Making theater fun

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

Anton Chekhov, a Russian playwright, isn’t exactly known for churning out “fun” productions. (Russians rarely do or write anything with the primary intention of “fun.”) Chekhov’s work – short stories and four plays in particular – is highly esteemed, but blends tragedy and comedy with intense and often harrowing results. So contemporary playwright Christopher Durang stole character names, themes and inspiration from Chekhov’s classics and updated them for the modern age. He wrote a loose adaptation rendering Chekhov’s material laugh-out-loud funny; this play is called “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”

The Merely Players, a Durango-based theater company founded by Mona Wood-Patterson and Charles Ford (formerly the theater directors at Durango High School), are ever-mindful of their prospective audience. They selected Durang’s play for their February production so people could have fun at the theater. The group puts on three to four productions a year, and this month’s Tony Award-winning show, a collaboration with the Durango Arts Center, is a comedy about resentment, guilt, regret and the older generation battling the changes enacted by the younger. We spoke with Wood-Patterson about the play and Durango’s thriving thespian community. “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” will be showing Feb. 19, 20, 25, 26, 27 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 28 at 2 p.m. at Durango Arts Center.

Tell me about the play.

Christopher Durang wrote it; he’s mostly an absurdist writer, so this is a little bit of a turn for him, because it’s a realistic setting. He studied the plays of Chekhov, who is famous for writing “The Three Sisters,” “The Cherry Orchard,” “Uncle Vanya” and “The Seagull” – and took characters and themes out of those, put them in a blender, then set it in contemporary Pennsylvania. There’s three siblings, Vanya, Sonia and Masha, all played by actors in their 50s – and then Spike is the young boytoy. He’s hilarious. It’s a witty script that creates an endearing and sometimes profound theater experience. If you do know Chekhov’s work, you’ll get some of the inside jokes. But you’ll be totally fine without knowing, too. And Spike spends most of the play in his underwear!

How do you cast actors in your productions?

I generally don’t do auditions. This time, I called actors I knew and thought would fit the role. I knew Spike had to be hot. I was the theater director at Durango High School for over 20 years, and during that time, I had the privilege of working with a lot of people, and Matt Welbourn (playing Spike) was my student. I was wondering what happened to him, thinking he’d be perfect, then two days later we went out to dinner and he was our waiter.

What hole in the Durango theater community were you trying to fill by starting the Merely Players?

My husband and I already had Merely Players as a company we developed in 1995, but we were only doing an occasional show. So we launched into it full-time when we left the high school. We wanted to bring contemporary, topical, smart theater to this town, and give adult actors the chance to practice and a venue. Then the DAC put together a theater program, so now there’s two of us; Jack Llewellyn, who works for the Chamber of Commerce, calls it “coopetition.” We work together, we can share resources, and the better they are, the better we are. When an actor works with both of us, they’ll be stronger.

You’re a “found space” company – what does that mean?

You find a space that ordinarily doesn’t have theater in it, and do a play there. “Much Ado About Nothing” was done at James Ranch. We’ve done plays in a hotel swimming pool, with the water drained out, and in a warehouse. It’s important that the play matches the atmosphere. We always do the big musical at the Arts Center, but other than that, we’re roving and homeless. It’s creatively challenging and inspiring and also really difficult. You go into a space and you have to bring your own lighting, sound system and find chairs. For rehearsing, we have to find places to rent. It’s constantly knocking on doors, asking “Can we use the space?” One audience member made a comment: “being a Merely Players fan is like going on a scavenger hunt! Where are they gonna be next?” So we’re always looking for new spaces. We’d love for people to reach out to us and offer.

Young people are often less interested in theater than in, say, live music. How can we get more millennials to see plays?

Live theater is a group of people having a shared, collective experience. It’s not like watching a movie that will be the same every time; every night is different. There’s always the possibility that something will change. Live theater has been around since the Greeks in 5000 B.C. I saw a meme that said “3D movies have been around for thousands of years – it’s called theater.” We’re pretty good at keeping prices down, too; we know it’s expensive. And as far as “Vanya” goes, millennials should know it’s a play about the disparity between young and old. With the older generation saying, “I don’t want to change!” and Vanya railing against texting and emailing. And then a line from Spike is, “Time marches on, dude.”

Anya Jaremko-GreenwoldDGO Staff Writer

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