A Stage for Dreaming: MADAGASCAR Director Sheila McKenna’s Vision

Whatever people do, they have a very good reason to do so. What is done—whatever action is done—is for a reason. Woven together, these actions create a pattern. As a microtheorist, it’s my job to figure out what that pattern means.

Larry John Meyers in 'Madagascar'

Larry John Meyers in ‘Madagascar’ (photo by Heather Mull)

This speech is given early in J.T. Rogers’ play Madagascar by the character of Nathan, but substitute “director” for “microtheorist,” and it could easily be a statement of philosophy from Quantum Theatre veteran Sheila McKenna.  The play’s director sees parallels between herself and Larry John Meyers’ character: “Nathan talks a lot about ‘threads of a pattern,’” she notes.  “I feel like that’s what my job is.”

Sheila McKenna, Director (photo courtesy of Point Park University)

McKenna, chair of the Theatre Department at Point Park University and well-established actor and director in the Pittsburgh theatre community, was approached by Quantum Theatre founder Karla Boos about directing Madagascar.  McKenna has worked with Quantum in the past, directing El Paso Blue and acting in a number of productions.  “What first attracted me [about Madagascar] was the writing,” says McKenna.  “The structure of the play is intriguing.  The language is poetic, evocative—it carries very strong emotions.”

As the project has developed, so has McKenna’s vision of the world of the play.  “It’s melancholy,” she says, “It’s sad, rueful—but there’s humor in it.  It’s romantic and luxurious.  It’s a stage for dreaming and memory.”

To that end, she’s worked with her team to build a “stage for dreaming” and with her cast to inhabit it with beautiful, tragic, dreamy characters.  “There is a grandeur to [The Carlyle] space referencing Roman antiquity.  It’s surrounding you—you’re looking at Italian marble.  [The stage is] a simple rigged platform with this very ornate bed, which becomes another type of platform—the simplicity of the scene provides a platform for the beauty of the language.”

'Madagascar' Set

‘Madagascar’ Set

“On the tech end,” McKenna says, “It’s all been easy-peasey.  We were able to rehearse on our set in the first week.  That’s pretty amazing for any theatre company.”  Once the scene was ready to go, McKenna brought her cast to the stage and began to note the “threads of the pattern.”  Given the structure of the play—three interwoven monologues, occupying the same space at different points in time—McKenna’s challenge was to guide the audience’s eyes.  “[My job] is to make it clear whose memory we’re in, who we’re supposed to be looking at, where the voices will be coming from.”

“These actors have great stagecraft,” she says.  “They’re offering complete vulnerability, humor, and passion…These are not the kind of actors who required me to give a lot of notes.”

The world of the play, adds McKenna, “is in the characters’ imaginations, their memories—it’s a memory play.  They’re using memory to work through a problem that they’re having in their own time and reaching out to the audience as confessor or confidant to help them… This is a play about family and the things that nag at us and the things we didn’t say.  It’s about forgiveness—of self and others.  The power of forgiveness to transform a life: to me, that’s what this play is ultimately about.  Each of these characters must forgive themselves for something.”

Sheila McKenna’s vision of Madagascar takes the stage January 31 at 8 p.m. and runs through February 16.  Get tickets now online or call 412-362-1713

–Brandon Getz

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