Review: Steel Magnolias, a Theater, Interrupted Production

I won’t lie. I love Steel Magnolias. It’s a sweet southern story full of humor, emotional swings, and strong women that are impossible to forget. The film, which hit theaters to great fanfare in 1989, was cast to perfection (Shirley MacLaine as Ouiser and Dolly Parton as Truvy in particular have always stuck with me in their roles). However, most who know the film may not be aware that it was based on a play, written by Robert Harling, which premiered in 1987.

There are notable differences in the storytelling structure from stage to screen, as one might expect. Film offers more opportunity to drift from location to location, following characters as they go, capturing every element of what takes place. The stage requires more subtlety. More story within singular locations. The stage version of Steel Magnolias takes place through several scenes within Truvy’s salon, over the course of nearly two years. There we meet Truvy, Clairee, Annelle, Shelby, M’Lynn, and Ouiser, as we follow the story of Shelby, from her wedding day to her funeral.

In the hands of Face to Face Films showrunner Anthony M. Laura, as a part of their Theater, Interrupted series of virtual productions, Steel Magnolias remains as vibrant and poignant as ever. Cast wonderfully, it’s a testament to the original material, and an ode to the power and strength of women who can cry, laugh, and stand tall against any obstacle.

As Truvy, Vivien Cardone conjures memories of Dolly, quick with her wit, charming to no end, and as captivating as ever. Chelsea Renae captures the “do as I will” nature of Clairee, flippant and owning every line. Rheanna Salazar beautifully takes on the innocence of Annelle, easily lifting the demure character in line with the powerhouse women she comes to know. As Shelby’s mother M’Lynn, Kristen Hasty brings equal doses of protective mother and loving caregiver, offsetting her daughter’s care-free nature. To which, it must be noted that Matigan Nagle’s graceful performance as Shelby cannot be understated. Michelle Miner’s take on Ouiser, a spitfire honest enough to admit she just been “angry for forty years”, is pure venom, harsh and brutal with the hidden heart revealed only in the story’s most tender moment.

The cast carried the production, bringing familiar characters to life as if they’d played them for years. And once again, Laura directs them with precision, leaving no doubt that he understands how to bring the most out of his team. If you are a fan of the film, or if you’ve seen the play, this production of Steel Magnolias is one you simply must watch. Stop what you’re doing, settle in with some sweet tea and chocolate, and laugh yourself to tears, so you can then cry yourself into laughter.

Review: Rabbit Hole, a Theatre, Interrupted Production

Theater, Interrupted, the ongoing web-series of theater performances by Face to Face Films, has offered its followers an non-stop stream of quality plays since the beginning of the pandemic. Though we await, with great anticipation, the opportunity to sit quietly in a darkened theater, drawn into the emotional journeys of characters, wowed by performances of ACTUAL ACTORS ON A STAGE, this series continues to fill the gap admirably.

With Rabbit Hole, director and Face to Face Films frontrunner, Anthony M. Laura tackles the grief of a family dealing with the loss of their 4-year-old son. Written by David Lindsay-Abaire (debuting on stage in 2006), the journey delves deep into the myriad ways in which we process grief and loss, and the damage we absorb along the way.

Starring Kristin Seavey and Gabe Calleja as Becca and Howie, mother and father to their late son Danny, we’re propelled into a world of anger and anguish. The duo not only carry the weight of the pain their characters feel, they connect us to their lives and to their struggle with ease and precision, leaving the viewer feeling less a body on the other side of a screen than a visitor in their home longing to help them make it right.

As Jason, the young high school student responsible for Danny’s death, Alex Commito brings warmth and innocence, opening our lens to grief through the eyes of a young man processing his sense of responsibility through stories and a need for closure. Through only a handful of scenes, Commito wastes nothing, his delivery and expression showcasing Jason’s struggle.

Nicole Townsend, as Becca’s sister Izzy, and Gabrielle Arles, as Becca and Izzy’s mother Nat, round out the cast with solid performances, bringing a sense of fullness to the family dynamic. Townsend, in particular, plays off Seavey in their shared scenes as only sisters can, stealing a good bit of the virtual spotlight along the way.

One hopes that the end is near. That the stage will again open soon. That we will be able to return and congregate to watch these fabulous performances. But for now, Theater, Interrupted continues to offer quality performances that quickly make one forget they are cozy at home watching on screen (for free at that!). Anthony M. Laura and the team at Face to Face Films should be commended, remembered, and supported wholly for all they do.

Review: The Nina Variations, a Theater, Interrupted Production

Theater, Interrupted, the series of virtual theater performances created by Face to Face Films director and writer Anthony M. Laura, has offered a consistent run of quality theater over the past year, despite the pandemic. The frustration over our inability to sit and see these takes on stage has waned as the production and performances have gained in momentum.

Their latest, The Nina Variations, written by Steven Dietz is no less impressive.

