Interview: ANN HEARN TOBOLOWSKY (Director of MERCURY at Road Theatre Company)

Post image for Interview: ANN HEARN TOBOLOWSKY (Director of MERCURY at Road Theatre Company)

by Shari Barrett on February 7, 2024

in Interviews,Theater-Los Angeles


I have been following the work of extraordinary director Ann Hearn Tobolowsky at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills for quite some time, including The Half Light, Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Silent Sky, Good People, As Good As Gold, Bus Stop, Holy DaysDriving Miss Daisy, and Another Part of the Forest. But Ann’s work around Los Angeles has included plays at The Road Company and Skylight Theatre, with each production earning critical and audience praise.

Ann’s latest at the Road is the West Coast Premiere of Mercury written by Steve Yockey, a smash hit now extended to March 2. [Here is Stage and Cinema‘s review.] I spoke with Ann about her involvement at several theater companies, Mercury’s genesis to the West Coast, and her role in bringing its successful run to the Road.

Thanks, Ann, for taking the time to speak with me. Let’s start with your history with the Road Theatre Company.

I joined The Road Theatre Company in 2016, at the encouragement of Carlyle King and Andre Barron, who I knew originally through Theatre 40. We all acted together in The Secret Rapture in 1995. Both were then very enthusiastic about the Road, which focuses exclusively on producing new plays, or at least plays new to Los Angeles, as part of their mission. Since Theatre 40 often does classics, it seemed like a great balance for me, since I love all kinds of theatre. And I saw two fantastic productions then at the Road, The Other Place by Sharr White and The English Bride by Lucile Lichtblau. And I was smitten.

Kaitlin Huwe, Meeghan Holoway, Erica Mathlin, Stephanie Erb
and Chet Grissom in Through the Eye of a Needle (Brian M. Cole)

The first show I directed at The Road was in 2018, Through the Eye of a Needle by Jami Brandli. That play was enthusiastically received plus getting a lot of love from audiences, and The Road and I both seemed to feel we were a good fit. Besides lots of readings (in The Word Reading Series, Under Construction New Play Series, and annual Summer Playwrights Festival) I was invited to direct Scintilla by Alessandro Camon. That show was delayed due to the Covid Pandemic. In the meantime, we were scrambling to keep making theatre regardless. That led to Reykjavík by Steve Yockey which we mounted (without an audience) in March of 2021 and filmed. Finally in Spring of 2023 we were able to present Scintilla [see Stage and Cinema‘s review] and now Mercury.

Along with Theatre 40 and the Road, you also have worked at Skylight doing play readings of works by Shem Bitterman and Wendy Kout, and two short plays by Anna Mathias inspired by the Beatles song Eleanor Rigby (Streamyard). How would you compare or contrast how similar or different each company is when working there?

I have a great regard for  the three theatre companies, all of which very helpful to writers, and appreciative of actors. The Skylight Theatre has been a special place in the L.A. arts scene for many years. I only started directing there recently. I think Shem Bitterman introduced me. I had done a reading of one of his plays at The Road. Gary Grossman of the Skylight wanted me to work with Wendy Kout on her play Welcome to My Town (which I loved). We also did a workshop of Jami Brandli’s Visiting Hours there.

The Skylight is generous and supportive of artists. Their attitude and philosophy toward new plays make it a very fun place to work. They were wildly creative in coming up with a presentation system during the pandemic via Streamyard. I absolutely loved Anna Mathias’s short plays and her fabulous actor connections: such as Rob Nagle, Steve Hofvendahl, Lily Knight and Kavi Ladnier. Anna is a very talented actor AND writer.

Congratulations on the success of Mercury. Since this is the play’s West Coast premiere, where has it been done before?

Mercury had a co-world premiere at the Salt Lake Acting Company and the Stray Cat Theatre in Phoenix, AZ in 2017, and then was produced at the Know Theatre in Cincinnati in 2019. (Next production after us will be in Atlanta, GA at Actor’s Express.)

Andrea Flowers and Meeghan Holaway in Mercury (Lizzy Kimball)

Were you the one that suggested it to the Road Company? Or if not, how did the play get there?

Well, I am a huge fan of Steve Yockey — I already mentioned Reykjavík — and then I believe Mercury was submitted at the request of [Road’s Founder and Co-Artistic Director] Taylor Gilbert for our Summer Playwright’s festival in 2022. We received Mercury past the cutoff deadline for the festival but Taylor shared it with me, and it seems most of the Artistic Board (including me of course) were excited to produce it. And then we did.

