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INTERVIEW: Director Shelli Place

Director Shelli Place.
Director Shelli Place.

Theatre Unbound’s production of The How and the Why opened on Friday at the New Century Theatre. Director Shelli Place sat down with the Twin Cities Arts Reader’s Basil Considine to discuss this play and her work.

Part of Theatre Unbound’s mission statement reads “providing audiences with engaging, rarely-seen perspectives on issues that are relevant and universal.” How do you see The How and the Why aligning with this?

This play is a great fit for Theater Unbound as it focuses on subjects that are not generally discussed unless you are possibly a Biology or a Women’s Studies major. It explores the subject of women’s bodies – the historical, the biological and the psychological from the perspectives of feminists from two generations.

Could you expand on the psychological aspect that you mentioned? A large portion of the American population believes that science is either strictly rational or something mysterious and almost magical…

Women grow into their bodies when the hormones “kick-in” at puberty, giving us curves, breasts and the ability to conceive, not to mention skin problems and “mood swings”. Biologically, we understand the process. Historically, we can look at our female relatives and can see whom we possibly take after, but psychologically, women are always wrestling with nature vs nurture:

Are we only evolving due to our biology or how much does our environment play in the equation? How do we tackle the psychological changes due to the influx and eventual reduction of estrogen? We ask ourselves how much influence our mothers have in shaping our psyche, and can a non-familial mentor do the same? How much do genetics play into our emotional growth or can we, as adults, change the outcome if desired?

The play specifically addresses these issues in both characters; Zelda’s retrospection of love and loss and discovering her own “truth” of what is a successful life and Rachel’s realization has that she is, biologically, a grown woman, with all the emotional baggage and responsibilities that come along with being an adult.

Many reviews of old productions focus on the science aspects of the narrative. The Feminist Spectator put a very different spin on it, saying “Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Sarah Treem’s terrific new play…is that it’s a two-hander for women in which no one kills themselves.” What are some of the things that you find special about this play and the story that it tells? 

I find the relationship between these women fascinating. They are brilliant scientists yet carry emotional impediments to further their personal growth.  Its also exciting to view the history of the women’s movement as seen by one who helped start it and one who benefited from it and yet is searching for the her own place in gender parity.

This is an intimate play for two characters. In directing it, what was your creative and collaborative process with the actors like? 

I first worked privately with each actor – there are long, complex passages for both that help establish their characters and I wanted them to feel confident in them before they started working together. We then all met and combed through the script beat by beat, stopping after each one to discuss what they had just learned about each other. I then scheduled rehearsals so that they had a day off in between to either absorb what we had worked on or to get together privately to develop an intimate working relationship.

You directed Sally Nemeth’s play Lily for Theatre Unbound last March, and Nina Shengold’s Lives of the Great Waitresses around the same time the previous year. Is this an annual directing engagement for you now? How did you first start working with Theatre Unbound?

I was first brought in as a replacement Director for The Lives of the Great Waitresses after being recommended by two of the actors in the show. I love working on monologues with actors and the show was full of them. I enjoyed the experience and was thrilled when asked the next year if I wanted to direct another show. I was offered three scripts. I chose Lily, a lovely and touching story of two sisters living alone in a small country town in the early 20th century. I decided to make them Irish immigrants and was thrilled with our success.

Is it an annual gig? Well, I’ve heard that if you do something 3 times in a row, it’s “a tradition”!  I would love that.

What’s up next for you as a theatre professional? 

Next up: Assistant Director and musical staging for Million Dollar Quartet at the Old Log.

Basil Considine