Jasper : How did you first discover Collected Stories, and how did you come to direct this production? Milena Herring: I have wanted to direct this show since first reading the script in New York in 1997. Donald Margulies is a gifted playwright, one of my favorites, and I had directed another of his plays, Sight Unseen. I saw an early, first-run production of Collected Stories at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the Village, starring Uta Hagen and a young Debra Messing. That was an indelible production. I moved to Columbia in 2010, but I never forgot about Collected Stories. Then last spring, Dewey Scott-Wiley was feeding my cat while I was on vacation, and I left a copy of the script for her to peruse and perhaps consider for a Trustus production. It turned out that the Trustus season had already been chosen, but they were adding an Off-Off-Lady Series, and she and Larry Hembree thought it would be a good addition to that.
Jasper : The show will be presented in conjunction with the South Carolina Book Festival. What are some themes that the show touches on, that might be of particular interest to Festival attendees?
Herring: One of the central questions asked in the play -- Who owns your memories? -- may be of particular interest to attendees of the Book Festival. Literary appropriation, intellectual property rights, whether a person’s life events are suitable for another to use in their own creative process -- I think these are provocative issues that will be interesting to everyone. Collected Stories really explores very universal themes of lost love, betrayal, and aging. Lest that sound too heavy, let me add that the play explores these themes with great comic as well as dramatic writing.
The story is centered on a respected short-story writer and professor in her mid-fifties, Ruth Steiner, and Lisa Morrison, a naive and talented graduate student and aspiring writer who Ruth hires as her assistant. Taking place over six years, Collected Stories eavesdrops on Ruth and Lisa as their relationship evolves from mentor/protégée to loving friends to adversaries and, ultimately, disintegrates over some of the issues I’ve just mentioned. The playwright doesn’t come down on the side of either character, but lets the audiences decide for themselves who is wrong or right. I love that.
It takes very skillful actors to perform a full length 2-character play. The beauty of Collected Stories is the many layers of meaning and depth of the two characters as they transition and evolve over 6 years. I have a director’s dream in Elena Martinez-Vidal as Ruth and Elisabeth Gray (EG) Engle as Lisa. Elena and EG are inhabiting the roles fully, and finding nuances and subtleties in these two flawed but honest women. They are also a joy to work with, and we are having a wonderful time.
Jasper : The Off-Off-Lady series of plays has taken Trustus out into the community, into alternative venues. Tell us about the space you are using for this production.
Herring: We are fortunate to have the use of a huge, loft-like space on the 2nd floor of the Columbia Museum of Art. Most people have never seen this space before, and it is exciting to be part of building new audiences for Trustus in unusual venues. I believe people will leave our production at the Columbia Museum of Art not only debating about the issues explored in the play, but wowed by the unique theatricality of the setting.
Jasper : Columbia is fortunate to have you back home, but most of your career has been in New York. What were some highlights?
Herring: As soon as I finished my theatre studies at USC, I moved to Manhattan and lived there for almost 30 years. For the first six of those years, I pursued my dreams of acting. I studied with Sanford Meisner, and I made the usual, endless rounds of auditions. I got parts in Off-Off-Broadway showcases, Upper Eastside Shakespeare productions in church basements, small roles on All My Children and One Life to Live. I shot a TV commercial that went national, but nothing that could really sustain body and soul. So, with several friends I started a theatre company, and began to hone my skills as a director. For the next 8 years I served as the artistic director of Leap Productions, in a small 99-seat theatre. We did 5 shows a season and among the off-Broadway plays and musicals I directed there were Eleemosynary by Lee Blessing, Sight Unseen by Donald Margulies, A Cowboy's Dream by John Foley, Painting Churches by Tina Howe, Lips Together, Teeth Apart by Terrence McNally, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me by Frank McGuiness, Oil City Symphony by Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick, and Smoke on the Mountain by Mark Hardwick and Connie Ray, among many others. We all worked 70 hours a week doing everything from marketing the season to writing grants, and I loved it. I always say that if I’d had a trust fund, I might still be doing it. But eventually the building we rented was sold, and by that time I was exhausted. Frankly, I needed to make some money so I could afford to actually GO to the theatre. My last 15 years in Manhattan, I worked in advertising and as a professional fundraiser, and enjoyed having weekends off.
Jasper : Columbia theatre, and the arts scene, has certainly changed in the last few years. What are some of your impressions now that you are back home?
Herring: I was in my first play at Town Theatre when I was 8, and I didn’t stop acting in local productions until I moved to New York at 23. I cut my teeth under the tutelage of the beloved children’s theatre director, Mary Lou Kramer. Later, I was part of the first generation to grow up with Workshop Theatre where my mother, the late actress, director and drama teacher, Bette Herring, was one of the founders. It was a great privilege to have the opportunities afforded me by supportive parents who made sure I got to dance classes at Calvert Brodie, rehearsals all over town, and still made me do my homework-- even if it was done backstage! Columbia had two strong, healthy community theatres when I was young and it has an even larger and more diverse performing arts community today. When I was ready to leave New York, one of the reasons I chose to move to Columbia was because of the vibrant and exciting things happening in all of the arts here. Columbia is fortunate to have a first-class art museum, a wonderful symphony orchestra, several ballet and modern dance companies, a large variety of music outlets - I could go on and on. It was, and is, clear to me that Columbia understands how important the arts are to its financial health. By supporting the arts, a city is repaid exponentially by its ability to attract new businesses and industry, by growing its tourism dollars, and by a culturally enriched population.
Collected Stories, sponsored by Callison Tighe and Muddy Ford Press (publishers of Jasper - The Word on Columbia Arts) opens Wednesday, May 15 at the Columbia Museum of Art, and runs through Sunday, May 19. Contact the Trustus box office at 803-254-9732 for ticket information.
~ August Krickel