This is what community looks like.
I’m on a Zoom call with five D.C. actors: four are sitting together in a Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) rehearsal space in Barracks Row, and one is phoning in while on her bus commute. As I pick their brains about STC’s upcoming production of “Our Town,” opening May 12, they finish one another’s sentences, continuously make each other laugh and listen thoughtfully to each response. This is the equivalent of hitting the goldmine in feature journalism: when the conversation basically carries itself and the writer gets to ride the wave as the story unfolds.
This particular take on “Our Town,” a Pulitzer Prize-winner delivering a meta storyline for the cyclical nature of humanity, has been highly anticipated by D.C.’s theatre community. An eclectic group of stalwart actors and up-and-comers from the local scene have banded together for what STC is touting as a reunion for D.C. actors. From Susie Richard (Joe Stoddard) speaking openly about navigating her career as an actor with a disability to Eric Hissom (Dr. Gibbs) applauding STC for its diverse casting choices, my hour with the cast members covered a lot of ground.
Chinna Palmer (Emily Webb), Christopher Michael Richardson (Howie Newsome) and Larry Redmond (Simon Stimson) brought just as much candor and intentionality to the conversation. Though the age range and experience level of the actors span decades, they remain aligned on all fronts — from their appreciation of STC Associate Artistic Director Alan Paul’s collaborative style to the mirror this play puts up to the audience to invite introspection.
And while not every theatergoer will be as geeked as me for this homecoming, the audience will feel the vibrations of joy from this group of actors who cannot wait to take the stage with their peers and make their town our town for just a few hours.
District Fray: What drew you to this production of “Our Town”? Why did you know you had to do it?
Chinna Palmer: It’s beautiful for so many different reasons, but also has great purpose in terms of the message, “Live your life and appreciate these people and things around you while you can.” That spoke to me dearly. Getting to perform in front of a live audience is like nothing else — no matter where you do it or what you’re working on. Getting to feel that synergy of people in the same room sharing an experience is one-of-a-kind. I’m thrilled to be back, and with such a veteran cast who has already taught me so much. I can’t wait.
Susie Richard: I am so excited to do this show. I have not had much success getting equity roles in this town, but that’s also because I don’t go out and audition. I’m used to the non-equity people just calling me up and either having me come in and read or offering me roles. I got really lazy, so now I’m like, “Why is no one casting me?” [Now] I’m getting a chance to work with the actors I’ve always loved in this town.
Larry Redmond: I’m a late joiner to this company. The truth of the matter is, when I saw the company as it was listed, I was like, “God, I want to be with them, but I’m going to ruin it. If I were in that group, I would ruin this perfect group as it is right now.” So now here I am to ruin the group. [Richard laughs]
Eric Hissom: This show and cast and the fact we’ve had some hardships already with rescheduling the start — there’s a lot of goodwill and resilience here. It’s an amazing play that can feel sort of overdone or sentimental. It’s a play that high schools and community theaters do a lot, and most of us have done or seen one. But it’s really pretty deep and challenging. Every day, it’s like we’re trying to figure out the puzzle of this play. It’s a little bit elusive for all of its simplicity. It’s deceptively challenging in a good way, and I look forward it.
Palmer: I think we would be remiss if we did not touch on the scheduling hiccup and that being such a major part of why I continued on in the show. The way this cast stuck together in making sure we stayed as this unit — because we were so particularly cast in the show — I was just in complete awe and amazement. I don’t think I’d ever felt so connected in the theatre community. We hadn’t even started rehearsals, but I just already felt such a family with this town — our town.
Alan Paul has a sterling reputation for his innovative takes on classic works, and his collaborative approach. What’s it like working with him thus far?
Hissom: He’s just a passionate, smart, funny and self-deprecating presence in the room. He’s very collaborative, which this show has to be.
Richard: He keeps saying, “I just have to stand back and let this cast go because you guys know what you’re doing.” And then he has very specific ideas, which is wonderful. He’s letting us play with that stuff, but I feel very protected.
Redmond: He’s quite collaborative and very smart. And he trusts us, which is even better.
How will the cast’s closeness with one another translate onstage? Do you think the audience will be able to feel that energy?
