Thoughts on Sister Aloysius and DOUBT: A PARABLE

Giannarelli Aloysius

Laura Giannarelli recently talked to QTC about playing the role of Sister Aloysius in DOUBT: A PARABLE. She previously worked with QTC as the director of A LESSON FROM ALOES, and FAITH HEALER.

I played this wonderful role in 2008 under the direction of the terrific Vinny Lancisi at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore – with Clinton Brandhagen as my Father Flynn, Dawn Ursula as Mrs. Muller and Katy Carkuff as Sister James.

I have lovely memories of that experience, of playing with such wonderful actors on such a delicately balanced script.  But I think what has stayed with me over time is the reactions of audience members to the show.  Almost like a Rorschach inkblot, people interpreted the play based on their own experiences.

Baltimore is still a city with a large Catholic population, so many audience members came to the show with memories of direct experiences they’d had as children in Catholic schools, being taught by nuns.

I never take long to change back into my ‘civvies’ after a performance, so I often emerged from backstage while people were still milling about the lobby; often people would stop me to share their thoughts.  Some said right up front – “You were awful.  Just like those mean nuns I had as a kid.”  “I hated nuns like that.”  Others empathized with Sister Aloysius and felt sure the priest had been abusing that child and she had done her utmost to protect him; they felt Sister was heroic and valiant.  There was very little middle ground — they either loved her or loathed her.  And yet all of them had seen the same performance.  I didn’t do anything different.  They just saw it differently, through the lens of their own experiences.

We also did several school shows during the run, always with talk-backs afterward.  Once, we had an audience of middle schoolers.  I thought they would hate Sister Aloysius and jeer audibly at me.  Instead, they were quiet as mice, listening in that opening scene between Sister Aloysius and Sister James about working in the classroom with the children and keeping control.  It was like they were being let in on the secrets teachers talk about in the mysterious teachers’ lounge!

And after the show, they had the most questions, not for me but for Dawn Ursula, who played the child’s mother.  They wanted to know why on earth she didn’t remove the child from the school; they clearly identified with the child and felt his mom wasn’t protecting him.  (And unlike many adults, most of them were pretty certain that Father Flynn had abused him.)  Dawn explained with great empathy that Mrs. Muller was making the choice – to further her son’s education at all costs – that she thought was best.

Ultimately, DOUBT means to an audience whatever they choose to decide it means.  That is my favorite thing about the script.  The playwright doesn’t tell us what happened, nor what we should think.  It’s up to each audience member to interpret the play in his/her own way.  Beautiful!

 “Laura Giannarelli really gets into the habit as Sister Aloysius, making it easy to believe that everybody trembles in her presence.” Mike Giuliano , Baltimore Messenger 

“…Laura Giannarelli brings her own intellectually solid interpretation of the role to life”Brad Hathaway, Potomac Stages

“Laura Giannarelli was the perfect stern nun as Sister Aloysius. One half-expected her to storm out into the audience and admonish someone for not sitting up straight… Perhaps it is not difficult to portray a cold, almost emotionless figure who is wrapped up in a habit. But Giannarelli did an excellent job nonetheless.”John Kernan, The Johns Hopkins News-Letter

Acting Backwards by Elliott Kashner

elliott-kashner-headshotQuotidian Theatre welcomes Elliott Kashner, who will be playing the charismatic Father Flynn in QTC’s upcoming production of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable. Even though rehearsals have not yet begun, Elliott was asked to provide a few thoughts on his approach to taking on the enigmatic character.

“Brian O’Byrne and Cherry Jones used to joke about competing for the audience’s allegiances during their run in Doubt: A Parable. O’Byrne and Jones played Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius, the two characters whose conflict is the central focus of the play. The two ultimately compromised, estimating that they each probably had convinced roughly half of those who saw the show, with a handful in the middle who were uncertain. The good-natured ribbing between these two titans of theater revealed the delicate balancing act that is at the heart of performing Doubt. The title isn’t just a less-than-subtle hint at what the play’s theme might be; it is a directive for the actors.

