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Sunset Limited Makes a Stop at The Rogue Theatre Festival

Playwright Michele Privette in front of the closed 13th Street Rep Theatre.

Sunset Limited, written by Michele Privette, is the story of a woman, Gabriel Garcia, who gets off the Sunset Limited train late at night looking for a fresh cup of coffee, and finds herself playing dice with Devil Bill Adams, the proprietor of a tamale truck. They both gamble on the idea that they can figure out each other's secrets.

Opening on Friday, December 11th at the Rogue Theatre Festival 2020, at 7:00pm, this interview by Allison Hohman, founder and producer of the festival, features a conversation with the playwright, followed by a discussion with the show's director, Sarah Wagner (Drawing Cats Production), and also with actor Spencer Steeby, playing the role of Devil Bill Adams. Information on how to view the play is below.

Allison Hohman: Where did you get the inspiration for writing your piece? Michele Privette: This is not in any way a biographical piece, but it's full of snippits of things that have happened to me or stories that I've heard. There was a man in Las Cruces, NM who owned a gas station who went by the name, Devil Bill Adams. I always loved that name and looked for a reason to use it. There was another gentleman who had a lone taco cart open at midnite for folks who got off of the Sunset Limited. And Jim Marshall taught me how to play liar's dice at Vesuvio's in San Francisco.

Allison Hohman: What is your writing process? When inspiration strikes? One hour a day? Michele Privette: I keep trying to discipline myself to write 6 hours a day. But it still tends to be a manic marathon for a few days in a row, where dogs stand cross-legged by the door and the husband tiptoes into the living room. I drench myself in coffee and eat cold soup out of a can. Bill collectors fear my wrath when I am writing. I usually have a dozen websites up to check on vocabulary and "facts." I go walk on the beach and then get back to writing again.

Allison Hohman: How did you first get involved with theater and with becoming a playwright? Michele Privette: My grandfather took me to see Richard Harris and Venessa Redgrave in ​Camelotat the Starlight Theatre in Kansas City when I was 8. Then my parents were Bohemian activists who took me to all kinds of "happenings" and then I saw Teatro Campesino in Mesilla, NM inspire an entire walkout in solidarity of the United Farmworkers and the student teachers at NMSU. How I became a playwright was when I was complaining at length about a particularly sexist play, and a co-worker said, "Well if you don't like it, why don't you write one of your own?" So I went home and wrote a one act that very night.

Allison Hohman: What do you love most about this piece and what will others love about it?

Michele Privette: What I love about it is the old axiom that the characters take over and it's no longer me writing the play but the characters demanding that I include concepts that I hadn't even considered when I sat down to write. I think the audience will like that it's a little bit mysterious, it's a little bit about gambling, both with dice and decisions that we make that can change our lives.

Allison Hohman: What has been most exciting about bringing this script to life? Most challenging?

Michele Privette: It is always a delight to see actors bring my script to life! All those little bits of action that I hadn't even thought of that makes sense the moment an actor starts to bring choices to rehearsal. Most challenging was distance rehearsing. It is difficult to get into subtleties with zoom. Also, for me as a writer, I have to remember that it is the director's show. Although the director and cast were very gracious with their time, I did wax a bit too eloquent when they had specific questions about a moment or a line.

Allison Hohman: How important do you think it is for theatre festivals to offer opportunities for new or up and coming playwrights? Michele Privette: Very very very! In a lot of other art forms, you create it, you show it. But both the joy and the difficulty of theater is that it so much collaboration, and a venue! Also, a festival is not just a way to get your work up on its feet, but its also a way to interface with other artists. I'm looking forward to ​Celine and Justin​, and ​Halloween 1981 ​which share the virtual stage with us on Friday, and everyone else in the 2020 Rogue Fest.

Allison Hohman: How has the rehearsal and performance process differed now in Covid times vs. regular times? Michele Privette: Between Trump and Covid – there is a lot of fear in the air. Not so much abandonment and risk taking as I am used to in rehearsal. More self questioning. On the other hand, we have a process that is home to us and we work through it.

Allison Hohman: If you weren’t a playwright, what would you be doing? Michele Privette: I'd be a quantum physicist. Science is fascinating and I am trying to figure out a way to write a play about quantum phenomena. Already made a draft of it – it's around here somewhere.

Allison Hohman: Any advice for aspiring playwrights? Michele Privette: Write write write write. Read Watch people. Drive a cab. Teach. Work as a bartender. In fact, work 100 different jobs. Walk every street in your town. Find the secret places and communities that no one knows about. Don't ever ever ever play video games again. Write.

