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.

Review of Little Women, an online reading

This year has introduced the world to challenges new and difficult to face. The Covid-19 pandemic effectively shut down our daily lives, reducing them to around the clock adventures within the confines of our homes. And though some elements of life are attempting a return to normal, there’s still a gap we used to fill with measures of entertainment to both pass time and to leave lasting impressions on our creative souls.

The Arts have taken a notable hit, from the film industry to publishing to theater. It is the latter that drove me to one effort to bring an element of entertainment to those at home. On Saturday, May 23rd, Face to Face Films launched the first in an ongoing reading series, offering a full company production of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. Partners Casey Hartnett and Anthony Laura of Face to Face Films designed and produced a full reading of the script, utilizing Zoom as a platform. Much like a table reading—if said table were cut into 12 pieces and placed in 12 different homes—the cast took on the roles and weaved through the story as if prepping for an upcoming stage run.

As an audience member, the experience was unique, yet not entirely unlike attending a full production. Tickets were not a requirement, but registration was, and took little to no time at all to complete. A well-worn theater seat facing a stage was replaced by a cozy and familiar chair at my desk. Several minutes prior to the reading, an email arrived, carrying with it not only a link to lead me to the show, but a program as well. My lights may not have dimmed, but as the music faded and Anthony appeared, I felt the same sense of excitement I would have felt watching a curtain rise. Then the reading began, with the aid of Stage Manager and Narrator Sofia Licata.

There were a few technical glitches along the way, though nothing that disrupted the reading, or went beyond tolerable. The experience of watching actors emote and pantomime eating or dancing on the screen without costume or set felt a little invasive and awkward at first, but quickly became an endearing and enjoyable addition. The cast found a nice groove almost immediately, bringing the story to the forefront, slipping from scene-to-scene seamlessly. As a viewer, I was drawn in. Despite the script’s continued time shifts, following the action was easy and enjoyable, a true testament to the production team as well to the skill of the actors.

In particular, the work of Samantha Yestrebsky as the aloof but determined Amy March was delightful to watch. She fully captured the raw emotion and strength of the character as if it were an extension of herself. Rheanna Salazar and Alexandra Rooney brought a consistent energy and timeless feel to Beth March and Young Beth March, respectively, while Alex Commito, taking on the role of Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, paired with the acting team of the March sisters with effortless precision.

The entire cast came prepared, gave life to their characters, shifted from role to role clearly, and captured the emotional depth of the story well. I would be remiss not to fully appreciate the work done by Josh Adwar, Gabe Calleja, Vivien Cardone, Emma Davidov, Casey Hartnett, and Kristen Hasty (Anthony Laura popped in as multiple characters as well!). Additionally, their willingness to stick around after the performance for a round of Q&A with attendees was highly appreciated and a great addition.

All-in-all, it was an experience worthy of theater and a wonderful use of technology at a time when we’re all a bit entertainment-starved. I applaud the production work of Face to Face Films (as well to their work to raise money for Covid-19 relief) and look forward to June’s presentation of Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, featuring Vivien Cardone, Alex Commito, Rheanna Salazar, and Isha Sumner. We may not be able to journey to the theater for some time, but it’s comforting to know that the theater has found a way to come to us.

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, 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.

The Girl With the Red Hair, part 2: Interview with Vivien Cardone and Anthony Laura

The following is part 2 of 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 Sam Yestrebsky as Courtney Dawson/Azura, The Girl With the Red Hair will begin a two-week run on December 5th at The Alchemical.

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On the heels of an interview with Casey Hartnett and Anthony Laura, I’m thrilled to dive further into the inner-workings and dynamic of The Girl With the Red Hair. This time, in addition to Anthony, I had the privilege of interviewing Vivien Cardone, who takes on the pivotal role of Doctor Watkins.

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 Anthony Laura and Vivien Cardone

Vivien Cardone began acting at the age of 3 months in national campaign commercials for Pizza Hut, Sears, Pillsbury, Sherman Williams, and Prudential, to name a few. She had her first big screen role as Marcee Herman in the Academy Award winning film, A Beautiful Mind and played the role of Delia Brown on the WB’s Everwood. Additionally, she starred as Belle in the film All Roads Lead to Home and had roles on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit, and One Life to Live.

As a matter of professional necessity, Doctor Watkins keeps an emotional distance from Hayley in their sessions. As an actress, this requires you to keep a measured hand to the sensitive and important issue of an individual struggling with her mental health. How did you prepare for this aspect of the role, and did you agree with her approach?

