A ‘Tiny’ Interview with Director Jessica Aimone of ‘The Tiny House Plays’ and Playwright Danielle Mohlman

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I got super-excited when I found out Pinky Swear is doing an immersive theatre piece (or pieces) at DC’s own Tiny House community, Boneyard Studios.  I’m a huge fan of tiny houses and what they represent – that although our economy is still struggling to recover folks are able to accomplish what they want – have a house, open a restaurant (food truck) or make use of an alternative performance venue by scaling back on material things and focusing more on the experience. I had a chance to chat recently with Jessica Aimone, the director of The Tiny House Plays and Danielle Mohlman, one of the playwrights.

Chris: How did this all come about? Who are the playwrights?

Jessica Aimone. Photo courtesy of Pinky Swear Productions.
Jessica Aimone. Photo courtesy of Pinky Swear Productions.

Jessica: During a Pinky Swear company meeting, Toni Rae Salmi had mentioned The Car Plays which were done at La Jolla Playhouse. The audience would move from car to car in a large parking lot and see a short piece performed by two actors. We thought it was a cool idea, but logistically, a nightmare. Between insurance, acquiring cars, a large parking lot and all of the other requirements, we knew a company of our size just couldn’t take on that type of project. So we put the idea out of our heads. A few months later I was surfing the net and came across a video about a tiny house community in DC. I was delighted to learn about it, as I have a fondness for creative architecture, and we ended up sending Boneyard Studios an email asking if they were at all interested in working together on a project like The Car Plays. Shockingly, they said yes! We immediately launched into production mode. Our mission is to create opportunities for women in theatre so we hired five lady playwrights and one gentleman: Thembi Duncan, Ann and Shawn Fraistat (who are a brother/sister writing team) Danielle Mohlman, Donna Rachelle, and Laura Zam. 

What’s your background as a playwright?

Danielle: I’ve been writing plays for about seven years now. I wrote my first play my senior year of undergrad at Cal Poly Pomona. I studied at Emerson College for my M.A. in Theatre Studies. While I was there, I took playwriting classes in both the theatre department and through the English department’s M.F.A. in Creative Writing program. My graduate thesis was a play (Stopgap) that I later produced at the Capital Fringe Festival. I’ve been living and working in DC for just over three years now and have been produced pretty steadily in the area. DC’s been very kind to me that way. I’m also part of Playwrights’ Arena at Arena Stage, which has been a really great education. I’ve been working with that group since January 2013 and it has really informed my playwriting and how I approach the new play process.

How did you get involved in this project? 

Danielle: Jessica brought me on board. She and I had worked on a couple of smaller projects. We did a reading of one of my ten minute plays (The Bed) for DC SWAN Day at the National Museum for Women in the Arts and then last summer we worked with The Inkwell on a ten minute cutting of my play Dust. Jessica directed both projects.  I guess she liked me.

Jessica: She’s OK…

And Jessica, what’s your background as a director and with Pinky Swear?

Jessica: I was an actor for a long time – worked with the American Shakespeare Center, The Hub, Adventure Theatre, 1st Stage, etc. Then I decided to start a family and had somehow lost the taste for acting. I just preferred the rehearsal process to the performances! So I switched gears. I started off by mounting Macbeth for Fringe and it was a big success – we ended up selling out our Fringe run and a two weekend extension. Then I directed a bunch of staged readings here and there. PSP hired me to direct Killing Women, and I became a company member. I just directed Cabaret XXX: Everybody Fucking Dies for this year’s Fringe. Oh, and I started working in March for Signature Theatre as their graphic designer.

What attracted you to the project and what have you had to be particularly conscious of while writing a play for a tiny house? Also which house are you writing for?

Minim House. Photo courtesy of Minim House.
Minim House. Photo courtesy of Minim House.

Danielle: I’m writing for Minim House. I was excited about this production from the beginning. I didn’t know much about the tiny house movement and the idea of short plays being performed on repeat was really interesting to me. We were immersed in the world of Boneyard Studios from the beginning. The first thing we did as playwrights — before we even wrote a word — was visit the houses and meet with the owners.

How is writing for a tiny house different than writing for the stage?

Danielle: For me, it was very different. I’m writing for a house, not for a traditional theatre space. So I’m working with what’s in the house, the circumstances of living in a tiny house community (especially a tiny house community in DC), and the neighborhood surrounding the tiny house community. Also, Brian (who owns Minim House) was super generous about what could be used in his house. He graciously offered to let us use his keyboard, so that was a big point of inspiration for my play. Music plays a big role in the arc of the play.

Oh awesome – so you’ll have live music in your play?

Danielle:  Yes, Clarissa Barton (who plays Emma) will be playing six songs throughout the course of each performance. Every rotation of the play starts with the same song, but each group of audience members will hear a different second song, depending on which rotation they see.

Very cool – I love that no two audiences will have the same experience!

Jessica: Donna Rachelle’s play will also have live music.