Company singer Madison C. Gray, opens with a cappella versions of On My Own, from Les Miserables and her haunting rendition of When September Ends by Green Day. She is a great talent and leading these performances with her soothing tones sets the mood for the story that follows.

Taken from the final scene in Anton Chekov’s The Seagull, The Nina Variations is a complex, yet straightforward, take on the difficulties of human emotion, born within the love and devotion to an idea never to be realized. Over 42 scenes, the audience is offered alternate endings to Chekov’s classic work. Though separate and disconnected, they give a full view of the relationship between the writer, Treplev, and Nina, the actress he loves.

Kristen Seavey plays the role of Nina, a young woman blessed with a depth of innocence, humor, and unwavering affection for Treplev’s rival, Trigorin. She captures the full spectrum of Nina’s playfulness and heart with precision, leaving little doubt to the full range of her acting ability.

Matching her scene for scene, Prentice Myles carries the weight of Treplev’s distress and melancholy as if it were his own. He captures the raw excitement of an artist driven by the presence of Nina, while adeptly dipping into the unrelenting chasm of despair in the man’s desperation for Nina’s love.

The performances of Seavey and Myles make The Nina Variations a must watch, despite the overall complexities of the play’s concept. Familiarity with The Seagull does make the viewing an engaging take on the culmination of a classic but is hardly necessary.

Review: RFK, a production by Theater, Interrupted

Face to Face Films took its cue from the global pandemic in 2020, offering fans of the theater an opportunity to see and experience quality productions from the cozy confines of home. While props and music and staging has evolved since the initial production, the talent and direction has remained top notch.

For its latest production, Theater, Interrupted staged the one-man performance of RFK, written by Jack Holmes.

To begin the production, Face to Face company singer Madison C. Gray welcomed the audience with beautiful acapella renditions of Song of Silence and American Pie, setting the stage for the emotional journey of Robert Kennedy with a haunting sweetness.

Staged at the desk of RFK, the fiery politician framed by an American flag and portrait of sailboats, director Anthony M. Laura gives an online audience the presentable look of a staged performance. Accompanied with music by Philip Lauto, the experience of streaming theater is no longer a novelty, but rather a pleasant and welcomed new normal. With RFK, Theater, Interrupted has once more shown that theater can be an experience to behold, no matter where or when it is viewed.

RFK begins in 1964 and covers the span of 4 years, as Robert Kennedy copes with the loss of his brother, struggles with his political future, the enemies he made as Attorney General, his place in the family, and finds a voice during a time of civil unrest and war.

Dan Kelly portrays Robert Kennedy with an engaging mix of passion and uncertainty, channeling the insecurities and frustrations of a charismatic politician who could never live up to the towering shadow cast by his brother, John F. Kennedy. Kelly brings charm and flair, capturing the heart and charisma—and Boston accent—embodied by RFK.

From the opening scene nine months after his brother’s assassination, to his appearance in the 1968 primaries that brought an end to his life, the journey of RFK is well told, conceived beautifully, and a performance to be remembered.

Review of Doubt, an online reading

2020 continues to do its thing, offering one alarming raise to the pot of a nerve-wracking poker game we didn’t plan on playing. A fallout—one of many, to be sure—has been the continued shutdown of the entertainment industry. Film and theater have been forced out of production, screens and stages remain dark, and a world in need of entertainment hunts for ways to stave off the stir-crazy building within.

That said, there have been efforts to create alternate routes to entertainment. One of them comes from Face to Face Films. On the heels of their May reading of Little Women, which included a stellar performance from a cast of skilled actors, the online reading series returned in June to take on Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley.

Centered on three main characters—Sister Aloysius Beauvier, played by Vivien Cardone, Father Flynn, played by Alex Commito, and Sister James, played by Rhenna Salazar—Doubt unravels a potential scandal at St. Nicholas, a Roman Catholic elementary school. The course of the drama leaves one riddled with doubt, uncertain as to what is truth and what is deception.

From the production side, Face to Face Films once again stood up to the challenge of presenting a play online, complete with costumes, as well as a complimentary composition from Philip Lauto. Producers Casey Hartnett and Anthony Laura impressed with the quality of the presentation, and with the seamless transition from scene-to-scene with the assistance of narrator Sophie Licata.

All three performances of the main characters were stellar, though it was impossible not to focus on the emotional and captivating take of Sister Aloysius by Vivien Cardone. Played with a sense of urgency that drove the story forward, Cardone stole the show, drawing both ire and compassion from the viewer as the story further detailed the suspicious behavior of Father Flynn toward the school’s only black student, Donald Muller. Alex Commito and Rhenna Salazar balanced the back and forth battle between Aloysius and Flynn with great poise. Salazar captured the innocent idealism of Sister James so effectively it forced the viewer to take the dance of doubt along with her, questioning both Aloysius’ claims and Flynn’s denials.

