I was given 300-400 words for a Shepherd-Express preview on the upcoming debut of playwright/director Tim Backes’ coming-of-age drama Embers. Backes was nice enough to take some time out to answer a few questions for me about the show. And since he was SUCH a cool guy about it he had given me a lot more than I could possibly use for that preview...SO...I’m putting the entire thing in as a Q&A for The Small Stage
RUSS: Before we get into it...it occurs to me that I don’t even really know the setting side from a get-together between people who have just returned from college and I’d assumed that it was around a campfire. That’s not actually in any text that I’ve found, though. I guess I must have gotten that idea from the title and the image in the ad...and the fact that it’s being staged in a park. What exactly IS the setting?
TIM BACKES: The play is taking place around an actual live bonfire! We're holding it in Grant Park for the space (audience members are bringing in their own camp chairs), but it is being held around a very cool fire pit at a facility called Wulff Lodge, which is primarily used for scout group retreats.
RUSS: It’s a coming-of-age story is one that’s been explored quite a lot from a lot of different angles. Ensembles of characters are about to graduate from high school or college or they’re all going through one final thing before moving on. EMBERS is a different approach. A group of people meeting for the first time AFTER all of that on their way to the future. Where did the idea come from?
TIM BACKES: When I graduated from college in 2010, it was the height of the recession. I'd been accepted to grad school, but rather than take on the additional debt I opted to move back home with my parents and figure out where to go from there. I spent about a year and a half back home, looking for a "real job" (whatever that means), and hanging out with a lot of my high school friends. It was a really strange time in my life. I felt stuck in between two worlds. Even though I'd only been gone for four years, I suddenly felt out of place, and noticed that even the nature of some of my relationships had changed. I felt a societal pressure to move forward and continue the momentum from college, but couldn't help feeling "stuck" back in my hometown. This play features characters in that same situation. They're back home after four years of college with their old friends again, but nothing's exactly as it used to be.
RUSS: It can be difficult to craft a drama around a group of similar people. It appears as though the entire ensemble here is all the same age from the same background. EMBERS sounds like a very active (sometimes explosive) dynamic. Is there a great diversity of personalities between the characters?
TIM BACKES: Yeah, I think it's fair to say they all have very similar backgrounds. I think that reflects my own upbringing, really--it wasn't until college and after that I really branched out in my relationships. At the same time, I really wanted to avoid writing characters that felt too cliche or trope-ridden. You've got the girl with rich parents who went out of state to an Ivy League school, but you learn that she's actually very self-aware of her privilege, and it's been eating at her. You've got a character who didn't go to school and stayed at home to take care of her ill mother. There's the guy trying desperately to recapture his high school days because he's anxious about embracing the future, and a guy who hasn't yet been able to move past college partying. My goal was to create characters that really felt real and unique from each other, even if they're in a group that feels relatively homogenous (and perhaps familiar, depending on your upbringing).
RUSS: There’s the challenge in an ensemble in making the group seem cohesive too. Make them seem too different from each other and it wouldn’t seem realistic that they would WANT to hang out together for a get-together after college. How are you holding together the connections between everyone?
TIM BACKES: Absolutely. I was very intentional about this as well. There are plenty of references to the "old days," which helps to accentuate the connections that are holding these characters together. There are also a few moments where the plot itself gives way to just general jokes and banter that would feel right at place in a bonfire among old friends. In these moments, the connections among the group become more understandable, but they're countered by awkward silences and brewing conflicts that show just how much some of the people of the group have changed as well.
RUSS: Judging from some of what’s already been written about the show, the cast seems to be pretty close in age to the characters in the ensemble. How familiar are you with the actors that you’re working with?
TIM BACKES: Two of the cast members (Jessica Calteux, Alex Trevithick) are actually former theater students of mine from South Milwaukee High School, so it has been really cool to bring them into a performing environment with other young adults who have studied or are studying theater in college. It's been a great opportunity for them, and a point of pride for me to see them holding their own among some really outstanding performers. Three of the cast members I've worked with through Greendale Community Theatre and invited them to be a part of the show because I knew they'd be fantastic (Alyssa Higley was Jo March in Little Women, Gio Greco was Mary Poppins last summer, Bella Zeimet was in the Poppins ensemble). Daniel Persino was recommended to me by Bella, who was a student with him at UWM, and Matt Gould is an acting student at Parkside who was recommended by Rachael Swartz, who runs UWP's musical theatre program.
RUSS: You’ve had a lot of experience working with big ensembles. How has working on this show been different? I don’t recall you having had a whole lot of experience working on your own shows before. Obviously that’s going to be a more emotionally involved experience for you what with it being a script that you’ve written.
TIM BACKES: You're correct--this is actually the first full-length show of mine I've ever staged. I did write an original virtual production for my high school students during the pandemic. This has been the most unique theatrical experience I've ever been a part of. First, there's the fact that this was indeed my own writing. It was a really scary thing to share my own writing with other people, and I had to get past that vulnerability. The process itself is also unique. We've been rehearsing in my backyard to get used to being outside and working with a fire. I've never been a part of any outdoor production before, but I wrote this play with an outdoor performance in mind. And yes, emotionally, this process has hit me hard. From receiving praise about the script to hearing the words spoken aloud for the first time, and now seeing it all come together for a performance, it's incredibly fulfilling and I'm so grateful. I lost my dad unexpectedly in December and he was a writer himself, and that served as some inspiration for me to get this play finished and out into the world, and the combination of that with the unique experience of seeing your own work come to life has been really powerful. And I've had some really emotionally powerful theatrical experiences (Next to Normal in 2017 with All In Productions comes to mind, as does our SMHS production of Tuck Everlasting on the eve of the pandemic), but I'm not sure I've ever had one that filled me up quite like this.
RUSS: And, of course, working on a script that you’ve written holds open the option of being really dynamic with the script as well. You could change the script in the rehearsal process. Has the script changed at all in the process of putting the show together?
TIM BACKES: Honestly, not as much as I expected. There have been a few small adjustments, but it's mostly stayed as written. What has been really cool is watching my own understanding and perception of some characters or scenes change based on the way the actors have delivered their lines or embodied their characters. Like, I wrote the play, but they've made me think about the characters from different perspectives than I'd initially done, which has been really awesome and unexpected.
Tim Backes’ EMBERS opens tonight and runs one weekend only: July 13 - 15 at Wulff Lodge in South Milwaukee. For mor information, visit the show’s Facebook Events Page.