Back with Anthony and Casey: Workshopping and New Roles

In 2019, I was given the opportunity to conduct a series of interviews on The Girl With the Red Hair, a play by writer/director Anthony Laura. Starring Casey Hartnett as Hayley Jones, The Girl with the Red Hair, is an exploration of the damage rendered by sexual abuse, of a mind in turmoil as it attempts to cope with experiences far too extreme to process. In the ever-deepening shadows of the girl she once was, who is Hayley Jones, and will it be enough to simply be a survivor?

As the cast and crew prepped The Girl With the Red Hair for a limited run in December (a run that received great praise and fanfare), I had the pleasure of discussing the process and direction of the play with Anthony and Casey, as well as supporting actors, Viven Cardone, Samatha Yestrebsky, and Alexandra Rooney. This not only offered the opportunity to discuss each actor’s approach and vision for their character, but also offered the rare opportunity to follow a work as it progressed from script to the stage.

But, now I have more questions! What happens to a play once a limited run is complete? Where does it go from there? What happens when a play is workshopped?

Fortunately, Anthony has been gracious enough to allow me to continue to follow the cast and crew as they prepare the play for future runs. Through interviews, video chats, pictures, and more, we’ll have a seat at the table as cast and crew develop, prepare, and rewrite The Girl With the Red Hair for future runs on stage.

So … Let’s begin where we started, with Anthony and Casey. 


 

Back with Anthony and Casey:

Workshopping and New Roles

First and foremost, congratulations on a successful run of The Girl with the Red Hair! The reviews certainly spoke highly of the story, and most definitely of your performance, Casey. On the heels of that limited run, where is production now?

Anthony: We’ve been diving into the scenes that we felt worked well over the past two runs and I have been writing new scenes for us to explore, both in terms of some that will appear in the play and some that will only be used for backstory purposes. It’s been interesting to explore the dynamics that don’t exist on the stage, such as how each person relates differently to Doctor Watkins and how their relationships to characters outside of Hayley inform the environment of the hospital.

Casey: Thanks so much! I’m really proud of the work we did last year. Now, we are working towards returning with a larger off-Broadway run this fall. So, beginning with a workshop of the current script, story, and characters, we’re playing around with what we want to keep and what we might want to change in order to adapt the script to tell the story in an even more effective way. So we’re workshopping the play for the first half of the year and then are planning on putting it up in the fall, depending on what happens with the theaters and scheduling regarding the covid-19 virus. Right now we’re keeping a positive outlook and an open mind and focusing on the workshop first and foremost. 

Recently, Face to Face films added the role of Creative Partner for you, Casey. What does that role entail? 

I will be working with Anthony on various productions not only as an actor but also doing various production tasks, sometimes helping with producing or giving feedback on scripts and stories and characters. We just want to be creating and telling stories that we care about … Anthony and I have found that individually as artists we each focus on similar types of stories. About women and taboo issues. So it’s great having a creative partner that you trust who you can just spitball ideas with and create projects that you both genuinely care about. It just so happens that the projects I had been creating independently correlate well with the themes and message that Anthony and Face to Face Films has been trying to get across, so why not work together? 

Anthony, since Casey mentioned the company message, what can you tell us about its focus?

Face To Face Films is focused on female led work and bringing voice to stories about people that are not regularly understood. We have an incredible group of talented Resident Artists in the company, as well as a brilliant behind the scenes team, which also includes Casey, who produce, curate and help promote the shows and films we do. It was always important to me to tell stories that were about people who inspired me and who I wanted to see represented on screen. In addition, I also wanted to create a company with people who I’m inspired by and who believed in each other, just as much as the work we were doing. I believe that the works that audiences respond to are the ones in which the people creating them are as beautiful, kind and as vulnerable as the characters you respond to on the screen or stage. It’s been a privilege to find that in everyone that is working within the company.

Casey, how has your new role changed the way you work with Anthony? What’s been the greatest challenge?

Well, I’ve always felt seen and heard whenever I’ve had an idea about something while working as an actor with Anthony, so now working with him as a creative partner on the production and writing side of things it doesn’t necessarily feel like too much has changed. I guess I’m more comfortable stating my thoughts and opinions about each project that we’re working on knowing that he trusts me as a creative partner in that way. It can be challenging as an actor when you have thoughts and opinions on a project you’re working on because you don’t want to overstep any boundaries with the writer, director or other crew members. There can be an insecurity about that as an actor. So with this new role as a creative partner with Face to Face Films, I feel like I don’t have to apologize or feel guilty about stating my opinions knowing that Anthony actually wants to hear those things from me. Acting can sometimes make you feel like a puppet in a way, so it’s always a gift to work with someone who sees you as a full person and values your opinions and ideas. 