Not to be ignored, Isha Sumner’s performance as Donald Muller’s mother, Mrs. Muller, was profound and emotional. Despite the limited screen time, Sumner added a sense of gravity to the story that could not be shaken.

At the conclusion of the performance, the cast and crew remained available to answer viewer questions, while the tandem team of Hartnett and Laura announced that the next reading will take place August 1st, with a reading from the screenplay of The Hours by David Hare.

Production in a Pandemic: Vivien Cardone and Anthony Laura

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 and featuring Vivien Cardone as Doctor Watkins, 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, then 2020 happened and the world ground to a halt. Which left me wondering: What happens to a stage production when there’s no stage available?

One answer, which is not addressed in the interview that follows, is taking the stage online. After a successful online reading of Little Women, Face to Face Films is currently working on Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley, featuring Vivien Cardone, Alex Commito, Rheanna Salazar, and Isha Sumner. The performance is slated for Saturday, June 27th at 2pm via Zoom.

Production in a Pandemic: Vivien Cardone and Anthony Laura

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Getting the primary question out of the way: How is the current pandemic shutdown affecting your work on The Girl with the Red Hair?

VIVIEN: I guess the most obvious change would have to be the transition to virtual workshops and rehearsals, which does come with its challenges. But I think we have all navigated the new dynamics fairly well. We have still made wonderful progress with peeling back the layers of the story and the characters. Personally, I have noticed that the social distancing has taken a bit of a toll on my emotional and mental health, as I am sure it has for many of us. I have been struggling a bit with trying not to bring that into our company. But there is overwhelming support and understanding from the group, especially from our director Anthony, that has been a great source of comfort to me through all of the isolation.

ANTHONY: We have been lucky enough to be able to continue workshopping through Zoom during the pandemic.  Though we are still unclear where the future will take us in terms of theater openings, I feel we have been maintaining a good flow of work to be ready once we can start in person rehearsals and begin pinning down more specifics for the 2020 run.  All of the actors have been wonderful in embracing this odd virtual process and I think we’ve all become more creative for it.

It would seem that your work together has created a bit of a bond. How has your friendship influenced continued work on the play? 

VIVIEN: Anthony and I hit it off almost immediately, and he has quickly become my closest friend. We have the same sense of humor, we share a passion for our craft, and we have similar artistic visions. We really think on the same wavelength when it comes to our work, so Anthony really doesn’t have to give me much direction for me to understand what he is envisioning for the scene or the character. And I think because we have become so close, and we are so similar in our thinking, we have made tons of progress with Dr. Watkins. Because there is a deep level trust between us, I feel at ease with stepping out of my comfort zone and tackling on the emotionally taxing scenes and character developments that he throws at me. It’s very rare that you encounter such an easy working dynamic, so I feel very blessed to have developed such a close, trusting friendship with him. And it’s great when you are able to separate your working relationship from your personal relationship like we do. We can be poking fun at each other and acting like total idiots one minute, and then the next moment switch into ultra-serious, professional Director/Actor mode. And really, who doesn’t feel ecstatic to get to work closely with their best friend? 

ANTHONY: I agree with Vivien.  We hit it off almost immediately upon meeting and we have continued to become closer as we worked and have gotten to know each other.  She’s someone I trust and who I am always confident understands the direction I’m heading, in terms of Doctor Watkins and other characters.  It’s a blessing to know someone of Vivien’s experience level and to hear her feedback, as we do have similar storytelling goals and I’ve gained so much knowledge just from talking various aspects of projects out with her.  Needless to say, I also have a ton of fun with her.  We laugh and understand each other in a way that is rare, I think.  I second the ecstatic feeling about being able to work with your best friend.  It’s a complete joy and privilege.

And beyond the play, you’ve developed a working relationship within Face to Face Films. In what way has that played out?

VIVIEN: Being part of the company has been such a blessing. Because I am currently in college, I have had to take a bit of a step back from the acting world, which has not been easy for me. But Anthony has been so wonderful with making sure I am welcomed and involved in the company as much as I possibly can be. When I initially started with the company, I was cast as Natalie in “The Rabbits,” and now I am getting to experience the world of theater for the first time. And it has been an incredible journey. Face to Face has become my escape from the stress of school and the pandemic. I have enjoyed every second of being a part of this company. And I am ready to take on any new role Anthony is willing to offer me. Anthony has recently spoken to me about getting more involved in company decisions being made behind the camera and stage, and I have eagerly accepted. So, I am very excited to see how this new working relationship develops.

Circling back to The Girl With the Red Hair, you’re in the process of workshopping for another run later this year. How has the character of Doctor Watkins changed over the entire process?

VIVIEN: I think the biggest changes that have happened with Watkins is in her humanity and her vulnerability. We have been really working to explore who Watkins is outside of her profession, and how that affects her approach with her patients, especially Hayley. We wanted to see how much Watkins’ personal life compared to or paralleled the experiences of her patients. And we wanted to see how much of her past has influenced the doctor she has become. So, it’s been a lot of developing backstories and exploring the different personalities and moods that Watkins might experience from day to day. It’s been a challenge, but in the most rewarding way.

