We talked recently with Sean Mewshaw, director of Gruesome Playground Injuries.
Alex Quijano and Mary-Bonner Baker in Gruesome Playground Injuries
You directed two other plays at SPACE in the last four years: Stephen Karam’s Speech and Debate and Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe. What do these plays say about your interest in contemporary theater?
It interests me to investigate who we are as a culture right at this moment through contemporary works, and I really enjoy the modern dry-not-hokey comedic sensibility and fearless collisions of humor and drama.
But overall, I’ve come to realize that what interests me in theater, contemporary or otherwise, (on the intimate scale at which I tend to direct) is probably the precise quality that some people can’t stand in theater: it can be an awkward, uncomfortable, somewhat embarrassing experience. Flesh and blood men and women make themselves vulnerable right in front of you—they express emotions, expose their bodies, think out loud, openly fight, love, fear, desire each other, and act on their basest instincts. You’re not protected from the performance by a screen, and you’re not in control: no turning it down, fast forwarding, or switching it off.
And, if it’s all done just right, it doesn’t feel fake — it draws you into a shared human experience (which are too few and far between these days). It should never be just entertaining, but also not completely comfortable and not entirely safe. It should feel alive and unexpected, like a giant lustrous beast whose darkened den you foolishly wandered inside. What will this creature do next? Pain me? Please me? Poop on me? Just don’t let it bore me.
The contemporary plays I love shiver with humor, awkwardness, and risk. They teeter on the edge of ecstasy and humiliation, because I believe that tension makes theater our most human art—immediate, provocative, worth engaging with.
How did you come across Gruesome Playground Injuries?
This play saved me from purgatory. I took a break from directing theater for a year while preparing to make my first feature film and trying to put the financing puzzle together. But as we slipped deeper into the winter during which we had hoped to shoot, and that golden puzzle hadn’t solved itself yet, I longed to exercise the directing muscles I was holding in tension.
A force of nature, one of my favorite actors and friends since college, Mary-Bonner Baker, came crashing into my limbo finally having found the perfect play for us to work on together. The script knocked me flat and left me buzzing. I realized it might actually be perfect: diving into this lovely funny freaky love story was just the thing to inspire and get me fired up before directing a romantic comedy on film.
And the timing was serendipitous — it made sense to head to Los Angeles to direct the show, since my wife and I needed to be there to pull together the movie. Surprisingly, it all worked out: the movie got financed to shoot next winter, and the play was a tremendous experience. In fact, such an energizing experience that we didn’t want it to end, and on closing night we pledged that we would reincarnate it in Portland this summer.
You and your wife, screenwriter Desi Van Til, are in pre-production for a new movie with a very respectable cast of talented actors. How do you have time to work on a directing a play at your local art space?
Producing an independent film is a steady diet of uncertainty and endless waiting for answers from people who are famously hard to pin down. Desi and I have been striving to make the film over a period of five years, pursuing actors and financing, campaigning for tax incentives in Maine that would allow us to shoot here, scouting other locations to simulate Maine in case the incentives didn’t materialize, continually refining the script, then tweaking it time and time again to appeal to specific actors, or to fit into a fluctuating schedule and budget. Frustration is the name of the game; patience is the prime virtue. Luckily, I discovered that creating theater at SPACE is the perfect antidote to all that.
It is such a satisfying experience to immerse myself in this vibrant community of artists and be granted the opportunity to connect with the generous and passionate audience SPACE attracts. The high level of artistry across varied disciplines that SPACE curates has inspired and challenged us both, and the supportive ethos of the place encourages us to pour ourselves fully into our work and push ideas to the far edge of possibility. There’s genuinely nothing better than getting to rev my creative engine in high gear here at SPACE.
You like to use video and special effects in theater, giving the productions a cinematic quality. How do you think directing theater relates to directing film?
Projected cinematic imagery and physical versions of the kind of “special effects” we tend to associate with movies are fun tools for making spectacle that I simply don’t wish to leave behind when I work in the theater. But as to the relation between stage and screen directing, I feel that theater work helps me to hone my focus on storytelling and character, as opposed to surface aesthetics. Making movies, it’s easy to become fascinated with the details of style, and one is granted almost too much in control of every instant, especially in the editing. On stage you don’t have to focus on manipulating precisely what the audience is watching every second — you are free to cultivate the connections sparking between real people, and sculpt the rhythms and shapes of those moments to tell an affecting story. And then of course you lose control entirely when the actors get to breathe life into the play in performance, which gooses the director with a pretty thrilling mix of terror and glee, lemme tell ya.
Wednesday, June 5, through Saturday, June 8
All shows $15, All Ages (parental discretion advisable)
Starring Alex Quijano and Mary-Bonner Baker.