In Part 3 of a series of interviews with the cast of The Pitmen Painters, we meet Director Stevie Zimmerman.
Joel: Why did you want to direct this show and do it at First Stage?
Stevie: I had been hoping to work at 1st Stage again – the first show I directed in the DC area was there, By Jeeves, in 2011. That show was really well received and I had a great time working with an amazing cast. The theatre is such a special, and important, part of the Tyson’s area, I really wanted to be part of its continuing story. As for this show in particular, when Mark Krikstan, Artistic Director at 1st Stage, suggested it I thought he was crazy. The play is set in a part of England where the accent is so strong even English people have difficulty understanding it –or imitating it. I can do several regional English accents (I am English) but not this one! But Mark was certain it could work, and I was excited to say yes.
What is it about the play that made you want to direct the show?
The play works on many levels. It is a fascinating semi-documentary account of the lives of a group of men who aren’t that well known any more and whose lives deserve exposure. It is a meditation on what it means to be a creative artist. It is a discussion of class and wealth and what happens when we disable groups of people from participating creatively in their communities based on their origins and our expectations of what is possible. And it is a very funny account of what happens when those expectations get overturned. There are nine really individually drawn characters in this play, and each has a take on the central subject of what it is to make art, through humour, through debate, through curiousity.
It was a summer of art for you. Tell us about that. What similar themes do these two shows have and what is different about The Pitmen Painters than ART?
It’s true I went straight from Yasmina Reza’s Art at the Wintergreen Performing Arts Festival to rehearsing this show. And to make matters more interesting, one of the actors from Art – Dylan Myers, who played Serge – plays Oliver, the central character of The Pitmen Painters. And both plays feature a conversation about a completely white painting, although in Pitmen that is just a short scene compared with the whole play in Reza’s piece. I’m not a visual artist – in fact I remember getting kicked out of art class at school back when things were a bit more rigid about what a ‘good’ art student looked like. But I enjoy art and visiting galleries. I’ve often had the kind of conversations that go on in both plays, about what constitutes fine art, how we judge its worth, the stories behind who makes it. The huge difference between the two plays is that there is no art history behind the work that the Pitmen produce – it springs from them spontaneously and only over time do they start filling in the knowledge that the characters in Art come into the play knowing. People call that kind of art ‘outsider’ or ‘primitive’ but there’s nothing primitive about their art, and their incredibly strong group identity makes the outsiders those who think they own the art world, the wealthy buyers, the critics, the teachers.
Introduce us to your cast and the characters they play and what you feel they will bring to their performances/why were they the perfect actors to play these roles.
We put together a deliberately mixed group of actors, some very experienced, some new to the area, and hoped to create a group that looked believably from the region, the period (the play starts in the 1930s) and the kind of blue collar mining town at the heart of their lives. The Pitmen all left school at 10 or 11, and work grueling, inhuman jobs underground where their lives are in danger every day. But they are intelligent, proud and eager to expand their world, if only through evening classes. Their questions and perspectives constantly take us by surprise. The Pitmen in this play stand in for a group that was actually about 26 in number:
Dylan Myers plays Oliver, a man who has been working in the mines since the age of 10, supporting his sister and her children since his father’s death and his mother’s abandonment of them. He is serious and passionate and is identified as the most ‘talented’ of the group. The play is about the group but it focuses on Oliver above all. Dylan is one of the most committed actors I’ve ever worked with – you can see it in his every choice, his thought process and how that process moves through his body onstage.
Alden Michels plays George, the group’s organizer, a man who depends on rules and regulations to keep his own life in order. A lot of the play’s humour comes from George’s desperate attempts to stay in control. Alden came into the rehearsals with the accent nailed and he has been our reference point for that – thank goodness!
James Miller plays Harry, a ‘dental mechanic’. Gassed in the battlefields in World War 1 he can’t work in the mines any longer, and his experiences have inspired an impassioned study of socialism which sometimes makes the group groan. But his beliefs, which can often sound rote, make way for a more human version, and he recognises the importance of individual expression and the special role that plays in all our lives. James found out a lot about what it means to be gassed and the sorts of experiences Harry would have had in the war that the others, in the protected occupation of mining, managed to avoid.
Jason Tamborini plays Jimmy, who is sort of the class clown. He’s unapologetic, – a real what you see is what you get person. Twice Jimmy comes on describing horrible experiences down the mine but he keeps going and it is obvious he is completely dependable. Despite never doing one of the art class’s official assignments, he comes up with some of the most striking pieces. Jason teaches theatre at Marshall High School just down the road from 1st Stage, and he has the energy you need to deal with teenagers or he could never have taken this on with a full teaching load!
