(Left to Right) Cast Members Kelli Simpkins, Patrese D. McClain, and Mike Tepeli
Written by Bea Cordelia, Literary & Public Programs Intern
Well, it was an excellent turnout Thursday night at Backstage at the Biograph: Breathing Life into a New Play—a free sneak peek into the rehearsal process of the world premiere of Sarah Gubbins’ electrifying new play Cocked. The moment before, the actors joked with each other in the corner, bubbling with excitement, as various Victory Gardens staff members scrambled to pack more than fifty chairs into the rehearsal room. Cocked Dramaturg and VG Literary Manager Isaac Gomez introduced the event, and Cocked Director and VG Associate Artistic Producer Joanie Schultz set the stage.
Then: the performance.
Or better: the rehearsal. There were still a full seven days before Cocked went into previews, and another fifteen until opening night. Sarah had still been feverishly editing the script, churning out new pages in the middle of rehearsals, and would continue to do so after this particular evening, meaning even the following here-publicized excerpt of the play was not guaranteed immunity. Of course, theater practitioners practicing what they do—the realization of their art never quite existing in the same way more than once, the deep melancholy of taking bows after the final performance of any given production—the Cocked cast was no stranger to ephemera.
In Scene 2 of the play, corporate attorney Taylor and her ex-con brother Frank bicker like children over his unwelcome and unanticipated presence in her home, leaving Taylor’s crime beat reporter girlfriend Izzie to feebly mediate between the two. At once politically sharp and delightfully biting, the scene quickly had the audience in stitches.
Isaac started the panel conversation, asking how the actors would essentialize the play.
“It’s not a gun play,” Mike Tepelli, playing Frank, began, in response to the popular misconception of the show. “It raises a lot of questions about what it feels like to be safe in modern America, and what it feels like to be lonely.”
“It is a play about armor, in many ways, about protection…and about weapons being at the epicenter of our relationships,” Kelli Simpkins, playing Taylor, followed.
Sarah Gubbins had some larger theoretical thoughts about the piece:
“…I’m very interested in the idea of the materiality of thought, the materiality of belief, the ways in which our emotional truths, the tenets of how we ought to believe in the world—those are intangible, but I do believe those thoughts can gain materiality in the world… There is a physical ramification to thinking differently.”
Patrese D. McClain, playing Izzie, suggested, “When circumstances and people collide we ask, Are those our boundaries, or are those what we’ve been conditioned to think?”
Sarah began writing Cocked in 2012; the world was a different place then. The infamous Aurora movie theater and Newtown elementary school shootings both took place in 2012, but since then we’ve seen the explosion of activism around Black Lives Matter and confronting police brutality, harrowing video footage of too many executions, more rampant Islamophobia than ever, the continued genocide of trans women of color, and the list goes on. In a country that boasts its valuation of individuality, the United States has become a veritable battleground for those who are different.
“I believe in the power of thought to change society,” said Sarah. “I have no assumption of improving the city, or the theater district. I would love, and humbly so, if audience came to this, and really sat with this—sat with the performances, and sat with the beautiful thoughtful design, and sat with the integrity of the direction—and walked around with them.”
True to her words, it has been an enormously collaborative process. In fact, the majority of the rehearsal room has been in it for the long haul: Joanie and Kelli first became acquainted with the play at its inception, and Patrese in November for a workshop reading of it.
“You have a trust, and it really helps to check the panic and terror,” added Sarah on her relationship with the actors.
“As an actor, the trust is so important for you to expose yourself for you to get to your best work,” replied Patrese. “Sometimes things are ugly, and that’s okay.”
Kelli referred to bringing a world premiere to the stage as “a gift and an honor.”
And in the context of premiering a play so engaged in gender, race, and class politics—and at a theater acting “in direct response to what’s happening in the world,” as Isaac asserted, Victory Gardens can truly “change the world one play at a time.”
It is not easy work, but VG “tries to cultivate an audience who want to invest themselves in the risky work that we do,” Joanie stressed.
Based on the audience size Thursday night, the work is well underway.
Catch Cocked February 12th through March 13th.