In the Aftermath of “Between Us and Grace”
Post-Performance Talkback with playwright Clare Drobot and musician Nathan Zoob
Interview conducted by David Bernabo
On October 26, Clare Drobot and Nathan Zoob’s Between Us and Grace marked the start of the fifth season of the New Hazlett Theater’s CSA season. (Read up on the program here.) The play finds two songwriters, 33-year old Jacky and 17-year old Stella struggling to find themselves. Jacky, an immature and selfish adult who is recently estranged from his wife and child, returns to performing after a hiatus. Stella is trying to find her voice as a songwriter while navigating an oppressively religious home life.
To provide some context for the interview below, the pair do engage in sexual activity and while there is a form of consent, Jacky has lied about the existence of his marriage and his intentions. Parallel to this plot, Jacky is trying to reinstate a friendship with a long term friend, Annie (wonderfully played by Siovhan Christensen), by repeatedly showing up drunk at her house. On the last of these encounters, Annie, frustrated with Jacky’s behavior and selfishness pushes Jacky into a kiddie pool. Elsewhere, Stella reveals her encounter with Jacky to friend (and also admirer) Preston, who instead of supporting his friend, reacts negatively and childishly. The play (and the wonderful execution of the actors) presents these relationships in a manner that provides layers and layers of complexity, so please excuse the slightly simplified plot outline.
This workshop, “script-in-hand” version of the play was expertly directed by Anya Martin and featured an excellent cast of Ethan Saks (“Jacky”), Chantelle Guido (“Stella”), Siovhan Christensen (“Annie”), and Kevin William Paul (“Preston”). Martin also handled the spare, but well-thought out set design. Zachary Beattie-Brown handled sound design while Madeleine Steineck designed the lighting.
For future CSA performances, choreographer Maree ReMalia and I will be joined by a third guest to provide a synthesized group review of the performances. (More on this next time!) Since Between Us and Grace is still in the workshop phase, we opted for a post-show interview with the play’s creators. Read our post-performance interview with playwright Clare Drobot and musician Nathan Zoob below!
David Bernabo: So, 75% of the characters play an instrument, but there is very little noodling. Would you consider adding more noodling in subsequent iterations of the play?
Nathan Zoob: There was a moment of noodling.
Clare Drobot: Right, doesn’t Jacky kind of noodle?
NZ: You know when you have a 90 minute play, there just isn’t room for noodling.
CD: But I think some of the transition music, which Nathan was playing, was …
NZ: the noodling?
DB: Things like the Jars of Clay joke…was that an immediate thought? Like, once you developed the plot and knew there was a religious element, did you think that, yes, a Jars of Clay joke was necessary?
CD: I was pulling really hard for that joke. We had a brilliant moment in rehearsal, because [the character of] Jacky— not only is he into Christian Rock, but he’s into throwback Christian Rock. Our actor Kevin who played Preston had a very specific intonation of how he said “Jars of Clay.” [Director] Anya [Martin] was angling for me to cut that joke, but I was saying, “it’s going to work. Someone’s going to laugh.” And then Kevin was like, “wait, they’re a band? I thought he was into pottery.”
DB: The person seated behind me loved that Jars of Clay joke and was laughing for at least five or six seconds.
CD: The reaction was very spotty. Those are the things that you look for when you’re hearing a play out loud with an audience for the first time. You don’t know what’s going to land, and it’s satisfying when three people are like, “I got that joke!”
But it’s not a laugh-a-minute script. I mean, I hoped for the laughter in the baptism scene, but I think I was panicking [about that scene].
NZ: I’d like to dive into that scene, because it was a laugh of release. In the original conception of that scene, that was more of a sacred moment, but I think this version meant more to the audience.
CD: There’s something ridiculous about trying to baptize someone in a kiddie pool, but the scene wasn’t written for laughs. You have to play the moment seriously. I think Jacky is honestly asking [Annie, played by Siovhan Christensen] to baptize him, and she’s like, “fuck you.” Initially, she wasn’t as angry in that scene, but the ending scene changed a lot throughout rehearsals while we figured out the tone that allowed her to shove him into the pool.
DB: Do you think you would push further in that direction?
CD: There are lines that you don’t get to change, because at a certain point in time, it’s not fair to the actors to keep changing stuff on them, but there’s a line where Annie says, “It’s not my place,” right before the [baptismal push] and that shouldn’t be the line. The line should be, “you’re fucking ridiculous” or something like that. So, there are some subtle things that I’d like to delve a little deeper into her turn of “I’m going to give you this thing you want, but more as a way of proving a point rather than actually offering you any kind of absolution for the shitty things that you’ve done.”
DB: Yeah, so our consensus was that the play was an insanely tight production, everyone hit each mark, extremely well acted, and the songs worked very well. Even though the actors were holding scripts, we barely noticed them about 15 minutes into the performance. But the thing that hung up a lot of folks was the Jacky character. The thing we hit upon was Jacky is not a likable character. He’s emotional abusive. He has sex with a minor…
CD: Yeah, he’s not written to be sympathetic.
DB: And he’s definitely not. The thing that made us unsure about the intention of the play was that idea that all of the characters draw their agency or lack of agency from the Jacky character. He sets in motion all of the different plot lines, which seems unfair given the nature of his character. So, I’m wondering how you doled out agency to each of the characters.
CD: It’s interesting. That’s still something where we are exploring. Ultimately, this is Stella’s play, because I believe you can have someone who’s catalytic in your life that isn’t exactly positive but shapes you in a way. But there are ways where that event can be hinged in a way that gives the characters more agency.
