First on the west coast of by Lucas Hnath A public reading of an unproduced script on the death of Walt Disney opens March 26, 2022 at the Odyssey Theater. Peter Richards leads the cast of Kevin Ashworth, Brittney Bertier, Thomas Piper and Cory Washington. Peter allowed me to explore the interworking of A Public Read…, as well as his acting/directing career trajectory.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Pierre!
Lucas Hnath’s script for A Public Reading of An Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney has landed on your desk for the first time as an artistic consultant for the Tides Foundation’s Venturous Theater Fund. What aspects of this scenario piqued your interest?
Three aspects of the script immediately piqued my interest: first, the play’s language is fascinating in its elliptical, repetitive and poetic musicality. Second, the structure of the play – a reading of a script in a play – is very imaginative. Third, fragmented, fast-paced dialogue—featuring characters who seemingly finish each other’s thoughts—is a style of writing that was new to me. Critics of this play often compare it to the dialogue in a play by David Mamet. The minimalist quality of this text, however, is even more austere than a typical Mamet piece, something quite original.
Do you know the other works of Lucas Hnath?
I have read all of his published works and have seen A Doll’s House, Part 2, The Thin Place, The Christians, and the world premiere of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney.
Was your initial response to direct this piece, rather than act in it?
I’m studying the role of Roy, so in this production I guess I’m doing both! But, yes, my initial response has always been to lead. As a director, I’m drawn to projects and plays that scare me a bit, and I knew the style of this play would present a fun challenge – something I could sink my teeth into as a director. And having grown up in Southern California – the home of Disneyland and Disney Studios – I knew I wanted to tell this story here, where I hope it will have a special resonance.
How long was the gestation period of producing that West Coast premiere at the Odyessy?
I guess the gestation started when I first read the play in 2013, before it was staged. I knew I wanted to put it in LA, so when I moved here from New York in 2018, it was at the top of my list.
This production was originally scheduled to begin rehearsals in March 2020, when we were derailed by the pandemic. We were fully cast, the designs were ready, the welcome emails had been sent…and then suddenly it all stopped. So it’s been a long time! This is the first indoor theater project I’ve done since the pandemic, and I’m thrilled we were able to regroup and reboot.
What would be your three-line pitch for A Public Reading of an Unproduced Script About Walt Disney’s Death?
This piece will shake up your idea of Walt Disney; make you laugh at death, ego and family; and will provide viewers with a truly unique theatrical experience.
What was your first exposure to Walt Disney? Cartoons on TV? Movies in theaters? Disneyland?
I went to Disneyland as a kid where my favorite rides were the Matterhorn and Splash Mountain. My favorite Disney movie by far was “Beauty and the Beast”, which I saw twice in theaters when it first came out. I was a sucker for the romantic prince-princess storyline; the music (who doesn’t love Angela Lansbury singing the title track?!) and comedy were icing on the cake.
Did your involvement in this play change your perception of Walt Disney – for good or bad?
This piece made me think a lot more about what it means to have a name, like Walt Disney, which is more than human, which represents a company, a brand, an idea, an aesthetic and maybe even a way of life , to see the world. The tension and contradictions of living such a life – both embodying a human being in the flesh while representing so much more – fascinate me more than ever.
Is one of the actors or former creatives of your productions?
Yeah, I’ve worked with Thomas Piper, who plays Roy, more times than I can count. He has acted in many productions that I have directed, and I have also acted with him in Shakespearean plays and as a member of Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant company. We first worked together in a production of As You Like It in 2005, and have worked together steadily since, most recently in Kevin Armento’s Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally solo show, also at the Odyssey Theater , in which Tommy starred.
Your director resume includes both classic and contemporary projects. What specific qualities of each appeal to you in each genre?
I find myself drawn to the classics, in part because they give me the opportunity to tackle a deeper language – the poetry of Shakespeare, the lyrical melodrama of O’Neill. It calls for a mode of expression capable of conveying a story with particular power and force.
When it comes to contemporary pieces, I try to look for unique styles of expression that engage the audience and make them sit in their chair. A public reading… is a good example. Annie Baker’s The Aliens is another; it’s a piece that’s about a third silent. When a member of the public is faced with discomfort when sitting down in their chair, these contemporary pieces can offer great rewards.
You earned her master’s degree in theater from Harvard University’s ART Institute for Advanced Theater Training. Did a particular incident push you to move on to directing?
Even when I was studying theatre, I always wanted to direct one day. Directing allows me to use my analytical skills more; I’m responsible for the whole story, for all the characters, not just the script of the character I’m playing as an actor. And I’ve always been a big fan of writers. The director’s job is to bring this writer’s vision to life, filtered through your own ideas; the realization allows me to live a little in the brain of our great writers, and to learn from them.
You are a founding member of the New York-based company Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant in 2009. How original was the idea of an interactive dinner service/show? Did you have a precursor to Conni’s to learn from?
The idea for Conni’s was born out of a joke the cast of As You Like It had one night at a casting party: what if a troupe of avant-garde theater artists guard decided to take over and run a restaurant? It was a crazy enough question that the actors decided we needed to form a theater company, put on a show, and figure out the answer. Our show became something of an off-Broadway underground hit, and ultimately we were at the forefront of a wave of interactive theater catering events. Before Conni’s there was, of course, the traditional “dinner theatre”, which is in every way what Conni’s tries do not to be.
Your last Conni production dates back to 2018. Are you planning to revise a 2022 production?
We don’t have any recovery plans at the moment, but you never know when the band might get back together!
Can you explain how writers can apply for the Tides Foundation’s Venturous Theater Fund? What criteria are needed, if any.
Visit the website: www.venturoustheaterfund.org
Our core program provides support to theater companies that produce plays that require extraordinary costs beyond the needs of a typical production, such as an exceptionally large cast. We cannot support writers directly, although we do support writers through partner organizations such as New Dramatists and The Playwrights Center. We also support playwrights who self-produce through their own theater company.
What future for Peter Richards?
I will be performing in a production of Much Ado About Nothing in Maine this summer, playing Don John, the villain. I will also do my best to play the role of silly dad for my 4 month old daughter. She is definitely my toughest critic.
Thanks again, Peter! I can’t wait to see your and Lucas’ take on Walt Disney.
Thank you! I can’t wait to see you at the show!
For tickets to live performances of A Public Reading of An Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney through May 1, log on to www.Onstage411.com/Disney