Richard: As soon as Alan put the cast post up, I think I had like 40 or 50 comments on my Facebook page. I’ve had emails from people like, “Oh my god, I can’t wait. I’m such a fan of yours.” I’m like, “I have fans?” Those audiences who do go to shows all the time, they’re like, “Oh my God, this is amazing.” I always feed on the energy from the audience.
Redmond: And we’re going to be in their face in this show. We won’t be able to hide because it will be in the round — you know, lots of “backting,” lots of butts in their faces. We will be in three dimensions. They’ll be surrounding us and we’ll be surrounding them.
Richard: I feel like audiences are going to feel like part of the show, and that’s kind of cool.
What makes this production relatable to all audiences?
Palmer: The message struck me because of the timing. It’s such an impeccable play to do right now. It’s a deep reflection of these past two years. We’re still grateful to be able to do the show and for audience members to come out. Also, if anyone’s into production value like I am, it certainly is a spectacle — especially for a show that’s so simple and written to be bare boned. It’s so imaginative. It’s great to be a part of. I can’t wait to invite my friends.
Richard: There’s something about this show and the gentleness it gives to death. It’s really examining what that is, and I think that appeals to everybody. We’ve all been trapped inside — and maybe lost someone — and we’re trying to grapple with what that means. It’s just this time of upheaval, and people behaving badly toward each other. “Our Town” is such a beautiful way of bringing all perspectives because this show is about someone young dying. I just think it’s a beautiful metaphor for that.
Hissom: It’s a racially diverse cast. I did a production of it in 2008, and we had colorblind casting. This is more color-conscious because one of the families is African American and one is Caucasian. There are other racial representations throughout the play, but the two main families are two different races. I think it speaks to our moment and it’s something we’re just starting to tap into in terms of what that means for us in this production.
Christopher Michael Richardson: Alan’s approach — it’s not super sentimental, it’s not super lofty, it’s not something that’s being put on a pedestal. We’re letting these people be very real people with real lives and real questions about what it means to live and die — and make something out of your life. I think those are questions we have right now: What are we doing? Is it worth it? There’s a microcosm of that in this little town, which is really great.
What about D.C.’s theatre scene makes you proud, and committed to acting in our city?
Richard: D.C. theatre is, from the bottom up, becoming more and more inclusive. This was a huge thing for me: for Alan to call me up and to know I’m going to be part of this diverse cast. I value that a lot, and I think D.C. is an amazing petri dish for that. I’ve been called by friends [who are] like, “I just had this audition, but I think you’d be perfect for the role.” That’s the way our town works in theatre, and I think the equity theaters reflect that. I’m excited to be here and try and start waking up the consciousness of my community. I can’t even explain what it is about the magic here, but it’s an extended family for all of us and we support each other. By the way, I need some money. [Everyone laughs]
Palmer: I concur. D.C. has been an amazing place to land in terms of starting my career and branching out from here. It’s really slept on in terms of the theatre community because it is so well-rounded.
What aspect of “Our Town” has you next-level excited to be part of the cast?
Richard: I fan girl out occasionally in this production. It’d be nice for me to calm that down. [Laughs]
Redmond: It’s being in awe of all the people I don’t know, like Chinna — the actors I haven’t gotten to work with.
Hissom: I have a lot of excitement for my first show at Shakespeare. It’s written to be bare bones and minimalist, but the design is impeccable. I love my costumes and I love the way the costume design looks. So come see it for that, if nothing else.
Redmond: And you’ll see all parts of Eric — back and front.
Palmer: I’m most excited for the audience’s reaction to it. This will probably be my last show in D.C. for a little bit after grad school, so I’m cherishing this moment with these people.
Richardson: The specific cross-section of the D.C. theatre community that’s represented in this show is particularly powerful, because not only are we are actors in D.C., but [some of us] are also teachers. We’re really getting a cross-section of people who are making theatre their entire life, bringing that excellence to the stage and also bringing that community with them. [This production] can hopefully be a homecoming for theatre patrons who can see themselves and the things they’ve been missing in this very beautiful, all-American kind of play with really great acting. I’m looking forward to audiences getting a chance to experience what community looks like onstage in a very intentional way.
“Our Town” runs from May 12 to June 11. Tickets start at $35. Purchase them here.
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