Fall Heats Up with ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’

 

More than 60 years after its debut, ‘Cat’ may be Tennessee Williams’ most contemporary play.

In a candid Q&A, Joe Sykes, who plays Brick in the new GET production, talks about Brick’s tangled sexuality, Tennessee Williams, and the delights of dysfunctional families.

Once again, the Pollitt family is gathering for Big Daddy’s birthday, bringing their secrets, naked betrayals… and mendacity. Georgia Ensemble Theatre is staging the Pulitzer prize-winning drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  by Tennessee Williams, Sept 12—29.

Joe Sykes is Brick, Big Daddy’s favorite son. A former football star, once lithe, now alcoholic, he’s hobbled by deep secrets and a drunken midnight dash over hurdles at the local high school.

Q: The play was Tennessee Williams’ favorite and his dark humor moves through melodrama, comedy and tragedy. There’s duplicity, manipulation, greed, and marital dysfunction. Which of these is your personal favorite?

Joe:  I like marital dysfunction the most. The top of the show is Brick passively hating Maggie and Maggie aggressively longing after Brick. And while that seems tragic, it becomes funny. Tennessee Williams’ language offers crushing wit within the element of love lost.

I’ve really enjoyed John Maxwell who is playing Big Daddy.  He’s from Jackson, Mississippi and he’s done a one-man show based on William Faulkner, but he was born to play Big Daddy. When Big Mama starts crying in the corner, Big Daddy says, “What’s going on with What’s-Her-Name over there?” And I love that type of just brutal treatment of people. Of course in this script, in the 1950s, that brutality is usually directed from men towards women.  But towards anybody, when handled deftly by writer and actor, I find it to be hysterical. I think those types of barbs are so revealing. So, yeah, marital discord is my favorite of all the friction in the show.

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Joe Sykes and John Maxwell as Big Daddy. Photo by Dan Carmody

Q: For decades the big questions about Brick have been: “Is he gay or isn’t he? Is he homophobic? Is his marriage to Maggie a sham?” How do you view these questions?

Joe: It’s easier to talk about Brick’s sexuality in 2019 because, as a society, we have explored the gender spectrum so much.  In the 1950s, when this play was first produced, even in the 1970s (when Williams gave it a major revision), the idea of bisexualism was not something that everybody thought of as a possibility. And while homophobia is still rampant in our culture, knowledge of this social spectrum is almost universal—it’s out there. That said, the script supports a hot and heavy attraction between Brick and Maggie. It’s just that Maggie, before the time of the play, made Brick face something about his sexuality and its impact on his friend Skipper that he never wanted to acknowledge. Maggie might not understand how much she’s hurt Brick and she might not fully understand that that’s why he’s punishing her.

But for Brick to understand that he had the same impulses with Skipper as he has for Maggie makes him hate himself. Brick hates gays and therefore hates himself.

And this is where that great Williams’ word ‘mendacity’ comes in. Brick hates dirty lies and liars and he hates himself because he’s a liar. He’s bisexual and, cruel joke that it is, he’s homophobic.

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Kate Donadio MacQueen and Joe Sykes. Photo by Dan Carmody

Q: As an actor, how do you get into the character of Brick? What are your starting points?

Joe: With Jimmy, (director James Donadio) we go to the table and work out the rhythm of the scenes before we get on our feet. Rhythm and pace are so important to this play. It’s funny, the crutch, that’s been something that’s ‘held me up’ because walking with the crutch gives you a certain rhythm. I have to adjust my body so much to say my words in a way that’s effective and I have, at times, fallen into a boring, predictable rhythm because of the crutch. So I’m working with the rhythm of the text, fighting the hobble of the crutch and then we throw in all the drinking I do in the show—a half bottle of bourbon before the end of the first act.

But when it comes to the character choices for Brick…. Well, as an actor you have to explore what it means to be homophobic, understand self-hatred and familial dysfunction… and that’s deep, serious work.

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Joe Sykes and Kate Donadio MacQueen. Photo by Dan Carmody

Q: You’re starring with Kate Donadio MacQueen as Margaret—Maggie the Cat. You’ve worked with her before, for example, in Wolves by Steve Jockey at Actor’s Express. Does that familiarity make it easier to take on a difficult role?

Joe: Oh, yes. Aside from Wolves, where Kate was the Narrator and I was Wolf, we were in an early play of Steve Yockey’s called Skin at Dad’s Garage (2007). We were coworkers who had an affair. And we were also in Suddenly Last Summerby Tennessee Williams at Actor’s Express (2009) where I played Dr. Curkrowicz and she played Catherine Holly. So we’ve had experience playing Tennessee Williams together. And we have experience playing repressed sexuality together.

We actually won an award—Kate and I. Dad’s Garage has these Daddy Awards and so back in 2007, when we were in Skin, we won an award for Best Kiss. I said then, and it’s still true, Kate always makes me better.

It’s a real skill to be able to be consistent and specific and still be listening and available to your scene partner and change what you’re doing in the moment. Because you have to—each line is determined by the line before it. But to go home and do your homework and come up with such specific choices that really affect your scene partner is vital—Kate does that. Kate comes up with specific, consistent choices but still retains such flexibility.  She has laser-point focus, where I can be just an interesting bear that tears the stage apart. But we complement each other. She makes me act with more clarity and purpose and I’d like to believe that I draw out a more impassioned, maybe even rawer, emotional performance than most of her other scene partners.

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Jacob Jones, Topher Payne, Joe Sykes, Peter Hardy, Kelly Criss, Kate Donadio MacQueen, John Maxwell. Photo by Dan Carmody

Q: The play takes place on a cotton plantation in Mississippi. Is there a special pleasure in performing it in Georgia? Are you relying on your Atlanta audience to enjoy a particular resonance with Williams’ larger-than-life, Southern characters?

