In Part Two of a series of three interviews taking you behind the scenes of Lower Shore Performing Arts Company‘s production of Breathing Under Dirt, meet Director Grant Aleksander.
Known for years to many as the character Philip Spaulding on CBS Guiding Light, Aleksander has always struck me as an actor who is consistently in control of his craft while consciously continuing to perfect it and set high standards for himself.
I found Grant quite sensitive and refreshing, who spoke both from his heart and his mind about his directorial approach to the scripted words penned by his good friend Michael O’Leary, and how his vision of the play took shape over time. His insight into the nature of our collective human experience breathes life into this highly complex, metaphoric, and potentially transformative work.
Cynthia: First of all, welcome home to a Tim-OH-nium native! Thanks for bringing the world premiere of Breathing Under Dirt to Maryland. How did I do on that Baltimore-Timonium accent?
Grant: (Laughs.) That was pretty good!
What was it that made you want to do this production?
Of course that it was written by my best friend, Michael O’Leary. It’s also an opportunity to reconnect in a challenging creative endeavor with friends and former cast mates from Guiding Light.
What do you think will be familiar to fans of Guiding Light and what will be new and exciting to see?
People will see a very different side of Michael. He is playing a character that is very different than anything I am aware that he has done before. You may see something reminiscent of Steamboat (a comedy web series produced and written by Michael O’Leary) in his character because of the comedic nature, but the dimensions of this character are very different than those of Rick Bauer, his character on Guiding Light.
It is not unusual for theatre professionals to wear more than one hat, but it can present challenges. What specific challenges have you faced being both Director and Actor?
The most challenging thing is to keep the two tasks separate from one another, while giving each the proper time and energy they need. Directing is such an entirely different task and the key to it is to be outside looking in. So, it is a real challenge to be outside of it looking in when you are also a character within it.
One of the things I would normally do in this situation is ask my wife to come watch rehearsals at some point relatively early in the process. Because she knows me so well, she has the ability to give me very good direction and can be very candid about what I might need to work on. In this case, because of the tight scheduling constraints and rehearsing on the west coast, we didn’t have that opportunity. So she may look at me afterward and say, “I wish I had been there!”
I love thinking about the dynamic of having someone who knows you so well helping coach your performance.
It’s always been a blessing. Whenever I’ve had something challenging to do, she’s always been the person I go to first and it is her opinion that means the most to me. We have a great partnership.
What character do you play and how do you relate to that character?
I play the character of Jack, also known as John, who is former military just back from Korea. He meets Patience (Cynthia Watros) in a jazz club and they have an immediate chemistry with each other that accelerates quickly into what appears to be a really special relationship.
What challenges did you face bringing the story from the page, through the actors and now to the stage? How did you solve them?
The first challenge was taking a one act play that had won the 2016 Manhattan Repertory Theatre One Act Play Competition and expanding it into a full length play. Michael was able to do that in a matter of a just a few weeks. It was clear to me he knew the story he wanted to tell. Our process was collaborative in that each time he drafted something I would review it and give him my thoughts on shaping and editing until we felt like we had a good working script.
Did you make changes to the script once you started rehearsals?
Yes, we did to a degree. Because this is not a play that has gone through a series of productions or is time tested at this point, everyone was looking for a level of comfort that would allow them to fully develop. Sometimes that means changing a word here or there or questioning a certain line.
Do you think there is something that will surprise people about the show?
Yes, I definitely do! The play has a number of twists and turns. Very little about the play is what it initially appears to be. Certain things that seem very real become the not real.
How did you express these plot twists and metaphors in scenic design?
The performances themselves are so very powerful we are actually leaning heavily on expression of the actors to convey this. Through this simplicity, we free up space to do this profoundly. We are, however, using projection to help tell the story through scenic design.
What’s next for Breathing Under Dirt?
We have interest from a number of theaters in Florida and in other cities around the country. We plan to take an assessment of any changes we wish to make before making any commitments. Then, we will take a look at the cast, because we are situated in a number of states around the country, and see what seems to be the best fit.
What would you like to see audiences take away from Breathing Under Dirt?
Forgiveness and reconciliation are possible and best served while people are still alive to appreciate them. The theme that is truly powerful and important about the play is that there are twin symbolic, metaphoric themes in motion and they both deal with primordial elements. One is the earth, the dirt beneath our feet, and the other is the air we breathe. Patience has an intimate relationship with the earth, the soil, and with gardening that surrounds her.
I think the idea throughout the play is that very often people will go through very difficult experiences and will try to bury them. So, I directed this play in a way to show that often when we bury the tragedies of our lives, we also bury ourselves along with it. And in doing so, we find ourselves gasping for air.
Breathing Under Dirt plays on August 13, 2016 at 2 and 7 PM and on August 14, 2016 at 2 PM at Lower Shore Performing Arts Company, performing at the Ella Fitzgerald Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore – 1 Backbone Road, in Princess Anne, MD.
Michael O’Leary is conducting an Actors Workshop on Sunday morning, August 14th at 10:30 AM also at the Ella Fitzgerald Performing Arts Center. For tickets, to Breathing Under Dirt purchase them online. Premium tickets include priority seating, meet-and-greet and autographs after the show.
There is a ‘BUD RALLY’ on August 9th at 9:00 AM at IHOP – 2732 North Salisbury Boulevard, in Salisbury, MD.
There is a Meet & Greet on August 9th at 6:00 PM at Market Street Inn – 130 West Market Street, in Salisbury, MD. More details are on Facebook.
Behind the Scenes of ‘Breathing Under Dirt’ at Lower Shore Performing Arts Company: Part 1: Playwright Michael O’Leary by Cynthia Bledsoe.