“Flynn advocates for his own innocence throughout the play against Aloysius’ dogged pursuit of proving his guilt. The resulting effect of playing Flynn – and playing against him – must land somewhere between guilt and innocence. That means that the actor playing Flynn must start from viewing the character from the audience’s perspective, anticipate how that audience may perceive Flynn, and then work backward to make choices toward that effect. This is a bit different from how actors may approach acting in the world of realism. Acting realism tends to be a process of analyzing the text, making decisions about the character, playing those choices truthfully, and allowing audiences to draw their own conclusions. For Doubt, making Flynn appear neither wholly guilty or innocent places specific requirements on the character choices. Fortunately, the script gives the actor both a great deal of information about Flynn’s history and a variety of tools to obfuscate that history.

“Author John Patrick Shanley is rumored to have revealed the true backstory of Flynn to only two people: Brian O ‘Byrne and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who played Flynn in the film adaptation. (Note: I do not recommend watching the film prior to seeing the play. Although the script was adapted for the screen by Shanley himself, the film makes several choices that may unduly bias your viewing of the play.) Knowing Shanley’s version of Flynn’s backstory may be more of a hindrance than a help. Rather than communicating that backstory, the actor’s job in this play is to hide it.

“But what about the second half of the title: A Parable. Why? Well, as Father Flynn says, “You make up little stories to illustrate. In the tradition of the parable… What actually happens in life is beyond interpretation.””

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Stevie Zimmerman to Direct QTC Production of Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable

steviezQTC welcomes Stevie Zimmerman who will direct John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable opening on 7 April and playing weekends through 7 May.

Originally from London, England, Stevie received a B.A. at Oxford University and an M.A. in Directing from the University of Leeds. Stevie has lived in the U.S. since 1993, and in the D.C. area for 6 years.

Before moving to the D.C. area, Stevie lived in Connecticut, where she was an Associate Professor of Drama from 1999 to 2010 at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music and Theatre. During this time, she also worked regularly with the Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, where she directed Collected Stories, Love Letters, Driving Miss Daisy, and, in 2016, Margaret Edson’s Wit.

After relocating to D.C., Stevie directed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s By Jeeves at 1st Stage. Glowing reviews, such as “Heroic performances bespeak a heroic director; this one is Stevie Zimmerman, prompted 1st Stage to invite Stevie to return to direct the area premiere of Billy Elliott writer Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters.

For Peter’s Alley Theatre Productions, Stevie directed David Lindsey Abaire’s Rabbit Hole and Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still, which featured QTC actor Chelsea Mayo.

At the Theatre of the First Amendment, Stevie’s direction of a staged reading of Michael P. Smith’s world premiere play, Passaggio, led to her directing a full-scale production of Passaggio at George Mason University.

At the Capital Fringe, Stevie directed Alice – an evening with Alice Roosevelt Longworth as well as a revival of Our Lady of the Clouds. She has also directed staged readings for the Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage festival, the Doorway Arts Ensemble, Beltway Arts inter alia.

At the Wintergreen Performing Arts Festival in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Stevie directed Yasmina Reza’s Art and the English language premiere of Aristides Vargas’ Our Lady of the Clouds.

Please join us to see Stevie bring her personal touch to Doubt at the QTC!

DOUBT: A PARABLE by John Patrick Shanley (7 April – 7 May 2017)

TICKETS and other show information available HERE.official-qtc-banner-2016

The Actors of THE NIGHT ALIVE Talk About Their Roles: Matthew Vaky plays Tommy

771471-250Matthew was last seen at Quotidian in Conor McPherson’s The Birds. The Night Alive centers on his character, Tommy.

“You said it Marvin.  What’s going on? That is the question.” 

I say that line in The Night Alive.  The question isn’t “to be or not to be?”  The question is “What’s goin’ on”?    It is such a funny, cryptic, tongue in cheek, yet brilliant and deep question.   As Tommy, Aimee and Doc dance onstage, I can feel McPherson giggling, because at the end of this gem, the audience wants to know “What the heck is goin’ on?  What just happened?”