Joe: I don’t know. In my time in Atlanta, we haven’t done Tennessee Williams’ plays often. I thinkCat on a Hot Tin Roof was performed here last in 2005.  Maybe it’s because Williams is so surreal. The ambiguity that is in all of Williams’ plays is hard for audiences to take. Some folks may see the name and connect it with the movie. (A popular movie version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, was released in 1958.)  The play is different. People end up watching something they didn’t expect. But because it’s written so well, and ultimately we perform it in such a way, that people enjoy it.  Big Daddy alone is worth the price of admission.

And, to tell you the truth, there’s a more personal attraction for me. When I get an opportunity to do a classic, it’s often hard to find the social importance because it seems like we’ve gone beyond it. We have all these other problems that we need to address and we need our art to help us work through them. But Tennessee Williams is so good, Shakespeare is so good, that their themes still carry through today.

I have this mission statement as an actor: I’m doing theater so people who watch can understand that they’re not alone, that the feelings that they have are feelings that many other people have. The catharsis comes from realizing ‘It’s ok to feel whatever I’m feeling because here is an example of it happening in front of me.’

But performing for this Georgia audience, you just hope that they walk out not excited to go get a drink or eat some pie. That’s when you’ve done your job, when they don’t want to get pie instantly; they want to talk about it. Or at least talk about it while they get some pie.

 It’s great to do any play anywhere, to be quite honest, but to get to do Tennessee Williams, it’s wonderful. It’s wonderful to be able to do it in the South. I hope we sell lots of tickets.

 

Coming Home: ‘The Hero’s Wife’ at Synchronicity Theatre

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Rebeca Robles and Joe Sykes in The Hero’s Wife. Photo by Jerry Siegal

A young wife joins the most important battle of all—the struggle to bring her husband home from war.

In a break from rehearsals, Joe Sykes answers questions about a startling new play, premiering in Atlanta and Chicago.

Once again Synchronicity Theatre is producing “smart, gutsy and bold theatre” that’s bound to spark conversations.

The Hero’s Wife by Aline Lathrop is the intimate story of the violent and heart-breaking effects of war and PTSD, told from a wife’s point of view. Directed by Rachel May, it’s presented by Synchronicity of Atlanta in a Joint World Premiere with 16th Street Theater, Chicago. The Synchronicity production runs April 12—May 5, with a preview on April 11th.

The Chicago Tribune calls the play, “A lacerating and relevant portrait of how hard it can be for two people to find their way home to each other in the wake of the living nightmare of war.”

In the Atlanta production, Joe Sykes stars with Rebeca Robles. The story begins just after Cameron (Sykes), a Navy SEAL, has returned from his last deployment. Karyssa (Robles), his very young wife, struggles to help Cam rebuild his life. But his secrets and violent night terrors threaten both Karyssa and their fragile life together.

In this interview, Joe talks about his work on the play and what it means to help tell this story now.

Q: The Hero’s Wife is a two-person play that focuses on a wife’s experience with her husband’s PTSD. Does this layering of perspective make your job tougher?

Joe: No, not really. I support Rebeca by being a strong scene partner. More than that, I make her situation real for the audience by fully realizing Cam as a complex and damaged guy. Writers will tell you: if you want to flesh out your protagonist, beef up the villain or the forces working against her. Now, I’m not a villain here, although, at times, I do some pretty scary things. But Cam’s problems are crushing. He’s a larger-than-life guy and how he behaves and thinks and feels creates huge challenges for both of them.

Q: As Cam, you are required to be sweet and threatening, closed off and explosive, a victim and a protector. You must be sensual and aloof, an expert at survival and a novice at intimacy. A frightening man who is somehow lovable. How do you create a character who has such divergent characteristics?

Joe: This question comes up a lot. Not just in this play. There’s a technical answer and a more human answer. When I’m coaching students, I explain that characters often have conflicting emotions.  The technical answer is that you play one then the other. You work beat by beat—one emotional turn at a time.   As an actor you have to choose when those turns happen. Luckily, this is a well-written play so I don’t have to choose, I just have to read the script.

That said, it’s not like switching one emotion off and another one on. That would like putting a strobe light on stage. Pretty jarring. What has to come with it is an understanding of character.  That understanding or appreciation for who the character is creates continuity—a sense that you’re looking at a whole human being.

And Cam is an incredibly complex and rich character. It’s hard to say I’ve “enjoyed” getting to know the guy, but he’s added so much to my understanding of what it means for a person to go to war and then to try to enter ordinary life again.

In my own life, researching Cam has led me into some revealing conversations. I’m not a veteran but I asked a friend of mine who is to read the play. He was struck by how true to life Cam is—how true the couple’s whole situation is. Our director, Rachael May, has forged a lot of connections with the military community around Atlanta.

One of our community sponsors is United Military Care, a group that supports military families and veterans when they return home. We’ll be having special nights and “talk backs” for families and veterans. As an actor, it’s my personal mission to allow an audience to feel like they’re not alone when they watch my stuff. That’s what’s happening here.

At the same time, it’s really important for non-military folks to open a window to the world of returning soldiers and their families. This play is going to spark so much conversation—difficult but much needed conversation.

Q: So who is Cam? What’s he like?

Joe: He’s a Navy SEAL who’s spent his 20-year career in war zones. He knows sharp shooting, how to jump out of planes. He can survive alone in the desert. He’s killed people in multiple ways; he’s survived torture and he’s watched close friends die. He’s been super human and less than human. In war, oddly enough, he’s in this bubble of security because he knows how to operate there. He can trust everyone else to do their job because they’ve all shared the same training and the same experiences.

But when he returns home, he’s suddenly at a loss. He doesn’t have a skill set for life at home. He doesn’t want to go to a bar with his wife because he can’t tolerate open spaces. He feels exposed in a way he never would have allowed himself to be in a war zone. When he comes home, his self-esteem goes down the tubes because nobody has any use for his particular skill set. He’s a guy whose self worth was all about being an elite warrior and doing the job but now the job is on the other side of the globe and he can’t even talk with the people around him. Meanwhile, he’s convinced—to his core—that the enemy he fought just a few weeks ago could come crashing through his apartment door at any moment.