Vivien: Part of the character development I worked on with Anthony involved discovering who Dr. Watkins was underneath her role as head psychiatrist. We worked on discovering her values and belief systems, as well as her personal life, and from there we were able to build on how she applied those values to her work. I think when a therapist is working with individuals who are struggling with their mental health, it is important to keep a measure of emotional distance, so that you are able to approach the issues at hand in a calm and collected manner. I think Watkins tends to take this to the extreme, and, as a consequence, struggles to look at the patient individually, which may hinder her ability to offer Hayley the type of treatment and rehabilitation she needs. Watkins is all about order and protocol. She goes by the book. And that isn’t always a good thing when you are dealing with people who are in a vulnerable situation.

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?

Vivien: Mental illness is an extremely relevant issue right now. Society has come to embrace invisible illness as valid and serious. However, I think it is important for society to not place labels on those of us who struggle with our mental health. Having depression, anxiety, mood disorders, eating disorders, that is only a small part of what a person truly is. We need to learn to look at the individual in their entirety and accept all the parts of them. And I think that applies to the person who lives with the illness. It took me a long time to be able to embrace, and even love those parts of me. Being in this play has helped me to be kinder and more patient with myself. I no longer approach my mental health as something that needs to be feared or fixed, but rather as something I can allow to walk beside me throughout my life. It’s the little monster on my shoulder that I need to protect and nurture.

With Hayley, that little monster has clearly taken hold of her life. What do you think we can do better as a society to help protect and nurture that monster, so that individuals like Hayley get the attention they need before things spiral out of control?

Anthony: I think, firstly, we need to listen. A lot of people who suffer from any type of mental illness are not looking to be given advice, they just want to be heard. It’s difficult for some people to understand that listening can be just as powerful as trying to help someone solve a problem. Sometimes, depending on the case, when dealing with mental illness, it’s not something that can be solved. It’s amazing what a simple ear can do. Secondly, we need to start getting rid of stigmas. As a whole, I think we need to cry more, we need to show our emotions. If we found a way to be more open and let ourselves show who we truly are, we would accept others and ourselves more. Shame is debilitating and we need to eliminate it.

Vivien: I think it really comes down to acceptance and unconditional love. In so many of today’s relationships, there seems to be this consistent theme of “I love you as long as….” And I think that to truly love someone, you have to be ready to accept all of them, not only the parts that are convenient and beneficial for you. Everyone has some form of trauma, everyone has a pathology. All of it is valid, and all of it is worthy of love. And when we start to approach people with the love they deserve, choosing to see that person in their entirety, we allow that person to start to love and accept themselves. Mental illness doesn’t mean you are less of a person. It is a journey that sets you apart from the rest, and adds to the beauty that comes with being a unique individual. So be open, be patient, and above all, be kind and loving.

At one point, Nurse Janice offers to Hayley that “People are hard because life makes them that way.” Given her comment is regarding Doctor Watkins, do you agree with her perspective?

Vivien: Absolutely. Life can be very difficult, and people’s hearts can be hardened by the trials and traumas they have experienced. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a way of protecting yourself from further pain. The mind is incredible at guarding itself. I think Watkins has had her fair share of trials in life. But she is a fighter, and she is not one to give up easily. She has very thick skin, and I believe that is what has helped her make it so far in her life and her career at such a young age.

Doctor Watkins aside, what character do you resonate with the most and why?

Vivien: I don’t feel like there is any one character that I resonate with more than the others. And I think that is what is so special about this play. Every character is a reflection of either a part of you, or a part of someone you know. I connect with Hayley’s stubbornness, strength and moments of denial, Tabitha’s nurturing warmth and patience, Nurse Janice’s bluntness and empathy, Courtney’s bubbly energy, Coury’s devotion, Eve’s confidence and sensuality. People are constantly evolving, and there are many aspects that make up who we are. So I truly believe there is something to be gained and taken away by anyone involved in this play, both on or behind the stage, or in the audience.

It’s typical for a writer to empathize and connect to their characters. How did the process of writing Hayley’s disintegration affect you?

Anthony: I think I love Hayley more than any other character I’ve ever written. I’ve spent the most time with her and every time I write more in terms of her disintegration, it feels like a betrayal to someone I love. Yet, there’s a beauty in Hayley that exists despite what she’s going through and that’s really what I admire about her. She never plays the victim. Often times, she doesn’t even ask for help. It’s hard not to admire someone who comes out on the other side of a struggle, who fights to make others better when they need the comforting. This is also the beauty in having someone as talented and open as Casey playing Hayley. There are moments you get lost when watching her move from scene to scene because you are overtaken by this force of nature. I think that’s why this particular story gains something from being told through a theatrical medium. To be in the same room and feel that energy Casey is giving off as Hayley, the way she looks out into the audience, it takes you by surprise. It’s not something you can feel in a movie.