Ryan Alan Jones plays the Young Lad, as well as artist Ben Nicholson. Young Lad is an amalgam of some of the younger members of the original group and he really looks at the art produced from a slightly more distant point of view, and represents the angry young man perspective as the group continues working through World War 2. I saw Ryan in Spooky Action’s Candide and asked him to come audition for us immediately.
Matt Dewberry plays Robert Lyon, the teacher who comes to tell the group about Titian and Michelangelo and ends up overseeing their development as artists in their own right. Matt has a really interesting challenge of showing Lyon’s class based expectations of the men and his subsequent journey with them and finally how he leaves them for something ‘better’ – but is it really better at all? I worked with Matt in By Jeeves, and we’ve done some readings together too, and I knew I wanted him for this role because he can communicate that dichotomy so beautifully, and sincerely.
MiRan Powell plays Helen, an heiress and art collector. MiRan brings something quite exotic and fine to the role which I found exciting, emphasizing the distance between her world and the miners’ . She believes that the only way a miner can truly be an artist is by ceasing to be a miner and in that way, she is a central catalyst in the play’s action.
Stephanie Schmalzle plays Susan, an art student and life model who exposes the miners’ puritan attitudes and isolation from the rest of the world’s norms. Stephanie studied in England and has a wonderful brightness and English rose appearance that is really appealing.
What is your vision for the show and how has the vision changed since rehearsals began?
I rarely go into rehearsals with a determination of what the play ‘is’ or is ‘about’ in any sense other than knowing the basic structure and characters. It’s a process of discovery and exploration. Of course you have to have ideas about set and costume etc to support whatever concept might be there, but with this play I really felt that we needed to let it speak directly to the audience and not let anything get in the way of that in terms of design or concept. The first read through there were a lot of laughs and then as we started working on the back stories and the text the laughs seemed to disappear. The piece seemed more serious than we had first thought and there was a lot real meat to be explored. But as the characters grew in complexity and their relationships developed and deepened the humour grew back from a more heartfelt place. Sure enough, opening night the audience was not only listening intently to the debates about art and class but laughing heartily at their interactions. It’s a play that invites many responses and I’ve heard people in the audience laughing, gasping and even crying. Not all at once!
Introduce us to the designers and how their work will help bring your vision to the stage and how has their design changed since the first meetings?
Some of what has happened with design has been conceptual and some has been pragmatic. The play features extensive use of projections so that the audience can participate in the process the miners go through in their discovery of their own art as well as of ‘great’ art. So we had to make several changes to the original design to accommodate what was feasible for projections in the space. The play also features multiple different settings so we had to find some way of conveying those changes without taking away from the spare simplicity of the original design concept Steven Royal developed, along with Teo Melchishua who designed the projections – and battled the space’s challenges. I’m especially proud of what we have managed to convey with six chairs! Bradley Porter found some wonderful sounds that really evoke the mining world these men come up from every day, creaking, loud, dripping underground sounds. Kris Thompson, lighting designer, has done a beautiful job evoking settings as varied as a tiny hut, a huge art gallery, a railway station and a garden. I saw Katie Touart’s costume work at Imagination Stage and I asked her if she was interested and thank goodness she was. Although this piece is completely different from creating mermaids and chipmunks, she has brought an incredible understanding of period detail and class differences to the outfits. Last but not least, Cindy Jacobs located some amazing props including a quite stunning projector that is used on stage, authentic period and working!
And I can’t not mention Mark Krikstan who makes miracles happen in the 1st Stage space with resources that would make most people blanch.
What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing The Pitmen Painters?
First and foremost that they have a good time! That’s always my goal. I don’t like being preached at and I don’t want to ever do that to our audiences. That said, there are lots of provocative ideas and questions posed by this show. I hope audiences go on thinking about art, what our education system tells us about what we can and can’t do based on where we come from and ‘who’ we are. One audience member told me she had been inspired to go back to an art gallery and maybe take some classes – that works for me! I also hope very much that these amazing actors get more exposure and buzz – they deserve it.
The Pitmen Painters plays through October 13, 2013 at 1st Stage Theatre – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in McLean, VA. For tickets, order them online.
Stevie Zimmerman’s website.
‘The Pitmen Painters’ at 1st Stage review on DCMTA by Julia L. Exline.
Meet The Cast of 1st Stage’s ‘The Pitmen Painters’ Part 1: James Miller by Joel Markowitz.
Meet The Cast of 1st Stage’s ‘The Pitmen Painters’ Part 2: MiRan Powell by Joel Markowitz.