In The Moment: An Interview with Richard Heinrich, Mario Baldessari, and Lynn Sharp Spears on Spooky Action Theater’s Reading of ‘The Bison Beast of Dubois’ on 8/22 & 23

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Having recently returned from some time away in Wyoming from the hustling of DC, my eyes widened when I saw an email from Spooky Action Theatre for several staged readings for a play that takes place in Wyoming. The play is The Bison Beast of Dubois written by local playwright and actor Mario Baldessari. On my time away, saw plenty of bison among other large and small animals in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Oh, and the location of the new play, DuBois, Wyoming is a real town, not some fictional place. Or as I learned from a wiki article, a town original called Never Sweat.

Dubois, Wyoming.
Dubois, Wyoming.

How could I not get with the Spooky Action folk to learn more?  Spooky Action Theater’s Artistic Director Richard Henrich described his reaction to reading the play as, “I love that Bison Beast of Dubois taps into that quality of myth and brings it back to life.”

For staged reading director Lynn Sharp Spears her reaction was this: “When I read Mario’s play I immediately fell in love with it. He writes such wonderful dialogue and his characters are delightful. I always see plays in my mind’s eye as I read them, and this one made me smile, laugh out loud, and-get goosebumps!”

A big bison. Photo by Willa Siegel.
A big bison. Photo by Willa Siegel.

How could I not delve more deeply with the Spooky Action folk to learn more?  So, here is my column based upon interviews with Spooky Action Artistic Director Richard Heinrich, Playwright Mario Baldessari and Director Lynn Sharp Spears.

The staged reading will feature actors Melissa Robinson, Robert John Biedermann, Bill Aitken, Susan Porter, Jen Bevan, and Jonathan Lee Taylor.

David Siegel: Why did Spooky Action schedule the fully staged reading of The Bison Beast of Dubois?

Artistic Director Richard Heinrich.
Artistic Director Richard Heinrich.

Richard Heinrich: Spooky Action has a regular program for developing new plays. We read many plays over the course of the year, sitting at the table with actors, director, playwright and a few friends to give the script a first hearing. Plays we find especially intriguing are scheduled for a workshop production. The characters of Bison Beast are fun to listen to, they are both recognizable and unique, and they create a special sense of place that they inhabit. It turns out this special place has some deep roots in our collective psyche. Bison Beast opens a window on the potential magic and power that lie just below the surface of our lives. We want to add a little theater magic to the words on the page and see that awesome presence start to pervade the room.

What is a fully staged reading?  

There are no music stands. No one is there reading stage directions. This means that actors make entrances, exits and perform the essential business of the play in order to tell the story. To this, we add elements of lights, sound, minimal props and set to support the actors’ work. The actors carry a small booklet sized script — but the script tends to disappear in the minds of the audience. What we see is a play up on its feet in what feels much more like a performance than a mere reading.

Please tell me a bit about the scheduled talk backs.

The talk back is an essential part of the process. We have one after every workshop performance. We look to our audience as an integral part of the play development process. From them we hear what excited their imagination, what carried them into the world of the play. In these barebones workshop productions, the imaginative contribution of the audience is absolutely key. If we hear that some element of the play did not emerge in the imagination of the audience as fully as we hoped, it is a cue to the playwright and the production team to think about ways to develop and embody that element more fully. The workshop serves to fine tune and strengthen the script, so it is ready to take the leap towards full production.

What was your inspiration for The Bison Beast of Dubois?

Mario Baldessari.
Playwright Mario Baldessari.

Mario Baldessari: I’ve been fascinated by stories about people who said they saw Sasquatch or the Chupacabra or other creatures, since I was little; and about the small towns around the country that have built up a small tourism industry based on the potential for seeing something out of the ordinary when you visit.

I’d been contemplating (for some time, actually) writing a comedy about a small town attempting to boost its tourism by claiming a unique “creature” of its own. My original idea was to set the story in North Carolina, near where I grew up. Then, I spent a year living in Wyoming – where I fell in love with the Great Outdoors – and decided that might make a better setting, as many small towns at that time (2009-2010) appeared to be struggling for tourism dollars.

Can you give readers some hints about the play?

Here’s the one-sentence play synopsis I usually provide:

A small-town prank aimed at kick starting local tourism reawakens long-simmering prejudices in the town – as well as something strange from deep in the Wyoming backcountry.

Here’s a brief snippet of dialogue that might be of interest:

TRAVIS: Mr. Wilkerson described the creature as half-buffalo, half-man and half-bat.

LEDORAH: I hope he knows that’s three halves.

TRAVIS: Well, he was probably half-drunk.

Why is a fully staged reading important to further development of the show?

I’ve never actually participated in a fully staged reading of one of my plays – this will be a brand new experience for me. The developmental format that I’m most familiar with is the “standard” staged reading, with actors at music stands and someone reading stage directions. Readings have always given me a good idea of what’s working in the play and what’s not; I usually spend them watching the audience watch the actors – I’ve found I can learn a great deal that way.  My anticipation is that this type of reading will give me even greater insights. I’m very excited that it’s happening and very grateful to Richard, Steve, Kristy, and the rest of the team at Spooky Action for giving me this opportunity.

Also, I love Lynn Sharp Spears – I’ve worked with her at WSC Avant Bard – and look forward to seeing her bring the play to life.

What do you want audiences to come away with after seeing the fully-staged reading?

Lynn Sharp Spears.
Director Lynn Sharp Spears.

Lynn Sharp Spears: It’s my hope, as it is with all of my readings and plays, that audience members leave having enjoyed themselves, and having found the story and characters to be both laugh-provoking and thought-provoking. As far as what I personally would like to walk away with: new ideas for making the characters and story even better.

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The Bison Beast of Dubois will be presented in a fully-staged reading on Saturday August 22, 2015 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, August 23, 2015 at 3 p.m. at Spooky Action Theater, performing at Universalist National Memorial Church – 1810 16th Street NW, in Washington, DC. Admission is free. Reserve your tickets here.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.