The cast (L - R top to Bottom): Clarissa Barton, Christian Campbell, Allyson Harkey, Melissa Hmelnicky Georgia Mae Lively, Kimberlee Wolfson, Lilian Oben, Stephanie Svec Dexter Hamlett, Alexis Graves, Gray West, and Nathan Alston. Photo by Jessica Aimone
The cast (L – R top to Bottom): Clarissa Barton, Christian Campbell, Allyson Harkey, Melissa Hmelnicky, Georgia Mae Lively, Kimberlee Wolfson, Lilian Oben, Stephanie Svec, Dexter Hamlett, Alexis Graves, Gray West, and Nathan Alston. Photo by Jessica Aimone

Danielle: And all the plays are interconnected. We were just talking about that in rehearsal this morning.

Yes! I saw a rehearsal of Thembi Duncan’s where someone from another play stops by to ask directions.

Jessica: Even though they are five separate plays, they are all really about this tiny community.

Community seems to be an important part of this show as well as Boneyard’s mission.

Jessica: Absolutely. Boneyard Studios is all about engaging the community and bringing artists into the space to share.

What do you both hope people will take away from this?

Jessica: There are a few themes that run consistently through he plays. Because of the proximity of the cemetery and the graves (the Last Tiny House, if you will), the playwrights all seemed to discuss the importance of the ‘Now.’ I think, also, that when you see that someone has rejected the norm, and scaled their life down to 120 square feet, that the possibilities in your own life are limitless, and you better shake a tailfeather! I want them to walk away asking themselves, “Am I living my life the way I really want to? Because I can.” And possibly also saying, “That Jessica Aimone is a genius.”

They should be saying that on the way in – just confirmed on the way out.

Jessica: YES. You get me Chris, you really do.

Danielle: I really like the idea of putting characters in a confined space, allowing audience members to witness these characters’ lives in such tight quarters. It’s something they’ve chosen. They’ve made a decision to live in limited square footage. And each play shows a different aspect of life in a tiny house. Each play shows a different set of circumstances, a different outcome.

Speaking of limited space – how many audience members can fit into each house?

Jessica: That’s a tricky question – we think 8 is probably the most we can put in and have both the audience and the actors be safe.

How many performance spaces are there?

Jessica: Three houses, one very glamorous shed and one patio/fire pit area.

So 40 audience members per show? And you’ll be rotating the audience from house to house? How long is each show?

Jessica: That’s correct. Each audience of 8 will move from space to space. Each play will be 9-11 minutes long, with a little pause in between as the longest one ends and they all get reset. It should be one hour total. I will say that this show is not for someone who is expecting a proscenium style show. There will be bugs outside. There will be tight seating. You may actually interact with strangers. Your face will be fully lit. There’s, unfortunately, no accessible seating due to the structures, and for at least one play, you have to stand the whole time. But you also get something unique and exciting — a shared experience with seven other people, and an entire community. You get to see what happened when a character left the play for a moment. It’s going to be so … awesome.

Danielle Mohlman. Photo courtesy of Arena Stage.
Danielle Mohlman. Photo courtesy of Arena Stage.

Danielle: There’s no real offstage. Everything is out there for the audience to see. It’s this little microcosm that the audience is being let into.

Earlier we were discussing that for smaller theatres to stay relevant and competitive what they have to offer is something that’s unique and an experience.

Jessica: Exactly. How do you compete with the unlimited possibilities of animation in film? With intimacy. The one thing a film cannot give you – a personal experience between you and the performers. And in this case, we’re doubling down. It’s the space, the community, the structures and the characters… and you.

What’s up next for the both of you?

Danielle: In January, Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, NY is doing the world premiere of my play Nexus. I’ll be up there for rehearsals right after the holidays. I’m also working with dog & pony dc on Squares, which is their next show after Toast.

Jessica: After this I’ll be directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Brave Spirits, which is running in rep with Two Noble Kinsmen. And then I’m taking a nap.

When do the tiny house plays open? What’s the run? How do people get tickets?

Jessica: Here’s the ticket link.

September 27-October 12 -Saturdays and Sundays only and showings are at 1 pm, 3 pm, 6 pm, and 8 pm.

No walkups or tickets available at the site. Tickets are a very reasonable $20? We try to keep ticket prices low.

Did we miss anything?

Jessica: Oh, one thing – it was important to me that the plays themselves be just as intriguing and fun as the tiny houses. I didn’t want the houses to be some sort of gimmick to get people in. I think we accomplished that.

tiny house logo (2)

The Tiny House Plays are playing at Pinky Swear productions performing at 21 Evarts Street NE,  in Washington, DC on Saturdays and Sundays, beginning tomorrow – Saturday, September 27th through October 12, 2014 at 1, 3, 6, and 8 pm. Tickets are $20 and are Advanced Purchase only. There is no purchase at the door. For tickets, purchase them online.

LINKS
Aimone Design website.

Meet the Playwrights of Arena Stage’s ‘Playwrights’ Arena’: Part 4: Danielle Mohlman.

Danielle Mohlman’s website.