Carolyn Cantor

by Betsy Sussler


Orange Flower Water. Production at Theater for New York City, 2005. All photos by S. McGee.

Edge Theater Company, the brainchild of Carolyn Cantor, its artistic director, David Korins (producer/designer) and Adam Rapp (playwright) produces just what its name implies: edgy, dense, and unequivocally complex plays. Their first production in 2001, Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s classic 17th-century masterpiece about shifting realities, Life is a Dream, set the tone. It was an unusually ambitious choice for a new company. Since then the group has produced contemporary work, new American plays that bring a mix of dark humor and ardent wit to bear in their exploration of life’s messy contingencies. Edge’s formula of choosing innovative plays of exceptional quality and imagination has paid off. Often playing to packed houses, the group received two Drama Desk nominations last year: Paul Sparks for Best Actor and David Korins for Best Set Design in Adam Rapp’s Blackbird. This year’s production, Orange Flower Water by Craig Wright, has been nominated for the same two categories, and as Edge is a company that builds a continuous working relationship with its collaborators, once again it’s Paul Sparks and David Korins. Orange Flower Water takes place in a pine-paneled box of a stage where an adulterous affair precipitates the disintegration of two marriages. Carolyn Cantor directed a seamless production, eliciting nuanced, brave performances from Arija Bareikis, Paul Sparks, Jason Butler Harner, and Pamela J. Gray. This is the best New York theater has to offer, and should be getting support similar to the theaters in England, where acting out life on a stage is considered a necessity. I met with the director shortly after Orange Flower Water closed.

Betsy Sussler An adulterous affair propels the plot of Orange Flower Water, but as I was watching your production of the play, I wondered: Is this really a play about adultery?

Carolyn Cantor The playwright, Craig Wright, told us that he thinks the play is about a baby that’s so fiercely trying to be born that it’s willing to destroy everything in its path in order to emerge. That was Craig’s impetus in writing the play, and that idea became a launching point in thinking about how to conceive the production.

BS The unborn child is present for most of the play, first as a wish and then as a reality in that the character, Beth, becomes pregnant.

CS Craig Wright is the product of a third marriage and, I think, felt like, Who am I to judge? If my father hadn’t left these two other women I wouldn’t be here. He really was interested in examining adultery in a way that didn’t only deal with it on a moral level. Which is what I responded to—the play didn’t overtly judge whether what the characters were doing was right or wrong; it just laid it out there.

BS It brought out the problems inherent in breaking up two families; it didn’t make it seem as if it were easy. But, yeah, it didn’t moralize to the point where the audience would think any one of the characters was an ogre. They all were fallible, and that made them empathetic.

CS Ultimately it says more about relationships than it does about adultery. How we repeat the same mistakes. In casting the two women—I really wanted them to be similar so that it didn’t seem as if he was leaving the homely soccer mom for the hot new trophy wife. I felt that each woman should be sexy and appealing. Often there isn’t necessarily a reason that relationships go awry or that we screw them up. We just do.

BS In the stage notes, Wright calls for a bed in the center of the stage and four chairs at the edge of the playing space. When the actors are not participating in the action, they watch it from one of the chairs. One reviewer aptly said, “It’s like being in the same boxing ring.” You and the set designer, David Korins, who is your partner in life as well as in art, wanted very much to have a thrust stage, one surrounded by the audience on three sides. And I should say here that David’s set includes the audience as well: the benches the audience sits on, the floor of the stage, the bed, everything is made from the same pine paneling. So we all feel that we’re in the play. What made you all (because I know that you did) fight for that thrust stage? What was it you wanted from that setup?

CS We had the privilege of doing a workshop of Orange Flower Water last summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and were thinking about possibly producing it for Edge. At Williamstown, we got the idea of doing it in the round. There was something about having the audience surround this play that was really exciting to me, as a director. It was instinctual, as soon as the idea came out, it just felt so right that it became impossible to think about the play in any other way. Then the challenge becomes, well, you still have to design the thing. And find a theater in the city that can accommodate it.

BS How did that staging influence your directing?

CS It really affected every aspect of the production. And, as I said, we still had to figure out what it would look like. In any production, both Dave and I like to start by talking with the writer about what he or she imagines, because even a playwright who doesn’t think visually will usually say something inspiring—

BS So what did Craig say?

