MICHAEL HAGINS on THEATRE ROW: Actor Roundtable

Cast Interviews for S.U.N. In The U.S.A.

Michael Pichardo, Michael Whitten, Jeremy Goren and Stephanie Cox

Michael Hagins is a gifted playwright who has a very important story to tell.  His play, S.U.N. In The U.S.A. which is part of The Broadway Bound Theatre Festival is set to run on June 25th.  Four talented members of the cast took some time to offer their ideas and perspectives about the play, the arts and what live theater is like as pandemic life improves.

Michael Pichardo:

Michael Pichardo plays multiple roles in this production.  His varied interests probably serve him well when he is developing characters.  “I am a fan of hip-hop culture, television crime dramas, comics, and cooking.”

Mr. Pichardo was drawn to this play because injustices are being silenced and this play sheds a light on a difficult truth to swallow.  “At a time when legislators are trying to stricken and outlaw critical race theory, it felt necessary, through art, to be a part of the reflection on how resulting racism is still perpetuated to this day.” 

Mr. Pichardo has a solid and straightforward creative process.  “I research, observe, know the lines, and finally, let go of the script.” 

Sometimes artists feel an added sense of responsibility when undertaking a work with a serious or topically charged subject.  Mr. Pichardo understands the implications of presenting a play with sensitive content.  “There is absolutely an added responsibility, especially when you want the audience to understand the tension and deeper meaning around the subject.”

Mr. Pichardo realizes that the pandemic changed the way we think about things and sees what needs to change.  “Perspectives on life have changed and we need more acknowledgement on mental and spiritual health.” 

Mr. Pichardo will carry on with his chosen path and we look forward to seeing where the road takes him.  “What’s next is to continue walking on the journey of a working actor.”

Stephanie Cox:

Stephanie Cox portrays the role of Connolly in S.U.N. In The U.S.A.  Her artistic journey took a lot of interesting and creative turns.  She can sing, she can act and she’s bloody good with special effects.  “I came to NYC to study and perform in musical theater. My artist life led me to performing in 2 NYC bands, working and producing with an indie theater company called Nosedive Production and then co-creating with two of the producers in Nosedive, a series and a company called Blood Brothers Present.  During this time I found I had a skill in gore and SFX for stage and began also working with multiple indie theater companies and indie films. After about 7 years I was recognized with a New York Independent Theater Award for Best Innovative Design in Hard Spark’s “R&J&Z”. Recently I have been performing in the long-running show “It’s Getting Tired Mildred”, directing some projects and preparing to produce a cabaret in the Fall.”

Ms. Cox was drawn to this piece because she felt her skill set was a good match for the production.  “Besides the script being brilliant and being a fan of Michael’s work, after watching the Zoom presentation I really saw the potential of this piece and had a vision for it. It really felt like a horror piece drenched in reality. With my background for producing and directing horror, along with a background in music-to assist with the interstitials, I felt like I could create a successful production.” 

Ms. Cox’s creative process was multi-tiered and included research and collaborating with fellow artists.  “My creative process really depends on the project. In this case I began to dive into spiritual music going back as far as I could. I was looking for music from the show but also wanted to know more of the history as well. I also talked to the cast who was in it previously and what they thought of the characters.  I did history research on these characters and the time period.  As I do have a dance background I tend to look at blocking as a cross between dancing formation and marching band formation. “

Ms. Cox agrees that when undertaking a piece with serious or topically charged subject matter, an added sense of responsibility sometimes falls into the laps of the artists presenting it.  Yes!  A lot of our horror plays were “ripped from the headlines” that our playwrights dramatized for the stage while producing “Blood Brothers Present”.  These were real people with real horror happening. This is where I fell with S.U.N.  It’s finding the reality in the drama while still making it entertaining, however thought and emotionally provoking.

The pandemic presented unique challenges to the performing arts world.  Health and safety changes were obvious effects.  There were some positive things that came out of it as well.  “Finding the silver lining-not taking theater for granted anymore. Yes there are less shows, yes there is now another roadblock to indie producers and new artists to get their productions in front of people due to the possibility of being shut down because of COVID.  It makes each theatrical production one gets to see or create as precious.”  

In addition to her long standing gig, Ms. Cox will be saying, “come to the cabaret!” in the fall. “It’s Getting Tired Mildred” and my character Florence  is coming back in September and producing (hopefully) a multi-disciplinary cabaret in October.”

Michael Whitten:

Michael Whitten is playing several roles in S.U.N. In The U.S.A.  He uses his artistic gifts to teach and has the desire to enact positive changes in this world.  “I am an actor and teaching artist here in New York City. I began working as a teaching artist while still in college, and this work influenced how I view the role of theatre as a tool for education and change. The stories we share and how we share them can have an incredible impact on the audience and our world. I hope the work I do has a positive impact and helps change the world for the better.”

Michael Hagins has a lot of repeat customers who are eager to work with him again.  Mr. Hagins’ work, professionalism and a shared vision is what drew Mr. Whitten to the play.  “I’ve worked with Michael Hagins before and have always been impressed with his work as a playwright. He doesn’t really pull any punches, especially in this show, and forces the audience to face the realities of the treatment of Black people in this country. Growing up as a white kid in Georgia, I was surrounded by the impression that the Civil Rights Movement happened and then racism was over. Then President Obama was elected and racism was definitely over, right? The events of the last two years have made it clear that’s never been the case. We have the opportunity to actually address racism and systemic oppression and this play helps keep that conversation and push for change going.”

