Two words can excite the theatre going world and scare most directors at the same time. They are, “World Premiere.” Audiences are interested in seeing something brand new and directors are challenged to shepherd along a playwright while helping actors find a way to stay focused on scripts that might be changing. Designers are tasked with creating new worlds with little in any frame of reference.
Fortunately for the team at Henley Street/Richmond Shakespeare, they found an exciting new world made up of nearly 40 characters pulled from the life of local novelist and playwright David L. Robbins. Robbins is well-known for novels such as The War Of Rats and The End Of War as well as Scorched Earth which he turned into a play in 2012. Robbins is a big man with a powerful presence who is very passionate about this work.
SAM and CAROL: a play where everything is true is based primarily on Robbins’ parents and the people who made up their world. Instead of populating the world with a multitude of actors, he has chosen to make this a multi-character play with only two actors playing all the roles. Think of one of the Greater Tuna plays where the laughs are more organic and occasionally there are poignant and touching moments.
Recently I was able to corral the two actors Eva DeVirgilis and Nicholas Aliff for a few minutes to talk about how they approach the giant task ahead of them. Director Jan Powell was nearby and managed to add a little seasoning to the interview.
WCVE: How many characters do you each play?
Eva DeVirgilis: The bulk of the play is 12 characters for me, some of which return a few times, then several more colorful souls make small appearances.
Nicholas Aliff: I play 18 different characters including a couple repeated at various times in their life.
Jan Powell: These characters range from age 8 to age 72, moving from 1943 to 1995.
WCVE: Most multi-character one or two actor plays tend to play just for laughs. How does Sam and Carol differ?
Eva DeVirgilis: This is old school storytelling, which, when done at its best, can be funny, heart-warming, enlightening. This play has such a beautiful perspective on the lives of Sam and Carol because it is told through the point of view of the people they encounter in their lives - from their parents, to their best friends, to a maid in a casino who Carol had a brief but meaningful moment with. But I’m always looking for laughs, so hopefully I’ll find a few of those too.
Nicholas Aliff: This show is based entirely off of the playwright’s recollection of stories and moments he experienced, or were told to him firsthand. To his best knowledge everything that is stated in the play is what actually transpired. But, like all people and the stories they pass down, the underlying motivations are sometimes more complex than what is on the surface. It is stated early on in the script that playwright's parents (Sam and Carol) were just ordinary folks, and in many ways, not too dissimilar from all of our families. But, as we also know, our families and friends often prove to have too many layers to simply be described with the adjective: funny. We paint this story and its inhabitants with many different brushes.
Jan Powell: Oh my gosh... well, for starters it’s a celebration of the courage of everyday life. In a funeral elegy, it’s not the listing of accomplishments that warm people’s memories--it’s recalling the little quirks, foibles, habitual characteristics that began at birth and become magnified as they grew--those things make a person special, memorable, and important to the people whose lives they touched. It’s not so much WHAT they did as HOW they did it. This play celebrates that fact and, oddly, it’s their individual peculiarities that make them universal. This is a play that recounts how we were through a lot of important American decades. It’s a moving, emotional, hilarious rollercoaster ride. (And hard to describe...)
WCVE: Is it trickier knowing you are playing characters based on real people in the playwright’s life?
Eva DeVirgilis: The fact that they were real makes them more special to me, and really makes we want to honor their story, their voice. I don’t think it was trickier, because these characters aren’t famous, so the audience isn’t coming in expecting to see some recognizable icon on stage. If they do happen to know these people in the story- which is entirely possible since the playwright, and many of the characters are from this area in Virginia - I hope they will be able to recognize the essence of their spirit, wit or struggle. I never felt pressure to duplicate a persona because David’s great writing gave me enough information about who this person was. Then it’s my job as an actor to create a believable person who the audience gets to peek in on for a moment of their life on stage.
Nicholas Aliff: It has always been my goal to be truthful to the character as written, as well as the insight provided by the playwright. However, the characters are ones that we have to inhabit and ultimately find within ourselves. In this way it’s a balance of our experiences, the actual people’s stories, and Jan’s vision that create the final theatrical product.
Jan Powell: We consulted with the playwright on events and people, but knew that we HAD to make it our own--with his blessing. He wanted it to be universal, not just a depiction of his own parents. It’s like doing a Shakespeare history--you consult the history books, you look at what’s in the text, and then you make it your own, with love and irreverence--meaning that nothing in the script was sacred or held hostage to history.