CS He said, “You know, this play could take place anywhere. I think the bed could be a cube.” Which was very vague, but then he said, “In my ideal vision, you would walk through the woods and stumble upon this beautiful clearing, and that’s where the play would happen.” We used that as a launching point, which is why the set ended up being all wood paneling with treetops coming up over the back wall. There was something about it being a warm and welcoming place in which pretty brutal things happened.

BS An elemental place, where emotionally brutal things happen.

CS We didn’t want the set to tell the story of the play but rather to create an environment where it could happen.

BS Was Craig involved in the rehearsal period? Did he do any rewrites?

CS Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to be in rehearsal. He writes for Six Feet Under and so he was out in L.A. working. But I spoke to him a lot. We emailed a lot, he got rehearsal reports every day. He was kept very much in the know.

BS What’s a rehearsal report like?

CS The stage manager writes down what we do each day. There’s a column for sets, costumes, lights so that all the designers know what’s happening. And if there are questions for Craig, those go in there. It’s a summary of what happens in rehearsal.

BS A diary, in a way.

CS Yeah. But Craig wasn’t around, which was terrifying, because we were doing something so extreme with the play.

BS Was this the first actual production of the play?

CS No, it had been produced before but never in New York.

BS So what was Craig’s reaction to your production?

CS He loved it. He really felt it captured the play. Which was great. He came the night of our first preview, making that a doubly terrifying evening (laughter) and he stayed for a week.

BS Did you change anything during that time?

CS He cut a couple of very small lines and we reworked one or two moments where he felt, “There can be more extreme reaction here.” For instance he thought there could be more of a sense of violence in the scene between Beth, the adulteress, and her husband, Brad. That was something that we resisted a bit in rehearsal.

 


Jason Butler Harner and Pamela J. Gray.

BS The night that I saw it, a young actress came up to you in the lobby afterward. She was clearly moved by the production and said, “I understand why you made the choices you made.” She was also clearly a contender for one of those roles. I was wondering, the choices you made in casting—what were they and why?

CS As I said, I really wanted two women who felt similar. It’s a little bit complicated because I recast the role of Beth several times.

BS Really?

CS We were supposed to do the play at another theater last fall, but it was a proscenium and so it didn’t work out. And in the process of postponing the show, we lost an actress. She dropped out before the new production came together. And then I recast that role with a woman who got a pilot three days before we were supposed to start rehearsal.

BS Welcome to Off Broadway.

CS So I met all these women in those three days before we began. With Edge Theater, I rarely audition people. I prefer to meet with people whose work I’ve seen, where I know the talent is a given, and get a cup of coffee and talk for an hour or so about the script: what they respond to, what my thoughts are in relation to theirs. I’m interested in seeing if we’re on the same page. How are we responding to what each of us feels about the script as opposed to a two-minute audition.

BS Where you don’t have any sense . . .

CS You have no idea who the people are, they don’t know who you are and there’s no exchange of ideas. So that’s the way I cast the show, basically.

BS Except with that one actress, Arija Bareikis, who plays Beth, whom, in the end, you had to audition.

CS No, I met with everyone.

BS You still met them—in those three days!? Good for you. Were you familiar with her work?

CS She was the person I was probably least familiar with, that was a true leap of faith. But I met her and she seemed so much the right type and her credits were really great and I had seen a little bit of her work. We were starting rehearsal in three days! (laughter) So I thought, I’m just going to jump off of the cliff and hope.

BS Edge Theater, even though it’s not an ensemble company, has the feeling of one. Knowing people’s work and not walking into a situation cold is part and parcel of that. But also, when you and David started Edge with the playwright Adam Rapp, was the idea to be a loose ensemble of directors and playwrights?

CS We never thought about having formal members because we didn’t really know what that would mean. What would we ask of them? What would they expect of us? Both Dave and I had been involved with companies with large memberships and there were certainly many advantages to it, but the relationship always seemed a little uncertain. What do I have to give back? What does the company owe me? There’s a slightly weird dynamic, or there can be. In the case of Edge, there are people whom we know and whom we’re very interested in working with, over a number of years. We have had actors return for multiple productions.

BS But it’s a project oriented—

CS It is. So that we can choose what we want to do with no strings attached. It’s not like we have to find a role for this actor or we owe this writer a production. The downside of it is that we don’t have a huge body of people that we can call and say, “Hi, we need you to come build the set!” (laughter) So there’s no formal membership, but our hope is certainly to work with people repeatedly.

