Interview by: Shayne Dukevitch
Right now cast and crew are hard at work on the demanding task of bringing Bryony Lavery’s hard-hitting drama Frozen to life. The play is set to premier on December 3rd and run through the 12th of the month. It is a superb play about violent crime, emotional paralysis and the power and scope of forgiveness. Recently Shayne Dukevitch had the chance to ask Director Stephanie Sandberg and principle cast members Kitty Carpenter, Ralph Lister and Rebecca Monterusso some questions about the process of bringing this challenging work to life.
Shayne: What is it about this play that drew you to want to be a part of it?
Director Stephanie Sandberg: I first read the play last year when Kyle mentioned to me that they were looking for a director and I was so disturbed by it that I felt I had to at least figure it out. It’s a sort of thriller/puzzler of a play where the little bits and pieces of the scattered story come together in a kind of beautiful interplay of character and language. It is, by and large, a character driven piece which means that it is also driven by the actors and I LOVE this kind of drama where each creative artist has a ton of dramatic meat to sink into and find the gems that make the whole thing run.
In addition, I became fascinated with the fact that it’s a piece about restorative justice and forgiveness. There is a ton of work going on in the world right now on this topic of forgiveness where we need to learn to have grace toward one another even in the most difficult of situations. People in places like Darfur and Iraq are dealing with this currently and there are some profound results. If you look at the work in South Africa with the Peace and Reconciliation Commission, it’s the same deal. We MUST MUST learn to forgive one another if we are going to move forward to create a more understanding and peaceful world. This does not mean that its easy, it’s not. It’s tremendously difficult and yet we must try.
Rebecca Monterusso (Agnetha): I got a call from Stephanie about auditioning. I knew nothing about the play, but once I read it, I was hooked. I love that the script is written in verse (being a big Shakespeare nerd myself). You can see where the playwright wants you to pause, to rush, etc.
I also love that the story deals with a seriously disturbing issue and gives the audience three different viewpoints to look into. And my character is trying to get the audience to sympathize with a serial killer – now there’s a challenge.
Kitty Carpenter (Nancy): Well, I had to think about it a lot. This is a hard play to live with for two months, but I love the arc of Nancy’s character; she starts out on a typical day with the family, goes to the depths of pain, despair and anger, travels to forgiveness and then moves on with her life. The deep sorrow on the loss of a child will never go away, but she has learned to live with it, rebuild her life and move on. It takes a special kind of courage to do that.
Ralph Lister (Ralph): The role of Ralph Wantage was likely to be as challenging as any I had faced in what is now almost a 40-year-long love affair with the stage. To play anyone as complex requires an ability to both wholly immerse oneself in his psyche (his acts and emotional responses are entirely natural to him, and take place without remorse or self-blame) and simultaneously to maintain an arms-length distance to preserve one’s own personal sanity. There are frequently times when I have to shake off the moments of his emotional crises as revealed in the play, but, largely, he is so thoroughly a psychopath that it is a relatively straightforward task to return to being the regular undamaged, un-traumatized human which I thankfully remain.
From an artistic standpoint, this is also a play that demands audiences to reconsider their own perceptions of what constitutes guilt and their own personal requirements for forgiveness. How often do we get to work on contemporary plays that force audiences to sit up and take note of what they believe, and consider what they have experienced long beyond the drive home? I wanted to be part of Frozen because it has this quality. My preference, as an actor, is, and will always be, to be involved with plays which have this motivating, underlying artistic force running through them.
In addition, I researched Stephanie Sandberg’s work as both director and writer, met with her (before auditioning) to consider the play, hear her views on it, and find out more about how she was likely to be both working through the issues of the play and with her actors, should she then choose to cast me. I happily concluded that with her the piece was going to be in safe, creative hands, and that I would be too.
Shayne: Stephanie, as a director this is a very emotional play to have to guide your actors through. What was your strategy going into rehearsal for navigating the dark corners?
Stephanie: I created an atmosphere where the actor really has creative control, and then I led them carefully through a process of discovery, talking about the most dangerous of subjects and then slowly unpacking those moments in the play. I’ve also made sure that there is a great deal of fun in discovering what makes these characters tick. We’re never willing to stop at surfaces. In fact, we’re still digging and I don’t think we’ll be done until the show is up. And even then, we know that more discoveries will be made as we give this show away to our audience. So, careful, intentional and thoughtful discussion of the difficult subjects – and then just enjoying the process completely of making such a difficult work of art come to life. We know that if we can reveal the sense of deep forgiveness present in this play, it will all be worthwhile.
