Interview With Writer and Director Tanner Curl of Savage Umbrella’s Rapture

1926289_10152258209276427_1246811349_o (2)Savage Umbrella is entering the closing weekend of their latest production, Rapture playing at Nimbus Theatre through Saturday. Tanner Curl both wrote and directs this show where in an instant, a tenth of the world’s population quietly vanishes. Two of those left behind are Evelyn, a successful and reclusive painter, and her granddaughter Lucy, a free-spirited performance art student. In the aftermath, they struggle to make sense of what this means for their careers and why they weren’t taken. Evelyn is visited by the specter of a former lover, Thomas Kinkade. This dark comedy explores how artists approach their work and our desire to define and create art.

Performances tonight and Saturday are at 7:30 p.m. Tickets and more info can be found here.

As the writer for this show, what are you hoping the audience takes away from this production?

I’ve never particularly enjoyed watching theatre that has a clear message for the audience to “get.” I find it kinda boring and insulting to how wonderfully complex and strange and nuanced life is. James Baldwin has a great quote that goes, “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” I’ve always loved this idea and use it as a maxim in my writing.

I wrote Rapture to explore ideas around what it means to be an artist, and I hope watching it helps the audience do the same. The script development started with this concept of an artist rapture, but the characters are what really bring the play to life (and our cast is amazingly talented). I hope the play and the characters stick with the audience long after they leave the theatre. Ideas, thinking, conversations(!)—I want all of these things to happen for the audience.

When writing this show, what gave you the inspiration to write a show of this subject matter?

When I first had the idea to write a play around a rapture of artists, I was in the depths of my quarterlife crisis. I had the desire to be a writer, but had a hard time sitting down and putting pen to paper. I spent most of my time feeling disappointed and depressed and kept wondering if maybe I just wasn’t supposed to be a writer.

When I first started working on the script in earnest with Savage Umbrella and a team of writers in 2012, I learned, in fact, this spiral of self-loathing and despair is actually pretty common, if not universal. So there’s something about art that excites a lot of people, but making it can be a really messy, confusing process. I love exploring things that are messy and confusing.

As the director, when deciding on staging, actors, etc what approach do you take to make sure the audience gets the most out of the show?

I think about what feels most compelling and true for the characters. In Rapture, one of the characters is Lucy, a free-spirited performance art student who loses her best friend and performance partner in the rapture. Lucy could wear plain jeans and a t-shirt, but that’s not particularly interesting, at least to me. The costume designer Christina Forga worked from this concept that Lucy loves to find bizarre clothes at second-hand stores, and even if something doesn’t fit very well or is the most flattering, Lucy buys it because it’s weird and off-kilter. Along the same lines, Adelin Phelps, the incredible actor playing Lucy, has given the character this really interesting physicality, where she has a strong sense of her body and moves in weird ways and is always touching things. It feels simultaneously real and weird and is very compelling to watch.

My approach is that if we make interesting choices that feel true to the characters and the world they inhabit, the audience will be engaged. I will say, though, that on opening night, I was sitting in the audience and had this moment of panic, like “What if we were just totally off base with everything, and everyone thinks it’s really boring?!?!” Luckily, that turned out to be just another example of how sometimes my brain is an unpleasant place.

How did you become active in theatre?

When I was in high school, the drama department needed guys and I needed friends, so it was a perfect match. I was able to land some plum roles, because I was really good at projecting my voice and mugging on laugh lines. When I got to college, I was stunned to learn that those actually aren’t the cornerstones of great acting. (A note I received in my first college production was, “Tanner, you are killing every scene you’re in.” That’s not a paraphrase. That’s a direct quote.)

At the same time, I started realizing that I didn’t particularly enjoy performing. I liked the rehearsal process and what it took to get a production to opening night a lot, but I was insanely anxious being on-stage. I drifted away from theatre a bit and focused on writing fiction.

My first few years out of college, I pursued careers in teaching and politics and urban planning and fiction writing, but I generally felt miserable and listless. My wife is an actor, and she would work on productions and get really close to the people she worked with, and I was really jealous. Theatre rehearsals are this bizarrely intense and emotional experiences, and I missed having them.

So when Savage Umbrella put out a call for writers to help create a new work, I decided to give it a shot. And it was a lot of fun writing and thinking about characters and how people talk (and subtext—playwrights are obsessed with subtext) and working with this interesting group of theatre people who soon became close friends.

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