Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Time for Audiences to Board THE TRAIN DRIVER

By Alexander Coddington

Only a few more days until we open THE TRAIN DRIVER on Friday, Feb. 27! Tonight is our Pay-What-You-Can preview, and we are very excited to have our first audience in the Studio Theatre to see this production.
Playwright Athol Fugard
In the past week, we have moved from the rehearsal hall upstairs and into the Studio Theatre, onto Lisa Schlenker’s meticulous, arresting set.  All of the design elements have really come together in service of Fugard's text beautifully, from the African sunsets created by lighting designer Steven Roy White to Debra Krajec’s costumes, which she bought looking brand new and now look like they have been weathered by the years.  Victoria Deiorio, whose work you may have heard recently during THE AMISH PROJECT at the Rep, provides the play with its haunting score.

It seems unfathomable to me now that David Daniel and Michael Torrey had never met before that first read-through less than a month ago.  They have become fast friends, but how could they not?  Rehearsing a two-character play where neither actor leaves the stage I am sure has been an incredible bonding experience for the two of them.

Fugard has written a very difficult play.  He challenges the artists tackling his work with how to approach the extremely delicate issues of race and class, life and death.  He then in turn challenges his audiences with how to interpret what those artists have presented before them.  Fugard’s writing is an act of empathy and ultimately it is up to us all to give ourselves over to a journey towards understanding the human experience.  It is a journey that we are incredibly grateful to have taken together as a team of artists, and we are thrilled to have audiences join us as we continue discovering the rich layers of Fugard’s text.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Xhosa and Afrikaans in THE TRAIN DRIVER

By Alexander Coddington

Athol Fugard is South Africa’s most highly celebrated playwright, and one fascinatingly intrinsic aspect of rehearsing THE TRAIN DRIVER has been the words themselves.  It sounds simple, but Fugard is such a precise playwright that every word is chosen very specifically, and he’s peppered in bits of his native tongue throughout the play.  Together with our dialect coach Michelle Lopez-Rios (who recently guided Jonathan Wainwright and Laura Gray through their Irish brogues in THE GOOD FATHER at Chamber last fall), we have been dissecting and immersing ourselves in two particular South African dialects.

Michael Torrey has been learning Xhosa, a Bantu language and one of 11 official languages in South Africa.  Xhosa is a tonal language that also uses clicks.  The three basic clicks are “X” (as if you’re calling a horse), “C” (which is made against the teeth), and “Q” (which is done by clicking the tip of the tongue against the roof of your mouth).  Meanwhile, David Daniel has been tackling Afrikaans, which is largely influenced by Dutch.  The language evolved from Dutch settlers who arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in the 17th Century.

One of the most difficult things about having both Afrikaans and Xhosa in the rehearsal room is how similar they are, and yet very different in certain subtle ways.  It’d be akin to a play about a man from Texas and a man from South Carolina; we think of them as both being “Southern” accents, but there are incredibly important differences between the two.  It’s especially difficult sometimes to stay in the right accent when Roelf uses a Xhosa and inversely when Simon uses an Afrikaans word.

Dialect coach Michelle Lopez-Rios observing Michael Torrey
and David Daniel rehearse a scene for THE TRAIN DRIVER. 

Here are five terms in Xhosa and five in Afrikaans that we use in THE TRAIN DRIVER:

Amangcwaba: Graves
Amadoda/Abafazi: Dead man/woman
Indudumo: Thunder
Ikhaya: Home
Tsosti: Local gang member

Ewe: Yes
“Finish and klaar”: “All over” or “that’s it”
Lekker: Delicious
Pasop: Be careful
“S’trues God”: “Swear by God”

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Long History With Fugard

An Interview with C. Michael Wright
[ Director of The Train Driver ]

A Long History With Fugard
by Michael Cotey

Michael COTEY: You've had a lengthy relationship with playwright Athol Fugard and his work, as both director and actor. Walk us through that history.

Michael WRIGHT: Athol Fugard is one of my heroes.

I first met him back in 1982, when I auditioned for the Broadway production of his semi-autobiographical play "MASTER HAROLD" ...and the boys, which he also directed. At the audition, Athol actually got up on his feet and read scenes with me! I'd never had a director - much less a director who also happens to be the playwright - read with me in an audition situation. But that's the kind of man he is. He's a true artist, totally invested in the work, diving into every project with his body, heart and soul.

I was incredibly fortunate to then be cast as understudy to the lead and was able to perform the role for two glorious weeks on Broadway. Immediately after that, I played the role in the national tour, which included a few weeks in Toronto and a tour of five cities in Israel. Not only was Athol my director, he was also my mentor and my guide. He used to take me out for breakfast and tell me in-depth stories about growing up in South Africa. What a gift that was to have personal background about your character handed right to you! I vividly remember how kind and generous he was to strangers; he was as warm and open with waiters and box office staff as he was with his artistic colleagues. But at the same time, he was never reluctant to fully speak his mind or fight for what he believed in. I consider him a man of great integrity and I really learned a lot from him.

L-R: Delroy Lindo, C. Michael Wright, Athol Fugard and James Earl Jones,
 "MASTER HAROLD" ...and the boys (1983)

Coincidentally "MASTER HAROLD" ...and the boys was the show that first brought me to Milwaukee. A year after I left the tour, I performed the role one last time at Milwaukee Rep. (That's when I first came to Milwaukee and I fell in love with the city!) And then, many years after that, I directed my own production of the play at Next Act Theatre.

COTEY:  And you keep returning to him. What is it about Fugard's work you find compelling?

WRIGHT: First and foremost, I love the issues he writes about. I've always been particularly attracted to stories about injustice and the struggle between the haves and the have-nots.

