Rhinos Storm the Modern Theatre
The Modern Theatre at Suffolk University is bracing for impact. Presented by the Boston Playwright’s Theatre, a cast and crew, lead by resident Theatre Professor Wesley Savick, are preparing to unleash a new production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros running tomorrow, Thursday February 24th through March 13th. Promising to be yet another exciting installment in the Savick/Suffolk Theatre Repertoire, I sat down with Savick and a few of the cast members to discuss the show, working with alumni and what’s next for Savick…
The Suffolk Voice: Start by explaining Rhino, for people who don’t know what this show is about, without giving too much away…
Wesley Savick: I’ll try. The play was written by Eugene Ionesco, who is from Romania, but he moved to France, and the play is written in French, and there’s a couple things to say about Ionesco. Professor stuff. You know he’s credited, along with Samuel Beckett, as being part of this movement after the Second World War: Theatre of the Absurd. Kind of hard to describe; they were making theatre pretty much not just about a logical situation, but the illogic of the First and Second World Wars threw a lot of artists into a new way of thinking about things and how do you express that on stage? It felt like realistic and naturalistic storytelling wasn’t expansive enough to contain the immensity and horror and foolishness of those events. So Ionesco, who witnessed the World Wars and quite a lot after that in the 1950s, started writing these plays that were very unusual. They typically would include wild twists of logic and he would set a metaphor in motion in a play and it became coherent but it’s almost as if the play has its own logic that does not exist in the rest of the world. Rhinoceros was a play that just stumbled upon this metaphor that is perfect [in expressing] what happens when people shed their humanity to join a big group movement. Now there are a lot of big group movements that are for the better, one of my cast members Jake Athyal (Mr. Shop Owner and Fireman; graduated class of ‘14) asked me, “well can’t a Rhinoceros be good? Like the civil rights movement.” And I thought, well I wonder if that’s what he meant by “Rhinoceros”. The original context for Ionesco was people losing their humanity and becoming something like this angry animal with horns and tough skin that just charges at people, which was his metaphor for Fascism in some ways, and the group-thinking that can lead to the rise of a Fascist.
SV: So with all of that, why this play? Why exactly now?
WS: The play isn’t done very much anymore, and I’m mystified by that. I learned it in school and I don’t know if Suffolk students read it but it’s the type of play that you read in school and never see a production of and it felt like a very good time given our political situation and the whole global situation. To bring this play back and see what light it sheds on the world and that’s what brings us to the Rhino this time.
SV: So you expect people to be able to draw parallels between what happening right now versus what’s happening on stage?
WS: I think they will, and even if they don’t, I think it’s a very enjoyable show. Our production is very physical, it’s very visceral, it’s very comic in some ways, and I think the metaphor is there for those who want to chase it down and if you don’t and you just wanna see a sort of tragic comedy, because there’s many farcical funny moments in the play and also, I found in rehearsals, it’s also deeply sad and very upsetting.
SV: So a typical Wes Savick show?
WS: Oh boy! [laughs] Well, yeah. You know it’s something I’m drawn to. I like these plays that kind of hit all the notes, usually at the same time. I’ve been a big fan of this play for a long long time.
SV: Why the focus on alumni? I don’t know if any of the actors aren’t alumni, but I know most of them are individuals you have worked with before, including Raya Malcolm(‘16), who is almost an alumni. Was that an idea you had after you decided to do the show?
WS: No, before. I think, what I wanted to see happen, and the whole department feels this way, a lot of students come to Suffolk, and they think other schools are better. You know, the “first-choice” that you don’t get into, [in this case] related to Theatre. I think that the graduates of the Suffolk University Theatre Department are ready to go. They come out with powerful skills and insights and abilities. I’ve always felt that way, even when I started here back in 2000. Right away I was seeing students and my real feeling with Suffolk students is they are very empathetic. They’ve got a good insight into what makes other people tick. They have a good love for other people so the things I find Suffolk students draw on in their work is authentic and imaginative and compelling and grounded in humanity. It’s not pretentious. And even if they are, they’re in a loving community that says “eh, are you sure you wanna do that?”, and it gets corrected. And that’s true for me too when I’m working with all of [the students]. So, I think that skill as an actor, that sense of who people are, what the truth of a situation is, behaving honestly and generously with each other, it’s very special and I think it’s something that we try to encourage in the Theatre Department and as a result, when students come out of four years of five or however long they are around, they can compete and win against any of the other graduates in town.
