IN THE RAW
This fall, the Englert and Iowa City-based Working Group Theatre debut In the Raw, a series of intense, engaging theater performances in an intimate setting. The first play, After Ana, written by Jennifer Fawcett and directed by Sean Lewis, premiered September 13, 2014. The next show in the series, Sean Christopher Lewis’ Dogs of Rwanda, will take place Saturday, November 1 at 7 p.m.
Q&A with Associate Artistic Director of Working Group Theatre, Jennifer Fawcett
Were After Ana and Dogs of Rwanda written specifically to be performed in a more intimate setting? If so, how did that influence the crafting of the plays? If not, how did adapt them for the series?
Both plays were written for an intimate setting, which is why they seemed like a natural choice for this series. We see this series as an incubator for new work, so with both pieces we are trying new things. A play is never finished until it is put in front of an audience—they are an essential part of the process—so having the audience right there with us will really inform the work.
After Ana is an intimate show because of the style it is written in. It’s a meditation on grief set against the night of a summer storm after a random act of violence. That oppressive feeling of the world weighing down on you when a storm is coming is in the language and affecting the characters, so it fits that the audience is right there with them. The entire play takes place in cars, which are also enclosed spaces. At the same time, the play moves back and forth through multiple time lines so there is an expansiveness to it—a feeling that we’re tiny people being moved through space and time by forces much more powerful than we are. So the size of the Englert (around us all—because on stage the audience senses that height and the darkness of the house behind them) is also important.
Dogs of Rwanda was written to be performed in people’s houses, and Sean has done this several times already. It is meant to have a simple, intimate feel, but it also moves the audience (through story telling in its most essential form) into a much larger space: Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. To hear this story you need to be close to the story teller. It is the best way to be swept up into it.
What theatrical devices do you hope to experiment with in these pieces or in future performances?
For both of these performances, we are bringing in musicians to play during the show. For After Ana,Michael Finley will be composing an original score and playing throughout. For Dogs of Rwanda, we are collaborating with internationally renowned violinist, Tricia Park (who we just worked with on The Kreutzer Sonata at the Englert in June as part of MusicIC).
As you may have gathered, these are intense plays that ask the audience to dive deep into a world that is unfamiliar. The music gives breath to the piece. Also, both musicians are fantastic so it will be beautiful too.
For After Ana, we will be experimenting with a different way of staging the piece than has been done before. As the playwright, I am very interested in seeing the elasticity of the script; how non-literal can we make it? I believe, and Sean as director is with me on this, that exploding out of the car setting will make the story even more clear and compelling.
How do you think the audience’s experience would differ if they watched the shows in a traditional setting? What do they gain by their proximity to the action on stage?
The experience of watching theatre is an experience of moving through space and time with other people. It is a shared experience, where as reading a book is an individual experience that happens in the imagination. Although imaginative space is something individual (we each go to Rwanda in our own heads) we are all experiencing the journey at the same time, led by Sean’s voice. Being on stage with the performers will feel very personal. These are plays that exist best in a simple form—that’s the best way for these particular stories to come through. In a large space, a very minimally produced piece could get lost, but having the audience on stage with us means we’ll all be on the journey together.