WCVE: How did you develop each of the characters? Did you work in controlled improvs or use other techniques?
Eva DeVirgilis: David L. Robbins did a wonderful job, writing hints about each characters persona within the narratives, so after reading the piece for the first time I was able to get a sense of who the character was.
Some of the characters came from a specific area, so working on that regional accent was important, which will in turn influence certain character traits. A lot of it is just making bold choices and trying them in rehearsal. Go big or go home. Our director Jan Powell was so incredible at guiding us in the right direction. Jan would ask me questions about these people while I was in character, which would help flesh who they are off the page. What their history is, and why they need to tell this story?
Nicholas Aliff: For me it was the same process I have used in the past. I go through the script and find all the truths of the world. I make them my own truths and try to dismiss any assumptions not otherwise stated or strongly intimated. It was a matter of just throwing each character out there every rehearsal...and failing over and over. When you fail, you grow. It’s the same with all of these folks.
Jan Powell: We did a little improv, but mostly we would talk and recall and try and range around in rehearsal and confer on what thrilled us most. These two actors are so gifted that I could drop in suggestions and watch them blossom immediately. With their enormous ability, it made directing like ordering off a glorious ala carte menu--I could pick from a nearly infinite number of possibilities. It was important to me not to swoon with sentimentality, sacrifice every reality for a laugh, or sink into the darker aspects of the story. The balance of those three was critically important to me, so we had a fully 3-D depiction of all these unique characters.
WCVE: Eva, this is your second major show in Richmond for playing multiple characters. Do you think this could become a trend for you?
Eva DeVirgilis: This is actually my third show in Richmond where I played multiple characters. The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, and last year Hypocrites and Strippers at RTP was another one-woman-show where I played over a dozen characters. In improv we would say three creates the pattern, so yup, I suppose a pattern is indeed trending. I love to tell people’s stories, not everyone wants to be an actor - thank goodness- so it is such a gift to be able to share another souls perspective. I always learn something, and I hope the audience does to.
Jan Powell: This may be an Eva question, but what my mother always used to say was “Be careful what you’re good at” (because you’ll be asked to DO it over and over). Eva is spectacular--such a gifted character generator--she can work from a tiny spark of inspiration and out comes a cornucopia of creativity (sorry for the annoying alliteration, but it’s totally true). She is not just a sketch artist, though--she seeks the depths and breadths of her characters and doesn't rest until she’'s accessed their real humanity!
WCVE: Nick, as I understand it, you are now looking to leave Richmond and start working in DC. Is this your farewell show for Richmond?
Nick Aliff: At the time that I auditioned I had no intention of leaving, but life happened. Personal, financial, and extenuating circumstances have made me decide that it's best to move forward (or backward). However it works, I guess.
Jan Powell: And Nick, you should know that I may well require your reappearance in Richmond. This is an actor who has rare gifts, and I’d love to work with him again.
WCVE: How was it working on a show with the playwright present for many of the rehearsals? Did he offer any new insights into the characters?
Eva DeVirgilis: Working with the playwright was wonderful. David wrote a great script. Any yes, because he was so accessible he was able to sprinkle some great insights into who these people were, but he never made us feel that our acting choices needed to be exactly what he remembered the people to be. He left the directing to Jan. Of course, it is a little intimidating to have the author present in rehearsals because the rehearsal process in general is such a clunky and messy thing, and I always want to be on the top of my game. But David was also so encouraging and complimentary to Nick and I. It was also so fun watching David’s face as his play about his family came to life; the joy it seemed to be giving him was so reassuring. He was a supportive and collaborative presence.
Nicholas Aliff: David was a great source for the core truth of our story. But, as this is a shared collaboration, we all were very open to exploring new possibilities for theatrical effect. The man writes beautifully and has a big heart. He was very supportive of the process.
He put it all on the page so clearly that he really didn’t have to in the end. If we did have any questions or concerns over clarity in the text as far as cadence or character minutiae, he was more than glad to expound or even make accommodations as needed.
Jan Powell: He came in periodically, but not too often; he understood that we needed space to create. I kept him apprised of developments as we went on. I made a few requests for changes and he was always open to the discussion. We only had real tussles a couple of times, and he didn’t press for anything unless he cared deeply about it. He knew them from the inside out. But he also understood that we had to pick and choose what worked for us.
For more information about Sam and Carol: a play where everything is true, please visit the Henley Street Richmond Shakespeare website.