Our mid-season event of Unreconciled starring Jay Sefton, co-written by Mark Basquill and Jay Sefton premiered yesterday! One more chance to see this gripping story tonight at 7:30pm. A talkback with both writers and director James Barry (Co-Producing Artistic Director) will follow.
Here is a Q&A with Jay Sefton about creating this piece and his personal connection to storytelling and theatre. Interviewed by assistant director Abby Dobry (Arts/Admin Intern):
How did you get started in theatre?
The Passion Play was my first experience acting. I remember not being afraid when I got up in front of people. I wouldn’t return to acting again until I was 22 and applied as a transfer theatre major at West Chester University, just outside of Philadelphia. Those professors and fellow students changed my life and taught me about theatre and about being a better person.
What inspired you to start writing Unreconciled?
Frustration. I became frustrated with Pennsylvania politics and the politicians who seem to have no problem using survivors of childhood sexual abuse as a pawn in their political games. For almost two decades some politicians in Harrisburg have been accepting lobbying money from the Catholic Church while ignoring the suggestions of grand juries and constitutional scholars of what to do to remedy the situation. Several times a year hope gets dangled in front of survivors that there will be a path to justice in the courts and each time it is snatched away. I got tired of that pain and decided to do what I could to reclaim the narrative.
What was your process for writing?
For about four months I would get up at 6:30 in the morning, three times a week, and go into my basement and write for two hours. This generated a lot of material and confusion. I then started seeking collaboration and help from the outside world. This is when Mark Basquill and I started meeting on video calls each week to shape the piece. We also received really helpful feedback from James Barry and Gina Kaufmann among others. At some point it felt like we were just editing and cutting away the elements that didn’t serve the story we were trying to tell.
How does being a licensed mental health counselor inform your work with theatre and acting?
My own therapist and mentor often says that becoming a therapist helped him become more human. That seems right to me. Early on I think acting was a bit too self-serving—a way to try and compensate for my insecurities. My work as a counselor has taught me to own my insecurities and in doing that, they transform. It has also taught me to take it off of myself and focus on others. We try to do this in theatre as well. Focusing on the words, the other actors, the larger work that is
(cont.) so collaborative with all the designers, directors, and stage managers helps us from becoming too focused on self.
How has the rehearsal process allowed you to discover new things about your work?
It has been so exciting to work with James. He sees things that I can’t see and has a beautiful and inspiring way of communicating them to me that makes me want to go even further in exploration. Every time I do a run-through of the show for James, the design team, or others that have helped me learn the lines, I learn something new. I am so grateful for everyone who has been a part of rehearsing the show.
How do you prepare for portraying multiple characters who each have their own physicality, vocabulary, etc.?
Some are easier than others. Generally, I try to find a single gesture or trait that feels right and can easily be repeated, so I and the audience will know who is talking. I start to play with ideas and try to feel what is natural. I usually start this alone because I find it a little embarrassing. I have been doing an impression of my dad for a long time so that came pretty easily. In addition to already feeling like I am becoming him as I get older, I think my connection to him has really deepened during this process, even though he is no longer alive. It’s funny my dad never had much to do with the theatre outside of seeing me perform in plays in college and this summer he has sort of been in two plays. The WAM/BTG production of What the Constitution Means to Me used his military picture for their set and now he kind of is in this show too.
Have you hit any creative roadblocks when working with Unreconciled and how do you work through them?
Yes, mainly in two ways. Initially, when writing the piece and then again when struggling with doubt about presenting the material. In both cases I reached out to collaborate with people. I can get caught in my head with shameful thoughts like, “Who cares about this?”, “Why am I doing this?”, etc. In those moments I try to reach out to those around me and get out of my thoughts when they have become unhelpful. I think moving a project forward requires this dance of trying to figure out when to go inward and when to go outward—like breathing.