What’s in the Wings…

March 19th, 2014

Welcome to Simpatico Theatre Project’s blog-roll, What’s in the Wings, your window into “one of the best indie theatres in town!” You’ll find a variety of posts on this page from directors, designers, actors and special guests, giving you a sneak peek into our company, our current production, and our electrifying 9th Season in Philadelphia. Thanks so much for tuning in and for staying Simpatico!

Join Simpatico and our SoLow Incubator artists every other week for a glimpse behind the scenes of their developing solo shows with…
Entry Two: Getting so Frustrated 
by R. Eric Thomas

Incubator Artist R. Eric Thomas

My mother tells a story about a time when I was young—3-years-old or 4—and I was trying desperately to get the swing I was seated on moving. My little legs kicked and kicked but I stayed motionless. After a minute or two, an adult came over and gave me a push and that’s all it took. I caught the momentum and I was swinging! As she tells it, I turned to the little boy on the swing next to mine and exclaimed in a giddy, high-pitched voice “I was getting so frustrated! Were you getting frustrated, too, Brooksie? I was getting so frustrated!”

I love how she tells that story. I love the little kid voice she takes on when delivering my line. I love the tiny crevices of humor the story holds—the image of my little feet kicking furiously, the joy of finally getting somewhere, the surprise of 3-year-old using the word “frustrated”. I think of that story often while working VOCAB, a piece that sometimes seems as resistant as that swing set. I’ll fumble my way through constructing some text for an hour, shove my computer off my lap and announce to my empty bedroom “I was getting so frustrated!”

The lovely thing about this Incubator program is that I have 6 other artists to whom I can turn and ask, “Were you getting frustrated, too?!”

VOCAB is harder for me to create than my previous solo shows have been. I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I spend most of my waking hours talking about Scandal and Beyonce and this show is not about either of them. It’s a show about black masculinity and hip-hop. I’m not even allowing myself to talk about Missy Elliot and Eve. It’s all Grandmaster Flash and Kanye West all the time. I don’t even know who Grandmaster Flash is. That might be something I just made up!

I could talk extemporaneously for an hour about Olivia Pope’s psychological issues or give a track-by-track analysis of the feminist notions on Bey’s latest album (I’m available for parties and Bar Mitzvahs; please contact my agent for booking information). But this subject is tougher. It’s harder for me to get inside of; it’s harder for me to find words for. And I guess that’s why I’m making a show about it. I see masculinity and blackness as a puzzle that I as an artist and as a black male need to solve to gain a better understanding of the world in which I live.

But I’ve been getting so frustrated!

I guess I’m coming around to the idea that art isn’t created in a vacuum. It’s a team effort. I accept this begrudgingly because I don’t really care for other people. They have opinions and I can’t be bothered. In the past, I’ve had very successful collaborations with directors, other artists, and dramaturgs, but in those cases I’ve showed up with a completed script in hand. And by “in hand”, I usually mean, in my head… somewhere… kind of. I just walk into the rehearsal room, throw my huge sunglasses on the table, guzzle my venti non-fat mocha and sigh luxuriously. “Here’s the script!” I declare as I return a text from Marilu Henner. “It’s perfect. (It’s awful.) I love it! (I hate it!) Tell me how to fix it. (Nothing but empty compliments or I’ll cut your knees off!)” And, at that point, I usually burst into a couple of verses of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and then take a nap in the corner.

And, I’ll tell you, this has worked out beautifully. Everything is different with VOCAB. The script is not done, after months of effort. It comes to me sometimes one line a day. I was at a dinner party last night and, out of nowhere, two words came to me. TWO WORDS. 3-seconds of a 70-minute show. Meanwhile Mike Daisey is off somewhere writing a new two-hour show every night for a month like the Artist’s Way is some kind of marathon. Thankfully, every month the 6 other Incubator Artists—Asaki, Chris, Eric, Meredith, Lena, and Sarah—and I gather in a room with Jarrod, our ever-patient producer, and other members of the Simpatico team. And we have to show something.