When people work together on artistic projects, it requires an aligned focus and passion. What is it about the two of you that makes for a great partnership?

Anthony: One of the main reasons I asked Casey to become a Creative Partner was because of her passion. When Casey and I first met about a year and a half ago, we immediately connected on the types of stories we wanted to tell and we both felt similarly about the ways we hoped to see women on screen and stage. 

A part of Face To Face that has always been important to me are the relationships of each of us working together. Casey is someone I consider a very close friend outside of work and it’s a privilege to work so closely with someone that you also have that connection with. That’s one thing I love about the company we’ve created, that we are surrounded by close friends in addition to having created a family environment, both in and outside of work.

In terms of acting, Casey is brave, resilient and has an incredible grasp on text. I recently wrote a new monologue for the play that we began workshopping. I had asked Casey to read it blindly, and she nailed every single nuance. I think she understands the way I write and can give every comma, and every word the desired effect I had intended without us having spoken about it. It’s rare to come across an actor who silently can understand and deliver your intentions so beautifully and effortlessly.

I think, for me, what makes us great partners is the way we listen to each other, trust each other, have each other’s backs and the way that, even in the midst of working on something so challenging, we can still find ways to laugh and challenge each other. As similar as our viewpoints are in work, we also differ on many things and that’s a big reason I wanted her as a partner. She consistently challenges me to think deeper about characters I’ve created and thought I knew, and the result is always electrifying.

Casey: We met over a year ago when I auditioned for a film of Anthony’s, and since we started working together it seems like we just felt a connection and a mutual understanding and respect for one another. It’s hard to explain because I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when our collaborative relationship also felt like a friendship, but when you feel like you can trust someone while doing such personal and vulnerable work you want to continue that partnership. We definitely end up on some pretty funny tangents while working together, but it’s knowing that we can do the work efficiently and also laugh and have a good time that makes the work environment so comfortable and effective. I know I’ve made comments or suggestions that I’d be too embarrassed or insecure to mention in other work environments and they actually ended up being suggestions that we’ve gone further with. It’s being able to trust one another that allows us to put forth ideas that might feel far-fetched in our minds but actually bring about so many other wonderful ideas

In reviewing the characters from the December run, what stood out to you both the most? What changes did you feel were necessary?

Anthony: I think we are still figuring out exactly what changes were necessary.  However, what stood out to me was the ways in which the audience was affected emotionally in certain parts of the show. I think there are particular moments, such as Cortney’s monologue in Act 2, Hayley’s monologue discussing her past (in Act 2 as well,) and the surprising revelations that the story has as it moves along, that have always packed a punch in the rehearsal room and we hoped the audience would feel what we felt. Yet, there were other moments that the audiences also became affected by in terms of Coury, Tabitha, and of course, Young Hayley, that allowed me to understand how people were connecting to other characters in addition to Hayley and that immediately became exciting for what I wanted to explore as the workshops progressed.

Casey: We have so much love for these characters so we really just wanted to dive further into who each person is and the relationships they have with one another and particularly with Hayley. We felt an importance in showcasing Dr. Watkin’s vulnerabilities more and how hard it is seeing your patients struggle. There’s also been a lot more to explore with Young Hayley, Pamela, and Cortney and I wanted to see more of Eve and Hayley’s friendship as well. Dixie’s character of the Singer as a hallucination has changed a bit, too, so I’m really excited about that. In shortening the length of the play, we also had to think about which character might be able to be combined with another one. That’s definitely been the hardest part of this process because we love them all so much. 

What takes place when a play is being workshopped? What do you hope to gain from it?

Anthony: Every workshop is different, depending on your desired end result.  Right now, the work being done with Hayley is helping to explore and bring out elements we haven’t seen yet, such as who she was outside of the hospital and what her hopes and dreams are that still reside in her.  We are also exploring scenes that will not exist in the play and are using those as exercises to help deepen certain relationships. Based on the current state of the world, we have moved everything to become virtual, so the workshop is also adapting to that, knowing that we are not able to do anything physically or in terms of blocking. This allows us to take a little more time around the table before we are ready to come back in the same room with each other. I think the gain will be in understanding these characters in ways we didn’t have the opportunity to before and, hopefully discovering new elements to work into the play that wouldn’t have been possible without this work.