ANTHONY: There’s been a good amount of change with Doctor Watkins.  I think Vivien and I were very interested in exploring aspects of her softer side and how that would conflict with the way she is professionally.  Watkins is a very different character than she originally written, with a large thanks to Vivien.  She opened her up with an empathy and compassion that forces us to examine her rough exterior on the outside.  My hopes are that the audiences can see Watkins’ suffering and get a peek at what she might be hiding beneath her shell.

Life events can often influence art, sometimes even in subtle ways. Has the current pandemic, and outpouring of support for our health care workers, influenced the approach to Doctor Watkins and her place at the center of chaos?

VIVIEN: I would say that the current pandemic has had a greater effect on me emotionally and mentally than I anticipated it would. And that has made me rethink how Watkins might feel or react in stressful situations. It has made me question how much of Watkins’ professional demeanor is a façade and how much of it is sincere. People have a tendency to wear masks as a way of covering up what is really going on beneath the surface. And I think I have come to realize that Watkins is an expert at doing just that. So, Anthony and I have been experimenting with what it might be like for Watkins to peel away that mask a bit, so we can see more of what’s really going on in her mind, and the results have been truly eye-opening.

ANTHONY: That’s a really great question.  One of my hopes once the play sees its next performance is the compassion we have for anyone who treats us.  As we have seen, we often take people on the front lines for granted until we so desperately need them, and Doctor Watkins is no exception to that.  She is someone who cares about the people she treats and works with, even if it’s hard for her to show.

Vivien, you’ve portrayed characters on both the stage and screen. Between the two, what is the biggest difference in your approach?

VIVIEN: I don’t think the difference is as much my own approach as it is the contrast in production styles. Stage and film are two very different animals. In my personal experience with film, a majority of my prep work was done at my own discretion. When you are working on a film set, you are shooting scenes completely out of order. So, you have to take it one scene at a time, emotionally preparing yourself for that particular moment of time in the story. The director will guide you on the right track, but for the most part the prep work is all on the actor to do what they need to, to get where they need to be emotionally for that scene.  With stage productions, you are telling the story from start to finish with no break in between (except for a short intermission). So, all of the prep work you do is to make sure your storytelling is seamless, and that means everyone on and off stage is present and actively involved in every step of the process.

I’ve spent this year asking this question to writers and performers alike, and I’d love your thoughts on it: What do you value more, the mechanics of writing or storytelling?

VIVIEN: I think mechanics are an important component to any art form. But art is nothing without a message to drive it. Anyone can plug and play with textual formulas to create a written work. But I think true storytelling comes from the artistic vision of the writer, and purpose they have for writing. And that message is what people walk away remembering. 

ANTHONY: For me personally, I approach what the story means to me and what my vision and hope is in reaching an audience with it.  I don’t need to have experienced what I’m writing myself, but I need to deeply feel for each character why I’m presenting them to the world and why they are different than other characters or people we’ve seen.  I tend to find the more I think about dialogue, the more wooden it becomes, so most of the dialogue I write comes for a first or second pass and then I run it with the actors to see if it feels natural to them.  So, I suppose, it’s storytelling for me, because I think the perfect omission of information and how it’s structured can stay with an audience more than exactly how it’s written.

A New Reading Series from Face to Face Films

Things are a bit wonky right now. The opportunities for entertainment that we once chose so easily are not an option, and so we’re left hunting for ways to fill our time. Movies are on hold, sports are shelved, book events, festivals, and more have been cancelled or postponed. The primary path to entertainment at the moment often involves a chair, a sofa, or whatever the telelvision can offer. Fortunately, we’re living in a time in which technology offers greater reach and ingenuity is giving rise to new ways of reaching those at home. Which has been a great blessing to those of us in need of entertainment and the inspiring touch of creative folks.

Over nearly a year now, I’ve had the pleasure of following the progress of The Girl With the Red Hair, a play by Anthony Laura of Face to Face Films and starring Casey Hartnett. Through an ongoing series of interviews the cast and crew has offered a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to bring a play to the stage.

Recently, Face to Face Films announced a new initiative, one that immediately caught my attention. A new reading series, utilizing a collection of talented actors and actresses, that would touch on works relevant to the theme and focus of The Girl With the Red Hair, as well as the strength of women. On Saturday, May 23rd, at 2 p.m. via Zoom, Face to Face presents a reading of Little Women. You won’t want to miss it.

In a time when we’re hungry for entertainment, this inventive and creative use of technology seemed the perfect fit for our time. And a perfect fit for all of us.

So, me being me, I had questions. I wanted to dig in deeper and highlight this effort. Not only to shine a light on something of value, but because this is a rare opportunity to see such talented professionals read work we know so well.

