Sunday, September 20, 2009

Meet Brenda Lilly of Occasional Theatre

News flash: For the third straight year ACT is teaming with the award-winning Occasional Theatre to produce Return of an Angel, a powerful play by Sandra Mason that explores the "love-hate" relationship Asheville had with its most famous son, Thomas Wolfe.

Brenda Lilly and her husband Michael co-founded Occasional Theatre in Los Angeles in 1998. Their initial production, Elephant Sighs, earned several awards; since then they have produced plays all over the country. Now they have brought their theatre back to Asheville where Brenda grew up.

Brenda was nice enough to join me for breakfast last Thursday to discuss Occasional Theatre and "Angel." Check out the highlights from our Q & A.

You've produced plays all over the country. How did you settle on Asheville as a home for OT?

I grew up in Asheville and wanted to come back to be closer to my family. It was always 'home' even when we were living and working in L.A. and New York. And it's always been a theatre-loving community. From Tanglewood to ACT to a variety of acting troupes that would appear here every summer at the Flat Rock and Parkway Playhouses -- Asheville has always had a flair for the dramatic. And as a television writer, I can work from anywhere now, thanks to technology -- I even wrote a series for Russian television from here! So why not place our theatre in every blog's most 'desirable' place to live -- that also happens to be my hometown!

This is the third time you will team with ACT for "Angel," and there are obvious links between Asheville and Return of an Angel. What do you think makes this show so special?

Asheville has a really unique history and this play explores and celebrates that history. This play is not only about Thomas Wolfe, it's about this city, its people, the power of celebrity and gossip, and the difficulties of an artist's life. It also explores the relationship Wolfe had with his family, often in humorous ways. But there is a tenderness and a love for Asheville that permeates Sandra Mason's play. And that's very special. It's also important that Thomas Wolfe's work is honored as we celebrate the 80th anniversary of Look Homeward, Angel.

Tell us about some of the cast members of the show.
Tom Dalton plays Thomas Wolfe. He's from the eastern part of NC and is a marvelous actor and a dead-ringer for Wolfe! Maggie Marshall is from Los Angeles and we knew her and her work from our days on the West Coast. Stephen Moore is from Greensboro and has worked with Michael on several plays and we were delighted that he came on board to play Fred Wolfe. We saw Carla Pridgen as the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz at ACT. She was the first person we thought of to play Julia -- not that Julia was a wicked witch! I went to college with Joanna Beck who plays Margaret Roberts. And we had open auditions and found Tiffany Cade, who plays Lola Love, and Randy McCracken, who plays George McCoy. I met Diane LaSpada at All Souls and thought she would be perfect as the 'Book Club' friend -- and she is!

Can you share with us a Did you Know? fun fact about the show?
Sonny Bell plays Max Perkins, the acclaimed Scribner's editor who 'discovered' Thomas Wolfe and had the very difficult job of editing Wolfe's enormous manuscripts. Audiences may remember Sony as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

One of OT's goals is to seek out compelling plays to produce. How do you decide which shows to produce, and what's on the horizon for the rest of the year for you?

Michael has developed strong relationships with many writers and actors over the years at various theatres. He has a great respect for them and they love to work with him -- he's really gifted as a dramaturge. Now, we're fortunate enough to get first shot at their plays. If we feel we're in a position to produce it, we contact our actors who know how much fun it is to work on a new play with Michael and can't say no to him. We've got two pieces written by Jan Powell and Ken Stone, a children's musical and a dark tale of local interest -- also a musical -- that we're hoping to produce this coming year. We've also got a play by Patricia Green that's a new take on Shakespeare, a mystery by Peter Colley, and a family comedy by Sybil Rosen. Ed Simpson, who is 'playwright-in-residence' for Occasional Theatre, has a wonderful play about the Greensboro sit-in by A&T students that we're very interested in producing here. So we hope to have a full plate coming up.

Return of an Angel
premieres on the ACT Mainstage on Friday, October 2 and runs through October 11. Showtimes are Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30pm, and Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2:30pm. Reserve your tickets today!

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