Shayne: Ralph, your character commits a despicable act. It’s revealed in the play that he was abused as a child, which might have contributed to his choices later in life. How much of Ralph’s behavior do you think is a result of his abuse, and how much can be attributed to his own personality?
Ralph: A close study of the play clearly reveals that Ralph Wantage was both physically damaged through brain injury and was sexually abused as a child, presumably repeatedly and over many years, and that these traumas were, without any doubt, the causes of his later serial abuse of young girls. Ralph’s crimes were a result of those traumas; his personality was created by the traumas he suffered. So is he or is his personality guilty? Yes, he committed his crimes, but he is NOT guilty of evolving the personality which led him to them. That is the result of the terrible mischief of the traumas which befell him. This is clearly one of the main artistic thrusts of the play, for audiences to consider the nature of guilt and, in so doing, to consider the nature of forgiveness. If someone cannot help themselves, truly cannot help themselves, can they be to blame for their acts, whatever their acts may be? A dog, beaten daily or otherwise traumatized by some foul owner, when approached by a stranger, cannot stop barking out of its own constant fear. Is the dog to blame for it’s barking, or should we blame the owner who, by having created the trauma, directly caused its unavoidable, understandable barking response?
Shayne: Kitty, one of the themes of this play is forgiveness. Why do you think your character decides to forgive Ralph?
Kitty: She forgives, not for him, but for herself. It’s the only way she can move on and not stay in a frozen state of anger, hate and despair. It’s a difficult journey for anyone to go through and I feel a huge responsibility to portray it honestly and with respect and compassion for anyone who has had to make such a heart-wrenching choice.
Shayne: Rebecca, Agnetha struggles with the question of why people do what they do, both professionally and in her personal life. Do you think she’s looking to excuse behavior or explain it?
Rebecca: Explain – definitely. Stephanie and I talked a lot about what on earth would make Agnetha (or anyone, for that matter) go into a field like this, and we decided that she had a close family member – a brother or sister – who had suffered a brain trauma at an early age, and she wanted to help him or her; help them be understood as a person, actual and whole… well, maybe not whole, but actual. And I think the more research she completed, she began to feel that she needed to defend these people, to be a voice for the voiceless, per say. But there also has to be some underlying morbid fascination with the human brain and what happens to it when it “breaks.”
As far as her personal life goes, we know very little about her as a character. We’re still trying to piece her together. Much more is known about the other two characters just based on the textual evidence in the script than Agnetha.
Shayne: With a play that deals with such dark and emotional themes, how do you keep rehearsals light enough that you enjoy the process? How do you blow off steam?
Rebecca: Order two pints after rehearsal – always two. Aside from that… we joke around all through rehearsals. You have to be light when working with such a dark, heavy piece.
Kitty: Stephanie makes cookies – cookies make everything better!
We’re just starting to tap into the depths we all have to plumb. The play is a lot of monologues and we’ve been working individually with Stephanie on those. Before we read the scene or monologue, we discuss it, read it sitting down, then get up and work on it. Stephanie is always careful to have a break after each time we go through the scene or monologue. It’s just a few minutes where we may talk about the scene, or talk about something else, or just go get water – anything to shake loose some of the emotional impact. You can handle emotionally charged scenes for the few minutes they last during performance, but to rehearse scenes or monologues like that over and over for an hour can take its toll.
I don’t really ‘blow off steam’; I have other things in my life to focus on; my job, home, friends and family, so that takes me out of the play. I can’t live with it 24/7 – although I do catch myself thinking about scenes or lines throughout the day. Bad habit when driving – I should probably post my route so everyone can avoid traveling when I do!
Ralph: We make fairly constant jokes, to lighten the frequent moments of darkness. There are times when we discover the depth of Ralph’s depravity, his killing/raping and disposal process, and we gulp for air when we recognize how appalling these acts are. For me, I find acting hugely enjoyable, whoever I may play. The enjoyment is in the very challenge of faithfully playing his character, of lending him my voice, body, and emotions, and always as truthfully as is humanly possible.
How do I blow off steam? Drink heavily. Look at the stars. Dream of beauty, kindness, love, nature. Be kind to all living animals. Go for walks. And get on with a very, very, very, very busy business life.
Shayne: Thanks to Stephanie and all the actors for lending their insights to this article. From the sound of it Frozen promises to be a truly captivating night at the theater. Here’s looking forward to a great show!