Justin Lawrence Barnes and Christina Carlisi in Mercury (Lizzy Kimball)

How do you describe the plot and characters who inhabit Mercury?

I rather like the description on the playwright’s New Play Exchange page, and since I’m not a writer, I’ll offer that: “Three stories cross outside of Portland, OR in a pitch-black comedy with an illicit affair, a couple hanging on by a thread, bears at the window, the worst curiosity shop on the west coast, and an adorable missing dog named Mr. Bundles. No one’s happy, people stop being nice, and blood spills. This mashup of myth, missing empathy, and ‘good neighbors’ explores what happens when the mercury rises.”

There are two neighbors who have an affair that does not end well. In a separate story, a downstairs neighbor is unhappy with one half of the gay couple that lives in the upstairs apartment. And a third couple is (how can I say this?), the physical manifestation of Vengeance and his girlfriend / business “partner.” The stories connect through that business.

Billy Baker and Gloria Ines in Mercury (Lizzy Kimball)

I take it as the mercury rises, so does temperature between the characters. But how do bears at the window fit into the story? Or would prefer to keep that detail a secret?

I think some of the fun of the play is how bears figure in, so can we keep that a surprise?

Of course. What is it about the play that speaks so successfully to audiences?

The play is a modern twist on a revenge play. Our main characters discover that in a world that seems without consequences — there are some. Big ones. There is something wicked and delightfully satisfying about that, plus surprises. Steve is expert in giving us comedy that can terrify at the same time. Beautiful performances, outrageous theatrics, and a bloody mess. Horrifying and fun, as incongruous as that sounds.

Tell me about Reykjavík and how it differs or is similar to Mercury.

Reykjavík was my introduction to Steve Yockey’s work. I read that play in 2017 or 2018, I believe it was submitted for the Summer Playwrights Festival that year. It disturbed me. Two years later, I said to Taylor at the Road, “I read this play I can’t get it out of my head for 2 years now, I think there might be something wrong with me that I love it so much. It’s very weird.” Taylor, thankfully, also liked it, and it ended up being something we could produce during the pandemic.

Scene from Reykjavík (Lizzy Kimball)

Like Mercury, it has several stories that intertwine, but in Reykjavík, six actors play at least three characters each. Eight short playlets make up Reykjavík, with characters strangely intersecting and informing each other. Very easy to rehearse in a pandemic. We met two or three actors at time to rehearse each scene. We self-quarantined, rehearsed outside when possible, masked, and all the precautions that felt prudent before lockdowns lifted. We had a few rehearsals on a completed set with technical elements (no audience of course). I convinced two friends of mine, genius filmmakers Robert Brinkmann and Andrew Putschoegl to help and to ask their friends for favors to film it. We had four cameras. One day for a camera rehearsal. One day filming the play twice through. Andy edited it and then we had an absolutely beautiful hybrid version of film/theatre. That became part of our virtual season that year [and was selected for a number of Film Festivals — see Stage and Cinema‘s review].

Reykjavík, winner of Best Stage Play at Swedish International Film Festival

Also similar to MercuryReykjavík has mythic and folklore elements, things that I love — a blending of the very personal story with big themes that draw on myths, magical elements, forces of nature, despair and hope. And make me laugh. And cry. And experience awe.

Scene from Reykjavík (Lizzy Kimball)

I suspect Steve did not have high expectations when we asked if we could film his play because theaters didn’t have audiences back in the seats yet. He consented. But I think when he saw what we had produced, he was quite surprised. It was not at all your typical filmed theatre. Especially not on our kind of budget and size of theatrical operation. We won his trust, I think. I know he has said he loved our production.

Scene from Reykjavík (Lizzy Kimball)

Have you worked with any of the actors in Mercury before?

Oh yes, Danny Lee Gomez [pictured above, right] was amazing in Reykjavík, and Meeghan Holaway was in my first show at the Road Theater [Through the Eye of the Needle] and also my assistant director on Reykjavík. Andrea Flowers, Justin Lawrence Barnes, Billy Baker, Christina Carlisi and Gloria Ines are all relatively new Road members and this was the first time I was lucky enough to work with them. (Among the alternate cast members Hayden Bishop and Brittany Visser were also new to me. Jacqueline Misaye was also in Reykjavík and I’ve done readings with Jordan Moore, Ray Paolantonio, and Moe Irvin. Nancy Fassett was also in the alternate cast of The Spanish Prayer Book, where I worked with the alternates as assistant director).

Are they members of The Road Company or were open auditions held?