With that, I present a brief interview with Anthony Laura and Casey Hartnett. You’ll want to read this. Then you’ll want to tune in Saturday May 23rd to see something unique and wonderful.

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Face to Face films has launched a new reading series, which includes the May 23rd reading of Little Women. What inspired you and the company to create it?

CASEY: Since all theatre and film productions had been shut down, we wanted to find a way to keep theatre alive while in quarantine. We were already virtually workshopping our play, The Girl with the Red Hair so we figured, why not do a series of readings related to the subject matter of the play and themes showcased in the projects being created by the company. Little Women was a great place to start with a public reading because it showcases the stories of these women in such an honest and empowering way and the story is still relatable even today. The reading series has also been a great way to showcase the actors in the company by highlighting their talent in different roles each month. While all of our productions have been put on hold for the time being, the reading series has been a creative life saver.

ANTHONY: We were in talks before the pandemic to start a reading series with our ensemble.  I have been wanting to explore classic and contemporary works that audiences may not be too familiar with.  I also loved the idea of not always casting age appropriate actors in certain roles to further explore the dynamics and chemistry within our company.  There are so many fantastic films and plays out there that have not been on people’s radar and I don’t think there’s anything more exciting than discovering works that are new to you and forming a connection to the people telling you those stories.  I’m very excited for audiences to see our ensemble tackle so many varied roles as we move forward.

Given the current issues with Covid-19, you’ve planned to hold the reading of Little Women via Zoom. Working in this capacity can certainly offer its share of challenges. How are you dealing with those?

CASEY: We have certainly experienced some technical challenges, but none so drastic that would prevent the reading series from working successfully in a virtual space. We have had to figure out the best way to work with sound and dialogue cues, such as not talking over each other as you would be able to do in a live in-person stage production or playing with certain vocal volumes. Instead of having characters talk over each other in the case of having layered text in the script, we have found that having one character speak before the other, with the second actor coming in quickly after the first actor, has helped clean up the dialogue for viewers of the virtual read. Sound just doesn’t carry the same way through a computer screen as it does in person. Another challenge was cutting down the script in a way that would translate better for a virtual reading series. We can’t be on our feet and moving around and working off of the other actors physically, so certain stage directions can help or hinder the viewer’s understanding of the story.

ANTHONY: I’m so proud of how everyone has risen to the challenges that Casey has spoke about.  Dealing with WIFI issues and having to rework the script so it makes sense to a virtual audience as opposed to being put in a visual medium has presented creative hurdles, but it never stopped the progress.  Intact, there has been such camaraderie and laughter as the challenges presented themselves, that it only served to bring us closer and enjoy the process even more!

For Little Women, you’re using a mix of current and former cast members of The Girl With the Red Hair. Was that the intent from the beginning, or did it just work out that way?

CASEY: When casting the readings, we want to cast them with the right actors for the roles. However, with the next run of The Girl With the Red Hair in the works, we wanted to highlight the cast and company members for audiences to see those actors in certain kinds of roles that would bring some excitement and anticipation for audiences to then see those actors perform in the play when it goes up (hopefully this fall!). We happened to cast a few actors from the first run of the play who were perfect for Little Women, and that has been a really fun experience to have everyone back together again, mixed with some new actors as well!

ANTHONY: No, there was never a specific intent.  Many of the actors in TGWTRH are Resident Artists, so I usually try to think of works that will best show off our RA’s, both in the show and not, and then cast the piece around that.  However, as Casey said, we are also looking to showcase the actors from the show through the exploration of similar themes to TGWTRH, in hopes of increasing interest for when the show returns.

Beginning a new program of any type requires a lot of trial-and-error before it settles in. What have you learned through this process, and where do you see this series going long term?

CASEY: I think the main thing we’ve learned is that a virtual reading series could be a really great way to keep theatre alive in a safe and healthy way while also including actors and audiences from all across the country, not just those located in NYC. We have some actors in Lilttle Women located in LA, and we’re excited that we can have friends and family members join the Zoom session from anywhere. Something we’ve learned through the virtual readings is that certain scripts translate better for in-person reads than they do virtually, since the actors can’t work in a physical capacity with the material. That’s just something we keep in mind when deciding which scripts to read over Zoom and which to save for the live reads. So eventually, in the long term goal for the reading series, we plan to put reads up in theatre spaces with live audiences and continue to showcase our resident artists in roles and stories we are excited and inspired by.

ANTHONY: One of the positives I’ve learned is that the interest for storytelling knows no bounds.  People are hungry to tell stories and listen to them, no matter the current constraints.  We’ve been so fortunate to have interest in the series during this time and it has inspired us to work hard and share our love of these stories with people even while they are inside their homes.

What other works are you considering for future readings?

CASEY:So far we’re looking at Doubt, The Hours, Jane Eyre, Steel Magnolias, The Glass Menagerie, Girl, Interrupted, Mean Girls and so many others! We have a long list.   