Also, for Jacky, even though he is dis-likable, there’s a question of what he wants. If we include from the get-go the idea that he is seeking forgiveness or some sort of redemption, then we can shift the focus of that story.
Both Annie and Preston were foils to begin with, but grew into having their own full arcs.
NZ: Something feels correct about a male character that fucks up three lives at once, but there’s something about the mode of a play where the more we see him, the more we are asked to identify with him.
CD: Especially because Jacky is featured more heavily in the last half of the play.
NZ: Just the fact that mathematically Jacky has the most time on stage puts the audience in his shoes more than any other character. So, that is something that we can work on.
CD: One of the things we talked about and I’m curious about is if there is any sort of redemption for this character that is trying to turn his life around. Do you judge Jacky? And do you judge him as unworthy of any type of redemption? If so, that would create a problematic narrative. This character has done bad things, so he is un-redeemable. He’s the sum of his parts and is repeating a cycle — having a shitty childhood and re-enacting that upon someone else, which is not a positive choice or situation, but is something that happens on a fairly regular basis.
It’s funny. I’m not a super religious person, but I’m interested in that idea of the sins of the father. What does that mean? It is something that all four of the characters feel — tradition and hereditary habits.
DB: It’s interesting, because you go into a performance knowing that this is a piece of art. But if you saw this scenario in real life, you would want that person to pay.
NZ: In the abstract you would want someone to pay, but if you knew and liked Jacky, you might be less inclined to see him suffer. And that’s something we all grapple with.
CD: Like what does payment mean? And what is Stella left with? I think it’s ultimately an experience that wasn’t positive, but it shaped her and made her stronger in the long run. Not that that experience is something that someone should have to go through. But it is something that people do go through.
NZ: We had a lot of conversations about “grace” — grace of the victim and grace of the victimizer. Can you outgrow your trauma?
DB: The idea about reality vs. the play world — the themes in the play reflect real scenarios that happen repetitively across location and time. So, I’m wondering if it is the role of “new theater” to break that mold. Is there a responsibility to tell a story that breaks those traditional story lines?
CD: That’s interesting. Yes, there are tropes in this — small town, relationship to religion, relationship to sexuality. Those are things that we have seen before, but I hope it is undermined in the way in which the tropes are questioned. Hopefully, Jacky doesn’t come across as the hero. You may end up following him for a large chunk of the story, but he shouldn’t come off as that haunted, musician trope — like the Ethan Hawke character in Reality Bites. Like every girl had a crush on him in the 90s, but you realize that he’s totally a bad dude.
I hope for Stella there’s some acknowledgement in her confusion that helps to break free of it, because the play is, in part, about her finding her voice. That happens through something complicated and damaging, but it’s a situation that so many young women are put in. You have society telling you that you need to be chaste, but you have another desire with no idea of the consequences of that desire.
But that’s something that we discussed a lot. How does society play out in this little microcosm of life?
NZ: Yeah, that was the central conversation.
CD: And as we continue exploring and developing the play, that’s something that we’ll figure out. What’s the major dramatic question in this play? It’s not does boy get girl, does girl get boy.
NZ: No, it’s not, is it.
CD: Yeah, so on that basic level, it’s, “can Stella leave?” And the answer is yes.
NZ: You know, one thing for me as a songwriter — I was trying to write Stella’s songs as smart and thoughtful, but I may have overshot [age] 17. I think they worked as Stella’s songs, but maybe not as Stella “at age 17” songs.
DB: I think they worked. There was a distinction between Stella and Jacky’s songs. Stella’s songs had more complex chord patterns, while Jacky’s songs were simpler. But my friend when she was 17 had a great set of complex songs, chord-wise and lyrically, so I think the songs were accurate for someone of that age. It certainly wasn’t unbelievable.
NZ: That was one of the things that I trying to do. Stella has a better ear for tone and melody. Jacky was wordier and liked “me” statements, “I” statements.
CD: This is one of the gifts of theater — having actors who are musicians that can inhabit the songs in a very quick process. Each actor inhabits the songs in a different way within their talent and personality and skill set.
NZ: Part of why I was less concerned about differentiating the songwriting was that the actors were going to make them their own. Chantelle translating those [guitar] songs to piano and then singing them in her style was just enough to differentiate the songs from Jacky’s songs.
DB: So, what are the next steps for the play?
CD: Revisions! I want to put in the changes, create a cleaned-up, collated document. Then, we can sit and say, “what do we want to change,” and make another draft. Then share it with other organizations to see if anyone is interested in giving us a full production. This process was really like 10 days of rehearsal, which is a huge luxury in the new play world. Normally, you get a one-day reading, and then months will go by before you get to hear the play again. So, the New Hazlett CSA process was so helpful. But the play lives in a different way when you rehearse it and stop making line changes so that the characters can deepen their character choices.
On Anya’s part, this was total speed blocking. She did an amazing job on how the play moves and finding the nuance of making the flow feel natural.
DB: We thought the set design was really effective. It was simple, but efficiently placed characters in different environments.
CD: That’s what I love about theater. It’s collaborative. You have these ideas that you put on paper. When you add other living bodies, you learn so much from smart actors that will question you on why I’m saying this now.
NZ: The actors really pushed back. They were not shy about saying, “I don’t believe this moment,” or “I don’t understand this moment.”
CD: Yeah, and that’s what smart actors do. And hopefully, we created an environment that allowed them to feel comfortable doing that.
For information and tickets to the upcoming New Hazlett Theater CSA performance, click here.