Emily Penick Wants You to Put Your Phone Down: Umbrella Project in Conversation with RED STAGE Artistic Director Emily Penick

Emily Penick Wants You to Put Your Phone Down
RED STAGE sets out to promote human connection by producing plays and creating community.

Emily Penick is the artistic director of RED STAGE, a new company of female theatre artists also including Keiko Green, Stephanie Haire, and Julia Nardin whose mission is to champion emerging playwrights from across the country by producing provocative, socially relevant theatre in Seattle. RED STAGE has partnered with ACT to produce Mark Chrisler’s Worse Than Tigers, which will lay the foundation for future RED STAGE projects, including civic and community partnerships and charitable work benefitting Seattle. We got a sneak peek of the world premiere of Worse Than Tigers, opening tomorrow night in the Bullitt Cabaret at ACT Theatre. Penick, director of Worse Than Tigers, took a break from tech rehearsals to chat with Umbrella Project’s Executive Director, Norah Elges, about the challenge of first productions, Seattle’s impending ‘big moment’, and the etiquette of social media.  

Norah Elges: What is it to make new work in Seattle? Why is it important?
Emily Penick: It’s a challenge producing a world premiere with a brand-new theatre company mainly because both the theatre [community] and larger Seattle communities don’t know who we are yet. Worse Than Tigers is about provoking actual human connection in an age when we’ve become isolated by technology. I think that’s a grim reality we’re all dealing with right now. And how fun is it to find a deliciously smart and funny script to hold a mirror up to our flawed modern society?

NE: Is that what attracted you to Worse Than Tigers as the inaugural RED STAGE production?
EP: I first experienced Mark Chrisler’s bitingly witty comedic voice six years ago when we were both getting our MFAs, in directing and playwriting respectively, at Ohio University.  Here was this deeply thoughtful and provocative Chicago playwright who could soul-dive into the deeper conversations and conflicts plaguing our modern society, all the while making us laugh at the absurdity of our reality. He was writing comedy with substance. Mark’s voice struck me as a combination of Pinter, Mamet, and Albee I’ve carried this particular script of his close to my heart for the past few years, waiting for it to have its moment. Perhaps you heard it in the Construction Zone reading at ACT last year, or at a Pipeline reading for NCTC. This script has been praised from Stella Adler Studios in NYC to the Ilkholm Theatre in Uzbekistan. And now it comes to life here at ACT, in what will be the first of many US productions, I’m sure.

NE: How does Worse Than Tigers fulfill your mission and empower female voices and theatre artists? How does this play ask us to view women?
EP: R.E.D. stands for Risk, Engage, Discover. I founded RED STAGE because I wanted a theatre company in which women curate the conversation. Worse Than Tigers has at its heart, the story of a very strong and passionate woman who is trying to re-enter the world after becoming emotionally cut-off. Olivia, played by the brilliant Kirsten Potter, goes through an incredible transformation over the course of the evening, as she tries to engage more fully with her world and the people in it. The tone is comedic and absurd, but the meat of the story lies in the vital need for human connection and empathy.

NE: As a dramaturg, my first question in moving work forward is, “Why this play now?” What about Worse Than Tigers  needs to be shared with current Seattle audiences?
EP: Are you sick of people curating  their Facebook profiles more than they cultivate their actual human relationships? Does it disturb you how commonplace it has become to find out about a death or a national tragedy on social media instead of from a friend or loved-one? Worse Than Tigers confronts these very real real-world problems in an absurdly brilliant comedy.

NE:  Definitely turn off your cell phones.  What else should audiences know before they walk into this play?
EP: It’s a 90 minute comedic thrill-ride that will make you laugh and cry. The vivacious Kirsten Potter married to the hilarious Brad Farwell are comedic gold, and they are complemented beautifully by the sexy and unpredictable John William Watkins (from the cast of SLEEP NO MORE in New York). There are secondary productions in the works in Chicago and New York (literary managers across the country  love this script!), so see it first in Seattle and support this fledgeling all-female theatre company. Also, Jennifer Zeyl’s brilliant set design has made the Bullitt Cabaret unrecognizable.

NE: How does RED STAGE plan to continue to execute its mission statement beyond Worse Than Tigers
EP: We are a young company who will only produce scripts that we truly believe have a future beyond Seattle and that will have a greater life in the American theatre — in the national conversation. So, with the loose goal of producing one play a year, I’m very invested in the connective-tissue between productions, which will be RED STAGE salons and community events crafted on the model of women in the arts sharing resources and supporting each other’s work. I’ve been amazed, in my 12 years of directing, how few peers and mentors women in arts leadership have to turn to for help or advice. It can often feel like you’re “going it alone” as a young female director or set designer or sound designer or playwright. RED STAGE wants to connect women as well as other underserved voices in the arts who feel isolated in their pursuit of excellent theatre-making. After Worse Than Tigers kicks things off, RED STAGE community events will bring artists together to knit a stronger tomorrow for women in the arts.

NE: How does RED STAGE hope to contribute to the local and national conversation?
EP: I believe that Seattle is about to have a huge moment. We are a rapidly-growing international city with a blossoming theatre scene that is starting to get significant national attention. My sincere hope for RED STAGE — and Seattle as a whole — is that the rest of the country will be looking to us for the next excellent new plays to sweep across the regional theatre scene. We want to help make Seattle a national destination for new play development.

NE: Umbrella Project and RED STAGE certainly share a lot of the same goals: making Seattle a destination for new plays and nurturing playwrights being two of them.  What does RED STAGE joining the UP network mean to you? 
EP: Yes, we do share a lot of the same goals. Championing new play development takes a lot of resources, as you know. A small, or even large, theatre can’t do it alone. Producing new plays takes a certain amount of risk. It takes an entire community getting excited and invested in a shared goal for a new theatre company or a new play to be successful. That’s what excites me about Umbrella Project. It’s not just me saying “Hey, come see my play because I think it’ll help make the world feel a little less lonely” it’s more like “HEY! Let’s all lean into this beautiful moment Seattle has to lead a charge for new play development!” It’s a tangible feeling now that many Seattle theatres large and small have new play development as a priority, and RED STAGE is  thrilled to join that  conversation.

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