SV: So this, the whole process of staging this adaptation of Rhinoceros, in a sense, was a way to showcase a play that people don’t normally see and also students that they don’t normally see?
WS: Couldn’t agree more. It’s a two-for.
SV: How’s the process been?
WS: Harrowing but Exciting. I can’t even begin to tell you how moving it is to see all these different generations of people who I was there for all of, but they weren’t for each other. So it’s really moving to have people who were my students fifteen years ago and people who are still students now all involved in this thing. What i’m hoping is that this initiative can keep going and that Suffolk Students feel collectively emboldened to realize, “hey we’ve got something valuable to say and were ready to help each other out.” There’s a kind of Suffolk Theatre Mafia growing in town and – I know that word is pejorative – but it’s a community of Theatre artists that are coming from Suffolk University and it’s a powerful force and anything I can do to help that force go further is a good thing.
SV: So what would you say is the exact reason why you choose to stay with Suffolk? With all the professional work you do outside of the University, why not just fully commit yourself to doing more of that?
WS: Well, [shows at Suffolk] are my favorite ones to do. I think doing shows at Suffolk, is the place where, ultimately, I can take the biggest risks and explore the projects that I’m most excited about and discover what these things are. And that’s kind of what we want to encourage here [at Suffolk]. So I feel duty bound to encourage that by example to. I cant just tell everybody to do all of that, I have to be doing it myself with everybody so students can see me make mistakes or see me try something that may or may not work out. That is all part of a process, I just have more experience doing it, but it’s still the same process. And Suffolk Students, I feel, are very willing and they want things but they don’t feel entitled to them. That’s gold for an Actor and for a Theatre worker. To be game for anything. I’m not lying when I say that it’s my favorite group of people to work with, it always is. These other professional things may be more gratifying and there’s more exposure, different kinds of challenges but to work with Suffolk Students… wow. That’s the best.
SV: And when did you exactly come to Suffolk?
WS: 2000. I was working on a play on Cape Cod and I didn’t know what was gonna happen in my life, I was kind of at sea. But this actress, she came to me and asked if I had heard of an opening at Suffolk University. “What’s that?” I didn’t even know what it was. So I drove up to Boston to see the building and I applied. This was August 15th that I first heard of the job. I got the job September 1st and my first day of classes was September 2nd and I had to start auditioning for a show that I hadn’t picked yet on September 3rd. [laughs] I bought one of those fold-out recliners, because I was still living on Cape Cod at the time commuting back and forth everyday, so I could sleep for two or three hours before rehearsals everyday.
SV: I guess if you’re going to jump into anything that’s the way to do it.
WS: Exactly right.
SV: Were you a professor before?
WS: Adjunct. I taught at Marquette University in Milwaukee for several years, but I just had a Bachelor’s Degree when I did that, I was 26. They had me teaching which was nice but they never told me I had classes coming for free as I taught. So I had been there three years and said, “oh didn’t you know you could be taking classes?” So they decided to let me teach another year, transfer some credits from [outside work] and they were going to give me a Masters Degree in a year. So I did. And then I went to Northwestern for a PHD.
SV: So when did this interest in teaching actually start for you?
WS: When I was at Marquette. I was artistic director of a small experimental theatre company and someone called me for some reason and said “Wes, do you want to teach Intro to Theatre, Acting and Directing?” I said sure, but the students were only three or four years younger than me. With only a Bachelors at the time teaching Directing, Acting, Acting 2, I don’t think they even offered Playwriting but I also taught the big Intro course. One of my students from there designed his first play for me and he won the Oscar last year for Set Design for The Grand Budapest Hotel and the year before that he designed 12 Years a Slave, Moonrise Kingdom he designed, and this year he designed Bridge of Spies and the first thing he designed was Dracula for me [bursts out laughing].