Vivien, you’ve had the opportunity to play a variety of roles on both screen and stage. What challenges did the role of Doctor Watkins offer that differed from previous roles?

Vivien: Watkins is a very guarded and tough woman. But she also has a vulnerable side to her that she tries very hard to hide. I think trying to find that balance between strength and vulnerability has been quite a challenge. Also, there are many characters in this play, Watkins included, that I resonate with on a personal level. So, immersing myself into such a heavy character and world can be emotionally and mentally draining. But so very rewarding.

If Doctor Watkins could leave the audience with one message about mental illness, what would it be?

Vivien: There is no such thing as a lost cause. Every person is deserving of help and healing. You only need to be open and ready to heal. If you are willing to reach out and receive help, people are ready to guide you and support you. You are not alone.

The collaborative effort between writer and actor is on-going from draft to stage. How has working together influenced The Girl With the Red Hair?

Vivien: The best part about working with Anthony has been the amount of trust we have built with each other. On top of that, we are both very like minded in our approaches to, and passion for, storytelling. Anthony is an incredible director, and a wonderful writer. He truly values his actors, allows us the freedom to explore our characters, and is incredibly receptive to the discoveries we make in the process. This play has truly become a collaborative effort between the actors and our director, and that has allowed us to develop a very raw, authentic story that carries so many important messages.

Anthony: From the very beginning, Vivien has played an integral role in the development of Doctor Watkins.  Together, we were excited to discover who she was outside of being a doctor.  Through Vivien’s empathetic and vulnerable performance, Dr. Watkins became one of the strongest relationships that Hayley endures throughout her stay.  Vivien is an extremely collaborative actor who is always open to trying anything in the room, and that was an incredible benefit when we workshopped in late summer.  Through the way she talks about Watkins in the rehearsal room, it’s evident how much she cares and protects the character.  I found that to be key in the development.  Often, authoritative roles in stories like this tend to be caricaturish or only exist to provide conflict, but what I feel we were able to achieve, particularly with Vivien in the role, is to illustrate the care a doctor has for her patients, while understanding that doctors are often patients themselves.

With that collaborative effort in mind, how has the character of Doctor Watkins changed from inception to her current state?

Vivien: I think the most change that has occurred with Watkins would be the level of vulnerability and personal investment she has in her patients. Initially, I had played Watkins as a woman who is trying to gain control of her life throughout the overwhelming pressures she faces both at work and at home. As Anthony and I continued to work together, we began to discover the softer and more emotional sides to Watkins that she fights so hard to keep hidden. Watkins has good intentions. She wants to help her patients. She wants to help her family. And she is currently feeling the frustrations and fear of the limitations that come with being human. There is only so much one can accomplish on their own.

Anthony: There’s a new scene in the play that takes place in Act 2. There’s a big shift in the relationship at that point between Watkins and Hayley. I wrote this scene for a workshop and I felt very strongly about it, but I didn’t know how it would play. I remember the first time Vivien and Casey read the scene together, I was floored. I almost lost my breath. It’s a powerful moment for Watkins, but there’s something equally as powerful for Hayley. I don’t want to give away the scene, but I personally feel this scene is a prime example of how the evolution of this character came to me between the two of us. I wrote it knowing Vivien’s talent, but still couldn’t have imagined the depths she would take it. In my opinion, Watkins is no longer a doctor treating Hayley. She’s a woman working in a hospital who cares so deeply for all the people around her. The distinction of her being played as a woman and not as a doctor, which is solely because of Vivien, is the reason you leave the play thinking about their relationship.

Anthony, through Doctor Watkins you had to take a more clinical approach to addressing Hayley’s mental struggles. What challenges did that present in your writing?

Anthony: I found the challenge to lie more in creating that relationship rather than through her clinical approach.  Both of these women tend to hold back more than they reveal, and though at the start of the play they seem to be very different people, I think as we understand what Watkins is going through, we are able to see how similar they are.  It was also important to me that the clinical aspect be accurate and that all the medication that was referenced would be medicine that coincided with what Doctor Watkins viewed Hayley’s symptoms to be at that particular moment.  From the audience’s perspective, we are able to see Hayley’s disintegration happen before us.  However, what we don’t witness is the effect that Hayley’s disintegration has had on Watkins due to the way her treatment has remained unsuccessful.  We catch glimpses, and again this is what Vivien illustrates so wonderfully, being able to show us these small moments of heartbreak for someone she truly cares about.  I think balancing her professional care for Hayley versus her personal attachment to this particular patient is something that took some time to arrive at.

Throughout the play, Hayley sees a younger version of herself enjoying the spoils of being young. What inspired you to include her in the story?

