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Something to Look Forward To :: Paul Daigneault on SpeakEasy Stage Company's Upcoming 30th Anniversary Season

by Kilian Melloy
EDGE Staff Reporter
Thursday May 21, 2020
SpeakEasy Stage Company Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault
SpeakEasy Stage Company Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault  (Source:Glenn Perry Photography)

What the COVID-19 pandemic doused the lights in Boston's theaters, it left several of the city's major companies to deal with having to cut short performance runs already in progress and also delay or cancel season-ending productions. Such was the case with the Steve Martin / Edie Brickell musical collaboration "Bright Star," which the SpeakEasy Stage Company had been preparing, but which has now been moved to the coming 2020-21 season.

That season will also be SpeakEasy Stage's 30th Anniversary Season, and while it's not known for sure just when the new season can commence, plans are in place for the upcoming season's full slate of productions, including Jeremy O. Harris' highly charged 2018 opus "Slave Play," Duncan Macmillan's 2015 play "People, Places & Things," and the massive two-part, 6-hour, "Howards End"-inspired Matthew Lopez work from 2018, "The Inheritance" - not to mention the afore-mentioned "Bright Star" and a return to the SpeakEasy Stage of the musical favorite "Once on This Island," from 1990, by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, which enjoyed an acclaimed revival in 2018.

Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault - make that founding Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault, under whose guidance the company first came to light, and who steers SpeakEasy still - chatted with EDGE about the Great Coronaviral Unpleasantness of Late, and the theatrical curative that the company is preparing to uncork in the months ahead.


EDGE: First off, congratulations on SpeakEasy's upcoming 30th anniversary season! You know, I'm not sure about his — you've always been the company's producing artistic director?

Paul Daigneault: I founded the company in [the early 1990s] so, yeah, I've been around since the beginning. We started off very volunteer [based] and then over time grew, slowly but steadily. It's been good.

EDGE: What went into planning the 30th season's slate of productions? Was there a theme you wanted to build the season around?

Paul Daigneault: I don't usually do the, you know, 'This year's theme is Togetherness!' I think of a season more as producing shows that my audience didn't necessarily know that they wanted to see, and introducing them to those shows. Also, they have to be shows that touch me somehow, personally. When I'm choosing shows that I would like to go see in the theater, and would enjoy, and that would challenge me, those are the shows that usually are the most successful — I've learned that over thirty years, for sure.

I think this season would have happened regardless of the pandemic, but we were in the process of planning the season when this all happened, and I really feel that in order to survive this and come out strong we have to stay true to our mission, and be bold and boundary-pushing; take artistic risks. I think that any arts organizations that are going to play it safe... I worry that they won't do as well coming out if they're not staying true to who they truly are.

EDGE: "Once on This Island" is coming back to SpeakEasy for the 30th anniversary season. Did you especially want to revisit that show for the occasion?

Paul Daigneault: "Once on This Island," in 1994, was the first full-length musical that SpeakEasy produced. Because it's had a revival and a new book, I thought it would be great to bring it back and have that be one of the shows in the 30th [Season]. It's also one of my favorite musicals. When it first opened in the early 1990s, in New York, I think I saw it fifteen times in standing room. It's a show that I really love. That was the one show that I was, "I'm doing that show because it's our 30th!"

The other ones are true to our mission as far as doing things in Boston for the first time, [works that are] thematically relevant. Plays like "Slave Play," which I look at as part of a conversation we've been having with our audiences around the subject of race in America; also, "Slave Play" was such a sensation this year in New York, and it's such a provocative play. I'm really looking forward to that.

This 30th Anniversary Season graphic shows the posters for SpeakEasy Stage Company's upcoming slate of productions  (Source: Courtesy SpeakEasy Stage Company)

EDGE: "Slave Play" is the only play in the upcoming season that doesn't have fixed dates already announced. Is that a carryover from how the COVID-19 pandemic upended this past season?

Paul Daigneault: Well, right. In an ideal world we'd like to get to "Slave Play" first, in September, and we're giving ourselves... we're exploring options. Every day is a different day, and it all comes down to what the governor and the world are telling us. By the end of June, we'll make a call on where "Slave Play" lands in the season, whether it will open the season in September or whether it will go into the spring somewhere.

EDGE: An exciting New England Premiere is Duncan Macmillan's "People, Places & Things," which is set to run January — February of 2021. Marianna Bassham and John Kuntz are already cast for that — were they the actors that you just had to have for this production?

Paul Daigneault: It's a funny story — Marianna actually brought the script to us, not in the way of saying, "I want to be in this play, please cast me," but more, "This is a play that really shook my world, and I think that you should read it." So we read it, and we tried to get it for a couple of years, seeing if we could get the rights and such, and it all worked out this year. As soon as we secured that, we offered it to Marianna. She'll be the cornerstone of the show. It's just an incredibly challenging role for an actor, and she's totally up to the task.

With John, he's a great collaborator — he has a longtime relationship with SpeakEasy and then also he and [director] David [R. Gammons] are great collaborators and very good friends, and so when we were thinking about who should play the dad, and then there's this great character named Paul — the actor who plays him doubles as two different people — we were brainstorming names, and we made an offer to John.