For me, it is the question that hangs over Tommy’s life and throughout the play.   What has happened to me?  How did I get to this state?  I am estranged from my wife and my kids.  My get-rich plans have not worked out, to say the least. I try so hard, yet I live in complete and cluttered bedlam. What is goin’ on indeed?  Tommy is simply trying to do the best he can, yet his world is a swirling mass of chaos. In a split second decision, he helps Aimee, who has just been assaulted, by bringing her into his flat.  This action sets his life spinning in ways that at times seem out of control and at others seem destined by fate.

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David Dubov, Joe Palka, and Matthew Vaky in THE NIGHT ALIVE (photo by StJohnn Blondell)

At rehearsals, we kept unearthing enigmatic, cryptic, and magical ideas:  Is this whole thing a metaphor with Maurice as God and Kenneth as the Snake in the Garden?  Are these characters spiraling into a black hole? Kenneth does describe the darkness outside Tommy’s flat that way. Has time slowed down for these characters and have they crossed over into something otherworldly?  As an actor, I have loved exploring these ideas, but ultimately the beauty of this play is the humanity of these people.  It’s a play about people, plain and simple, and my flawed and kindly Tommy is a joy to embody.   


The Night Alive runs October 21 – November 20, 2016 at The Writer’s Center, where QTC is the Resident Theatre Company. Tickets are on sale now

Behind the Scenes of THE NIGHT ALIVE with Lighting Designer Don Slater

Don Slater is QTC’s Resident Lighting Designer.

Don Slater
Don Slater

As has been noted in other QTC posts, The Night Alive is my ninth Conor McPherson play.   I very much enjoy working on them as his writing style and my lighting style mesh well.  My lighting is largely naturalistic to realistic and tends to be on the dark side.  McPherson’s plays are similar in nature.  This commonality makes the process of lighting the plays a lot easier.

Having worked with Jack and Stephanie for 17 years (and designed for the logistics of The Writer’s Center during that time), we have a very comfortable collaborative process.  I read the script through several times, getting a feel for the piece, determining the locations and times of day, and learning something about the characters.

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John Decker in THE VEIL (photo by StJohnn Blondell)

In the case of The Veil and Shining City, there were special effects to create.  For those of you who saw The Veil, the ghost of the little girl was a lighting effect, not a projection.  The mirror effect at the end of the play was not a reflection – the light was passing through the mirror.  The Night Alive does not require any such effects.  There has been a bit of speculation about the light swirling above the center of the stage during scene changes.  Jack and I discussed how we might create an effect to cover the noise and bustle of the scene changes, especially since the pacing of The Night Alive is important.  We had two water effects projectors we used to create part of the environment for Port Authority many years ago.  I ran some tests with them and felt that they could work for us.  The effect is interesting and serves the purpose as well as generating some questions about what it represents.  Like McPherson, I leave that to the audience.  The rest of the lighting is straightforward and functional.  I tried to keep the scenes sufficiently illuminated and yet dark and spotty at the same time, to complement the sort of life in which the characters are living.


The Night Alive runs October 21 – November 20, 2016 at The Writer’s Center, where QTC is the Resident Theatre Company. Tickets are on sale now

The Actors of THE NIGHT ALIVE Talk About Their Roles: Joe Palka as Maurice

The Actors of THE NIGHT ALIVE Talk About Their Roles: Joe Palka as Maurice
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Joe Palka joins a stellar cast in the QTC’s The Night Alive, playing the role of Maurice. He shares with us how he continues to grow in his understanding of his character and the play.

