Say the name “Susan Auten” in Wilmington, and the theatre community mostly will respond with revered respect. Auten is a well-known actress in town who has been praised for her work onstage, taking on memorable roles in heavy plays like “The Laramie Project” to lighter fare like “A Tuna Christmas.” Her range is vast, her talent indescribable. It’s no surprise to hear she’s launching her own theatre company, Keepin’ On Productions, with the debut “Parallel Lives” hitting the Cape Fear Playhouse stage this week.
Auten has grown appreciative of roles that challenge her craft. Most of the time they’re in lesser-known plays that theatre-goers aren’t always guaranteed to support. From working on locally written scripts to other small-time productions, it’s not like she’s working in shows with name recognition, a la “Chicago,” “Annie” or “Grease.”
“I understand how hard it is for the established companies that actually have to pay the rent and keep the lights on, etc., to take a risk on lesser-known shows because it is so hard to get audiences to come out for them,” she adds. “My ultimate goal is to try and get Wilmington theatre-goers to be more willing to take a chance on things they may not be familiar with and, hopefully, be glad they did.”
Directed by Steve Vernon, “Parallel Lives” follows the foundation of the human race and its genesis, as it brings to life situations everyone can relate to: first dates, family funerals, scenes in a bar, and what it means to be on the everlasting quest to find love. Starring Holli Saperstein, Gina Gambony, Jaimie Harwood, and Susan Auten, the show takes the actresses through 46 different characters in a very sparsely designed set by Scott Davis and Donna Troy, who painted panels and the floor, and set up four stools and four acting blocks to carry the content.
“With the number of scene changes, it would be difficult to do much more than that,” Auten tells, “but I think they did a wonderful job coming up with something that is simple, yet visually appealing, instead of just all black walls and floors.”
We asked Auten to fill us in on the show, which opens Thursday, Oct. 5, 7:30 p.m.
encore (e): Why did you choose “Parallel Lives” as the first show? What makes the show relevant to you per our current world/state of affairs?
Susan Auten (SA): It’s a long story, but “Parallel Lives” wasn’t my original first pick. We had discussed doing a show over the summer and couldn’t get it together in time, and then I wanted to revisit a show we did 10 years ago by Marlowe Moore called “Three Men,” but that wasn’t falling into place either. “Parallel Lives” was one of a bunch of scripts I had ordered and read over the summer that I knew I wanted to do at some point. What I love about this show is it is hysterically funny, but it also has a message. It speaks to many social issues without being preachy or shoving it down your throat. It touches on racism, women’s health issues, homosexuality, equality, and, sadly, these issues are still very current, even though this show was first produced in the mid ’80s. I also love the fact one of the themes is, no matter how different we or our situations are, we all feel the same things.
e: How do you feel about art being representational to our current world problems? Effective? Or no?
SA: Well, I think art is very important to our society for a variety of reasons. Obviously, there is the “escape” aspect, or the catharsis that can come from being emotionally moved, in any way. As far as current world problems, you know, if a person feels very strongly about something, then it is probably unlikely you will change their mind. However, you might change the mind of one person, or cause many people to leave the theater thinking about things in a way that they hadn’t before. You may not have completely changed their mindset, but you may have made them more understanding, or tolerant, or nudged them in a different direction. And if you only reach one person, I still say it’s worth it.
e: What do you find most fascinating about its humor? Do you find comedies more challenging than, say, straight, more serious plays?
SA: I love the humor in this show because I think it alternates between being very intelligent and ridiculous. Some of the characters are so blown out of proportion and some are very realistic, but no matter what, they are funny.
In some ways, yes [comedy can be harder], depending on the material. Obviously playing a character with a major trauma in a more serious play, for example, can be very difficult—trying to get yourself to that emotional space. In comedy though, you still have to play it straight. The character doesn’t think whatever they are going through is funny at all, so you have to play it with all seriousness, so to speak, while still having that timing and delivery that also makes it funny.
e: Give me some insight into what it’s been like to work with this cast. What are some of the characters out of 46 that folks will relate to and why?
SA: These ladies are amazing, I really cannot sing their praises enough. We have had so much fun creating and watching each other create these characters; a lot of times it seems like we’re just goofing off, but we’re really not. There’s also a level of trust and respect amongst us, so a lot of times when we take a break, we sit around and talk about whatever we were just working on, and the characters based on our experience, so it really becomes somewhat of a collaborative effort.
I also must give an enormous amount of credit to Steve Vernon (director). He is so insightful, and not only finds opportunities in the script that we completely missed, but just has an innate ability to bring things out of us we didn’t know or think we could do.
Oh, there are a lot of relatable characters, but I think “Futon Talk,” with a couple squabbling in bed, is a good one. “Period Piece” and “Silent Torture” will definitely strike a chord with women. “Hank and Karen Sue” you have seen at many a bar. There is something that every single person will relate to in some way.
e: Do you like the challenge of having to play so many characters in two hours? What have you learned thus far from the experience?
SA: I do. Obviously you don’t get to do as much character development, but you really get to challenge yourself by making them different. And you still have to find their story and their emotions. With this show, especially, it is important to not let them be just caricatures, despite the ridiculousness of the situation.