Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s upcoming production of “Waiting for Lefty” by Clifford Odets, will be paired with a new short-play written by University of Connecticut alumnae Levi Alpert called “Severance.”
I interviewed “Waiting for Lefty” cast members Michael Bobenhausen (Joe), Robin Haynes (Dr. Barnes) and Michael Lewis (Harry Fat). Bobenhausen is a sixth semester graduate acting major. Lewis and Haynes are professional actors from the Actors Equity Association (AEA), the union of professional stage actors and stage managers, as well as the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the union for actors in film.
With the action of “Waiting for Lefty” centered around a union, we talked about AEA and SAG strikes in the past and what the play says about today’s socio-political climate.
“There have been several AEA and SAG strikes over the years. Labor unions have been weakened severely over the last twenty years. In the history of labor movements, they wax and wane, unions become more powerful, less powerful. People become very disenfranchised until they can’t take it anymore,” said Lewis.
The union in the play is what the characters revolve around, but Odets’ writing says more.
“To me the play is about the choice that we have to make about whether or not we are going to fall in line behind leadership that may not have our best interest at heart, or come together as a community and fight for what is right. I find that particularly timely,” said Haynes.
The role was originally enacted by the playwright in its Broadway premier in 1935, one year after the historic New York taxi strike, which the play is written as a reaction to.
The characters who have to make the kind of choice Haynes describes may not be a far cry from how many feel about issues, such equal pay and treatment in the American workforce today. This play about unifying as a community to do what is right, as Haynes describes, presents itself as relevant.
“It’s [Waiting for Lefty] like all great plays, it is of its own time, but it is also timeless for sure. My first speech at the top of the show is encouraging the men [of the taxi company] to not stand up for themselves, to sit down and let the big guy handle things. For me that leapt off the page,” said Lewis, who is cast in the role of Harry Fatt, a union boss suspected of racketeering.
Actors in this play hone in on the particulars of their skill set in order to represent the script accurately.
“When you work on any piece you have to always honor the playwright. Each word, each phrase was very important to get right because it told the actor where their character was coming from. The homework for the actor was to figure out why your character was choosing this phrase, those words, or asking that question,” said Bobenhausen.
Following “Waiting for Lefty” in performance will be an original play written by University of Connecticut theatre studies alumnae Levi Alpert, called “Severance.”
“I asked Levi to consider writing a ‘curtain closer’ that brought us a little closer to our present lives as a way to look at how wonderfully far and sadly how little we have ‘traveled.’ Levi’s writing is beautifully severe and insightful and yet it again offers us a different vision of the same choice Odets offered, a choice at the core of our existence, humanity or fear,” said the director of both shows, Michael Bradford, according to a press release.
In my interview with Alpert, he had just seen his show on set and under the stage lights for the first time.
“Walking in when I did, in the midst of lights and actors on set, I had never seen that to this extent. I keep pinching myself.”
Alpert began writing “Severance” in September of 2016, its first reading was in October and then another in November. By December he had a final rough draft.
“I remember being on break at work and I checked my email and saw that Bradford had asked me to get back to him. I didn’t at all notice initially that he had sent the email only minutes before, but I immediately called him. That’s when he told me about “Waiting for Lefty,” and the fact it was a short play, which gave way to the thought of commissioning an original in the same vein to run as a curtain closer.”
The next conversation he had is what began to shape what the play needed to be.
“There was a lot of talk about how “Waiting for Lefty” approaches the issues of the time, [such as] the Great Depression, and how it was represented. Something that could bring that same lens to the issues of today was the first concrete thing.”
The rehearsals and how they informed his writing was important. Though he had a final first draft, it was always subject to change once Alpert had the chance to hear the words of script for the first time.
“After hearing the actors for the first time. Before that I just had the voices of the characters imagined, but then I had the real and tangible and I wrote off of that too. That went on to inform the rest of the play,” said Alpert.
Members of the “Severance” cast, Mikala Baca-Dorion, Meredith Saran and Samuel Kebede dealt in that first-hand when I asked them if they experienced challenges working on a new play.
“We were constantly discussing the play with Levi in rehearsal and getting new rewrites of scenes on a daily basis. It's fun to see how the play evolves and be a part of that. You have to always be ready to memorize a new scene, and say goodbye to a line you may have loved but got written out. The script is a living breathing being that is constantly changing in a new play process,” said Saran, a sixth semester graduate acting major.
“Receiving new lines is a challenge. It’s great though because I get the chance to go up to the playwright and be a part of how the show comes out,” said Kebede, a sixth semester graduate acting major.
“I'd never been in a new or developing play before. My lines depend directly on other people's lines, so it was very challenging to be getting new versions of lines every rehearsal. I found a freedom in that, because not having set lines helped me find new things every rehearsal,” said Baca-Dorion, an eighth semester undergraduate acting major.
Matthew Gilbert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.