Allison Hohman: What’s up next for you? Michele Privette: I'm turning ​Sunset​ into a 3 act, ​The Graveyard Ladies Lunch, ​I also have several submissions of poetry and a bit of flash fiction out in the ether. I have ghost stories on my mind. We love to tell them and hear them, but I don't see them much on stage. ​The Humans​ by Stephen Karam wittily touched upon it, but I'd like to write a good stage ghost story.

Conversation with Director Sarah Wagner.

Allison Hohman: When were you first inspired to be a director? Sarah Wagner: This didn’t happen until I was directing my third college production; my focus was primarily that of an actor for many years. I was working on scene with two actors. After giving them a note, I watched them take it, build off it, and make discoveries amongst themselves that dynamically changed the course of the scene. Watching the end product instilled me with so much pride for the performers and the journey I had witnessed them take. I became addicted to the sensation of making something physical out of something in print.

Allison Hohman: What is your preparation process before going into rehearsals? Sarah Wagner: I start by simply reading the play and then journal about my first impressions. I read somewhere that you can only experience a first read once, so I always make note of my initial experience, any images that came to my head, or times I was emotionally moved and how. Often elements of this find their way into my design! When working with a one act or a shorter work like ​Sunset Limited​, I’ll often give the script a second read. Then, on my third read, I’ll go through with google and look up words and phrases. Even if I already know what the words mean, I feel that specific vocabulary is chosen for specific reasons. Often, looking things up I will make discovery about the word’s origin or secondary use. I copy and paste definitions and articles into a big messy google doc that’s for my eyes only. Next, I will go through the script again and copy down anything that determines the given circumstances. After, I will compose a bit analysis, breaking down the literature into objectives. Once I have a handle on all this information, I’ll look through everything I have so far and use it as the starting point for the designs. I spend a lot of time on Google Images and Pinterest compiling visuals that represent the piece. I pack visuals and any information I’ve found so far into a neat document for the design team. With a play like​SunsetLimited,​ much of this process was speckled with frequent calls and meetings with the playwright.

Allison Hohman: How did you get involved with theater and directing? Sarah Wagner: It was first recommended that I work in theatre by my second grade teacher; and I never left! Working towards my Bachelors in theatre involved me in many facets of theatre and opened the doors for my first professional productions. With the closure of many theatre spaces due to Covid-19, I was approached by many actors who felt displaced. This is what motivated me to start my own production company!

Allison Hohman: What did you love most about directing this piece and what will others love about it? Sarah Wagner: The literature in this piece is so smart. Privette expertly crafts her work with double, and sometimes triple, entendre. It is truly a new experience each time it is read or performed. I think viewers will really appreciate that!

Allison Hohman: What has been most exciting about bringing this script to life? Most challenging? Sarah Wagner: It is always so exciting for me when an actor does something both completely different than I planned, but also more interesting and engaging than anything I could have anticipated. Gabriel’s climactic confrontation near the end of the play was especially exciting to watch develop. I think the most challenging part may have been finding a way to represent a food truck. Finding the right set pieces and props to echo the existence of a food truck and blocking around it was made more a challenge using primarily video chat for our rehearsals.

Allison Hohman: What are some things this rehearsal and performance process has taught you? Sarah Wagner: This process taught me invaluable communications skills. Especially in the new digital and long distance rehearsal process, communication needed to be frequent, clear, and concise. Additionally, I feel that each production I direct pushes me to grow in self confidence and encourages me to trust my gut.

Allison Hohman: How has the rehearsal and performance process differed now in Covid times vs. regular times? Sarah Wagner: The primary difference was that rehearsals were primarily held via zoom. Zoom is a wonderful thing. It can be convenient to rehearse from our own homes, but it also makes for a new way of directing. I am a very physical person and early in the process I like to get up and move around the playing space. With ​Sunset Limited,​ I had to experiment with new methods of communication that involved less physical demonstrations on my part. Also, due to Covid, we were unable to work in the theatre space until the day of filming. Unlike shows that have a tech week, many decisions and adjustments had to be made just before the final performance, which was a huge exercise in trusting my gut and intuition as a director.

Allison Hohman: If you weren’t a director, what would you be doing? Sarah Wagner: If I didn’t get my degree in theatre, I would have studied Psychology and looked to pursue drama therapy. However, in recent years, I have grown increasingly passionate about animal welfare. If my future takes me down a road different from theatre, I believe it will be a career that has something to do with animal rescue.