The only person who has meaning for him is his wife, Karyssa. She’s a yoga instructor, much younger than him. They married fast and spent just eight weeks together before he left for his last deployment. But he thinks she’s perfect. In a lot of ways, he puts her on a pedestal. He would never ever want to hurt her. But his night terrors are so violent, he could maim or kill her. And how Karyssa chooses to handle the situation shapes the story.

Q: This play includes explosive violence and intense sex. Are those elements difficult to stage?

Joe: Both the violence and the sex are essential parts of Cam and Karyssa’s story. Some events happen off stage. A lot happen on stage. In portraying them, we want to be authentic but we also want to respect personal boundaries. We’re using both a fight choreographer and an intimacy choreographer. Most folks know what a fight choreographer is but an intimacy choreographer is fairly new. Same idea. There should be no surprises. No one should feel threatened or coerced.  No one’s personal ordeal should be exploited for the sake of a scene. They should know every move that’s coming and feel in control. Everyone should feel safe physically and emotionally. We started with small consent exercises: Is it ok to touch a shoulder, an elbow? We moved on from there.  This type of work has been missing from theater productions and I think we’re all happy that it’s now part of the process.

You know, we use the word intimacy here. For Cam and Karyssa, the sex is fantastic but other forms of intimacy are so hard, especially for Cam. He doesn’t know how to talk with her when they’re in the same room together. When he was deployed, they got to know each other by Skyping. He was in the dessert, in combat; he lost friends, spent days on patrol in morally ambiguous and mind f-ing situations and the one beautiful spot in his life was the minutes he’d talk with Karyssa. So when he comes home and he’s with his wife in the same room, he just doesn’t know how to open up or even how to begin to share his thoughts with her. He asks Karyssa, who’s 3 feet away from him, if they can Skype.

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Joe Sykes and Rebeca Robles in The Hero’s Wife. Photo by Jerry Siegel

Q: Is this a tough play for audiences?  

Joe: It presents a heartbreaking situation. But it’s not a one-note play. The writing is really beautiful. There’s sweetness and humor here. Granted some of it is pretty dark humor. Cal’s military mindset lends itself to dark humor. But it works. I love delivering a funny line in a tense situation. It’s so much fun. And breaking the tension, letting the audience breathe, helps them stay with the story. And in a lot of ways, it’s a hopeful story. Karyssa stays with it. She’s not going to leave him behind.

Q: What about playing a Navy SEAL? Any pressure to bulk up?

Joe: Oh, yeah, totally. I’ve upped the kickboxing. And I’m working with two trainers, Bollo, who’s a piece of granite, and Taz, who was absolutely gleeful when I told him what I was doing. He says, “Okay, Dude, you’re going to bench press that bar a thousand times.” I down the protein powder; I’ve already got the military haircut. It’s all good.

Something Different: Ensemble Theater Now

Ensemble theater has changed—offbeat scripts, fractured story lines, ambiguous characters with stories that spill over from one scene into another. Plays like Reykjavik explore what it means to be human with new structures and a whole new vocabulary. The result? Big choices and big risks for actors.

by Jackie Pray, Reykjavik photos by Casey Gardner

It’s awards season in Atlanta. Suzi Bass Awards, Atlanta’s version of the Tonys, are out. Among the big winners this year is the highly praised Actor’s Express production of Angels in America. It earned three major awards—best ensemble, best director (for Freddie Ashley and Martin Damien Wilkins) and best production.

Actor Joe Sykes was on stage to say “thank you.”  Joe knows ensemble work. This Suzi is Joe’s second, after an award for Clybourne Park at the Aurora Theatre. And he’s working on a new, cutting-edge ensemble production—Reykjavik by Steve Yockey at Actor’s Express.

“I really like ensemble work because it’s such a team effort,” Joe says. “You have this incredibly talented group of people put together—with uncanny skill—by directors and casting directors, who balance these diverse talents, personalities, little bits of genius—because we all have that—and come up with a cast that’s incredibly well suited to a script.

“On top of that, in ensemble work today, you have these wonderful, offbeat scripts that examine what it means to be human with a whole new vocabulary.”

Reykjavik, the long awaited new play by Steve Yockey, directed by Melissa Foulger, demands a strong ensemble cast. The play includes eight interconnected vignettes—with names like Jawbone, Twelve Ravens and Wild Game—featuring six actors playing multiple roles, including lovers, hotel employees, sex workers, birds… obscure mythic characters and ordinary people with supernatural powers.  In one scene Joe is a drunk vilifying the shortcomings of his gay partner; in another he’s a gentle huddle folk (Huldufólk)—a hidden person from Icelandic mythology. In yet another offbeat piece, he and his lover receive cryptic messages from a flock of ravens lined up outside their hotel window.

Heads up, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

“Scripts that lend themselves to ensemble productions tend to tell a different type of story,” Joe says. “The structure doesn’t take on the traditional dramatic form—inciting action, leading to a climax, followed by a denouement. Rather, every scene has its own journey. All these journeys do come together, but it’s much more of a fun puzzle for the audience to experience and put together.”

 

 

“In a traditional play with a lead actor and supporting players, the lead is typically someone the audience can identify with.  So, with that, you can put yourself in the character’s shoes and say, ‘What would I do?’ But with a play like Reykjavik, people can go home and drink coffee and say, ‘I’m more like this person,’ or ‘Well, I’m more like that person.’

“In a play like Reykjavik, you’re not focusing on one lead character whom you’re following throughout the action of the play; rather you’re focusing on the ideas. The text becomes much more important. The themes become more apparent and, I think, the experience is more engaging for an audience.

Reykjavik has to do with fidelity and trust and we’re giving all these examples—through these scenes and multiple characters—that lend themselves to more exploration.