All Road Company members.

Ann Hearn Tobolowsky (second from left) with playwright Steve Yockey (kneeling)
and cast of Mercury on Opening Night (Lizzy Kimball)

You utilize a circular rotating platform on stage [designed by Katrina Coulourides]. How is directing in that format more challenging than on a proscenium stage?

The playing space is smaller, like a piece of pie, so there is obviously that. The playwright ideally envisioned most of the play being limited to the world of the turning platform, with one scene being the exception, so that was also challenging to keep it on the wheel and not spill over to the adjoining space. If a proscenium provides a frame to pictures, a revolving stage is a dynamic sculpture that lets us see parts of what was, and what is to come (at least in this playwright’s vision where there are no walls hiding parts of the set not in play). We see things go around that are moving away from and moving into the current scene. Actors moving into position, theatrically departing what they just experienced. It’s a surreal point of view where we are both literal and abstract. This creatively more than makes up for a lack of space. In one scene where space was tight, I said, okay it’s tight, people deal with tight spaces, negotiate it! And it became part of the fun.

Since we’re talking about staging, tell me about working with your design team. Have you worked with any of them before?

Working with Katrina for the first time was wonderful. We had many early-in-the-design meetings where she presented drawings and her visions. In every case I loved what she proposed. Her detail is exquisite. Painting and set dressing so exact. She painted little stars for spike marks (where to place the furniture) and I am now spoiled forever that all spike marks can’t be like this. Invisible, integral, elevated.

Lighting Designer Derrick McDaniel and I have collaborated a few times, both at Theatre 40 and The Road, and I never ever worry if Derrick is doing it. I just say do what you want, and I’ll ask questions later and you can convince me why I’m wrong!

Dave B. Marling for sound is persistent and always delivers. He did so much with this show, the sounds that go with the stage revolving, for example, make it move even better than it does. Diligent and never giving up ’til it’s just right. I adore him. We worked together on my first show at the Road, and I trust his instincts, but he has always been able to tweak for me.

Ben Rock worked with us on Scintilla for the first time with projections, which was amazing. But this show has made me a major Ben fan, his taste aligns with mine, so many choices, options, surprises, and so easy to work with.

[Costume Designer] Jenna Bergstraesser worked with me on Scintilla, another tireless creative who just keeps coming up with the ideas until it’s perfect. Actors are happy. Director is happy.

And then Maurie Gonzalez is our resident Stage Manager who knows how everything works, makes it work, goes above and beyond, this time with the extra as functioning as a specialist like blood mixer. Terrifyingly wonderful!

What’s up next on your directing schedule?

I’m working on developing a play with Jami Brandli and actor/writer Nina Sallinen that re-envisions Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as performed by senior citizens that will be part of a mini festival in Santa Barbara March 2 at Westmont College. This presentation features all Road Members who are among a group of actors who have been workshopping and developing the play in the last two years.

Here’s a summary of The Romeo and Juliet Senior Citizens Project—A Comedy: Lucas, a recent Yale MFA graduate, is hired to direct an abridged production of Romeo and Juliet for a local senior citizens retirement facility. Hilarious complications arise among the elder actors during rehearsals as an unexpected romance re-blossoms between Rich and Rose, the two star-crossed lovers/residents at the facility. As this comedy about second chances unfolds, we’ll watch both Lucas and his cast of headstrong seniors wrestle with Shakespeare and real-life drama. But will they be able to come together as a team and actually pull off opening night? The odds are against them, but the play must go on…no matter what.

Then a welcome break for me with some directing possibilities for the fall, but nothing firm set. I’m looking forward to a little break — being able to see shows, read plays, dream stuff up and sleep!

Anything else you would like to add about yourself or Mercury?

I am excited for friends and Los Angeles audiences to see the wild ride of Mercury and to be introduced to our Road Theatre membership company. Every actor there is a member who contributes to make theatre possible, everyone has a job besides acting that lets the company function and produce. There is tremendous support for one another, whether reading plays for the Playwright Festival, working box office, front of house, helping with sets, securing props, assisting as producers. So much behind the scenes work going on, or something like Mercury would be impossible to create. And I am thrilled that Steve’s unique theatrical voice is part of Los Angeles theatre. It is absolutely a creatively rich place to be.

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The Road Theatre Company
NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd. in North Hollywood
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2; Thurs at 8 (Feb 8 & 15)
ends on February 18, 2024 EXTENDED to March 2, 2024
for tickets, call 818.761.8838 or visit Road Theatre

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