Even though Athol's plays are specific to his South African experience, his themes are universal. He's incredibly courageous, not afraid to tackle extremely difficult topics head-on, even though his work has often been banned in South Africa. He would often say that he doesn't consider himself to be a political writer, just a storyteller. But the stories he chooses to tell have such profound impact and resonance.
Besides that, his language is so beautifully rich.  There's an almost heightened, poetic quality to it, balanced with a surprising simplicity and purity. And yet he's not shy about including a visceral, sucker-punch to the gut that can leave you reeling.
COTEY: THE TRAIN DRIVER has been said to be Fugard's response to post-Apartheid South Africa. Does this play carry a different feeling than the work he wrote previously?

WRIGHT: The majority of Athol's plays, especially his earlier works, are all intense and hard-hitting. Some of his newer pieces have become quieter and more introspective, but THE TRAIN DRIVER is a definite return to his roots.

I find this quote from Athol pretty revealing: "This is for me the whole; it's my truth and reconciliation. I think all of my writing life led up to the writing of THE TRAIN DRIVER because it deals with my own inherited blindness and guilt and all of what being a white South African in South Africa during those apartheid years meant."

COTEY: Why this play? Why now?

WRIGHT: Not only do I have a long history with Fugard's plays, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre has one, too. Since this is an anniversary season, I thought it would be perfectly fitting to include one of his plays, combining my own personal history with MCT's. THE TRAIN DRIVER will be the fifth Fugard work produced here. (Interestingly enough, Shaw is the only playwright that's been performed here more than Fugard!)

Frankly I've wanted to direct this play ever since I first read it. But it's an extremely challenging piece. I needed to wait until the time was right for me to take this emotional journey to a very dark place. I wanted to make certain I was ready to commit to it 110%, just as Athol would, and approach it with enough clarity and focus.
Besides it's always time for strong, important plays that make you think about how you look at, and fit into, the world around you.
COTEY: How do you hope it will resonate with a Milwaukee audience?

WRIGHT: I hope it provokes much discussion about how we treat our fellow man and about the power of letting other people and other cultures into our circle.

COTEY: How do you prepare as a director?

WRIGHT: That varies pretty dramatically from project to project. I always try to read the script a lot, highlighting important lines or sections and making some notes. Sometimes I jot down staging ideas; sometimes I even play with the scenic model, arranging furniture and moving figures around. Sometimes I like doing fun research, like exploring artwork, music, films that just inspire me or are somehow representative of a specific style or time or location. Most importantly, I always try to spend time actually visualizing movement, stage pictures and specific moments that I want to capture. I also try very hard to see another production in the same theatre, so that I get a good sense of the playing space. Even if I've worked in a particular theatre before, I still like to sit in it again with an audience to be reminded of the general vibe of a space, as well as any sightline issues or acoustic challenges.

COTEY: I think most people have a vague idea what a director does in the room with his or her actors. How do you view the director's role in rehearsal?

WRIGHT: I think it's a director's primary responsibility to provide a safe and stimulating environment where ideas can be shared and creative risks can be taken. For me, it's very important to come into the process with some strong thoughts and opinions, but also with openness to new thoughts and opinions. I view the director as the "parent" in the room, overseeing the activities in a "playground," guiding the actors as they play, while generously encouraging collaboration and mutual ownership of the work.

Friday, February 6, 2015


L-R: Michael A. Torrey (SIMON HANABE), David Daniel (ROELF VISAGIE),
and director C. Michael Wright at the first read-through for The Train Driver

My name is Alexander Coddington and I am Michael Wright’s assistant director for this winter’s production of THE TRAIN DRIVER, running in the Studio Theatre from February 25 through March 15.  Throughout the month, I will be periodically updating you on the rehearsal process upstairs at Chamber as we prepare to present Athol Fugard’s powerful drama of post-apartheid South Africa inspired by an actual event.

We’re wrapping up our first week of rehearsals today, and so far it’s proved to be a really exciting show.  Our first day, we had a meet-and-greet with the cast and production team and read the script for the first time.  Also in attendance were friends of Chamber and representatives from UPAF, and during the Q&A we received some very insightful questions about the script and the process of producing a play.

For such an intense two-character play, it’s hard to believe that David Daniel and Michael Torrey met each other for the first time at that read-through.  One of the great things about this play is the characters show us through the bonds of their new friendship that it is possible to meet a stranger and create a very honest, meaningful connection with someone, so it will be fascinating to watch David and Michael get to know each other at the same time Roelf and Simon do.

David Daniel returns to MCT after appearing in ANCESTRAL VOICES (2001) and THE HERBAL BED (2002). He is a Core Company member at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin where he also serves as the Education Director. Previous Fugard work includes EXITS AND ENTRANCES in APT's Touchstone Theatre in 2010. He is a graduate of the Professional Theatre Training Program at the University of Delaware and a veteran of the United States Army.

Michael Torrey returns to MCT after performing in DRIVING MISS DAISY (2011). He also appeared in Next Act Theatre's 2005 production of Fugard's “MASTER HAROLD” …and the boys, directed by Michael Wright. He has performed with First Stage in A MIDNIGHT CRY, THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE and THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE. Currently based in Chicago, he has worked with theatre’s including The Goodman, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Theatre at the Center and New American Theatre.

Michael Wright has continually said through the pre-production process that THE TRAIN DRIVER is not a tragedy.  Though it may seem on the surface to be his most tragic work, at its core it is a play of great hope and the triumph of finding hope in a hopeless world.  It is a play of great danger, but also a play of great humor.  A haunting ghost story without ghosts, Fugard has breathed an incredible amount of empathy into this beautifully written script that is perfect for MCT audiences: fiercely intelligent, brutally honest, and full of surprises at every turn.