BS Orange Flower Water had the longest simulated sex scene that I’ve ever seen on stage—but where you would expect it to be between the two adulterating male and female characters, it was in fact between the male adulterer and his wife, after she’s found out that he’s involved with another woman. That was a remarkably interesting choice. It also had more dialogue in it than sex, or so it seemed. I thought Pamela J. Gray gave a stellar performance. As a director, how did you approach that scene?

CS It was definitely one of the scenes that struck me the most when I read the play.

BS The wife is so dominant when you expect her to be stricken. She’s still making demands.

CS And the truth is, it’s a completely understandable response. She’s losing a man that she’s in love with and yet she still has a little power over him. This is what she wants from him and she’s going to get it. The dialogue in that scene reflects how familiar they are with each other. It makes perfect sense that they can have a conversation about her day at school and what they did that afternoon while they’re making love. That’s where they are, instead of the new lovers, who are all about passion.

BS When faced with another woman, jealousy could have taken over, that would have been the pat response. She’s asking, even as she’s letting go: Is it really better with her? Because this is what we have and it’s pretty damn good. I was surprised that a man could write that.

CS Yeah. I always thought it was beautiful to watch, too. There was a way in which they were so connected, but they also seemed alienated from each other; they were having this passionate, sexual moment but they were in such different worlds.

BS How did you pull that out of them? Was that the text? Was that you?

CS It was a true collaboration between me, the actors and the script. So many people have asked me about that scene, because it is so extreme.

BS All your most intimate habits, there for everyone in the room to see.

CS Especially given the way that we decided to do it, where the audience was so close and on three sides. It’s unimaginably terrifying for the actors. But they’d read the play; they both knew what they were getting into. That was a part of my wanting to meet potential actors to talk about the demands of the script, to make sure that they wanted to go where the script takes them. Pamela Gray and Jason Butler Harner knew each other a bit and we spent a lot of time in rehearsals just talking, getting to know each other and feeling comfortable. They certainly didn’t rip their clothes off and jump into bed the first day. It was a very gradual process, as they became more comfortable with it, we just went further and further. Some of it was choreography—we’ve got to get you facing different directions in order to make this accessible to as much of the audience as possible. And then there was whatever their talent and insight brought to the scene. It was very challenging because there’s so much dialogue that doesn’t overtly come out of what’s happening physically.

BS Although the dialogue was certainly about the dynamics of their relationship. Each of them felt culpable, and that was so apparent. It couldn’t have been easy.

CS No, it wasn’t easy. (laughter) I was really, really concerned about it feeling gratuitous or there for its shock value. That would be the worst reaction. I tried to create a situation where they would feel like: This is okay; I’m not embarrassing myself.

BS What I particularly liked was how the play used the act of storytelling, where a single character would speak directly to the audience, for instance, reading a letter they’d written to another character. When you were in rehearsal did you ask the other actors to sit there and react to the monologues?

CS We didn’t rehearse with the actors watching from the chairs until the end, when we started running through the play. There was a lot of discussion around what their attitudes should be as they’re sitting there. When I asked Craig, he said they should watch the play the way God would watch it. (laughter) Which of course is rather difficult to play.

BS God could be utterly impassive. The actors seem to be reacting in character.

CS I didn’t want it to be so much reaction that you felt like, “Oh my God, that’s Cathy in that chair watching her husband in the motel room with another woman!” Certainly the actors did respond, but I also felt that you were never quite sure exactly what they were thinking. There was a way in which you projected on to them what you thought they were thinking. It was always a bit unknowable.

BS We’re so used to characters walking on and off stage. Their presence was almost ghostly—appropriate for adultery, as if the spouses are always there in the back of somebody’s mind.

CS Also, it made sense with the audience surrounding the play, that the actors—

BS Would surround the play as well.

CS Somehow we’re all involved in this.

 


Orange Flower Water. Production at Theater for New York City, 2005.

BS The name of your group, Edge Theater implies what you do, taking on risky and ambitious plays. Your first production was Calderon’s Life is a Dream, a classic and a very dense one at that. Subsequently, you’ve done plays that, I would say, with the slightest loss of nuance, could fail. But those are the most interesting plays to do. Where does that commitment come from and why?