Sometimes you choose a play and you have no idea who's going to be in the play; and other times, when you're looking at artists, actors come to mind and there's also a little bit of... in this town, if you don't snap the good ones up really quick, they accept their roles and then you won't have them in your show.

EDGE: Speaking of COVID-19 chaos, "Bright Star" was initially planned for this past season, and had to be delayed. It's now scheduled for late February through March of 2021... were there many changes that you had to make because of the delay — casting changes, for instance?

Paul Daigneault: No, I got them all — [the entire cast will return for the show in Season 30]! Part of the reason "Bright Star" was rescheduled for March was because at other times not all of them were going to be available. But this March dates worked for everybody.

EDGE: How about in other aspects of the play — design elements and the like?

Paul Daigneault: We had a set design — or, we were close to having a set design, and I had had pre-rehearsal meetings with the choreographer, and we were all ready to go, and then everything got shut down. It's sort of nice to have that all set up and ready to go! I mean, we didn't rehearse a day, we didn't get into rehearsal at all. It's very hard to audition in this condition because people can submit monologues and such, but [you really get casting insight] when you get people into the room to see how they interact together, and that hasn't been able to happen for quite some time. So, to have one show that's already cast is a huge relief.

EDGE: You must feel pretty confident about how ready you are for "Bright Star," because after you direct that show you'll turn around and direct the two-part play "The Inheritance," by Matthew Lopez. That's a monster! It would be a heavy lift, in any case, to direct plays back to back, but — wow! How are you going to manage?

Paul Daigneault: I don't know. Ask me in nine months.

[Laughter]

Paul Daigneault: But I had to put "Bright Star" where it's landing because of people's availability, and then I wanted to have "The Inheritance" at the end of the season because of gay Pride. But there are a good four weeks — even more than that, I think — between when "Bright Star" opens and when I need to go into rehearsal with "The Inheritance." I'll have some time to recharge my batteries, I think.

And, you know, I have not been more excited to direct a play in the entire thirty years than I am about "The Inheritance," because it speaks so much to my own personal journey. I read the play long before I saw it, and I just fell in love with it. So, I'm very fortunate to be able to do the premiere of it here.

EDGE: And you've also cast the amazing Nancy E. Carroll for "The Inheritance." Was that a case in point when it comes to snapping someone up while they're available?

Paul Daigneault: Well, right! When you read the play and you see this woman — who only appears in Part II — you think of Nancy immediately. And she read both parts of the play — she read all 350 pages and took the role! I've worked with Nancy many, many, many times, and I love having her in the room. She's the only woman in the play, and she'll be a great grounding force for everybody, I think.


EDGE: Now, no one wants to see a second wave of coronavirus and more shutdowns after what we've been through, and are still going through, but have you sketched out a B plan for if that should happen?

Paul Daigneault: We're working on that, sure. Working on different scenario planning for, "Of we can't open in the fall at all, what happens?" Or, "If we can open in the fall, but have to limit the audience to conform to social distancing rules is that worth it?" There are lots of different scenarios we have to work out. We have a committee of board members and staff members at SpeakEasy who are working on those [plans], and we'll react to the environment. But I said earlier the interesting thing about this whole coronavirus is that you just have to accept the fact that you cannot control the environment here. I'm just hoping that by June 30 I'll have enough information about what's going to happen it the fall to make an informed decision, and impact my subscribers minimally. Because people are investing in us — they want to be part of what we do. But, I have to look forward. If I worry much about this and this and this and this, I think when it comes time, we'll have a safety plan in place for our artists; a safety plan in place for our audiences; and we will be doing plays, hopefully, as best as we can do them. That might not be until January of 2021; it might not be until a year from now. I'm committed to doing the five plays that we've announced, and I'll find a way to do them eventually.

EDGE: After thirty seasons, do you feel you've done everything you wanted? Or are there still ambitions you have yet to fulfill? Or, have you maybe discovered new ambitions along the way?

Paul Daigneault: I think there are still... hmm, I don't know. I think I always wanted to do theater that was small and intimate, and really engaging, that people could afford to come and see, and that would employ local actors — things like that. The thing I haven't realized yet, that I still hope to do, is producing plays that were written here, by Boston playwrights. We have a program called The Boston Project, where we commission two new plays each year that are written by local authors, that take place in Boston. And not just that take place in Boston, but that Boston is part of the fabric of the show. So far, we've created eight plays. Now, to get the resources to produce those eight plays on our main stage is a whole other dream, and I think in the next three to five years — if I have my way, that would be the next step for SpeakEasy, is to be creating theater here, and then sending it out into the world.

EDGE: It's hard to imagine that won't happen because you've had such talent writing plays for The Boston Project — MJ Halberstadt, Obehi Janice, Bill Doncaster, Rick Park... It's such an impressive list of people you've been working with on this.

Paul Daigneault: Well, MJ's play ["The Usual Unusual"] is just fantastic, and it deserves a production. It's really about trying to get it going for next season or the season after, but now we've got this whole interruption that — I don't know how that will impact the company and our ability to do these things. That's the goal, and we'll see if we can make it happen.


For more about SpeakEasy Stage Company's 30th Anniversary Season, please go to https://www.speakeasystage.com/.


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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