A Q&A with the company of the new Knife Edge show
Actors Don DiPaolo and Neil Holland and director Sam Helfrich, of theater company Knife Edge Productions, reunite after 2011’s successful run of the Stephen Belber show Tape with the new production of Owned. Penned by another major playwright, Drama Desk nominee Julian Sheppard, Owned takes a look at two down-on-their-luck bartenders (played by DiPaolo and Holland) who make a play for the brass ring. The play opens at TBG Theatre on April 26. New York Press spoke with all four members of the creative team about Owned, staying truthful to material, and the importance of working with friends.
NYP: Where did the idea for Owned originate?
NH: After the success Don, Sam and I had collaborating with each other on a revival of Stephen Belber’s Tape, we knew we made an amazing team and wanted to work together again. We decided that the next step would be to work on a brand new play. After interviewing several playwrights and reading their plays, we decided that Julian Sheppard was a great match for us, and commissioned him to write us a play.
JS: I wanted to find a venue for Neil and Don to be comfortable, to be buddies, but to have room for real conflict. I had landed on it wanting to be some kind of work-a-day job, but wanted to stay away from a “day job” conceit. The last thing I wanted to do was write a play for two actors who were working day jobs while being struggling actors. I had been batting around a bar scenario as one of the possibilities, when a friend of mine told me a story one night about an old friend of his who had been a bartender, and whom had gotten involved in buying a bar and some things that had gone haywire and mistakes that had been made… and it really gave me focus.
How long did it take to work on it?
JS: I think I started writing early 2012. I had to go on and off a little bit because of other projects, so the first draft took a little longer than it might have otherwise. From there, we did a couple of very useful readings, in the fall, and then again late winter, which prompted rewrites. One of the pleasures of this process – and lures of the project to begin with – was that we didn’t do endless development and there weren’t workshop hurdles to jump through. We had to raise the money – but the play was going to be produced. That was a tremendous motivator and a very freeing feeling.
How much of the play echoes your actual beliefs in modern life and people’s status in it?
NH: A good amount. Julian spent a good amount of time getting to know each of us. We talked a good amount about what issues we are sensitive to, and different aspects of our lives. So, in many ways I can see myself in this play. Not necessarily in direct parallels, but there in very obvious ways to me nonetheless.
DD: These people are people I know and see. They are real people that are just trying to survive and get their piece of the pie. Like all of us.
SH: I think more than echoing my personal beliefs, the play is an accurate and poignant depiction of contemporary characters who feel authentic and whose struggles and shortcomings – and their attempts to overcome them – are easily identifiable.
JS: I think there are certain things that are hard to escape; I also think class creates sometimes invisible rungs on a ladder that can appear much higher than it seems when you start climbing it. However, the problems the characters face and the crises for them in the play are ultimately matters of personal flaws and not societal. All the characters Have opportunities to escape the failings they’re afraid they’ve inherited. Whether or not they’re able to is up to them, and not how their statuses are constructed.
Without giving too much away, do those of you involved with the show think you might react similarly to these characters given their circumstances?
NH: Yes and no. There are certainly many aspects of the play in which I probably would have similar reactions. Probably most specifically when it comes to my character’s reaction to some things he is feeling regarding the female character [played by Susannah Hoffman]. And for me, that is actually pretty cool, because it is something I am aware of in my own personal life and am trying to work on.
DD: I would say yes. For me they are familiar emotions and circumstances. Everyone is trying to find their place in this world.
SH: For me as the director, what I admire about the play is that the characters are complex and not easy to categorize (i.e. good/bad, dumb/smart, naive/worldy, etc). All of them, even the youngest, have already made many mistakes in life, which makes them very human and sympathetic, and it will be a mystery to discover who each individual audience member most relates to among the three.
How much fun was it to create and recite this dialogue?
JS: At the risk of being glib, so much fun. It was a treat writing for two specific actors, and incorporating their rhythms, habits, perspective and life stories into the play. From the beginning it made the dialogue pop and flow for me. I could always imagine Don and Neil saying the lines, so I had a kind of automatic litmus test for if it ‘felt’ right.
NH: Reciting the dialogue was a blast. I have some great lines, some great monologues. To just be able to play and discover new things, new meanings, in every rehearsal is exciting.
DD: Learning dialogue is always a process that isn’t always fun but once you learn it, it’s like having hand cuffs taken off of you. You’re free and the fun really starts and it makes the process all worth it.
Things escalate very quickly in Owned. How challenging is it to ratchet up the tension?
NH: It’s not easy. For me, it’s just about personalizing it and making it as specific and real for myself as possible. Sam is fantastic at setting things up and really finding the ways to dramatize the tension, which really helps me as an actor.
DD: Great question. It’s challenging to make it real and believable. I always go back to life. If it looks or feels similar to what I’ve experienced in real life than I know I’m on the right track.
SH: The challenge for me has been to communicate to the audience just how important the events of the play are to each individual character, so that the audience experience is one of believing in and feeling for characters who, in this moment, are living the most extreme moment of their lives – the moment in which your dream either comes true or
And is it easier to deliver some of these exchanges being real-life friends who have worked together in the past?
NH: Absolutely. Don and I are very good friends. We’ve known each other for nine years now, dating back to when we first met at The William Esper Studio. So there is a good amount of comfort and trust with each other. We know we have each other’s back, and that just really allows us to go for it with no fear.
DD: Definitely. Neil and I are such good friends and we have worked together before so it’s very comfortable but not in a lazy way. He is so good that I’m always surprised by him and this keeps it fresh. I think Owned can be a great American play that stands the test of time. A play that will be done for years and have its scenes be done
throughout acting classes. Which is always a good sign of a great play.
Tickets for Owned can be purchased at www.knifedgeproductions.com.
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