SV: So I’m assuming that you’ve been living your life through Theatre for quite a while, when did you decide that this was your schtick?
WS: I was very active in high school and when I got to college – my family was not so financially secure – so I was kind of worried how I’d support myself in life. So when I got to College I thought if I don’t get cast in anything, if nothing comes my way maybe I’ll try Dentistry School or, well not Dentistry School but…
SV: Something more “practical”?
WS: Yeah, but I was never discouraged quite enough to jump ship.
WS: Yeah it was good.
SV: You’re here so-
WS: Yeah, right!
SV: So with Rhino opening this week, what’s next for you?
WS: I want to attempt to figure out a way to put a history of the Pentagon called House of War on stage and I’m not sure I figured out how to do it yet. So I’m still working on that and I’m directing a play about Isaac Newton at MIT about a day after [Rhinoceros] opens. It’ll be an interesting Spring. And then back to Suffolk next year, however I don’t know what we’ll do. Surprise in waiting.
With the cast, in large part, comprised mostly of past Suffolk Theatre Students, I popped down into the Green Room of the Modern Theatre during a dinner break to ask a few of the cast members…
The Suffolk Voice: What was it like coming back to work with Wes?
Brian Bernhard ‘14: Oh it’s been really interesting because it’s the second time I’ve worked with him after I graduated [Bernhard composed a song for Savic’s production of The Saint Plays in November, 2014]. But in a different capacity, it’s the first time I’ve worked with him as an actor after I’ve graduated which is also… different.
Matthew Finn ‘00: It’s been fantastic because, actually the year I graduated that Spring was the Spring before the Fall that Wes came onto faculty, but then I got a job in the Theatre Department at Suffolk so I never actually got to work with Wes on stage. I’m probably the only person in the cast who hasn’t, I did a Summer class with him, but I’ve acted with Molly [Kimmerling] and Nael [Nacer]. Anyways it’s great. It’s great to finally get to work with him.
Raya Malcolm ‘16: It’s been absolutely amazing and wildly humbling. I feel so incredibly lucky to be working with such an amazingly creative and talented group of artists and it’s very nice to get a taste of the professional world, especially as a student. Also great to be working with alumni, which adds another really cool element and a new kind of connection because most of us in the cast kind of share that commonality which is exciting.
SV: You’re still a student at Suffolk University within the Theatre Department until this May, so how did you come to be involved?
RM: So Wes approached me a couple months ago and told me about this cool project that he was working on and asked if I would be interested in coming on board and it sounded amazing so I said yes and I went to the auditions at [Boston Playwright’s Theatre] and auditioned for Wes and Kate Snodgrass and then got positive results and that I was going to able to be part of this.
SV: That’s awesome
Dana Nacer ’06: Simply Incredible. It really has been. It’s pretty surreal revisiting the play. I was part of the original cast [as part of Wes’ original adaptation of Rhino in 2003 at Suffolk] as Mrs. Butterfly as well.
SV: Were any of the other cast members students who you had worked with?
DN: My husband Nael.
SV: I figured from the last name.
DN: Yeah, we’re not brother and sister. Someone asked me “oh are you guys related?”, and I was like “by choice”, [laughs] they didn’t get it. But, it’s been amazing. Super energized and fun.
Molly Kimmerling ‘04: Simply the best. There’s already a built-in trust, not just with Wes, but the students who I had done shows with so there’s that, it’s refreshing and energizing. Inspiring to see him work with us and you feel like you’re actually doing something important. You feel like there’s a bigger thing that you’re going towards.
Rhinoceros opens with the Boston Playwright’s Theatre and Suffolk University on Thursday, February 25th at 7:30 pm and runs through March 13th at the Modern Theatre at 525 Washington Street. For more information and ticket info visit www.suffolk.edu/theatre.