ANTHONY: Next month, we will be performing Doubt with Vivien Cardone, Alex Commito and Rheanna Salazar.  We are still casting one final role for that.  In addition to the titles Casey spoke about, which I’m so excited about, other titles we are also looking at are The Wolves, 4.48 Psychosis, The Flick, Dance Nation and The Goat.

Both The Girl With the Red Hair and Little Women focus on the strength and resilience of women. Is this a facet of the company’s mission?

CASEY: Absolutely. Our mission is to tell honest, complex stories about women so those are the stories we will be showcasing in the reading stories as well as the stories that we will be writing and creating within the company’s original film and theatre productions.

ANTHONY: 100%.  We are dedicated to telling stories with women at the forefront of these narratives, as well as continuing to explore a multitude of themes that we feel strongly about.  However, that being said, it is also important to us as a company that the women we represent in our characters (both in our original work and our reading series) are seen as people, and not women.  We are striving to have our audiences not assign gender to the stories they watch, but instead become invigorated by each character as a person.

For those interested in watching the reading, how does one register?

CASEY: You can email facetofacereadings@gmail.com to RSVP and then on the day of the read you will receive a Zoom link and voila, you’re in! Technology can be cool sometimes.

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.


 

The Girl with the Red Hair, Bonus Interview with Alexandra Rooney

The following is a bonus interview following the 3-part series of interviews on the forthcoming play, The Girl With the Red Hair. Written and directed by Anthony Laura, and featuring Casey Hartnett as Hayley Jones, Vivien Cardone as Doctor Watkins, and Samantha Yestrebsky as Courtney Dawson/Azura, The Girl With the Red Hair will begin a two-week run tomorrow, December 5th, at The Alchemical.

Sometimes, life offers you unexpected blessings. Like a fourth part in a three-part interview. After discussing the inner-workings of The Girl with the Red Hair with three members of the play’s standout cast, I got word that one more cast member had some thoughts on the play, on acting, on starring alongside a dog, and on playing Anna in Frozen Jr.

(cue record scratch)

Honestly, there’s no way to turn that down, is there? So, what follows is an interview with Alexandra Rooney, the young actress who plays Young Haley Jones in The Girl with the Red Hair. Her enthusiasm for the role and for her career are palpable, and her credits speak to her commitment to, and passion for, the craft and profession she loves.

So, sit back, enjoy, and try to remember what you were doing at this age. My guess is it involved more paste and troublemaking than this. It certainly did for me.

Starring Casey Hartnett as Hayley Jones, The Girl with the Red Hair, is an exploration of the damage rendered by 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?

With The Girl with the Red Hair, Anthony Laura captures the true struggle of Hayley Jones in a troubling yet empathetic light. With the added insight of Casey Hartnett’s approach to portraying Hayley, they remind us that a victim’s experience never ends. That the struggle of coping is a solitary and difficult journey that pits the mind with the heart in a fight neither can truly win.

An Interview with Alexandra Rooney


Alexandra Rooney is an actress, known for Mr. Robot (2015), Donna (2019) and Snow Queen (2018). You can find her full list of credits here.

What has been like working with Casey? Can you talk about the process
of meeting her at the audition and how that’s developed?

It’s been so much fun working with Casey. When I met her at the audition she
seemed nice. Once we started rehearsals together, right away we started to
have fun together doing our scenes. Now it feels like she is one of my friends.
Sometimes when we are rehearsing together, I just look at her and we start to
laugh together. She is such a great actress too. I hope when I get older I can
be as good as she is.

Do you have a favorite play that you’ve acted in?

If I had to pick, I would pick Frozen Jr. I performed in a local summer
production this year, and I played the older Anna. That is one of my dream roles
on my list so it was amazing. I love the character of Anna because she is sweet
and funny and I love all the songs from the show. I was so sad when the show
was over. I hope I get to play Anna again one day.

You have a few moments in the play where you are dancing and
singing. Have you had a lot of fun with that in the rehearsal room?

Yes! So much fun. I love to sing and dance so it’s amazing to just be myself
and do what I love. We have so much fun with it in rehearsal. I got to listen to
the songs and improv. Sometimes the cast dances along with me in rehearsals.
It’s the best.

Have you had any favorite moments working on the play so far?

I really can’t pick because all of the rehearsals have been so much fun. I always
look forward to them.

Though all of your interaction takes place with Casey, are there are other
characters in the play that stand out to you?

I would say Azura because she has a really lively and fun personality and she
has a really positive attitude.

Have you ever played a younger version of someone?

Yes, two times before this. The first time was the first short film that I ever
auditioned for. I was 8 years old. I think I got lucky because I didn’t have any on
camera experience yet, but the director thought I looked just like the lead actress
so I got the role and my first film credit. Last year I did a film about a girl’s
relationship with her father. I played the child version of the lead. There was not
only an adult version, but a teen version of the lead as well so it was fun to have
three actresses playing the main character at different stages

You also do a lot of film acting. What is one of your favorite roles you
have played on film?