Anthony: I wanted to explore the differences in the places we reside pre and post trauma.  In the last run, we were able to experience how Hayley had changed from the moment we met her, but I thought it was important to understand visually how she had changed from the last moment she felt true happiness.  I think there’s a difference in how we relate and feel happiness as children versus as adults.  It’s rare we can move into adulthood and keep such a carefree and unguarded nature and I think, through Hayley’s disease and what she experienced so many years ago, she’s trying to find her way back to a place where she didn’t need to hide, where she didn’t question herself or her instincts and lived out in the world instead of inside her head.

Like any script, The Girl With the Red Hair has undergone a number of changes. During edits and rewrites, in your eyes, in what ways has the play improved?

Anthony: I really enjoy that addition of Young Hayley.  I think it opens up the play in a way I didn’t even foresee when I spoke to Casey originally about the idea.  In this new version, I feel the characters are more vivid and we get to explore deeper truths with each of them.  Two of my favorite additions come in the form of monologues.  One is delivered by Cortney (played by Samantha Yestrebsky) and one is delivered by Hayley.  They both exist in the second act and I think the incredible ways that Casey and Sam execute these monologues brings us so deep into the minds of these characters that your heart breaks for these people you’ve come to really care about.

Anthony, at what point did you know Vivien was a fit for Doctor Watkins? And Vivien, at what point did you know you wanted to be a part of this play?

Anthony: I knew before I picked up the script to revise it that I wanted Vivien to be part of the production. Beyond being a talented actor, she’s one of my favorite human beings. I knew whatever this new draft turned into, it would benefit by having her on board. However, in the original play, Doctor Watkins was written and played by a man. As I went through certain revisions, I realized I felt the energy of a male therapist didn’t align with the story I was telling anymore. I knew Vivien was perfect for the role because it required a mix of strength and vulnerability. I spoke with her briefly about what the role was and she agreed to do it blindly. Vivien’s involvement has meant such a great deal to me because the research we’ve done together and the emotional investment she’s made in Dr. Watkins has pushed the character into territory I never would’ve imagined.

Vivien: I began my journey with Anthony when I was cast as Natalie in his upcoming film “The Rabbits.” I had also performed in his short play “The Purple Room” this past summer at the Theatre for the New City. From the start, I have deeply admired Anthony’s talent as a writer, so when he told me about this play, I already knew I would love the storyline and the characters. So I jumped right on board to play Dr. Watkins before I had even read the script. However, during our first table read, the script far exceeded my already high expectations. I was blown away with the raw emotion, and how well Anthony displayed the humanity behind Hayley and the other patients. I remember having to walk out of the room a couple of times to gain my composure, because so many of the monologues resonated with me on such a deep, personal level. I thought to myself “This is exactly where I am supposed to be. This play is going to be something special.”

The process of writing and directing or performing gives you both repeated runs through the entire script. What is the one scene, monologue, or line that sticks with you, or stands as your favorite?

Vivien: For me, that would have to be Hayley’s monologue during the final scene in act 1, after her altercation with Dr. Watkins over her medication. There are so many statements throughout that I have personally felt, as I am sure many others have, at one point in my life. This is one of the few moments in the play that we see Hayley being upfront and honest with her feelings towards herself. It’s a powerful, emotional, and raw dialogue. And Casey delivers this monologue with such heartfelt emotion. There have been many times where I have walked off the stage during that scene with tears in my eyes.

Anthony: I don’t think I can reveal my favorite line as it gives away an important moment. However, my favorite monologue has come to be the roof monologue in Act 2. In the midst of a manic episode, Hayley speaks about her teenage years and going up to the roof of her old house. It’s a four-page monologue that’s told through a flight of ideas. I don’t even know how many full sentences there are in the monologue. I wrote it fragmented and the moment Casey spoke it for the first time in workshops, she hit every fragmented pause, every bit of language I was going for without us ever having had to speak about the way it was written. I’ve never had that happen with an actor before. It’s an emotional monologue, dealing with her past and how that ties into her present situation. There are a couple of monologues in the play where we deal with one speaker and very rarely an interruption but coming in Act 2 very close to the end of the play, this has different meaning. There is so much pain inside this one cry for help. One of my favorite lines in the context of the monologue is, “Because all of this hurt, every moment that I’ve ever felt so alone, which has been more times than I’ve ever felt, I dunno, loved, I guess, it just doesn’t make any sense why someone would be willed into existence only to never be loved or understood.” I think about that a lot. The total amount of times in our lives we’ve felt loved versus alone and how that can take a toll on someone if the math doesn’t add up in your favor. There’s so much buried in this monologue that Casey uncovers every time she performs it and I think, even outside of experiencing a manic state, I think we can all relate to such flight of ideas about things that eventually bubble to the surface.

Part three of this series, featuring Sam Yestrebsky, will run in November.