The players: Rebecca M Davis, local actor (Seattle Shakes’ Three Penny Opera, Open Circle’s Cabaret, Balagan’s Les Miserables), hostess (Whedonesque Burlesque, BurlXFiles with Jo Jo Stiletto Productions, Bechdel Test Burlesque, Behind the Blue Door with Midnight Menagerie, among many others) and, as the founder of Stay Up Late Productions, producer.
Along with Ms. Davis is Ed Hawkins, the director responsible for a healthy string of comedies at Annex (The Women, Mae West’s SEX, Stage Door, The Front Page) and at Re-bar (Deflowered In The Attic, Brent Or Brenda?, What’ve We Done To Baby Jane?) during a period that spans from the early 90s through to 2009, when he directed Charles Ludlum’s Love’s Tangled Web for Annex. Hawkins went on a production hiatus for four years, until he made an announcement on Facebook, expressing his desire to get back into the game. “Rebecca contacted me right away…I’ve known her since my first month in town. My very first show in Seattle was with her at the old Pilgrim Center For The Arts, it was called 20Something–that’s how long ago that was!”
Davis approached Hawkins with Girl You Know It’s True, which is currently running at Theater Off Jackson — who is also co-producing — until April 5th. The duo agreed to take on the West Coast premiere in February of 2013 and began the work of getting their pre-production ducks in a row. They teamed up with the folks at Shunpike, who helped them achieve everything they needed to make the project a reality, from providing their non-profit status as an umbrella, to helping to run the production’s crowd-funding campaign.
The Star sat down with Davis and Hawkins during the penultimate week of rehearsals and discussed what it was about the project that was alluring to them, what they were hoping to achieve with this production, and what it means to own your creative voice.
Seattle Star: So, how did you run across Girl You Know It’s True again?
Rebecca M Davis: My friend of 20+ years, John Zinn, did the workshop and then he did the full run of the show in Chicago in 2012. I flew out to Chicago to see it/him, the week before my tech for Cabaret [with The Schoolyard at Re-bar]. I loved it, and wrote a mash note to the writer, Bixby Elliot.
Star: What was it that you loved about the show?
Davis: I love pop culture and a good ol’ fashion scandal. Plus, this show has some great commentary on the nature of celebrity and what it means to have an ‘authentic’ creative voice.
Ed Hawkins: Totally on same page here, but I would add that this play is like comfort food for me.
Davis: Also, right as I saw this show a few years back, the Mike Daisey scandal broke. And I thought, “Exactly. Some people have such a need to be ‘seen’ that they will sacrifice the truth — or rather, re-imagine the truth to make a better story sell more papers get more clicks on their websites–”
Star: Put more butts in seats.
Star: Or, “more exposure for the story,” if you give Daisey the benefit of the doubt.
Davis: There’s this whole idea that Prince espouses, that artists should perform live…that used to be assumed by audiences — Mili Vanilli definitively changed all that, for me at least.
Star: That it used to be assumed that artists would perform live?
Davis: Yeah. Also the idea that, in order for people to listen to you, you needed to be someone else. The concept is definitely not new, something else that is shown in the play.
Star: Is this like The Archies?
Davis: Milli Vanilli were absolutely like the Archies!
Star: Except, instead of animated characters–
Davis: Studio Musicians created the sound, and the manager put the pretty face on it. Thing is, Milli Vanilli make total sense, if you look and listen to the R&B New Jack Swing artists who were coming up at the time…Keith Sweat, Terrance Trent D’Arby, Teddy Riley, that was the sound and the look. It was House plus New Jack. If music wasn’t at the height of video’s influence, the original musicians on the tracks could’ve released the records themselves — you know, they had faces for radio, and all that–
But, the play isn’t just about “The Career of Milli Vanilli!” It’s also about a gay white male playwright, whose work no one is interested in, until he pretends to be ethnic.
Star: Shades of Tootsie.
Davis: Yes, except the playwright doesn’t become the character he creates. He hires an actress instead, so it’s a little Frankenstein too. (Laughs)
I also loved this play because there’s a loving gay couple in it, who don’t die or get beaten to death.