That is a tough one because I love each film role I’ve done for different reasons.
If I had to pick, I would pick two of the short films I’ve done. One is “Moose”
directed by Gabriele Urbonaite. In that film I played the role of Jenny, a girl
whose dog goes missing. I got to act with a dog named Bowdie and it was so
much fun. Bowdie is a trained acting dog and he’s been on TV in Peter Pan Live
and Elmo. He was amazing and I love dogs so it was the best to have a dog
costar!
Second, I would pick the film “Cut” directed by Emily Hason coming out next
year. I was cast as Julia, the “mean girl” in school. I love the challenge of
playing a role that is the opposite of my personality and I have to say that
playing mean was a lot of fun.

Have you always wanted to act?

Yes! I always liked to use my imagination and play different characters in
pretend play. My one brother and I even used to make up our own musicals and
perform them for fun. I loved to put on shows in our living room. I even made
paper tickets that I would hand out to my family to attend. I would make my
own Playbills too. When I was five, my parents finally realized that I should try
performing arts classes. I started with a school called Performers Theatre
Workshop. The first year I performed a duet in a NYC cabaret at Don’t Tell
Mama. When I got on the stage I thought it was amazing and right after that I
started asking my parents all the time when I could do more shows.

What do you do when you’re not acting?

I like to hang out with my friends doing makeovers, tik tok videos, and going to
the mall and park. I also enjoy drawing, playing the violin and taking care of my
guinea pigs.

What has been your favorite scene to work on with Casey?

I like the singing and dancing scene. A couple times Casey and I did the
dancing together in rehearsal and we laughed so much.

What is something over the years that always makes you laugh?

I love animals so I would say something that always makes me laugh is funny
animal videos.

I heard you are returning for the play next year with Casey and
Anthony. What excites you about coming back to play Young Hayley
again?

I can’t wait to return to the play next year! I love working with Casey and
Anthony and the rest of the cast so I’m looking forward to more fun times with
them. I love young Hayley and I can’t wait to see if there is more to learn about
her in the show next year.

What do you like about playing Young Hayley?

I love playing young Hayley because she is just like me. She likes to have fun
and she loves to sing and dance. The audience will also see that she is kind and
compassionate.

What kind of working are you looking forward to doing in the future?

I look forward to doing more theater, films, and TV. I love them all. I hope one
day I get the opportunity to be on Broadway! Right now I’m really happy to be
part of this special show and I’m really super excited for our performances. I
really hope everyone comes to see it!

The Girl with the Red Hair, part 3: An Interview with Samantha Yestrebsky

The following is the final part a 3-part series of interviews on the forthcoming play, The Girl With the Red Hair. Written and directed by Anthony Laura, and featuring Casey Hartnett as Hayley Jones, Vivien Cardone as Doctor Watkins, and Samantha Yestrebsky as Courtney Dawson/Azura, The Girl With the Red Hair will begin a two-week run on December 5th at The Alchemical.

The opportunity to explore the inner-workings of a play, as it transitions from table read to stage has been one of the more fascinating explorations of the art I’ve made. Special thanks to Anthony Laura for offering me this opportunity. The Girl with the Red Hair is heartfelt, brilliant in scope, and has left a lasting mark on my perception and perspective of mental illness.

To close out the series, we delve into the characters of Courtney and Azura, the girl with the red hair, both roles played by Samantha Yestrebsky.

If you wish to revisit Part One, featuring actress Casey Hartnett and Anthony Laura, can it be found here. While, Part Two, featuring actress Vivien Cardone and Anthony, can be found here.

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?

With The Girl with the Red Hair, Anthony Laura captures the true struggle of Hayley Jones in a troubling yet empathetic light. With the added insight of Casey Hartnett’s approach to portraying Hayley, they remind us that a victim’s experience never ends. That the struggle of coping is a solitary and difficult journey that pits the mind with the heart in a fight neither can truly win.

An Interview with Samantha Yestrebsky

Samantha Yestrebsky hails from Owasso, Oklahoma and moved to New York in 2016 to train at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts where she received her Associate’s Degree in 2018. During her time at the Academy, she performed in Blood at the Root, written by Dominique Morisseau and directed by Kareem Fahmy, and Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 1 as Charles and Somerset, directed by Lisa Milinazzo. She also side hustles as a librarian and dog walker. Samantha was recently nominated for Best Actress in a Drama for Mosaic at the New Jersey Webfest.


As an actress, you need to dig deep into a character to completely understand who she is. Who is Cortney Dawson, and what does her connection to Hayley say about her?