Without fail I am blown away by what the others bring to the table. Everyone has such distinctive voices, such complex structures, such captivating inquiries. I am always humbled to sit there with them. The questions that Sarah asks in her piece keep me up at night. The way Chris weaves together words and ideas and narrative strands nothing short of virtuosic. Asaki has an ability to frame her life experiences that is immediately accessible and yet captivatingly remote. Eric, Lena and Meredith are pretty much geniuses and it makes me furious. Every piece is like nothing I’ve ever heard. And, let me say, after each artist sits down I think to myself Now that’s the kind of brilliance you should be writing, Margaret. (I call myself Margaret when I’m in the mood to chastise.) Why didn’t you think to create an intricate three-character show about Casablanca? Why haven’t you even seen Casablanca? Is it too late to change your show to an in-depth analysis of You’ve Got Mail?

When I get up in front of the other Incubator Artists, I am battling against every insecurity I’ve ever had as a writer, as a performer and as a highly attractive person. And that’s not something I like to do without a stack of waffles at the ready. But I do it. Because I have to. Because Jarrod and my dramaturg, Rebecca, routinely ignore my panicked e-mails threatening to quit. And when I get up in front of the other Incubator Artists, I’m presenting ideas that aren’t as polished as I want them to be yet. I am presenting passages of text that are still closer to theory than they are to drama. I’m looking for help finding the crevices of humor; I’m looking for another person on another swing who’s still trying to figure out how to make it move.

And they never disappoint. Every meeting has been unfailing positive and terrifically helpful. It’s amazing to watch other people go through their processes. It’s instructive, also. I notice the way that the other artists incorporate criticism or ask questions of the group and I steal their methods for myself. So much of writing is done alone at a Starbucks or in an empty bedroom or on the back of a receipt from Trader Joe’s. It’s been revelatory to watch a part of that process happen in public, even as I do it myself.

I go home after each meeting jazzed and ready to work. And then I find a prodigious amount of stuff to keep from doing that work. It’s really remarkable, actually. I have balanced my checkbook, I’ve found my checkbook; I’ve lost my checkbook; I did my taxes; I ripped my taxes up in fury; I watched 4 and a half seasons of The Good Wife, all of House of Cards, a French series called Les Revenants and a educational science show called The Big Bang Theory; I have searched for that Malaysian plane (sad news: it’s most definitely not anywhere on Passyunk Avenue); I have become really interested in the music of Jason Derulo. The other day I suddenly stopped writing so that I could brush my teeth. At 10 pm.

But, despite all the procrastination, the show is coming together. Word by word, line by line, every day.

I can’t say that after this process is over I won’t go right back to making shows about pop culture divas and romantic comedies. It’s my gift. It’s what the world needs. But this process has been a push that has given me new momentum and enabled me to tackle subjects and ways of making art that I haven’t been able to approach before. Yes, I’ve been frustrated but the effort is producing results. I keep showing up. I keep kicking.

What’s in the Wings…

March 1st, 2014

Join Simpatico and our SoLow Incubator artists every other week for a glimpse behind the scenes of their developing solo shows with…
Entry One: The Collaborative Spirit
by Meredith Sonnen

Lena Barnard and Sonnen in the studio

Writing this play has been hard. It feels like squinting into the distance at an object that I think I should be identifiable but is just too blurry. Luckily, I have a cohort on this trek. If you met Lena (Barnard) and I, it would feel a lot like an episode of Gilmore Girls or the West Wing. We talk over each other and make obscure references and laugh at inside jokes that no one else gets.  Being around Lena makes me feel entirely secure. I can be myself with her. I like to think the feeling is mutual.  Who else will get all her Julie Andrews references?

I don’t always feel that way. Our play (we are still struggling with a title) is in many ways about not feeling like you can be yourself. I couldn’t write so much about it if I didn’t live it so much of the time. It was a pleasant surprise this year to stumble onto a group of artists who make me feel like I can get up and risk and fail in front of them, and do it again and again. Solow Incubatorhas been like that every time.