Allison Hohman: Any advice for aspiring directors? Sarah Wagner: Read, Watch, Listen, and Explore. Read everything you can get your hands on, not just plays, (but read those too!) Watch all means of movies, television, and live performance. Go people watching! Listen to what people say and how they say it. Explore all facets of theatre. Believe it or not, Covid-19 has greatly increased the amount of free theatrical workshops and panels. Listening to others experience with the craft has proven invaluable to me as a director. Be kind and gracious and remember to always thank the creatives and actors you’re working with.

Allison Hohman: What’s up next for you Sarah Wagner: My production company is currently working on its spring lineup of shows! Be sure to follow @drawingcatsproductions on Facebook and Instagram to be the first to know when that is released. As a performer, I am thrilled to be working on the ​Loud Voices Silent Streets​ Podcast: Embergreen Bay​, debuting on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and YouTube in early 2021!

Coversation with Actor Spencer Steeby.

Allison Hohman: When were you first inspired to be an actor? Spencer Steeby: When I was in elementary school I got to see the local high school’s performance of a Shakespeare play (Romeo & Juliet, I believe) and it absolutely blew my very impressionable mind. These actors having fun, telling a story, and just transporting you to a different time and place was quite an amazing experience. It really resonated with me.

Allison Hohman: What is your preparation process before going into rehearsals? Spencer Steeby: Knowing my lines -- which is one of my weakest abilities as an actor -- and putting myself into the moment before the scene starts. In the case of this play, that involved relaxing myself, and lots of coffee.

Allison Hohman: How did you get involved with theater and acting? Spencer Steeby: I participated in a couple one-acts in high school, but I really became involved when I moved to Los Angeles and started studying theater at the LACC Theater Academy.

Allison Hohman: What do you love about your character and what will others love about it? Spencer Steeby: He’s a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy, with a bit of swagger and charm, so he’s relatable in the sense that he gets to be what we sometimes want to be. He has a devil-may-care attitude that some may find interesting. He gets to live his life on the seat of his pants, something I sometimes aspire to do but don’t have the guts to do.

Allison Hohman: What has been most exciting about bringing this script to life? Most challenging? Spencer Steeby: Most exciting had to be discovering a new world of gambling and debauchery that I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by. Most challenging had to have been making this during the time of COVID.

Allison Hohman: How has the rehearsal and performance process differed now in Covid times vs. regular times? Spencer Steeby: I mean, almost everything. In-person rehearsals with your director and playwright are almost non-existent. Thankfully my partner, Denisse, is the other actor in this production so that made rehearsing a whole lot easier. But having no audience to perform to feels more like film than a play, so that benefit has been removed as well.

Allison Hohman: If you weren’t an actor, what would you be doing? Spencer Steeby: Oh lord, I have no idea. There’s way too many things I want to be doing, learning, and understanding. I have some day where I wake up and wish I had gone into firefighting, some days I wish I had pursued a career in psychology. I guess that’s why I chose acting; getting to be whatever the role demands and exploring each new career opportunity that I never had the courage to put my all into. I’m not good with sacrifice, so acting allowed me to be whatever I wanted to be.

Allison Hohman: Any advice for aspiring actors? Spencer Steeby: If you ever feel discouraged or disheartened by yourself, just remember that every actor has sucked at some point or another. Nobody has a perfect track record, and we learn through sucking. So keep sucking, and someday you will suck less. Also, find the fun in everything you do.

Allison Hohman: What’s up next for you? Spencer Steeby: Free as a bird, at the moment. But I’ve got a few projects still being prepped for the oven, and hopefully a movie to be shot next year when COVID winds down. Hopefully.

Cast & Crew

Director: Sarah Wagner, Drawing Cats Productions

Playwright: Michele Privette

Devil Bill Adams: Spencer Steeby

Gabriel Garcia: Denisse Mendoza

Sound Design: Richard Kotara

Photography: Paulina Mendoza

About the Playwright

MICHELE PRIVETTE'S plays include Missing Mountain, InEPT, Playable Action, That Word, Sarafin's Funeral Parlor,The Graveyard Ladies' Lunch and Done Well. PRIVETTE has been produced by Gypsy Theater, Not-a-Penny and Drawing Cats Productions. Awards include the Sager Creek Arts Festival for Dragolito,and the Fever/McMinn Colloquium with Rodolfo Anaya. A member of the Dramatist Guild, MS PRIVETTE earned a BA from OU in Native American Studies; a Creative Writing MFA in from UTEP; an almost MFA in Theater/Sociology from UARK; plus holds the dubious distinction of being censored for two different plays in two different venues in the same semester.

The play debuts Friday, December 11th as part of the Rogue Theatre Festival 2020.


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