Cortney Dawson is a young woman who has been through a traumatic event and is having a hard time coping with it, hence the behavioral health facility. The specific reason she’s at this facility is not mentioned, but from what we can gather throughout the play, she is extremely intelligent and empathetic. I believe during her time at the hospital she hasn’t had much luck with getting a diagnosis, or getting help, which I believe leads her to shut herself off emotionally from the doctors and other patients. Hayley Jones is the only person who seems to understand her, and for some specific reason I don’t think we can palpably dissect, a small part of her feels vulnerable and free around her.

The Girl with the Red Hair delves deeply into depression, mental illness, and sexual abuse. How has the journey of Hayley Jones altered your view of these issues in your life?

Hayley’s story hasn’t necessarily altered my view on mental illness, but has actually validated it. I’ve always believed these stories need to be told in an unbiased way, without projecting any kind of political stance to the audience. I think it’s refreshing to read a play like this that encompasses all aspects and ranges of mental illness.

What appealed to you about the role of Cortney? What did you feel you could bring to the character?

I think many reasons why I took this role, and why many actors feel connected to roles in general, is that they see a part of themselves in a character. Cortney is extremely intelligent, honest, compassionate, and just so happens to have been living in a behavioral health facility for the last year of her life following a traumatic event. Cortney’s story deserves to be completely free of judgment, and I feel like I’m able to share her story from an unbiased perspective.

Toward the end of the play, Cortney tells Hayley a story about her grandmother. What do you believe she hoped to convey to Hayley in that moment?

In the scene, Hayley tells Cortney that she wishes people understood her. Cortney decides then and there that she’s going to allow herself to be vulnerable in order for Hayley to realize that sometimes it doesn’t matter if people understand or believe us, because, at the end of the day, we alone are the only people who fully comprehend exactly what we’re experiencing.

In addition to Cortney, you also take on the role of Azura—the girl with the red hair. How does your preparation differ for multiple roles?

Anthony made it incredibly easy to differentiate these two characters. The writing alone is usually all I need to prep for these scenes. Many times, when playing two roles, I want to make sure these two people are different in terms of physicality, the tone or pitch of their voice, their style, their hair—and I make a conscious decision about each aspect. The writing of this play honestly made all of those pieces come together naturally.

Azura mentions the sadness in the song Puff the Magic Dragon. She says Hayley is like Puff without his roar. What do you think she’s trying to say to Hayley?

Azura sings this song to Hayley because she believes there’s a fire inside Hayley that has diminished, and she knows that Hayley needs to get her wildfire back. In reference to a line Tabatha says in the play, “Some of us are supposed to be at this hospital, waiting for princes, and others aren’t.”

Both Azura and Cortney seem happy, yet aloof, both with their own memorable lines. Is there one line for either—or both—that sticks with you?

The most important line Azura says that sticks out to me is, “You really are a superhero, you know?” Although this is one of her more serious lines, I think it encompasses everything you need to know about Azura—she truly believes in the good in people, no matter what.

What about you? Do you believe in the good in people?

Truthfully, sometimes it’s really difficult. I want to! I really do, but living in a big city, you see a lot of bad things, and believing in the good in everybody can sometimes get you in some not-so-great situations. That’s why I really love playing Azura, because she’s so extremely different from me! It’s really refreshing to see the world through her eyes.

 The art of writing and performing a script requires a great deal of collaboration between actor and director. In what ways did the collaborative effort affect the roles of Courtney and Azura?

I’ve worked with Anthony on a couple of different projects and I really respect and admire his approach to the work. The number one reason is because he trusts his actors. He allows me the freedom to explore my character (in this case, characters) and let me do my work. I feel free to make new choices with him, and he trusts me to pick whichever ones feel best to me.

What do you want the audience to take away from the roles of Cortney and Azura?

This is such a hard question for me because I believe a character’s purpose is to serve the story, and my job is to serve the character and tell their story as truthfully as I can. There are so many themes and motifs and images that are being expressed here and I believe it’s up to the audience what to take away from the play. With so many different themes I think each person is going to take away something different that they personally connected with. I’m so excited to talk with people who see the show to hear their thoughts and opinions on what they think the play is about!

The process of staging a play takes considerable time—from the first table read to the first performance. What about this process do you find most enjoyable, and to that end most frustrating?

My favorite part of putting on a show is absolutely the rehearsal process. Second to that is the table read because those are where the first genuine moments and reactions take place, but the actual rehearsal is my favorite part. We get to play around so much with these different characters and find choices that work and choices that don’t work and that’s where I find the most enjoyment. There is so much that happens in rehearsal that the audience will never see and to me that’s really special. On the opposite of that spectrum, I can’t think of anything I find frustrating about the process at all! I really do love everything about the process.

 Tickets for the upcoming run of The Girl with the Red Hair are available now. For those considering the idea of attending, what would you tell them?

I would tell them they need to see it! This show is just genuinely good theatre, which I think sometimes is hard to find. It will leave you asking questions, discussing moments, and creating theories about the end of the play. We’re a cast and crew of passionate people who believe in telling good stories, and that essence shines throughout the whole show.