“Ensemble pieces, particularly pieces like Angels in America and Reykjavik, demand a lot more attention from the audience because you don’t get to follow a straightforward story arc. Audiences have to juggle a whole bunch of storylines and characters. You don’t get a primary character who is supported by other characters. Instead, you might have ambiguous characters who are tangled up in fractured story lines. And that creates a lot of tension—exciting tension for the audience.”

Big choices—big risks

In 2015, Joe and the cast of Clybourne Park, directed by Melissa Foulger at the Aurora Theatre, earned Suzi Bass Awards for Best Ensemble Cast.  In that play, Joe and the other cast members each played two markedly different characters in parallel stories. Such productions carry particular challenges for actors, Joe says.

“You have only so much time to show the most important traits of your character. You just have to make a large choice quickly because you don’t have the luxury of a lot of exposition and it’s not so much about the long journey of that character but, rather, what that character is embodying—what that character means for the story that’s happening—at that moment.”

 

 

“But, of course, that’s also what’s fun. You get to flex your character creation muscles. For example, the Actor’s Express production of Angels in America put actors in multiple rolls—much more than other productions have done. And there, we had to do just what we’re doing right now in Reykjavik—quickly create the essential traits needed to bring home the meaning of multiple story lines.

“And there’s this alchemy that happens when actors play different characters with different story lines in the same play—the shadow, or afterglow, or whatever you want to call it, of one character can add texture to the next—till you get this crazy synergy and people in the audience are feeling human connections long before they can sort them out intellectually. It’s magic.”

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Joe Sykes, Clybourne Park

At work

The Actor’s Express production of Reykjavik is the premiere of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere of the play. So Atlanta audiences and directors of upcoming productions set for other cities will be paying close attention.

Joe and playwright Steve Yockey and director Melissa Foulger have worked together many times in the past.  As one critic wrote, it’s a collaboration that conjures “that old black magic.”

“It’s always funny when we work with Steve,” Joe says. “As the author, Steve has all the answers. But Steve will tell you that one of the reasons he likes writing plays is that he likes the idea of his producing something and writing something and seeing other people take his work and create something entirely new. And it doesn’t mean that something is better or worse when new sets of hands get on it, its just more.”

What makes it all work?

“First off, no doubt, it’s the directors and casting directors who put our teams together,” Joe says. “Synchronicity is at the heart of all great ensemble productions and that means precise casting.” He adds that creating strong connections among cast members is essential.  Connections foster trust and creative risk taking.

Sometimes actors create connections in the most basic ways, Joe says. “For Winnie-the-Pooh (which earned multiple Suzi nominations this year, including best ensemble cast in theater for youth), we had four adult and three child actors.  Between shows we’d have about an hour break. I’d go the green room.  I drank coffee and ate animal crackers and we messed around during that hour. We played. I really like kids. I think they’re hilarious. I got to have fun with these kids all summer. Does it improve the kids’ acting ability? Maybe. Because they’re really comfortable with me, if they were going to take a chance and make a big choice—and many kids are not ready to make big choices—they feel the trust required to make that big choice. So, I think it’s a good thing.”

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The cast of Winnie-the-Pooh at the Alliance Theater, nominated in 2018 for a Suzi Bass Award for Outstanding Ensemble in Theater for Youth, Joe Sykes, Mabel Tyler, Maria Rodriguez-Sager, Isake Akanke, Caleb Baumann, Grant Chapman.

The troupe

Some theaters choose to make ensemble work part of their identity, their brand. Joe cites Atlanta’s Out of Hand, where he’s a long-time core member. Out of Hand is known for innovative, edgy productions and its use of “devised” theater that leans heavily on the creative skills of ensemble casts.

“In the traditional sense,” Joe says, “ensemble-based theaters like Out of Hand are groups of people who work together over and over on different projects. They come together and they produce new work, maybe original work, or work with a special look, a personalized look, depending on how that company defines itself in relation to older works. In working with the same people over and over again, the work and risk taking becomes easier because you build relationships and trust—a great environment for growth and creativity.”

Homecoming

Working on Reykjavik has been a homecoming for Joe. Over the past 15 years, he has worked with director Melissa Foulger and playwright Steve Yockey on four other premiere productions at Actor’s Express. All of these productions won their own awards and recognition.

“Working with Melissa and Steve is my most favorite thing in the world to do,” Joe Says. “I think Steve loves everything I bring to the table, even if it is dead wrong. But that happens much less frequently. Working with them is just Trust. And with that trust comes a freedom to explore.

“People who like my work, like it because I’m ready to jump—just step off the ledge and make the big choice.  And I gained that fearlessness through working with Melissa and Steve. It’s always way cooler to make a big choice. It’s more fun. They are so good at what they do and they build up my confidence. That carries into the rest of the world.  I can say, ‘Well, this is what I would do with Steve and Melissa and I’m gonna do it here and if they like it, they like it; if they don’t, they don’t.’ And more often than not, they like it.”

Angels in America—Now

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Joe Sykes talks about Angels in America. Why it’s timely and so relevant right now. And great writing…. Yeah, lots of actors talk about it. But just how does an actor make it work? Joe talks craft. 

The Second Coming—Angels in America Returns

by Jackie Pray

It’s fabulous and daunting. Ethereal and all too human. Angels in America—the two-part modern epic by Tony Kushner. When it premiered in 1991, it changed the conversation in America.

Set in 1985, during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, the play wrestles with personal morality… sex… religion… love… conservative politics… and God—all with wicked wit, wonder and fearless honesty.

Atlanta’s Actor’s Express is taking it on. Its production of Kushner’s 2013 revised book of the play, co-directed by Freddie Ashley and Martin Damien Wilkins, opens Jan 12. But, right now, Joe Sykes, part of a powerhouse ensemble cast, is in the throes of preparing to play one of the eight characters whose lives drive the play’s multiple story lines. Joe plays Joe Pitt, a closeted gay man who is Mormon, married and an ethical nightmare. “He’s a law clerk,” Joe explains, “ he’s gay and he writes legal decisions that crush the gay population, even as he struggles to be good.

