Professional actors. Professional productions.

Interview with The Syringa Tree Director Sean Christopher Lewis

April 12, 2011 - 10:43 AM

This is guest post by Jennifer Fawcett of Working Group Theatre

Sean Christopher Lewis is an actor, director, playwright, sound designer, and Artistic Director of Working Group Theatre.  In addition to The Syringa Tree, he has also directed Atlas of Mud, produced by his company Working Group Theatre on the Riverside stage, and Mary’s Wedding.  Outside of Riverside, he directed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe at the Old Creamery Theatre, and Hand Grenade Holly at Arts Spark in Austin, TX.  He was recently featured on This American Life.

Q.  What drew you to The Syringa Tree?

Sean:  Having just returned from my first trip to Africa, the subject matter was an immediate draw. Also, I had no idea what it was on the page. It's actually a really difficult play to read because there are so many characters and such short scenes. It's really rather confounding and when Ron and Jody gave it to me I couldn't get through it. But I also knew it had been produced before so I took it as a challenge. It's hard not to take on a challenge - I felt my not understanding it on the page would force a more playful and imaginative staging. That's exciting to me.

Q.  As an experienced solo performer, how do you work with an actor to help them craft a solo performance like this one? 

Sean:  Solo performance is really a different kind of theatre. We allow more in a solo show because we're also asked to invent more. We have to work with the actor to accept that there are more people on stage then we see. Gesture and vocalizations are a huge thing I'm interested in as a director of solo pieces. Solo work is very physical and precise. You need to be simple and clear with everything. 

Q.  How is it different than working with actors in a play with a larger cast?

Sean:  An ensemble show has multiple moving parts so you're conducting the movement and flow of the action. You have to be constantly focused scene by scene because so many journeys need to be completed.


A solo show usually has a simpler focus. The main character is easy to identify and the journey they go on is usually incredibly clear. However, the journeys of the secondary characters are usually less fulfilled. Their story isn't going to fill them as a character in the way they would if you were doing Arthur Miller (where even secondary characters discuss entire back stories and off stage lives). So you need to create that from scratch and use that to choose how they move, posture and speak.

Q.  In addition to directing the show, you also designed the sound.  How do you use sound as a director to help guide an audience through a show? 

Sean:  I think we're saturated in sound. We hear it in movies and commercials, at the supermarket or mall - it's everywhere. In a way silence has become the more unsettling thing... that said I typically use a lot of sound. For me it's transition, mood and environment - certain worlds demand sound for us to leave our everyday lives and embrace what's in front of us. It can invite us in. It takes a lot of focus - there are monologues that work like arias - and I might treat them as such, underscoring them so they lift into something more epic. Sound can direct an actor- I've used it to help set the pace of a scene or speech.  It's a collaboration. If the sound isn't melded that deeply in the performance of the actors than why have it?


The Syringa Tree, for instance, demands a specific environment - the empty stage can be filled by the African drum. We have a perception of Africa that draws up the sunsets we've seen in photos, the plains and safari... Lizzie is a little girl for most of the play and time shifts back and forth toward the end so there's a longing, a gentleness of youth that can be accented with music. Saffron is also a powerhouse actress. In that sense I also know to back off and let her move the show not the sound. 


Check out Sean’s newest solo show, Just Kids at Working Group Theatre’s Under Construction Solo Festival, April 23 – May 1.


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