It’s become conventional wisdom among the cast members that Maurice is a God-like figure (thanks to David Dubov’s initial interpretation that had not dawned on me until he mentioned it!)  He looms from above, only coming down to pass judgment and guide behaviors.  One might even liken him to Zeus, with the thunder of his cane pounding from above, but his character must also exist in a realistic, human form–experiencing guilt, anger and concern for the passing of time and the end of life.  He has a transcendent awareness that “living in the moment” is the only thing that matters, and he suffers a terrible sadness that he cannot control man’s choices.  When he becomes frustrated at not being able to control the carnage and violence he sees on TV, one must wonder if God has similar frustrations at observing the same carnage and violence, but without the television. (No one doubts–at least I don’t–God’s ability to do something about it, but He has His own reasons for not interfering, should He choose not to do so.)
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Matthew Vaky and Joe Palka in THE NIGHT ALIVE (photo by StJohnn Blondell)

This is my second Conor McPherson endeavor, having portrayed Richard in an acclaimed production of The Seafarer at Scena Theatre.  The spiritual component of The Seafarer is more obvious, of course, when four rowdies play cards with the devil, but the theatre-goer is forced to navigate more obscure symbolism elsewhere.  Although I consider The Seafarer a superior work, The Night Alive is more honest.  McPherson’s symbolism is very apparent, but this is not only a play about the spirit.  It is about Time.  Having lived with the play for some months now, I’m confident the significance of all its devices may not occur to me for some months or years down the road.

Maurice brought me challenges of range.  He is not inherently a humorous character like Richard or Captain Boyle in Juno and the Paycock.  However, he is not completely lacking in humor – he wouldn’t be Irish if he was – but he is dealing with the guilt of losing his wife, which continues to cast a shadow over everything.  He is sweet when he meets Aimee, but he becomes vindictive shortly thereafter due to his frustration with the aimlessness of the others.  McPherson allows for no clear explanation, but again, it’s a play about Time.  One of the beauties of the play is how it allows the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps.  That is the essence of great theatre, and McPherson is a writer uniquely gifted for the theatre.

The Night Alive runs October 21 – November 20, 2016 at The Writer’s Center, where QTC is the Resident Theatre Company. Tickets are on sale now

The Actors of THE NIGHT ALIVE Talk About Their Roles: Grant Cloyd as Kenneth

grant-cloyd-headshotGrant Cloyd makes his QTC debut in The Night Alive as Kenneth. He shares how he approached playing “evil.”

“Evil has no meaning” – so says Maurice in scene 4 of The Night Alive. In many ways, working on a character as troubled and troubling as Kenneth has entailed adhering to that adage. As a performer I can’t play “evil”. I simply say the words and perform the actions that McPherson wrote and let the audience react and judge as they see fit. My work is to find the mindset and the backstory that justifies these actions. And in this case, the answers often aren’t found in Kenneth’s lines – in which he is frequently coy, cagey or outright deceitful. He is more than willing to “pull your peanut” to get the information he needs while providing little insight to his own motivations.

Throughout the play, McPherson poses more questions than he answers for Kenneth. The script reveals that he drives a car, is prone to violence, and that Aimee denies she knows him until eventually revealing, “He’s my boyfriend,” before quickly clarifying, “Well, my ex.” Later, when asked how she could be with “someone like that” she simply offers, “He changed.” Little else is said about Kenneth. Indeed, he is never even named for the audience – no character says his name and he never introduces himself at any point. The only reason the audience might know his name is because it’s listed in the program.

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Chelsea Mayo and Grant Cloyd in THE NIGHT ALIVE. photo by StJohnn Blondell

Ultimately, this limited pool of information is a gift. It allows me (and my cast-mates and director) to use these kernels to create a backstory that fits within McPherson’s generous parameters. I get to answer those questions. What is Kenneth doing when he is not on-stage? How did he change? What is his relationship with Aimee? Why does he do what he does? What was his childhood like? What kind of car does he drive? The list goes on and on, or as Kenneth might say, “round and round”. And though I have a lot of questions to answer, McPherson only gives Kenneth one problem to solve. It’s a problem which speaks to both the core of the character and the task of the performer: Kenneth and I both have to find some way, “To forget that a devil lives inside of [me] and [I] should probably just go home but [I] can’t do that.”


The Night Alive runs October 21 – November 20, 2016 at The Writer’s Center, where QTC is the Resident Theatre Company. Tickets are on sale now