A publicity shot of Bergman from the 40s

Each time I see those people, I feel comfortable. Eric Wunsch will say something foul and uproarious, Asaki will light up the room with a smile, Sarah will make a perfectly timed wry remark, Jarrod will tell you a funny story from his week. The list goes on. I didn’t know some of these people at all before our first Incubator meeting. Some of them I knew a little, and Eric Wunsch and I go way back. I didn’t expect to walk in there and feel entirely excited to stand up and show them our play about Ingrid Bergman and identity theory.

I co-wrote a play sort of about feeling like I was not welcomed by the world as I was. It is very personal and while the characters are fictional, it lifts heavily from our lives. I am obsessed with Ms. Bergman just as much as these characters. I struggle with identity and sexism and the problematic elements of Casablanca. I speak mostly in comedy. I am weird and not everybody gets it. Coming into group meeting this week, one of the other artists told me that they had been excited to hear what we wrote next, and I felt perfectly at home and safe. I couldn’t wait to show them.

Our play is about 3 people who are in various stages of obsession with Casablanca and Ingrid Bergman in particular. They all get something out of it they can’t get anywhere else. Bergman was one of the first misfits in Hollywood. She was Swedish, didn’t wear makeup, or follow all the rules. Ingrid said “Be yourself. The world worships an original.”  She is the inspiration. We can’t wait to show you.

What’s in the Wings…

October 21st, 2013

The Rhythm of SIZE
 by Ali Nebistinsky

Music and rhythm play an essential role in creating the world of The Brothers Size.  Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney writes with language that’s inherently poetic and has a very distinct rhythm. McCraney also indicates many moments in the play where the characters sing or a song is heard (however, there is no suggestion of what song they should sing). This opens up a world of possibilities and I was curious to find out from Director James Ijames and Sound Designer Daniel Kontz how they created the musical landscape for Simpatico’s production.

Actors Akeem Davis & Carlo Campbell

McCraney certainly doesn’t leave the director and actors in the dark; the script is steeped with influences from West African Yoruba mythology. The play is set in rural Louisiana, where Blues plays an important role. Beginning with those important cues, Ijames and the cast experimented with many different songs during the rehearsal process. Because the timing of the piece is also somewhat vague, only stipulated as the “distant present”, Ijames suggests that the characters were possibly in their early 30s and began to think about the music of their childhood.

That led him to explore 70’s and 80’s R&B, infusing the piece with a sense of nostalgia. Of course, this gave the cast a lot to play with, experimenting during rehearsal with songs from many different artists. There is one particular scene where the brothers Oshoosi and Ogun sing along and dance to “Before I Let Go” by Maze. It’s a very touching moment in the show and it was important to find the best musical fit for the interaction.

Ijames had the actors play with 7 or 8 different songs including Al Green’s “Love and Happiness”. According to Ijames, that specific song was “too even” and didn’t fit the tone that they were trying to create. They finally settled on “Before I Let Go “, which had the driving rhythm that Ijames was looking for.

R&B influences also came into play in Kontz’s design for the pre-show music, which is always important in setting the mood for the audience. Designing for McCraney’s world, Kontz found it important to “find a lineage, to build a through-line in my design so I can make sound choices which unite in supporting the broader vision of the piece.”

Actors Akeem Davis & Kirschen Wolford

There are two distinct worlds in the play: the reality in which the characters live and their dreams. Kontz created a unique soundscape for the dreams to make a distinction between the two worlds, “The soundscape of the dreams was created by blending the past with the present, Southwestern Nigeria with the Deep South.” The combination of Western African and Blues-influences music gives this production a rich and profound soundtrack.

If you would like to listen to the energetic and soulful music featured in Simpatico’s production check out The Brothers Size playlist and on Spotify!

What’s in the Wings…

July 8th, 2013

Our 9th Season Ignites with THE BROTHERS SIZE!