Casey: Anthony has been writing scenes for each of us actors individually and we read through them, act them out, and feel out what’s working and what’s not. Anthony and I have also gone through the entire script and decided which scenes we feel could be omitted or are necessary to be kept in. It’s fun seeing new scenes mixed with the old and seeing these characters evolve. All I can hope for is that we’re continuing to tell an honest story that we really love about characters that we care a lot about and are continuing to protect the humanity of these characters as the story of the play evolves.

What was the most unexpected and exciting discovery from the limited run?

Anthony: For me, the most exciting part was the audience. Watching how differently they reacted each night and the different points of the play they connected to. I love watching these actors work every night and seeing how they adapt to different energy and how deeply the story affects them. It brings me to tears watching their dedication to each other and the story. Also, though it wasn’t unexpected because of her talent and LITERAL ADORABLENESS, the audience’s reaction to Alexandra Rooney, who plays Young Hayley, was really moving to me. She became such a central part of the story we were telling that I had hoped the audience understood the journey we were going for with showing the dichotomy of both Hayley’s, so I felt proud in the way that landed and touched people.

Casey: Honestly, what comes to mind was how much the cast and crew had each other’s backs during the December run. Not that I wasn’t expecting it at all, but the depth of it was a nice reassurance. On opening night I suddenly felt nauseous after intermission and when I had a brief second backstage, I let Sofia, our stage manager, know before running back on with a quick, “I might have to puke.” I was mentally preparing for a safe time to run to the toilet but when I went offstage the next time, Sofia had a garbage can and ginger ale at the ready. I didn’t puke, FYI. Another actor felt nauseous during a different performance and we just knew that the other actors would be ready to adlib if one of us ever needed to run offstage quickly. I think that support and bond was a weird little exciting discovery among the group that we have working together. Knowing that that trust is there makes the work we’re doing onstage ten times better because we feel supported and covered in case anything crazy happens during a performance. 

From the onset, through the limited run in December your relationship was strictly director and actor. With Casey’s move to Producer, how has that influenced working together?

Anthony: I think from the onset of when we began collaborating, Casey and I have always worked closely and exchanged ideas. Now, I think there is even more of a freedom to discuss and explore different areas that fall outside of just acting.  Casey is extremely well read and the ideas she puts forward come from a very intellectual place, in addition to an emotional and instinctual place. That’s been pretty exciting to me, getting to explore the ideas that we are both passionate about outside of just the themes we are dealing with in the current work. I think that informs us in how we want to develop what projects and characters excite as we think about creating future work together.

Casey: Being asked to move into a producer role has allowed me to feel more comfortable giving input and sharing my ideas and opinions. As an actor, you don’t want to overstep those boundaries, even though Anthony has always been very open about hearing ideas from his actors. We’ve been on the same page with pretty much everything that’s come up during the workshop so far, which is lucky.

For those of us who have never been through the process, what is it like working through this stage of a play’s life? What does an average day look like?

Anthony: At this stage, it’s a lot of talking and playing with scenes. I’ll write a scene and we will read it together, and start going bit by bit through it to discover intention and why we think it works or doesn’t work in the body of the play. Sometimes, we will revisit scenes that already exist in the play and discuss portions that may no longer fit with the new pages we’re creating. It’s a lot of back and forth as we slowly build parts of characters that the audiences will never see, but hopefully, will always feel.

Casey: The workshop is fun because each session where we’re working together, which now has to be virtually through FaceTime, Anthony has written new material for me to work on. It’s exciting to take these characters through new small adventures within the same world with each new scene we work on. We’re usually reading through new scenes, analysing the scenes and discussing how they would fit into the world of the play and where it might go in the script, which scene it could replace or be added to, and so on. Then, of course, we’ll take time to discuss production details–the producing side of things–such as theaters we’re looking at, our timeline and potential schedule for the fall, and so on

As a writer or actor, every character brings with them lessons that can carry over. You’ve both been immersed in the journey of Haley Jones for some time now. What has she taught you?

