Photo by Katie Lee for The Retriever
Sunday afternoon I sat down to talk with Alyssa Wellman-Houde about her direction of the joint Musical Theatre Club and TheatreCom eight-person production of “Almost, Maine.”
Can you give some background on “Almost, Maine?”
Well, it’s a show of a bunch of vignettes. They all take place in the same town on the same night, specifically, at the same moment, which is what’s really unique about it — it’s all of these different characters who are friends and know each other, and it’s all looking at this snapshot moment in each of their lives. Each vignette is about falling in or falling out of love. And it all has some sort of quirk to it, the idea being that on this night, it’s one of the nights that the northern lights appear and it’s all kind of tied to these weird, quirky things that happen in each scene — and each scene has a sort of twist to it, a sort of magic element to it.
Why “Almost, Maine?” What initially drew you to the show and why did you want to be director of it?
Well, I’ve wanted to direct for a while, but I wasn’t quite sure what the show to do was and I actually did “Almost, Maine” back in high school — junior year, I think — and I kind of fell in love with it. It’s a script really suitable to a cast of — it’s a really flexible cast size — but at the same time, you can have it be small, but you can also make sure that everybody has something to do. It’s something that, when I did it before, it was a very straightforward interpretation where you had as close to a physical representation of the set as you could — at lot of it takes place outdoors, and then you have indoor scenes, where you had, you know, the rolling platforms and all that stuff. But it’s also a thing that works really well in a black box space; you can take it a little more abstract, have people mime a couple things and it really works, because it’s a show that has a lot of heart to it. It’s sweet without being saccharine — and that’s the trouble with the show. It’s a show where, if you don’t do it right, it can come off as definitely overly sweet. It was a pretty easy choice as far as shows I had ideas for wanting to direct really early on.
Okay, so I don’t know if you want to talk about your favorite vignette, but maybe without giving away the ending?
It’s actually — yeah, I won’t give away the ending — but it’s actually one of the last scenes in the show and it’s called, “Seeing the Thing.” It’s always been one of my favorite scenes in the show. Essentially what it is, is it’s these two adorable, little love newbies, who really don’t know what they’re doing. The scene starts off with Dave, who has a present for Rhonda and it’s a painting and Dave made it. But Rhonda can’t quite see what it is, because it’s one of those, “Look at it until you see the thing” kind of things and so the whole scene is trying to get Rhonda to see the thing because it’s something that everybody knows. I mean, everybody should be able to see it. So the whole thing is trying to get Rhonda to see the thing and things about their relationship coming out, like are we friends? Or, are we more than friends? What’s going on? You made me this painting — why did you make me a painting? This is weird. And it’s just a really cute dynamic.
You already touched on how the staging is going to affect the overall experience of the play—
Well, initially when we were figuring out the play, I wanted to do it outside. Because, actually, as an environmental science-y kind of person, I do have my interests in that. It’s a show that struck me, when I was still trying to think of a show to do outside, as one that really connects to the outdoors. Half the show takes place with people outside looking at the stars or outside on a porch or – there’s a very strong connection to nature and to the environment in this show. So that’s one of the reasons why we transferred it indoors, because part of the thing behind waiting to do it outside is that you get that, you have to huddle in close to one another and really embrace the fact that this is campfire story time.
What was the most challenging aspect of putting this play together?
That’s a really tough question. I guess, I mean, part of it is that this is the first full show I’ve ever directed. And I’ve been in a lot of things, I think this is probably my — in terms of productions I’ve been involved in, in some capacity — I think this is number thirty.
You have an entire alternate Facebook profile experiment for all of the different characters in the show.
Can you just talk about the thought process behind the Facebook profile experiment?
Actually, in terms of hardships, thinking about it, one of the more difficult things was because we pushed [production] back to early spring, we had a giant winter break in the middle of the rehearsal process. Luckily, we’ve had a really dedicated cast that when we said, “Hey, get off book and know your blocking, so we can really start fine-tuning things so we can start when we get back,” did that. For the most part everyone came in, knew their lines, knew what they were doing, so that way we could just run it and give notes and really work on things. So we came up with this project to fill in that gap. The idea was we created Facebook profiles for everybody, for every major character that they had, with the idea being that their homework for the winter break was to post. Post as your character; you don’t have to post extremely frequently, but interact with one another. Post things that your character would post. Like things that other characters posted that your character would like. Really get into these characters. Another thing that we’ve done to help with that is every now and then we’ll have them just working on acting exercises for like a whole rehearsal, which is what we did today and we did an exercise that we did at the beginning of the process, too, which is just called Karaoke at the Moose Patty. The Moose Patty is the bar in the show and there’s actually one or two scenes that take place in the Moose Patty or reference the Moose Patty. And so what we did, was we make it karaoke night, and everybody walks around and gets into character and just interacts with each other and gets up and does karaoke and then sometimes gets pulled up by friends to go do karaoke, and then just interact we each other and order drinks. Nell [Quinn-Gibney, assistant director] and I act as the waitresses and the DJs and it’s a lot of fun. And it’s just another way — like the Facebook profiles — to really let everybody in my cast really feel what it’s like to be these characters outside of the script because there’s only so much you can do to explore motivations and who these people are outside of the script, especially when the whole show, for every pair, takes place within fifteen minutes. So it’s really hard — in order for those fifteen minutes to come across as honest and truthful acting, you need to really think about, well, what are these people like outside of this tiny little frame of their life?
What is the overall significance of this piece? What are you hoping the actors can convey with this particular staging and everything that you’ve done to make it reflective of the storytelling?
Honestly, I have to sit down and think and write a director’s note that will hopefully say some of this stuff. Personally, it’s just a story that really hits home, from the perspective of, there are all these quirky characters and none of them — all these characters don’t quite know what they’re doing, for the most part. And I just love the show because it is this kind of quirky and really sweet — but really honest — look at love and what happens, because it doesn’t work out for everybody. It just doesn’t. And in real life, it doesn’t necessarily work out for anybody. But it’s sweet and it’s something that, at least in some way, everybody can relate to, whether it’s the couple that are going on 11 years and haven’t really committed to something hardcore yet or it’s the little, baby newbies-to-love that are sitting on a park bench, trying not to say the wrong word. Another thing we’ve worked on is — none of the actors ever leave the stage during the production. When it’s not their scene, they’re sitting in the back in some sort of arrangement with the idea being that in this show there is this presence of a community — they’re in this small tiny town — and if you’ve ever lived in a teeny-tiny town or gone to a teeny-tiny school, you know everybody and everybody knows everybody and everybody knows everybody else’s gossip and everybody knows what exactly is going on. I just feel like it’s this show that has this charm to it because it has these truths to it — if we do it right. It has these truths to it, but at the same time it is about, as an audience, listening in and supporting as a community.
Is there anything else you’d like to say just about the production in general?
Come see the show! I think it’s going to be a really fun time. It’s not exactly experimental because it’s not really. And I feel like that’s — it’s this strange thing because it’s a little bit of a different way to put on a show, but at the same time I feel like the kind of theatre that it is, is something that people can still relate to.
“Almost, Maine” will be performed on Feb. 17 and 18 at 8 p.m. in the PAHB Dance Tech room. Tickets will be available at the Campus Information Center.