CS With the exception of Life is a Dream we’ve produced all New York, if not world, premieres. We’ve become much more interested in doing new writing and that’s our focus. In the past three years, all the plays that we’ve done had already been passed on by pretty much every major theater in New York, understandably I guess. I think their considerations are different from ours.

BS What are your considerations?

CS Well, we don’t have a huge subscription base to satisfy, nor do we have enormous budgets. We really can just respond to the material and produce it without any of those other concerns. A huge part of starting the company was that, as a director, I was workshopping so many plays that weren’t getting produced in New York. This is a very fertile time for playwrighting, and I feel more of these plays need to be produced.

BS This city has one of the most sophisticated audiences in the world, what’s holding them back?

CS There certainly are plenty of companies out there doing wonderful work, but they can’t do everything. And there are so many plays that, for whatever reason, don’t get done. There is a gap here and we can fill it, at least a tiny bit.

BS What’s your process for choosing the plays?

CS Each one is different—they’re sent to us or we see them at readings or workshops. Two of our plays came to us through actors who had worked on them in their early stages. In both those cases they were actors I really respected and with whom I wanted to work; that’s a pretty good reason to take a very serious look at it. As the company matures and gets known, more and more scripts are being submitted to us by playwrights and agents. We read them all.

BS Do you want your own theater? Or would that be just the sort of trouble you’re trying to avoid?

CS Well, it’s so hard to know. On the one hand I would love a theater. The most frustrating part is every year having to find a suitable space. It would be so great to have a home. But on the other hand, I don’t know what it would mean because both Dave and I work outside the company a lot and love doing that. It’s an important part of who we are as artists. We don’t want to give that up. So the idea of maintaining a space is scary. Of course if we had a space, we could grow more quickly. Right now I would be happy to find a theater that we could rent

repeatedly. We’ve never produced in the same theater twice. Part of that is because we try to choose theaters that suit the plays and we’ve been really successful in doing that. But I think it’s more difficult to grow an audience. People don’t really know where to find you.

BS It’s almost as if you have to start from scratch each and every time, and that, on top of everything else, is exhausting. Of course now you have a reputation and a following.

CS And still every year we’re running around looking at every theater in New York—

BS (laughter) So what’s next?

CS We don’t know for sure what’s next.

BS Oh, right. You’re having a baby!

CS Well, I have the baby, and a couple of jobs. I just got back from South Coast Repertory where I workshopped a wonderful play by David Lindsay-Abaire, which Manhattan Theater Club is producing next season. With a different director. And this summer I’m workshopping another new play by Jessica Goldberg at New York Stage and Film. And next year I’m directing The Diary of Anne Frank at Paper Mill Playhouse. So I have some directing jobs. We’re just not sure what’s next for Edge. We have a couple of projects that we’re trying to decide between.

BS Do you see Edge as different projects that you can come into when you can, and that meld into everything else that you do?

CS The company is definitely growing in terms of support, it’s really exciting and gratifying. We’re interested in getting bigger and being able to do more. At the same time there really is something to the fact that we don’t have slots that we have to fill. I think that’s part of why the quality has been consistently high. We’ve been doing two productions a year, and we’ve produced only when we feel passionately about something.

BS One last question about Orange Flower Water. It’s an adult play, about adult desires, the most dominant being the right to pursue happiness. Both characters, Beth and David, are desperately unhappy in their respective marriages. They are also both parents to several children as well as the one about to be born, children who are present in this play as concerns but not as characters. What made it possible to examine this situation without the usual accusations? Because we all know it does hurt children, terribly. Is it that so many adults are going through this, adults who love their children and yet need other types of happiness as well? Or is it something inherent to the play?

CS I love that, in the play, we are constantly aware of the children’s presence, even though they aren’t characters, because I do think that children complicate things enormously for people who are in unhappy marriages. Craig’s writing in this regard is pretty extraordinary because he gets at the complications, the ambivalent feelings that people may have even toward their children. And one of the central questions of the play becomes, How much pain is it acceptable to inflict on others (including the children, the relatively innocent others) in our own pursuit of love and happiness? I don’t know that the question gets answered, or that there even is an answer, but it is interesting to think about.

 

—Betsy Sussler is editor in chief of BOMB.

Tags:
Adultery
Relationships
plays
production and direction
BOMB 92
Summer 2005
The cover of BOMB 92
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