“Yeah, it’s a challenging play,” Joe admits. “And it’s so beautiful.”

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The ensemble cast: Robert Bryan Davis (left), Carolyn Cook, Grant Chapman, Parris Sarter, Louis Greggory, Cara Mantella, Joe Sykes and Thandiwe Deshazor. Image by Ashley Earles-Bennett

Why?

But why now? In an age of seemingly galloping advances in legal rights for LGBTQ people, why produce a play that’s more than 25 years old? Despite Kushner’s 2013 update, the play is still set in 1985; its themes, characters and story lines are essentially the same.

“ ’Cause we didn’t get it right the first time,” Joe says. We being America.

“It’s uncanny. Roy Cohn, a character in the play, in real life was a henchman for Senator Joe McCarthy and a mentor to Donald Trump. In the play, Roy Cohn is a closeted gay man who is a conservative and a real engine behind the Republican Party and the conservative agenda, and he’s dirty through and through. To his mind, he’s not gay; he just fucks men. And he destroys. He comes up with legislation and ideas that are anti-gay. Because he has all the power, it’s ok. In his mind, as long as he has the power, it’s ok.

“It’s Roy who says to the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whom Cohn helped put to death in real life: ‘The worst thing about being sick in America, Ethel, is you are booted out of the parade. Americans have no use for sick. Look at Reagan, he’s so healthy, he’s hardly human. He’s 100 if he’s a day. He takes a slug in the chest and two days later he’s out West riding ponies in his PJs. I mean who does that? That’s America. It’s just no country for the infirm.’

“While those lines were written more than 25 years ago, look at where we are with health care,” Joe says. “America does not care for sick people. Right now, with its schemes to repeal Obamacare, the Republican Party is saying it doesn’t want to care for sick people; it doesn’t want to support anybody. There are so many parallels in this play to what’s happening today.”

In the 1980s, AIDS was labeled a “gay disease.” People with AIDS were shunned. Misinformation was rampant. The Reagan administration just said no to reality; it refused to acknowledge the public health crisis and adequately fund AIDS research.

“People were abused through neglect and hatred. Yes, Angels in America is about gay men suffering from AIDS. But the play’s not just about gay men. If gay men can be a symbol of oppression—of those who are oppressed—then the conversation about what is and isn’t moral in America can continue.”

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Joe and Louis Gregory, who plays Louis in the Actor’s Express production of Angels in America. Image by Casey Gardner

Joe Pitt

The two parts—Millennium Approaches and Perestroika—that comprise Angels in America follow the intersecting lives of eight New Yorkers. Joe’s character, Joe Pitt, is “a complex character to unpack,” Joe says. “He’s a confused gay man—closeted, married, a Mormon. His church acknowledges homosexuality, offers conversion therapy and tells him to ‘hate the sin, not the sinner.’

“His religion tells him that if he is strong and fully believes in God, he will not cave in to those deviant wants. Joe sees his homosexuality as a test from God. If he can overcome it, he will achieve the next tier of enlightenment. Meanwhile, he has taken Roy Cohn as his mentor, which is on par with taking Satan as a mentor. Roy tells Joe essentially, ‘If it feels good, keep doin’ it.’ And in Millennium Approaches, Joe has all these moments of joy when he actually allows himself to be himself. But feeling good for Joe means breaking all these laws.

“And the more confused he becomes, the more he leans into these laws—the laws of his religion and the anti-gay legal decisions he writes as a law clerk and Roy Cohn protégé. All of these laws tell him that at his core he’s wrong. He prays to God to be destroyed and remade. He has this intense self-hatred but he’s always trying to be good.”

So, is Joe Pitt just a hypocrite and truly bad?

“No, he’s not bad. He believes what he’s doing will make America better.

“There are strong parallels to today. As we try to defund health care, restrict individual and civil rights, demonize whole groups of people, it takes some extraordinary moral contortions to tell ourselves we’re making America better. Portraying those moral contortions—with a pure heart—is a great challenge for an actor.”

Freddie Ashley, artistic director of Actor’s Express and co-director of Angels in America, is confident that Joe is equal to the challenge. “I’ve known Joe since he was just out of college and it has been extraordinary to watch him evolve from a promising newcomer into a force to be reckoned with,” Ashley says. “He attacks his work with intellectual rigor and always finds the spine of humanity in each character. He’s bringing the character of Joe Pitt to life with detail, nuance and power.”

Still, preparing a principal role in two 120-page plays has got to be intimidating.

“My answer to everything is to pay attention to punctuation.”

Dashes, commas and…

As an actor, Joe has a reputation for being raw. He’s taken on slash-and-burn roles that combine ferocity and tenderness, wit and revelation. “But, really,” he says, “I’m highly technical about the whole process.”

A lengthy table read early in the production put the whole cast at ease. “Everyone needs to know how the play sounds all at one time. That’s the first step. We did a read through and then we sat at the table and we kept reading the play. We’d read a scene and talk about it for an hour or more. It’s a real luxury. And I have so much respect for all the people involved in this production. Carolyn Cook, a tremendous actor who plays Hannah and who lost dear friends to AIDS in the ‘80s, reminded us why this play is so important. I can’t tell you how much we were all moved by it.”

As he speaks, it’s mid-December and Joe is at home in Atlanta surrounded by the debris of a recent move. The new slant-roof apartment is a third-story walkup with surprising windows. They open onto lofty tree branches. It’s a magical tree-house view, available only to those willing to make the daily three-flight climb. Joe turns his back on the view. He’s on a roll, talking about his craft.

“When you have two 120-page plays that you have to put up in five weeks, with Christmas in between, you lean on technique,” Joe says. “That’s where we are. We’re leaning on technique right now.

