February 27, 2009
Production to have Off-Broadway run after acclaim at Humana and Out-of-the-Loop Festivals
Media contact: Will Crockett (254) 710-3145
Even though Emmy-nominated Craig Wright's ("Lost," "Brothers and Sisters," "Six Feet Under"), new play "The Unseen" has garnered rave reviews in workshop performances across the country, the off-Broadway run is limited to three weeks in March for one simple reason: the cast has to get back to class. And by class, we mean the world's largest Baptist institution of higher education: Baylor University.
The cast and director for "The Unseen's" run at the Cherry Lane Theater are exclusively full-time Baylor theatre faculty, professor and chair Stan Denman, associate professor Steven Pounders and assistant professor Thomas Ward. Lisa Denman, a lecturer in theatre, directs the show.
Wright, who received an Emmy nomination for his Six Feet Under episode "Twilight" and a WGA nomination for his episode "Falling Into Place," has been equally successful at his theatrical endeavors. Accolades for his plays include three LA Drama Critic's Circle Awards including Best Play ("Grace"), a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play ("Orange Flower Water"), Best Play of the Year from the Chicago Sun-Times ("Orange Flower Water"), a Barrymore nomination for Best New Play ("Molly's Delicious"), and a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding New Play ("The Pavilion").
"The Unseen" is billed as a "psychological potboiler" involving two prisoners of a totalitarian regime. The two men, Wallace and Valdez, have been subjected to significant torture, and the multi-layered dialogue between the two includes philosophical exchanges, dreams of escape and other word games to try to remain sane. Their torturer, the merciless Smash appears occasionally with a bit of news or food or to take them out for some torture. The questions about why the Wallace and Valdez are incarcerated are only deepened with the introduction of a new prisoner near them who seems to have only more questions rather than answers.
The show has already been proven as a solid theatre piece by critics and audiences at two of the nation's most formidable new play festivals- the Humana Festival with Actor's Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky and Dallas's popular Out-of-the-Loop festival.
The production of "The Unseen" in New York is an example of how traditional scholarship and research translate for the theatre department. The cast is comprised of full-time, tenure-track faculty who will be able to take this unique professional experience back to the classroom, with the experience including more than the performance itself. Stan Denman pitched the idea of the New York premiere to renowned playwright Craig Wright, and Wright, who could have his choice of any New York actors and directors, agreed. Denman, Pounders and Ward have structured themselves as a professional company, handling everything from arranging the venue to promoting the show to issuing contracts for designers.
"I think that an experience like this helps my teaching on several levels," says Stan Denman, professor and department chair of the theatre arts department. "It helps to keep me 'fresh,' to stay 'in the trenches' and current with my own ability to create a character and live him out on the stage. Raising the stakes to such a visible venue also is a learning experience in itself that I can bring back to the classroom."
The spiritual themes of the play fit well with a theatre arts department whose mission is to "integrate excellence in traditional scholarship and artistic creativity with a Christian worldview." Wright's play marks an intersection of art and faith. "For people of faith, the courage to be open to the developments and ideas that arise when doing creative work comes from a very deep place," he says. "Too often, religious faith closes down artistic investigation. At its best, though, faith empowers it to go even further than it could otherwise."
Denman, who plays Valdez in the show, sees the spiritual depth of the show. "So much of Christian theatre today only deals with the light stuff, the fun stuff, or the "lesser sins"--things that can be resolved in a 5 minute skit in worship," says Denman. "Craig's play deals with the ugliest side of our human nature. The guard in the play embodies the worst of human nature--a total disregard for human life. How then do we as Christians react to a man like this? Our revulsion at his presence seems right. But it is because of men like this that Christ became flesh and gave himself for us. The play, in all its darkness, tests our own belief in the power and extent of Christ's ability to redeem mankind."
The Baylor theatre faculty stay active not only as individual actors and directors but collectively as the American Actors Company. They continue the mission of the original ensemble which was formed in 1938 to escape the commercialism of Broadway and promote artistry drawing on authentic American voices. The ensemble included such notables as Mary Hunter, Agnes DeMille, Jerome Robbins and Horton Foote. It was with Mr. Foote's blessing that the theatre arts department formed the new group.
As the new ensemble, the American Actors Company produced the first professional production of the Horton Foote American Playwrights Festival, "The Traveling Lady," leading to a complete restaging in New York, co-produced by the Ensemble Studio Theatre in the spring of 2006. The play received a Drama Desk nomination for Best Revival of a play. In the interim, the American Actors Company produced two more works in Texas, Romulus Linney's "Heathen Valley" and "God and Mammon," an original play by associate professor DeAnna Toten Beard.
Denman sees this experience as one of the best ways to train aspiring actors and directors, and the department has created an atmosphere where the artist-academic thrives and allows experience to inform and enhance teaching. "This experience is good for my students in that they get to see their professors in action," says Denman. "Hopefully, they can see that the old adage in theatre, 'those who can't, teach' is totally false. Instead, I want them to see that the faculty 'can' and that we choose to teach."