What could be worse than a man-eating tiger at your door? Mark Chrisler’s play Worse Than Tigers may show us, but not before taking us on a wild ride. Directed by Jaclyn Biskup and presented by Biskup’s theater company, The Mill, and the New Ohio Theater, Worse Than Tigers begins its New York premiere on August 24th. Shannon Marie Sullivan plays Olivia, who has an ostensibly great life with Henry, but it’s interrupted when her lover, Kirk, and a tiger arrive. Culturadar Blogger Shoshana Greenberg talked to Biskup and Sullivan about moving from absurdism to emotional vulnerability over the course of the play, directing and acting with the character of a tiger, and why they refer to the play as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia’s Rhinoceros.”
CR: What drew you both to this play?
Jaclyn Biskup: I just love a crazy play. Mark, the playwright, and I went to the same undergrad but we weren’t there at the same time. We had lots of mutual friends, though, and everyone was like, his plays are great, you should read them. He sent me this one, and it was love at first read. I’m a big fan of plays that walk the line between absurdism and realism, probably because I don’t see a big difference between absurdism and my life. I usually can see things coming and I really didn’t see where this one was going. The end was a surprise for me. When you go back and look at the play again, it feels like there are a million clues, but the play distracts you from itself. Then you really get it at the end.
Shannon Marie Sullivan: Other than getting the opportunity to work with Jaclyn again, there’s only three characters and they’re all such well-written roles. I don’t think I’ve ever read a play that starts out in such an absurd world and then ends in this open vulnerability between these two humans. It was a challenge that was appealing.
Director Jaclyn Biskup
CR: Was the playwright involved in the rehearsal process?
JB: I did a reading of this play in Chicago where he lives, and he was involved in that rehearsal, so he and I had already had a foundation. We both said okay, this is what the play is about, we’re both on the same page. He’s been a playwright on call for us here. We’ve had emails and texts and telephone calls. Google Hangouts. It’s the New York premiere of his show—I want him to feel like this is his show as well. I don’t direct a ton of plays by straight white men. I have not seen or directed anything else by him. This play is so good that I was willing to do it.
CR: Were there moments in the script where you thought, how am I going to direct this or how am I going to play this? What was the solution?
JB: Casting Shannon was a solution to how was I going to direct this. Her character, Olivia, is dealing with both being terrified and attracted to the tiger. Olivia’s passion and desire would be challenging for me to explain since they exist in relationship to a man-eating Tiger, and Shannon is great at it.
SS: For me, I think the beginning is what took a while to grasp. One of my strengths as an actor is easily being able to tap into emotional vulnerability, but what is less so my strength is being able to hide that within in a smiley human and still have it rooted underneath and able to come out by the end.
CR: How do you handle the shifts between comedy and drama and the changes in tone?
JB: The first act lives in the world of Ionesco and the second act is pretty clearly an Albee play to me. I see that as all one. Both writers have the same bits of each other.
SS: That was the challenge I was speaking of. How do you start like this and then end like that and still have it be rooted in a reality? Continuing to remember what the new information is at each moment has been really helpful. All of a sudden a new human enters our world and then a tiger enters our world. How does that change our reality? It continues to shift and rip away all the buttoned up shirts and pony tails and tied shoes that we have at the beginning. At the end there’s just these two people with nothing left to cover up their secrets.
JB: It feels like one cohesive thing to me. Particularly now, our world is really, really absurd. To a larger extent, I’ve always felt life is pretty absurd and it’s just been made more so. I have a pretty dark sense of humor. Finding humor in dark themes, that’s just my day-to-day mode.
Braeson Herold, Shannon Marie Sullivan
CR: Are there any other works or artists that you are drawing on for this piece?
JB: I just think of Ionesco and Albee a lot but I don’t really approach things in that way.
SS: Albee has come up. And the TV show Faulty Towers that nobody has watched.
JB: I’m always talking about John Cleese in Faulty Towers. There’s something Cleesian that happens in the play.
CR: How would you describe what this play is about in one sentence?
JB: I’ve been calling it Who’s Afraid of Virginia’s Rhinoceros just so people know what it’s like. Thematically, the play for me is about how you have to experience pain and grief together in order to really live through it and live on past it.
SS: When you describe the play and what it’s actually about, it’s nothing like your experience of the play.
CR: Is there anything you’ve learned or discovered in this process that you’ll carry with you in your work and lives?
SS: My way into characters is emotional. I love human emotion and societal behavior. It’s been really fascinating for me as an actor to work on this play from the end to the beginning in my homework. You actually can work on a play that way. It seems impossible to go from modern day Waiting for Godot in a few pages and then to the shit that hits the fan on page 25 and then to how the play actually ends. But if we all put our brains and hearts together it will all come through.
JB: I took a three-year hiatus from theater to work on TV and film. I came back in January and assisted on Straight White Men on Broadway. This is the first play I’ve directed in four years. I think I’m just so happy to be directing theater again. For me, this is so cheesy, but I’m just so happy and in love with the theater and it’s totally insane to me that I left. I mean, I know why I left, theater is so hard. I’ll always look back at this as a triumphant return. It was everything I was missing and hoping it would be.
Worse Than Tigers runs from August 24th to September 8th at the New Ohio Theatre.
Photos courtesy of The Mill.
Shoshana Greenberg is a lyricist, librettist, playwright, singer, and theater journalist. She was recently named a Sokoloff Arts Fellow with Town Stages and Sokoloff Arts. Musicals: Days of Rage (reading with New York Theatre Barn) and A Story No One Knows with composer and bookwriter Hyeyoung Kim, and Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest) with composer Jeffrey Dennis Smith. Plays: Lost Girl in Florida Swamp (Fresh Produce’d) and The Rapture of Our Teeth (ESPA Detention Series). Her songs have been performed at Lincoln Center, The York Theatre, TriArts Sharon Playhouse, the Laurie Beechman, and the Duplex Cabaret Theater, where she performed her cabaret show Finding My Own Damn Way. As a journalist she has contributed to American Theatre Magazine, The Interval, Women and Hollywood, The Huffington Post, and Culturadar and she is a contributing editor of the journal Musical Theater Today. MFA: Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at NYU. BA: Barnard College. Shoshanagreenberg.com. Twitter: @vmarshmellow