BPT Talks About Design: a tiny q&a with INCELS… and LORENA director Erica Terpening-Romeo

Director Erica Terpening-Romeo
Director Erica Terpening-Romeo

BPT’s 2020-21 season of new plays—thesis plays by our cohort of third-year playwrights—has been postponed until next year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, all five plays are currently being workshopped in collaboration with our friends at BU’s College of Fine Arts School of Theatre. A series of conversations about these plays, BPT Talks, was begun last fall via the videoconferencing tool Zoom.

BPT Talks About Design (moderated by BPT Technical Director Jeffrey Petersen) will further expand the discussion with a focus on the contributions of designers and the role of design in new play development.

On March 9, we talked about Eliana Pipes’s new play LORENA: a Tabloid Epic:

LORENA: a Tabloid Epic spins out of the media hailstorm surrounding Lorena Bobbitt, who became a sensation after she used a kitchen knife to cut off her abusive husband’s penis in 1993. The tacky dystopia of American pop culture tumbles onto the stage in a series of funhouse vignettes that know no bounds, while The Playwright desperately tries to protect Lorena from the play which has clearly gotten out of her control. Then, a twist ending re-contextualizes Lorena’s outsized epic through the lens of a quieter sexual assault story that’s all too common. LORENA merges the personal with the political to reckon with our cultural sins, and bring Lorena’s story into the present day. Read a Q&A with playwright Eliana Pipes

And on March 23, we’ll talk about Ally Sass’s new play Incels and Other Myths:

Incels and Other Myths takes us on a mother and son’s epic journey into the online realms of gender, power, and mythology.

After allowing her creative and quick-witted son Avery to attend high school online, Elaine Roberts, a teacher of mythology, grows concerned as Avery spends much of his time playing the online adventure game, Oracle. When Avery informs Elaine that his Oracle guild consists of “incels,” men who desire sexual relationships though are unable to find them, Elaine decides she must save Avery from spiraling deep into a notoriously wrathful and misogynistic community. With the help of Mr. Anderson, a well-intentioned but wearied admissions counselor, Elaine follows Avery into the depths of Oracle, the incel world, and spaces in between. In this digital landscape both Elaine and Avery tap into unexpected and intoxicating new realities that shape how they see their own worlds. Read a Q&A with playwright Ally Sass

We asked INCELS… and LORENA director Erica Terpening-Romeo to share a little bit more about the role of the director in the development process:

What are some of the inherent challenges of directing a new play as opposed to directing a more established play (one that has received at least a few productions)?

There are challenges and also real perks to directing a new play. The challenge is that you and everyone else will inevitably get antsy, wish to time travel into the future where things are set and the script is finished and we can all just put the show up. So managing those expectations and really embracing the mucky uncertainty is essential. The perks are related, of course. I happen to love talking about stories, and trying to unlock the mysteries of a text. My first theatrical love was Shakespeare, and I think a lot of my sensibilities come from that. I know you have to be patient and rigorous in order to convince a text to open to you, and if you are willing to do that, you will be rewarded. So the challenge is being patient, and gentle, and open. And remembering that what the playwright is doing in a development process is deeply vulnerable work, and that needs to be honored and accommodated. Otherwise you can kill the magic by stepping on a plant that’s still fragile and growing.

As the pre-production/rehearsal phase progresses, how do you stay open to new ideas? How do you encourage your team to stay open to new ideas?

I feel like the best way to encourage openness and generosity is to model it, which is, of course, easier said than done. I believe in community agreements and value statements and like to use tools like that, but honestly I feel like the best way to set a tone in the room is to commit to using it at all times (to the best of my ability). A rehearsal room, even a virtual one, is full of nervous systems running into each other, and I think a lot of what can be difficult in a collaborative process comes from people perceiving some degree of danger or hostility in their environment. I consider it part of the director’s job to counteract that. Of course, another factor is when someone or everyone in the room falls in love with a particular idea and can’t see past it. The wonderful thing about a development process is that everything is “both and.” You can pin a great idea to the board and still have plenty of room for other choices.

What do you do when things aren’t working? How do you know when you’ve given a particular idea/approach enough consideration? How do you know when it’s time to move on?

This is a tough question to answer specifically, because the answer is that you try to read the room, use your intuition, rely on the intuition of your collaborators and learn as you go. And know that you will make the wrong call sometimes and only see that in retrospect. Exercising humility and gentleness is pretty essential. There is a kind of electricity in the room that, when you are able to be present and regulated, you really can feel. When the lights start to dim, it’s probably time to move on.

How do you keep all parties engaged? 

There’s a much more complicated answer here (and it includes the words “I don’t always know”) but the short answer is: you engage them. Because the director is often also the moderator or M.C. of rehearsal, it is up to her to actively and intentionally engage the other collaborators, whether in their particular roles or just as eyes/ears in the room. I don’t subscribe to the “stay in your own lane” model of making theatre. I believe that everyone, when not wearing their official hat (as actor, designer, stage manager, writer, etc.) is another dramaturg in the room. In my experience, when artists feel as though their dramaturgical input is valued, they remain more engaged and invested, and the project always benefits from that investment. Can this slow the process down? Yes. And that’s hard. But I think it’s always worth making that trade.

What’s the hardest part of directing?

Oh gosh. I think the hardest part is having the final word on all decisions, even the ones you don’t have a hunch about, or frankly don’t care about. You have to strike a balance between being willing to say you don’t know and throw to the group and also leading with enough confidence that the room knows they can trust you. Sometimes that means being decisive about something you feel foggy or neutral about. Sometimes it means prioritizing something other than what you’d most wish to, in your heart of hearts, in order to keep things flowing. The triage muscle is pretty much always activated in rehearsal. So I guess maybe the other hardest part is figuring out how to turn that off when you’re not in rehearsal and there’s nothing more you can do.

What do you wish audiences knew about the role of director?

I’m not sure if this is what I wish audiences knew, but I certainly wish I had known it earlier: the job of directing is really a combination of at least four jobs: acting coach, spatial/conceptual visionary, audience proxy, and dramaturg. Depending on the project, one or more of those jobs may be more important. And they all require really different skill sets. I think it’s important to know what your strengths are as a director and how you plan to apply them, and also where your weak spots are and how you plan to accommodate them. I suppose I also wish for audiences to know that, as their proxy, directors have a responsibility to them. It’s true that some things are a matter of taste, but I think in most cases, if you go to see a piece of theatre and are left totally unmoved by it, the director may not have done their job for you.

What do you like to do when you’re not directing plays?

I live and work on a farm, so when I’m not directing plays I spend a lot of time feeding and caring for animals, cleaning and stocking vegetables, and trying to keep things from freezing in winter. In terms of my creative life, I am also a writer and musician, as well as an actor. I think I would be a very different (and worse) director if I weren’t those other things also.

We hope you’ll join us on March 23 to talk about Incels and Other Myths! You’ll need the Zoom app (it’s free!) to participate, and it is recommended you call in a few minutes before “curtain” time. The Zoom link will be available here (scroll down); click here to learn more about the other plays featured in the BPT Talks line-up.