There are just under three weeks until the launch of Simpatico’s compelling and provocative 9th Season in the City of Brotherly Love, and what better way to kick it off than with another Philadelphia first…the area premiere of THE BROTHERS SIZE by award-winning and game-changing playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, under the direction of two-time Barrymore Award winner and 2011 F. Otto Haas Award recipient James Ijames. THE BROTHERS SIZE will run October 2nd through November 3rd at the historic Walnut Street Theatre’s Studio 5 in Center City, Philadelphia. Starring Philly favorite and Simpatico regular Akeem Davis along with the considerable talents of veteran Carlo Campbell and emerging theatre artist Kirschen Wolford. Featuring the design work of Andrew J. Cowles, Daniel Kontz, Allen Radway and Lizzy Pecora. Visit the production page to learn more – here. Stay tuned and stay Simpatico!

What’s in the Wings…

April 25th, 2013

A-Dressing the Part

Simpatico’s Dramaturg, Katherine Perry sits down with rising star Costume Designer Jillian Keys to learn more about her design process for The Lysistrata Project and the challenges of working on a new piece.

KATHERINE PERRY – Tell us a little about yourself.

JILLIAN KEYS - I’ve been out of the University of the Arts for two years, and have been designing all kinds of things all over Philly! The freelancing life always stays really interesting. My first year after graduation I was a Walnut Apprentice in their costume shop where I met a lot of my costume design peers and some people I really look up to. I’ve done craft work/puppet and mask making and stitching for The Walnut and The Arden, and designing for smaller companies (most recently Plays and Players production of  Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), and schools (mainly Drexel’s dance program), and designing crazy fun children’s theater for Upper Darby Summer Stage.

KATHERINE – What interests you about the story of Lysistrata?

JILLIAN – It really amazes me that a script this old is so “progressive” with the ideas of womens’ empowerment. I put quotes around “progressive” because I wish everyone was on the same level, but for some reason womens’ equality falls on a liberal political spectrum. If these ideas were injected into art, and possibly a very ancient idea that predeceases pop culture, then why are these ideas still so taboo and still something we’re fighting over? If we just keep talking about women’s empowerment and spread it into every vein of entertainment people will just become desensitized and stop being afraid of the word “feminist”.

KATHERINE - Lysistrata dates back to 411BC, and while this adaptation draws heavily from the traditions of Greek theatre and Aristophanes’ original text there is a large contemporary element in this production. How does your costume design reflect this balance between the traditional and contemporary?

JILLIAN – My design is an equal balance of traditional and contemporary! Some designs beat people over the head or treat the audience members like idiots by not respecting their imaginations. I’m not trying to fool anyone into thinking I can accurately mimic the fashions of ancient Greece. No matter who does it, no matter the kind of resources they have, it’s never going to be exactly right so why bother? Interpret. It is to my advantage as a designer to create a costume-mash-up of every era that I’ve learned about and have had experience with. I want to give a sense of Greece, mixed with key modern pieces that an audience can connect to, so they can really empathize and relate to the characters. For example a 1950′s shaped floral dress with a full skirt and a cardigan says: “Ah yes, the conservative Suzie-Homemaker type!”, but if that dress is made from a light flowy fabric and only has one shoulder it still hints at some sort of Grecian root.

KATHERINE – Rehearsals for The Lysistrata Project at this point are still very much about discovery. How does this continual process of development affect your own process of design?

JILLIAN – It is phenomenal how the amount of discussion in a room can impact character and, by extension, design. With a classic script we know how the parts  have been played by other people and there are a lot more limitations. Going into this process I knew all of the people I met in the script are going to be different from week to week – or even day by day! My designs even shifted from when I read the script and created these people in my head to the first reading and getting a first glimpse at what each actor was bringing to the table. It means that the design will have lots of drafts, which sometimes means its a bit of a last minute scramble because you want to make sure you spend your money wisely on things that are as set in stone as they can be. Time management is definitely an art in situations like this!

KATHERINE – Does your process differ with an original work?

JILLIAN – I love doing original and devised work! This is not the first original piece that I’ve worked on – my first experience with a brand new shiny script was in college at UArts where we were encouraged to collaborate. I designed and executed the set and costumes for a devised piece called Hackles from a great group of Pig Iron School students called The Groundswell Players, and I’m currently helping a costume designer with a Pig Iron workshop of a future fringe show. What ends up surfacing is a really didactic piece of art that is a smoothie of a group of minds!