Star: It sounds like there are lots of personal reflections within the show…Ed, what attracted you to the script?
Hawkins: Well, first it’s about a middle-aged urban white gay male couple. One is a playwright who should be produced more than he is. The other is supportive but also starting to doubt whether this wagon he’s hitched to is all that he thought it would be.
Make of that what you will.
Next, it explores figures from pop culture in a straight-forward kitchen sink theatre style. Much like Jeffrey Jones’ Dirty Little Secrets, which explored the Sinatra family, Pamela & Tommy Lee, Michael Jackson/Lisa Marie/Nurse Debbie, etc. I have always been a pop culture nut and think it’s interesting to treat them theatrically.
It’s also smart as hell and funny. The humor reminds me very much of my dear friend and directing mentor Andrea Allen. Actually, her passing away was one of the things that motivated me to get back into the theater production game.
Finally, it is a multi-track show with tracks moving in different directions in terms of time structure. My husband employed a similar structure for his 2002 Empty Space show Vera Wilde. I knew from that how compelling it could be.
Star: Sounds like it could get pretty meta.
Hawkins: The whole show is incredibly meta. To the point that there’s a whole other element we’re not even talking about…I won’t say anything more directly about all of that, but for example, the playwright character in the play is named “Bixby”. The man who wrote the play is Bixby Elliot.
Hawkins: It’s all in the script. The whole meta moment is hard wired into script. I actually had to read it a few times to get it all.
Star: Let’s talk a little bit about the ensemble.
Davis: We’ve got Andrew Tasakos in pants!! If you follow the Brown Derby series, you know how big this is. He’s spent lots of time being femme fatales or Mary Poppins or Baby in Dirty Dancing. We also have Daniel Christensen, a favorite of Annex’s, who is doing a couple of fantastic characters, along with Barbi Beckett who appeared in Ed’s play Dirty Little Secrets at Annex four years ago.
Hawkins: I tried to assemble a group of folks who represent my entire Seattle theatre timeline. Rebecca I’ve known since my very first show in Seattle; Josh List was in several shows with me at Annex and I’ve directed him many times; Barbi was Pam Anderson Lee in Dirty Little Secrets; Ian Bell co-produced Baby Jane and we’ve always wanted to work together creatively.
Daniel is a “new Annex” person who I really really dig. Scott Shoemaker is a friend I don’t see often but am always happy to see, and who I knew would be delight to work with. Andrew Tasakos stage managed Alice B. Theater’s seminal cross-gender Grease circa 1992. Corey Spruill is new from Chicago, he’s been in town less than a year. I even have a couple of recent Cornish grads Andrew Creech and Mike Blaylock.
Star: I haven’t thought about that production of Grease in some time.
Hawkins: Sam French tried to shut it down!
Star: Because of the casting?
Hawkins: Yup. Because of that show, anyone who does Grease anywhere in the world now has to sign documents swearing they won’t do cross gender casting.
Star: So, for you guys, this was more about creating an ensemble than it was a personal project?
Davis: For me, it was about seeing a show that I fell the hell in love with, and wanting to see it done again. The character I play gets to say “I’ve done plays in parking lots, bars, strip clubs, people’s living rooms”…She’s weary of the fringe scene and the way it sometimes treats performers of color, and she’s looking for a meaty challenge. I totally connected with that.
I also wanted to put into practice something I learned from the local Burlesque scene. Which, specifically, is this stance that “yes, we practice our art because we love it, but we’re also getting paid.” The burlesque model was one I wanted to follow for producing: we hired the best talent, and we’re paying them for their art.
Hawkins: I don’t want to suggest that our production model is a reaction to any particular model. We are fringe plus. We set our own budgets. And we do have one Equity contract in the cast.
Davis: And we’re ashamed of it.
Hawkins: I’m not ashamed of anything.
Davis: Nope! Actually, we’re not.
Star: So, you had the opportunity to do something your way and you went for it.