“You have 5 pages here and 8 pages there, 4 pages over there and here’s another 5 pages. So you just tackle those 5 pages, you put them in your head and, honestly, it’s not until it’s in your brain that you can understand it. It’s not ‘til you’ve looked at it enough and memorized it enough that you can make a choice. You have to make a choice. What emotion are you playing? What tactic are you playing? What are you trying to show when you say this—these three words or that five sentences. When can you go fast? Hey, it’s already there. The whole script is riddled with ‘pause… little pause… a beat Joe laughs….’ A good script is essentially a blueprint of what the actor has to do and it’s the actor’s and the director’s job to get on the same page, literally, and figure out what the playwright has asked.

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Co-director Martin Damien Wilkins (left), Joe Sykes, Carolyn Cook, who plays Hannah, and Robert Bryan Davies, who plays Roy Cohn, rehearsing  Angels in America at Actor’s Express. Image by Ashley Earles-Bennett

“People talk about the differences between theater and film. There are plenty of differences but the writer is key to both. You just have to know how to read. Every intonation is already written down.

“Take, for example, when you see an ellipsis in a sentence. What does that mean? It means the character has a thought that—one—he can’t complete because he’s scared to say it out loud. Or—two—he can’t complete it because he doesn’t really know. It’s a decision between those two things.

“When there is a dash in the middle of your line, that means your character has had a new thought and has interrupted the previous thought. We have those types of things in conversation all the time. Tony Kushner’s writing is a gift to the world. He knows how people actually talk. In that sense, he’s and very much like Steve Yockey. (Actor’s Express has premiered a number of LA playwright Steve Yockey’s award-winning plays. Joe originated pivotal characters in several of them.) If you look at Steve’s architecture on the page, he’s telling you how to say the word already. Punctuation tells you how the language is working—the thought process behind the language—so you can understand what to do and when to do it.”

“A comma can indicate a 180-degree shift—sometimes. I’m good at figuring that out. I love it when I have a five-word sentence with no punctuation, ‘cause I just say it. There’s nothing you have to put on this. The words will do all the work.”

How does this approach play out in Angels in America?

“Joe Pitt is a character who is morally constipated. On the inside he’s confused. He has many emotions happening to him at the same time. Still, I’ve never had such a calm character. Inner turmoil, yes. He’s torn all the time in different directions. Inner conflict. You can’t play inner conflict; you have to bring it out of you.”

But, Joe explains, when you’re acting you can’t play two things at once.

“Well, sometimes you can be happy/scared, I don’t know, or sad and triumphant. But for clarity’s sake, you should be sad and then triumphant. Or you should be scared and then happy. And the language, the text, is your guide to when those switches happen. And they could happen in a word, a comma.

“A good writer uses and exploits punctuation. Some actors get upset with playwrights because their punctuation gets so specific that they have fewer choices because of it. No. There are always a million things that can happen in the space that the playwright has given you to make those choices.”

“It’s funny, in Angels, there are so many words to memorize. But if you don’t memorize all the periods, all the commas, all the ellipses, all the parentheses, all the dashes, then you haven’t done your job.”

“When I was doing Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo…. you have something that’s in all capital letters and has three exclamation points behind it, guess what, you’re yellin’ it. You’re yelling it out loud and you’re yelling it with fury. And in Millennium Approaches, I have two words in the whole play that are in capital letters and they’re followed by a period. So what do you do with that? Not quite sure just yet. But… you’ll know it when you got it.

“We have a luxury here with Angels in America. Kushner’s been tweaking this thing forever. You can see the beauty of it in the architecture of the scenes on the page.

“Kushner’s characters speak in paragraphs… until they don’t. Until they have one giant, two-page monologue that has no breaks whatsoever. Guess what you do with that? You go fast. That’s what you do. You go fast. If you don’t have a period; if you have a sentence that runs the course of five lines on the page, you know what you do, you take a deep breath and then you get it all out because when there are no periods, when there’s no time to breathe, everything is urgent. It’s all there. You just read it. How do you get good at it? You just keep doing it.”

 

What’s Next for Joe? Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, opening at 7 Stages

Crazy Face Joe
Joe Sykes at 7 Stages in Atlanta. Photo: StunGun Photography

Joe Sykes in a darkly funny production of the award-winning play by Rajiv Joseph

by Jackie Pray

It’s final days. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo opens September 14 at Atlanta’s 7 Stages. For Joe Sykes and the rest of the cast and crew it’s crunch time. They’ve chosen a challenging piece of contemporary theater. Now it’s all coming together.

“This is not an easy play,” Joe says. “It deals with the lasting afterlife of violence. It’s disturbing and heartbreaking and darkly funny. Audiences will be unpacking elements and scenes for days. I’m so impressed that 7 Stages is doing it and I’m so grateful to be part of it.”

During a break in rehearsals, Joe took time out to talk about the play and the work he’s doing to prepare for his portrayal of Tom, an American soldier caught up in a distant war and one of two soldiers guarding a Bengal Tiger in a bombed-out zoo.

“The play is set in Iraq at the outset of the US invasion in 2003. You have carnage and confusion, characters who are ill equipped to handle either, and a wisecracking Tiger on stage—what’s not to love there! I play Tom, an American soldier and one of those characters who’s entirely human and, as a result, badly equipped to manage life in war. He’s not a likeable character; he’s almost an antihero.”

What happens to Tom during the course of the play adds another layer to the rats’ nest of painful and caustically funny ideas that make the play work—six years and two wars after it opened. “The challenge for me as an actor,” Joe says, “is to keep the audience engaged with Tom and fully aware of his humanity.”

How does Joe do that? He starts with something very small.

