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A Brief History of Touch…
Three nights of original theater in Fort Wayne
By Jim Fester
Fort Wayne Reader
When playwright Jack Cantey jokingly refers to A Brief History of Touch and other plays as a “big bowl of theater,” don’t mistake the collection of original one-act plays as the dramatic equivalent of comfort food.
In the space of these four short plays you’ll meet two addicts forced to confront their demons when they find themselves the only participants in an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting; dueling monologues taking on the subject of biology as biography; a family history as revealed by the objects and memories we leave behind; and an old, musical tale of murder and redemption in the Appalachian Mountains.
It’s a lot of ground to cover in just four short works, but A Brief History of Touch and other plays, which begins its run April 12 at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, represents what Cantey feels is his most polished and “ready” work. “There’s no overall theme to these,” Cantey says of the four plays in the show. “I really wanted it to be almost a sampling of different experiments and styles in theater.”
An artist, actor and writer (he covers the arts in Fort Wayne for this paper), Cantey says he has been experimenting with different forms of playwriting for about a decade, but he is mostly drawn towards experimental forms. He cites the Theater of the Absurd as an influence, adding that even when he works in traditional styles, his stuff is always a little at odds with convention.
But while the four short works in this collection at times push the boundaries of convention, they don’t seek to shock or confuse audiences as much as provoke thought or evoke a mood. For example, “A Brief History of Touch,” an early version of which was performed in Chicago in 2003, features two actors (Ben Garman and Regan Kreigh) delivering a dueling perspective on the subject of human touch, the analytical vs. the anecdotal, the personal vs. the universal. “These people are just there talking to the audience very directly,” Cantey says.
Like all the actors in A Brief History…, Cantey chose Kreigh and Garman after working with them in other projects. Kreigh, whom Cantey calls one of the best two or three dramatic actresses in town (“she’s brought a lot to this role that I didn’t see there on the page,”), has been involved in quite a few productions in Fort Wayne, while Garman is a relative newcomer to the stage. “(the role) needs to be somebody who is smart, and funny and honest, because it’s very presentational. I felt he was a strong choice for that.”
“Just from doing play readings, things like 24 Playhouse, I’ve worked with a lot of different actors,” Cantey adds. “I found my small group of actors I really like to work with. I get them. They get me. The type of pieces I write are pretty quirky, to say the least, and it takes a specific type of actor.”
In fact, actors Jeff Moore and Guenevere Morr, who play Steve and Jeanie in “Group,” the show’s second play, participated in an early reading and were key in developing the story. “Group” is the collection’s most traditional work — the story is a bit like Beckett set in an AA meeting — and Cantey said earlier drafts suffered from being stuffed with information and an unsatisfying ending. “I began with telling the audience everything, and I hate doing that,” Cantey explains. “At the end of an early draft, there was a nice pretty bow at the end of it. Anyone who knows an addict knows that half-an-hour isn’t going to change anything. It’s not that I’m not a fan of redemption, but it didn’t ring true. It didn’t make anyone think of what was at the core of the play.”
Through readings and working with Moore and Morr, Cantey meticulously pared the play down to what he felt was at the heart of the story. “The actors have this whole subtext, but they just don’t get to play it,” Cantey says. “But it’s there for them to work off of.”
In stark contrast to “Touch” and “Group,” the third piece in the program has no dialogue at all. The two-part “Breath, Indexed and Filed” spans two generations of a single family. The first part is set in the 1950s, with a man (played by Jim Nelson) in an attic room. The second part is set 50 years later, modern day, with the man’s granddaughter (Emily Terrell) in that same room. Cantey says the story was inspired by the deaths he’s experienced in his family in the last three or four years. “My mom and my sisters and I have been confronted with not only all these possessions and physical objects, but a flood of memories, and flood of stories,” he says. “In ‘Breath…’ I was really trying to get to the heart of what the experience is like, how information is passed down from one generation to another in a family without it being a very literal representation of that.”
The program finishes with an experimental spin on musical theater. “Pretty Polly” is Cantey’s first attempt at a sort of rural, American mini-opera, where the story is told not through dialogue but through traditional American folk songs. With Melissa Perkins of the Lunamarys providing the music, “Pretty Polly” offers a traditional murder ballad (the title tune) segueing into the spiritual “Wayfaring Stranger” to tell the story of a violent death and its aftermath in the Appalachian Mountains.
On Saturday April 14, contributing writers from the 3rd issue of literary journal The Margin will read in the auditorium immediately after the show.
A Brief History of Touch and other plays
Fort Wayne Museum of Art
311 East Main
April 12, 13, and 14, 8 pm
Tickets: $10 adult; $7 student w/ID
Tickets can be reserved in advance by: emailing email@example.com or calling 260.602.2269.
Cash bar on Saturday, April 14 only starting at 7:30pm and running through the entire evening.
For more information visit www.historyoftouch.com