Anne Phelan is a playwright and teacher who is often inspired by artwork. Her plays have been produced throughout the U.S., and in Canada and Germany. She is a member of the Dramatists Guild, the League of Professional Theatre Women and PEN America. Anne’s latest play, a one-act piece titled "Hades," was commissioned by Fool’s Progress Productions and Dramahound Productions, and is inspired by Tom Bovo’s “Merge” photograph. It features C.K. Allen as Virgil and Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum as Dante, with direction by Katrin Hilbe and costumes by Cathy Small. The play will be performed on Saturday, June 18 at 4:30pm and 5:30pm at Lazy Susan Gallery, 191 Henry Street, between Rutgers and Clinton Streets, on the Lower East Side. Admission is free. According to the official synopsis:
Dante has been driven from his home in Florence, Mass. Disillusioned, homeless and broke, he meets Virgil on the streets of Brooklyn. Virgil then proceeds to guide Dante through three circles of Hell in Park Slope and Gowanus where they encounter a murdering wife, a notorious Welsh traitor from King Arthur’s time and finally Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger, the murderer of Julius Caesar. By the end of the play, Dante has begun to rebuild his spirit, and he and Virgil go off to further adventures.
Dramahound Productions is happy to be working with Fool’s Progress Productions on their fourth world premiere, the first at Lazy Susan Gallery. Their previous plays include "The Mermaid Won’t Sing," "The Skull Beneath the Skin," and "Did You Hear the One About the Carp Who Hailed a Taxi?" Opened in January of this year, Lazy Susan Gallery is a creative project space with a revolving roster of curators and artists. Its curator is Jill Conner.
Recently, Anne spoke to AXS about her experiences as a playwright and her hopes for the future:
AXS: How did you get interested in theater?
Anne Phelan (A.P.): I’m afraid that I’m a lifer. When I was 4 years old I saw a production of "Hansel and Gretel" and I was hooked. My first role was in kindergarten: I played Billy Goat #1 in "The Three Billy Goats Gruff." In high school, I went to theatre camp in the summer and studied with Rosaneil Schenk (who was still teaching until a few years ago); she directed me in a Beckett play, "Act One Without Words," when I was 17. And I went to Saturday classes at the Cleveland Play House, run by the late, great Jo Farwell.
AXS: How did you break into the theatrical industry?
A.P.: For grad school, I went to the Trinity Rep Conservatory in Providence, which is now part of Brown University. I was always going to be an actor- I wanted to be a young Angela Lansbury. At Trinity, I was in two productions on the main stage. My last role was Marta in Sondheim’s "Company" at St. Bart’s in Manhattan. But I’d already started having plays produced by then. One of my acting teachers from Trinity, James Price, gave me a residency at his theatre, Chelsea Rep, and my friend James Robinson got 13th Street Rep to look at "Wake" which they produced.
AXS: How did you get into playwriting?
A.P.: I was lucky, in that I went to a school where playwrights had to act, and visa-versa. As grad school went on, I noticed that I was not as good an actor as some of my classmates, and that I didn’t enjoy performing as much as I did rehearsals. If you’re going to be a theatre actor, I think you really have to love it, and I’d fallen out of love. I was more interested in creating worlds with words. I’d spent so much time in theatres as a kid, and I’m such an aural person, I developed a sense of how words land on the ear, and a sense of rhythm, because I was trained as a musician. My favorite living playwright Edward Albee has said that much of playwriting is about rhythm, and that’s certainly my experience.
AXS: How many plays have you written and what are they about?
A.P.: Twelve full-length plays, twelve one-acts, 17 ten-minute plays, two ten-minute musicals. Those are the ones that are finished. My one play for children, "The White Cat," won the Marilyn Hall Award, and the ceremony was at the Friars’ Club in L.A. Sid Caesar performed a gibberish sketch- I was ten feet away from him! I have three unfinished full-length plays: "Deconstruction," a ginormous piece about World War III; "I Loved It So," about a woman in Berlin in the 1930s and ‘40s; and "The Tiger Play," about a big cat tamer who was a headliner for Ringling Brothers. I write to figure things out, to answer questions I have about the world. The one theme that I keep coming back to is loss- how do different people deal with different kinds of loss. In "Hades," Dante loses everything- his family, his job, his home. No wonder he needs Virgil’s help.
AXS: Do you have a favorite?
A.P.: My current favorites are "Hades" and "The Tiger Play."
AXS: To date, what has been the most rewarding part of working in the theater industry?
A.P.: My favorite place to be is in rehearsal. I like writing, but it’s to get to the point that I’m in a room with actors and a director. If I don’t make changes in rehearsal, I feel like I’m not doing my job. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of wonderful people (starting with the director, actors and designer of "Hades"). In particular, Edward Albee has been incredibly generous to me. I’ve received two Albee Fellowships, which is a month living and working in a barn in Montauk. He also chose my play "Let Nothing You Dismay" for the Last Frontier Theatre Conference, back in the days when he ran it.
AXS: What’s up with "Hades" and what’s a play doing in an art gallery?
A.P.: That’s connected to Albee as well. The first time I was at the Barn, I met a painter named Jacob Ouillette. A few years later, he was installing work at Open Source Gallery in South Slope, Brooklyn, for their opening. We decided to work together, and I wrote "Brooklyn Lighthouse" based on images in his work. The play was so popular that Open Source added extra performances. Artistic Director Monika Wuhrer commissioned three more plays based on art in the gallery: a one-act version of "Deconstruction; Olmsted in Autumn" (about Frederick Law Olmsted’s final years); and "Venus von Merkel" (about Angela Merkel and the Greek debt crisis). I think plays in galleries do primarily two things. First, they reflect the art, and perhaps help one see it differently; second, they attract people who do not go to the theatre, perhaps never have. The process also stretches me as a writer- on my own, I doubt I’d write about Virgil or the Greek debt crisis. When my partner Tom Bovo joined 440 Gallery (an artists’ collective in Park Slope), he asked me to write plays for his solo shows there. This process of artistic collaboration with my partner has been incredibly gratifying. This is our fifth. The previous ones were "The Mermaid Won’t Sing" for Tom Bovo’s The Other Side of Summer; "The Skull Beneath the Skin" for Tom Bovo’s Genius Loci and Ellen Chuse’s Everyone in the Pool; and "Did You Hear the One About the Carp Who Hailed a Taxi?" for Tom Bovo’s New York.
AXS: How did you go from a photograph to a play?
A.P.: The photo made me think of Dante’s Inferno so the play reimagines it as parts of Brooklyn. The story of Hades makes me think of archeological strata. On the bottom is the Trojan War; on top of that is Homer telling that story; on top of Homer is Virgil using the Trojan War to tell a Roman story about Caesar Augustus and the war he fought, in the Aeneid; on top of Virgil is Dante using Virgil’s story to help tell his own, 1200 years later; and the top layer is Hades.
AXS: Where do you hope you will be in ten years?
A.P.: Still writing plays for Tom’s photographs. But in a different way- we’ll have to wait and see how.
AXS: What advice would you give to someone who is striving to become a playwright?
A.P.: The late playwright Romulus Linney used to say that humans are driven by three things: sex, food, and the need to rewrite somebody else’s play. The hardest thing for me to learn (and it took years) is that some notes are helpful, but most are not. You need to teach yourself to sift through the stupid ones. It also helps to have the hide of a rhino.
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Anne hopes that you will stop by to see Hades performed live at the Lazy Susan Gallery! Directions: Take the F train to East Broadway.
Lazy Susan Phone: 1.646.736.2457
To learn more, visit the official website. To learn more about playwright Anne Phelan visit her official website and blog.