“Tom. He’s from Michigan. It’s shaped like a mitten. Those are lines from the play. But I’m putting a lot of weight into that. I think he’s an average American. When you visualize the drastic differences in terrain between Iraq and Michigan, you can understand Tom’s experience. For him, it’s like being on another planet where the aliens are shooting at you. It’s nothing like Michigan. It’s exotic and unfamiliar and hostile. Starting from that point, it’s easier to understand how American soldiers could de-humanize people from the Middle East.

“But at the same time, we are humans. We have empathy. For most people, empathy is what gives us our humanity. But a lack of empathy can be fostered through trauma and manipulation. Soldiers like Tom are manipulated by being taught to kill. Essentially, soldiers learn to be inhuman to protect Michigan. This manipulation is a form of trauma. In so many places in this play, writer Rajiv Joseph reminds us that the effects of violence last… and haunt us. Violent acts damage our souls. So Tom is a scar. He is traumatized. During the play we find out that he was at the two-day standoff at the Hussein brothers’ mansion. Tom has killed and he has escaped death. These ideas are unfathomable. But Joseph gives us a path into them. My job—the job of everyone involved in this production—is to lead the audience down that difficult path into some sort of understanding.”

While the wisecracking ghost of a Bengal Tiger, played by Kevin Stillwell, often takes center stage, the layered and painfully honest scenes Joseph has written for Tom amplify the play’s themes of lost humanity, confusion and desolation. Playing them requires a fearless willingness to explore loss and shame.

“Despite his deep feelings, Tom is unable to process his emotions and understand them—to the point where it’s tragically funny. (The play does a great job of making the audience feel uncomfortable with their own laughter.) Tom’s ignorance is comical—heartbreaking and comical.”

Director Michael Haverty is convinced Joe has the chops to pull it off.

“I’ve seen Joe perform in dozens of plays in Atlanta,” Haverty says, “and I’ve never seen him in a role quite like this. The steps he makes every day in rehearsal deepen our understanding of his complex and bottled up character. It’s a joy to work with Joe, and his explosive presence in Bengal Tiger strengthens what we believe is a powerful production. We’re glad Joe has joined us.”

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7 Stages is a professional, non-profit theater company devoted to engaging artists and audiences by focusing on the social, political, and spiritual values of contemporary work. It is a global center for the creation of vital conversations through collaborative performance.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph, directed by Michael Haverty, runs Sept 14—Oct 8 at 7 Stages, Atlanta.

 Want more? Joe talks about the play’s themes and making his debut at 7 Stages. 

‘Ravished’—Theater Emory Upends Traditions to Foster Creativity

A fluid process mixes experienced actors with novices.  Notes from co-stars, oh no!

by Jackie Pray

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The Theater Emory spring production of Ravished, an aggressive reworking of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, crossed boundaries. Like some caustic chemical, Ravished carried a warning. Loosely translated, it read: It’s nasty, folks. Keep kids well clear and brace yourselves for viciousness, violence and lurid behavior.

What fun.

No. From the get-go, the play’s creators, Ariel Fristoe and Maia Knispel, set out to stage the foul underbelly of Shakespeare’s beloved play by focusing on its vicious language. While often played “sweet and funny,” Fristoe says, “if you take it literally, it’s not okay. It’s horrible. The characters threaten each other with rape and murder repeatedly. They all betray each other and then they get married the next day.”

Definitely not a fun take on the bard’s beloved romp. And there was nothing traditional about the production either.

Fristoe and Knispel, Emory alums and co-founders of Atlanta’s innovative Out of Hand theater, relied on risky collaborative techniques to stage the play. Their goal: encourage Emory drama students to get their hands dirty in the creative process. Their method: ask the entire ensemble to generate ideas—to create performance concepts based on prompts from the two directors. The directors then shaped and folded these ideas into the final play. Rehearsals were fluid and experimental.

Of course, working with an evolving script—performed on a stark stage with a steep three-foot rake—might have left some novice actors feeling off balance.

 But the production offered a safety net of sorts. Like all Theater Emory productions, the cast included a mix of professional actors and students. Ravished included Atlanta theater veterans Joe Sykes, Stephanie Friedman and Carolyn Cook. In all, six professional actors were tasked with helping guide the students through the creative process as they worked together to devise an original script.

The cardinal sin among actors is to direct a fellow actor—give another actor an idea that you think would be good for them to try out,” says Joe Sykes. “A lot of egos can be bruised when an actor gives a note to another actor.

“Now what’s interesting about working with students, in this context, is that we were all peers. The directors were our leaders and the rest of us were on a level playing field, but not exactly because I had more than 13 years of experience compared to the ‘peers’ I was working with. We were encouraged to ‘Go ahead and give the kids some hints.’ Or, if there was a technique they were missing, help them. Our work supported the production while the directors were trying to rework the story and push collaborative ideas into the play.”

Not just ‘a few hints’

Such coaching requires a light but sure hand. Joe has an advantage there. He teaches drama at Georgia Tech. He guides the performance practicum for Alternative Performance Methods at the School of Literature, Media and Communication at the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at Georgia Institute of Technology. It’s a job he loves.

“I do enjoy working with these kids. I love talking to them; I love being a part of their maturation, as actors and people.

“So, I might tell a younger actor: ‘You’ve got to find your light… and, you’re looking towards the ground and that’s no good. This is a visual medium and everyone wants to see your reaction so you need to put your chin up. And they’re like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s such a great thing. I understand.’ And I demonstrate: ‘You can see that I’m mad while I’m looking down. But here I’m looking up and it’s visceral now. The audience understands it, feels it, much more than when I’m looking down.’ And I go on and say, ‘I still have this problem as an actor because most of our stuff is really internalized and when you have this emotion that you aren’t used to showing, you’re going to express it in the middle of your chest rather than out through your forehead.’”

