seen, blatant plagiarism or a student using good old Wikipedia to write their final paper. When we are in the business of creating, how do we stay original? How do we fight against the fear that we are not original? This play touches on these ideas by setting a strong friendship at the center of such a conflict, allowing the audience to make the final conclusion of what crosses the line into some rather gray moral areas.
Collected Stories opens tomorrow night (Thursday, September 5 at 7:30pm) in The Underground. You can purchase tickets online, over the phone (218-733-7555), or at the door. This performance is general admission for seating, and tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students. The show runs this week and next week, September 5-7 and 12-14. Don’t miss it!