Mr. Whitten’s creative process involves flexibility.  “I like to give myself the opportunity to play and try things differently than I did the last time. I often find things that work unexpectedly in moments that I’ll hold onto, or I get a sense of what doesn’t work. I also like to let things sit and simmer. There have been many times when, after rehearsal or working on lines, that I’m sitting on the subway or going for a walk, and I will have a sudden thought of, “Ohhhh, that’s why Calhoun says this here,” or “Wait… why haven’t I tried this tactic before?”

When a piece deals with serious or topically charged subject matter, artists sometimes take on an added responsibility to bring the work to the stage in a sensitive manner.   “Typically, I feel a duty as an actor to the playwright to honor the story they’ve crafted. When a show has such an important subject like this one, there’s an added layer of responsibility to make sure the conversations about racism and systemic oppression continue and lead to real change.” 

Along with the pandemic came broad changes for every aspect of life and things that most certainly need to change.  “The pandemic was an opportunity for us to collectively come together to solve a problem, but it felt like a group project in school where not everyone was contributing. So while I would like to have hope that we could solve problems together, I’m worried that we won’t be able to address racism, oppression, inequality, and climate change effectively because some people will refuse to acknowledge that these issues even exist.”

This altruistic artist doesn’t have any immediate theatrical plans, but something is sure to come along so he can continue to use his power of art for good endeavors.  “I haven’t auditioned much since the pandemic began, so while I don’t have an upcoming show, I’m looking forward to getting back to it. Hopefully, I’ll be able to update you on upcoming shows soon!”

Jeremy Goren:

Jeremy Goren plays several roles in the exciting upcoming production of S.U.N. In The U.S.A.  He uses his multiple skill sets to include the community in his work when he can.  “I tend to work on new plays and devised works, often edging into community engagement, in various roles, including director, performer, and producer. Leading devised work I explore creation methods and performance styles in relation to experiments with performance-event formats and socio-historical issues. Often this work edges into community engagement and/or social practice.”

Mr. Hagins has another member of the fan club.  It was a long-standing artistic relationship and a shared vision that drew Mr. Goren to this production.  “I’ve known Michael Hagins since I started in NY theatre almost 20 years ago. His dedication to making theatre, his passion, his courage — and his plays — I hold in extremely high esteem. And the content of the play is of utmost urgency in our society — and shares a realm with my primary artistic concerns around myth making, especially as it applies to US history.”

Mr. Goren’s creative process varies for each role using prior knowledge from his solid foundation of valued teachers.  “My creative process is different for each project and each role. My ways of working artistically owe a lot to years of training with Polina Klimovitskaya, Mario Biagini— and my elementary-school teacher and first devised-theatre director, Lydia Moser. And I hope it keeps changing, especially as we find ourselves in the midst of a fissure of potentiality in American theatre thanks to the water troublers of this generation- including Michael- who constantly prod the art form into change it won’t make by inertia.” 

Mr. Goren feels that every work an artist undertakes comes with a strong sense of responsibility whether the subject matter is serious or not.  “I think we should encounter every work with a high level of responsibility – not only because we should be selective about what we make and should with every project ask ourselves: “Why do this piece? What for, and why now?” – but also because the ways we make even the most inconsequential story come to life – both creative and producing choices – are also all ethical and political — and therefore “serious” – regardless of the most obvious themes. But let’s also not confuse important with serious- comedy is one of the most effective ways of blowing up the status quo.”

Mr. Goren provides some insightful perspectives on what has changed and what should change as a result of the pandemic.  “I think many of us saw a lot of possibilities for change poke out of the ground during the past two years. Maybe because of a renewed sense of the fragility of life- or the awakening to how essential community and collective actions are to the survival of this seemingly bulletproof nation and the world, how passivity and complacency can tip the balance of the world towards greater chaos and oppression. Particularly the people who took to and stayed in the streets after police killed George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. And those who spoke out and to the US theatre world and riddled with truth the lies of “progressiveness” that have shielded it. Lots of statements and acknowledgements and Zoom convening and trainings and intentions. But what happens as the compulsion to return to normal overwhelms all that? And the seemingly unshakeable realities of the capitalist machine? And the fact that many of us white people don’t stay in the fight if it disturbs our personal situations, won’t share power, won’t make change a priority or insist that it happen through proper channels. Some people are really making changes. It looks like (maybe) more plays by BIPOC playwrights are being put on, maybe some more funding and opportunities towards folks from marginalized identities. But are there really systemic changes happening? And how do we forge the new ways forward together? Let’s see.” 

After this production, Mr. Goren has a plethora of wonderful endeavors to carry him forth on his artistic journey.  “I recently joined AnomalousCo as a Co-Artistic Director, where in March and April we produced several performance/events in support of Ukrainian folks fleeing the Russian invasion and where we have several other projects gestating. I’m also currently serving as an Artist Facilitator for Target Margin Theatre’s Here & Now oral storytelling project, meeting Sunset Park neighbors and talking about our stories with an eye towards crafting some for performance. And, I’m in continued development for a premier run of Saviana Stanescu’s Zebra 2.0, a new rom-com play about AI, immigration, consciousness, and the human condition. “

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