Teaching ‘in the moment’

Some lessons were very personal. As one student actor struggled to master the bearing and timbre of King Theseus, Joe said, “’Take the fist of your right hand and press it into the small of your back, into your spine. And I want you to press your chest forward and that’s how you’re going to speak. You always have one hand free to gesture but your other hand is pushing your chest forward because you are Theseus. You just destroyed Hippolyta’s people and now you’re taking her as your wife. You are immensely proud and incredibly masculine and when you speak your chest is out and open and you become a tyrant.’ It goes back to some basic techniques I’ve been working on with my students at Georgia Tech. Not all acting is from inside out; sometimes it’s from outside in.”

Joe adds that there’s a lot to be said for what he calls teaching in the moment. “Sure, exploring techniques in the safety of a studio has great value for new actors s but so does discovering solutions on the fly, during rehearsal, when the pressure is on. When faced with a real time challenge: ‘How do I convey this idea? How do I embody that character in this situation? Now!’ students are alert and attuned to learning. Lessons stick.”

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A prickly problem and a great solution

At one point, the play’s directors tasked Joe and a group of students with solving a pressing staging problem: on a stark, urban stage, show the play’s four lovers lost in a foggy forest and beset by briars. The group had 20 minutes to come up with a solution.

“We created this movement of fog, which was just us rotating around each other with the lovers walking though us as we walked forward,” Joe says.

“But then we had to create briars because a character had to crawl through them and tear his shirt. One student, Jay, (Jubril Adeagbo) remembered a movement exercise we’d done early in production and he says, ‘Why don’t we do staccato movement? We’ll do this slow, slow-as-you-possibly-can-go movement—fog—and then we’ll go into staccato movement to become a prickly bush.’ So the staccato movement, which looks like the stop-action images cast by a strobe light, informs the prickles of this briar patch. It was Jay’s idea—a riff on stuff that we experienced together through group training. And so, everybody’s fingers become prickles and our legs are scattered all over the stage forming a briar patch. And the character has to go through the obstacle course that we’ve created. It’s not realistic at all; it’s a stylized shape that informs what’s happening on stage. It’s a really interesting solution rather than, ‘Let’s put out bush number 3 and pot number 4 for scene number 6.’ It was great. Jay was great!”

Would Joe do it again—teach acting techniques on the fly to novice actors involved in a collaborative and experimental production? “Yeah. Sure. It’s exciting and rewarding. And… What could go wrong?”

Filming with Bret Wood: It’s All About Risk

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So actor Joe Sykes and independent filmmaker Bret Wood respect and admire each other’s work. No secret there.  What’s less well known is their shared taste for risk taking.

“Bret Wood is the epitome of Atlanta DIY,” Joe said in a recent interview. “He has a passion for his projects that invigorates the entire Atlanta independent film scene.”

Wood says he cast Joe in his 2010 film The Little Death after hearing good things about Joe’s work in the local theatre scene. “After working with him on that project, I kept up with his stage appearances—most memorably in Steve Yockey’s Wolves—and was looking for an opportunity to collaborate with him again.”
13903259_10105815894856930_134249224444276558_nThat chance came with Wood’s latest project, a tough, contemporary piece set on the muggy beaches of the Alabama gulf coast. This time Wood has cast Joe as the vengeful loner at the center of the film known only by the cryptic hashtag #TWD2D.

“Joe is an asset to the project in many ways,” Wood says. “Beyond his deep commitment to the role, and the compelling performance he has been delivering, he is a constant source of energy and morale-boosting throughout the long and sometimes arduous shoots. Anyone who has been on set is now familiar with the booming sound of Joe’s contagious laughter.”

Joe’s excited to be involved in Wood’s film. “The style of the film is a throwback to 70s exploitation films—in a fun way,” Joe says. Wood, an independent filmmaker, documentarian, film curator and preservationist, is also an authority on Hollywood exploitation films. He co-authored the book Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of Exploitation Film with his wife Felicia Feaster and he’s written and edited other works that focus on exploitation films.

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Joe and director Bret Wood

“Revenge thrillers were a popular thing in the 70s,” Wood says, “and usually were presented as spectacles of violence that allowed viewers to cheer for the systematic slaughter of the bad guys. In my world, I want a central character who is troubled by the acts of extreme violence that he’s compelled to perform… and wrestles with the whole idea of ‘justice.’”

Playing that character presents an exacting challenge. “It’s hard to win over an audience… and that has to happen here,” Joe says. “The guy is empty on the inside. Essentially, he’s been a killer and a survivor. There’s so much violence in his history, it’s hard to have anything good inside of him. My challenge is to create a path, an arc, for this character. We want people to feel sad for him when he commits these acts of violence.” But, Joe says, the challenge is a good one. In fact, it’s what he likes best about acting. “Creating original work, original characters, that’s been my strength and what drives me.

“Within the world of the film, the human element has got to be strong enough to create a type of morality, even an unconventional morality, that survives the violence. Despite Wood’s homage to ‘70s exploitation films, this is original work; it’s taking risks.”

 

Joe Sykes with fellow actors Alice Lewis,  John Schmedes and Rachel Frawley 

Joe is blown away by the visual work that Wood and his crew are doing. Wood uses destruction and carnage to create evocative scenes saturated in rich colors. “This film is going to be pretty.”

14241475_10153925129542947_3041586359710677295_oRemote beaches of the Alabama gulf coast may be stunning but they hide tortures for cast and crew, including swarming insects and jellyfish. “African Queen swarms,” Joe says. “We brought bug spray but nowhere near enough. We were so grateful to the woman who rented us one of the dock buildings. She brought us bug spray and brownies. And the brownies were really good too. I was nervous when we saw the jellyfish. The trawler captain just said, ‘Some people get stung; some don’t.’ Course he wasn’t going in the water.” In the end, the crew moved up the beach.

“In addition to mosquito swarms and the threat of jellyfish stings,” Wood says, “Joe endured more than his share of cuts and bruises in the making of #TWD2D… not because of a lack of safety precautions, but because he is so committed to the role and wants to completely inhabit the body of the character and walk in his shoes… even if that meant being dragged off the side of a shrimp trawler, fully-clothed with bound wrists.”

 

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