Q&A With Marti Lyons (Director) & Travis Turner (Actor) of “The Mystery of Love and Sex”

Lia Mortensen, Hayley Burgess, Keith Kupferer and Travis Turner. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Glencoe based theatre company Writers Theatre continues to celebrate it’s 25th year with a new production entitled “The Mystery of Love and Sex“. Written by Bathsheba Doran, the play centers around Charlotte and Jonny, two friends who have grown up together and are now at an impasse as they try to figure out if their close friendship might be something more. When they discover exactly what “more” actually entails, however, it comes as a surprise to them both—and to Charlotte’s parents, who are holding secrets and resentments of their own. This compelling, spirited story of intricate relationships is an entertaining and explosive look at race, sexual identity and family dynamics.

N’Digo recently spoke with actor Travis Turner (The Upstairs Concierge – Goodman, The Flick – Steppenwolf, Bootycandy – Windy City Playhouse) and director Marti Lyons (Title and Deed – Lookingglass Theatre Company, Short Shakespeare! Romeo and Juliet – Chicago Shakespeare Theater, The Play About My Dad – Raven Theatre) to learn more about this exciting new play and their individual career paths.

How did you get stated in your respective fields? Did you always know you’d pursue the arts?

Marti – I began directing in undergrad while pursuing a degree for acting. While studying abroad I saw a seminal production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, directed by Thomas Ostermeier. I had hated that work on the page and in seeing it in production I realized I had misinterpreted the play – I had thought it was provocation for provocations sake, when in reality, in Ostermeier’s visionary work, the play became about the resiliency of the human spirit. I thought, “I want to do that.” I wanted to read a play with such skill that I understood when the meaning became the opposite of what one might expect. I wanted to be able to translate the power of that meaning, even if illuminated in only one stage direction, onto the stage. I returned to Illinois Wesleyan and I began directing plays.

Travis – I started acting in high school. I went to a performing arts magnet school in Atlanta. But my interest in acting began way before that. My earliest memory of that impulse is seeing “Home Alone” for the first time and thinking “I can do that.” I wanted to be Macaulay Culkin, and at the same time I wanted to be his best friend. I envisioned us spending our entire paychecks at Toys ‘R’ Us. Being photographed by the paparazzi with overflowing bags of toys. But my interest lay dormant for a few years, then in middle school for a poetry assignment we had to memorize a poem and recite it in front of our class in Language Arts. The following week we were supposed to bring back the poem with some adjustments, but I’d memorized another poem. And instead of a straight recitation, this time I acted it out. “I, Too, Sing America,” by Langston Hughes. My teacher suggested I consider pursuing theatre, so a couple months later I auditioned for the performing arts program at a nearby high school with James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation,” instead of a traditional monologue from a play.

Mystery of Love and Sex
Hayley Burgess and Travis Turner. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Race and Sex are two consistently hot-button issues in our society. How did you decide your approach to directing this particular play that touches upon both?

Marti – I believe theatre is always in dialogue with the present moment in which it is produced. I lead a room first and foremost by listening; listening to the play, listening to the world, listening to my collaborators, listening to our audiences, and listening to my own instincts. I have a strong directorial vision but I seek collaborators who can both get excited about that vision and challenge it, like the incredible ensemble of actors, artistic leadership and designers on MYSTERY. So, while I approach directing difficult material with my own strong point of view, that is only a starting point. The real work begins by listening to the brilliance of trusted collaborators as we begin to navigate the complexities all together.

Upon first reading the script, did you immediately know it was something you could sink your teeth into or did you have to think on how you’d tackle it?

Marti – Upon first reading the play I was enamored of the beauty of the friendship that is drawn between these characters. I think it is rare to find a work that features profound friendship, as plays are so often concerned with romantic love. I also knew right away that there were challenges, as with any rich and complex work, and that the material required a strong directorial vision and brilliant collaborators.

Travis, what drew you in to this piece when you first read it?

Travis – I love the playwright’s representation of queer friendship. It’s just not something I’ve seen very often onstage. Jonny and Charlotte are imperfect and have an imperfect relationship, and that’s real. They grow with one another, then can’t do that anymore in a healthy way, so they grow apart from one another. Not just apart but separate. And they then have to fight for their friendship, to be seen by the other person– whom they love– but it’s without compromising who they have come to be. I love that. That feels honest to me

Mystery of Love and Sex

Did you do anything special to prepare for the role of Jonny?

Travis – I went to the gym. And still do. DAILY. Let’s just say this is a VERY revealing role.

What if any is your pre-show routine?

Travis – I like to do a physical and vocal warm-up. Then I’ll listen to some music (“Lemonade,” obviously, and recently Kendrick) and try to read or find somewhere backstage to have a solo dance party. For real. It’s helpful to get out of my head and not think about what the next two hours will bring.

Who are three of your personal favorites as far as directing?

Marti – Les Waters, Anne Kauffman, and Thomas Ostermeier.

Best advice or words or wisdom for aspiring theater professionals?

Travis – Stand up for yourself. And others.

Marti – See as much theatre as you can and make as much theatre as you can. Also, realize that everything and everyone in this industry is somehow connected. You may have an actor in a reading who happens to be an ensemble member at your favorite theatre. You should always strive to be your most prepared, dedicated and gracious self. People will notice not just what you make but how you make it. I think it is good to remember that more often than not it will be an actor, a dramaturg, or an intern in the room hiring you five years down the line. So be rigorous and even unrelenting, but be kind to your peers, your assistants and your collaborators. First, because it is the right thing to do, but second, because it’s important to remember that they, along with you, young professional, are the future

Any favorite quotes or affirmations you swear by?

Travis – I think affirmations are cheesy, to be honest. My big thing now– and as long as it’s helpful– is acknowledging reality. Whatever that is. Be it “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” or “I’m afraid,” or “I’m joyful.”

Marti – Recently I read this quote on www.brainpickings.org (which a visionary assistant introduced me to this year), it’s not an affirmation per se, but it meant a lot to me.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.” – Annie Dillard

What’s next for you?

Travis – The same thing awaits me as almost any actor out there, more auditioning. I want to take care of myself so that I may do what I want to do for as long as I want to do it. Hopefully that includes an actual vacation in the near future. And you know I’d like to like like somebody. And have them like like me back. That’s a dream too.

Marti – This week I start rehearsals for Native Gardens at Victory Gardens Theatre. Next year I have several exciting projects, including directing THE WOLVES by Sarah Delappe for Studio Theatre as part of the Women’s Voices Festival in D.C. and BOTTICELLI IN THE FIRE by Jordan Tannahill at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, also in D.C. More info at www.martilyons.com.

Writers Theatre’s presentation of “The Mystery of Love and Sex” runs through July 2 at the Gillian Theatre located at 325 Tudor Court in Glencoe, IL. For more information please visit www.writerstheatre.org

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