Anthony: Kindness and compassion. Hayley has grown into what Casey has developed her into and I always walk away with the lesson of compassion. She’s one of the bravest characters I’ve ever written and I think courage through kindness is what defines Hayley to me.

Casey: I’ve learned so much from Hayley. I think the biggest thing she’s taught me has been that we don’t have to be alone in whatever it is we are going through. Seeing how many audience members felt personal connections to the play, it felt like I was learning this more and more everyday as Hayley was. She’s also taught me more about self-acceptance and self-awareness than anyone I’ve ever known in real life, I think. Hayley does have an awareness of what’s going on with her mental health, even when it feels as if she’s lost control of it all. She’s also proven to me how important it is to accept what you’re going through and not be ashamed of who you are because you can’t move on until you’ve accepted wherever it is you’ve found yourself at the moment and can use that to learn from and grow even stronger as you move forward into the next phase of your life. No matter how scary that might be, it won’t be forever

You mentioned expanding the role of Young Haley. What inspired that choice and what can she add to the overall dynamic of the play?

Anthony: (SPOILER ALERT) The dynamic between Alexandra and Casey is fascinating to watch. The love they have for each other becomes very present on stage. Having dealt further with the sexual abuse that Hayley suffered, bringing Young Hayley to the forefront has allowed us to show the moment in her life before her innocence was taken away and how it effected the trajectory of the rest of her life. There’s a moment, a shift, and I think it happens whether we’ve experienced trauma or not, where we no longer look at the world through childlike eyes. Our responses become more measured, and we become more aware of how other people perceive us. I was really excited to further explore how Hayley has grown or been held back since that moment of trauma occurred.

Casey: Anthony’s addition of Young Hayley has been really effective, I think. It’s so heartbreaking seeing that divide between the carefree, playful nature of Hayley’s youth and the pain and hurt that Hayley is feeling trapped in as an adult. I think most people experience something that can quickly steal the naivete of youth right out from under their noses, and the feeling of that is universal even if we’ve blocked out whatever it was that made that happen for us. I think seeing Young Hayley can help audiences connect Hayley more with her full humanity rather than just viewing her as someone who has completely lost her mind, because she is still the same person as she was when she was young. She still has that beauty in her. She’s just working through some new circumstances.

Casey, given the sensitive nature of Hayley’s story, what kind of reaction did you receive from the audiences? 

Vivien (Cardone) hugged me before the curtain call one night and said, “Every single person in that audience is crying.” Some people were speechless because the play hit so many people pretty hard. Friends and strangers were coming up to me afterwards telling me how they each personally related to the story, whether it was themselves going through something similar or someone they love. A friend of mine said how good it felt to finally feel represented onstage in a story like this. After our final performance, I found myself hugging and crying with a young woman who I had never met before but I suddenly felt so close to. She said she finally felt seen and accepted. It was so powerful and I said to myself, “We can’t stop. We have to keep going.” People I had known for my entire life who saw the show were suddenly sharing very personal things with me that they had never opened up about before. It was very powerful to see how universal this topic really is and how many people it affected in various ways. 

Before we bring this interview to a close, I wondered if you could both speak to your hopes for the company, as well for the work you will create as collaborative partners?

Anthony: I am very excited for what the company has on its slate for the next couple of years. In addition to The Girl With the Red Hair having another couple of runs, we also have several web-series in development.  One of them, Kara, featuring Casey as the title character, deals with the effects of a school shooting survivor and the impact it has had on her mental health and relationships. We are also establishing a reading series with our company members in which we will put on readings of plays and screenplays, both produced and unproduced. Vivien Cardone, one of our Residents who plays Doctor Watkins, and I are also developing ideas for a web series in the  future and Samantha Yestrebsky, another Resident who plays Cortney and Azura, and I have also spoken about branching off the Azura character in other works.

I really enjoy writing for Casey and finding roles that intrigue the both of us and now, to have her on board as a CP, it feels even more invigorating to have her as a bigger part of the process and put out these plays, web-series and films that we both connect to so deeply.

Casey: I hope we can continue to create work that we care deeply about with people who have a similar love for the stories we want to tell and the humanity of the characters we want to convey through these projects. I just think it’s important to be telling the stories you really want to tell and are passionate about because when it comes from a place of love and care, no matter who sees it or where it gets shown, that is always the most rewarding work you will do and the work that makes you feel the most alive.