The environment and energy in the room is always way different with a new script, because it isn’t set in stone. Usually the author is sitting on the floor with you and you have their consent to take some words on a page in an entirely different direction… Then a few days later the stage manager hands you new pages that have your impressions all over it. I hope this is where our art form is going, because it’s a really exciting place. With the world having such an intense accessibility to blogging and putting their ideas out into the ether why not apply that to theater and have a script that is comprised of people bouncing ideas off of each other?

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT JILLIAN’s WORK VISIT: http://jilliankeys.carbonmade.com/


What’s in the Wings…

January 13th, 2013

Welcome to The Amish Project
An brief introduction to the play and the co-production by Simpatico Artistic Director Allen Radway and Dramaturg Katherine Perry


“We’re all just a few bad days from sicko…”
- Jessica Dickey, The Amish Project


On the morning of October 2, 2006 a local man, well-known to both the Amish and non-Amish communities of quiet West Nickel Mines, PA, entered a single-room Amish schoolhouse with two rifles, an automatic handgun, over 500 rounds of ammunition, two cylinders of black-powder explosive, a taser, two knives, power tools, lumber, KY Jelly, rope, zip ties and duct tape. After ordering the adults and the fifteen male students to leave the building, he barracaded the entrances, bound the remaining ten female students, ages 6-13, and lined them up against the chalkboard. As police quickly responded to the scene and urged his surrender, the man, having no escape nor opportunity to pursue his presumed intention of molesting them, proceeded to execute the young women before turning his gun on himself. He left numerous, contradictory suicide notes to his own loving wife, children, and family. His planning had been methodical, his reasons almost entirely elusive.

Despite being the specific target of his violence, the Amish community was immediate and seemingly absolute in their forgiveness of the gunman and his family. Surprised by the suddeness and apparent conviction of this gesture the neighboring non-Amish communities immediately questioned the sincerity of this “gesture”. As the media descended the question was then posed to a doubtful nation. The Amish families of West Nickel Mines, however, remained unwavering in their response and unshakeable in this core belief. In the days that followed, they repeatedly reached out to the gunman’s grieving widow and family, offering solace, companionship and, again, their unconditional forgiveness.


Perhaps the most important question we ask ourselves in the theatre is “Why?”

Why does the character enter the scene? Why do they speak the speech they do? Why should we, the audience members, be compelled to take part in their story? Why this play and why now?

Recent events certainly put these questions in a different light as we revisited The Renegade Company’s breathtaking 2011 production along with them this December. Sandy Hook has unearthed Nickel Mines afresh, and has asked us to consider the argument of Jessica Dickey’s extraordinary play a bit more simply and honestly, if not a bit more trepidatiously and sensitively.

The Amish Project traces the shockwave of anguish following the horrific 2006 shooting, as it courses through three tremendously different and insular populations in southeastern Pennsylvania. The Amish, English, and Hispanic-American communities are all uniquely tied to the terrible event and are suddenly forced to navigate not only the gravity of fury and forgiveness, but their own misperceptions of each others’ cultures. Their separate journeys of mourning and justice soon intersect and provide a new path – one of compassion, fellowship and hope.


Playwright Jessica Dickey will be joining director James Stover and actress Janice Rowland to discuss the production and Jessica’s process in creating such a captivating work. Dr. David L. Weaver-Zercher, co-author of Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy will be joining us as well for a conversation about the Amish communities of North America, the role of forgiveness in these societies, and the aftermath of the Nickel Mines event.

Simpatico is also joining forces with The Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia to engage in conversation about violence and how we can all become involved in fostering a healthier and safer local community.

Please visit our Events page for more information about our special guests.

What’s in the Wings…

October 9th, 2012

Behind the Script

An interview with playwright Samuel D. Hunter

Click to watch the YouTube video of Sam’s Interview!

Join Dramaturg Katherine Perry and Director Jill Harrison for this amazing interview with Sam as Simpatico goes behind the scenes of our “engrossing” “incisive” and “disturbingly hilarious” production of A Bright New Boise.

Filmed by Production Sound & Video Designer Daniel Kontz. Made possible by the generous support of Steve and Jane Heumann.