Cinnabar’s new play, a romantic-comedy about loneliness, hurt and healing, to debut in Petaluma
Playwright Mark St. Germain’s 2013 play “Dancing Lessons” explores the importance of connection and the emotions that come along with it. Cinnabar Theater’s new production, opening Oct. 15 for a three weekend run, comes at the right time, given that so many are still feeling emotions stacked up during the height of the pandemic: rage, frustration, worry, anxiety and uncertainty, plus occasional bouts of hope.
But most of all, many of us felt loneliness.
“At its crux, the play is about human connection,” said first-time director and veteran actor, John Browning. “It’s about what happens when you don’t have that connection and what happens when you do. You are able to see a relationship form and the capacity and necessity for change.”
In “Dancing Lessons, Cinnabar’s second post-shutdown production, we meet two highly offbeat and gifted characters: the Broadway dancer Senga, played by Jess Headington, and a science professor named Ever, played by Trevor L. Hoffman. Self-isolated and low on confidence, each one aching with doubts, this odd couple forge an unexpected friendship and understanding.
“The play opens with my character, Senga, in a dark place, about to give up completely,” said Headington, via phone recently, just a few hours before technical rehearsals. “She slowly comes out of it and finds hope. After the pandemic, this is what all of us are feeling and what all of us need. We need to see someone come out of their isolation to believe we can do it too.”
Senga, who is recovering from an injury that may stop her dancing career permanently, is approached by Ever, who asks for dancing lessons to prepare for a formal party he’s terrified of. It quickly turns out that Ever is exactly what Senga needs to be drawn out of her self-imposed isolation and pity party of one.
“Dance is this magical, powerful art form, that brings these two very different people closer,” said native Petaluma actor Hoffman. “A lot of the frustrations felt by these characters are just because they aren’t understood by society and are very different.”
Both, Headington and Hoffman were immediately interested in the play when Browning told them about it over the summer. Having acted with Browning 10 years ago in a Sonoma County production of Tracy Letts’ “Bug,” Headington understood and trusted his creative process and was excited to turn the tables and have him direct her, especially after she directed him in a local production of “The Book Club Play” in 2019.
Hoffman and Headington, too, have worked together before, and John knew at the audition that they brought the kind of raw emotion and chemistry he wanted for Ever and Senga. Playing a character at a low spot in her life or a character with autism is challenging, to say the least. As actors, there is pressure to do justice to the condition the character is in, and make the performance as real as possible.
“Understanding and being true to Senga was initially a challenge,” recalls Headington. “I usually play roles where characters are real and relatable, and Senga was exactly that. But in the play, she goes through extreme emotions which can get taxing. I have an intentional process to switch in and out of the character for my own mental health. The car ride to and from rehearsals is where this transition takes place.”
Although she hasn’t been in the same situation as Senga, she can call on memories of grief, loss, despair and heartache. For Hoffman, Ever was almost like an extension of himself in some ways.
“Ever is easy to play because in some ways I can relate to him,” said Hoffman. “He doesn’t have a filter, so while playing him I can almost drop my own filter too.”
Though he admits he has never been officially diagnosed as autistic, he does have ADHD and is therefore able to offer some experience through his own neurodivergence. Of growing up with ADHD, and identifying with Ever, he said, “I was afraid of the stigma associated with needing special care when I was younger, so I feel where he’s coming from.”
But Ever’s extreme emotions and over sensitivities are very unlike his own, so Hoffman relied on deep, extensive research to better understand the character and put on an authentic performance.
When Brown was first offered the script by Cinnabar, he knew that he needed to do justice to these characters and their conditions without making it appear preachy or overdone. At the first reading, watching Hoffman and Headington perform together, he knew that 80% of his job was done. The actors brought realness and a certain spark that the characters needed.
“The play is not about mental health or autism, but it has characters who deal with it,” said Browning via phone, sitting in the parking lot of the theater. “The actors needed to be able to make these conditions their own so that it looks real.”
The switch from the actor’s seat to the director’s was almost natural and is definitely something browning hopes to do again.
“As an actor, I knew what I didn’t like about some directors, so I made sure to avoid it,” he said. “There was definitely a lot more stress putting the play together. So many small details that as an actor you can overlook but as a director you can’t. I had to educate myself about the issues that came up in the play and make sure that the music pieces, costumes, cues, pauses, choreography and rehearsal schedules were all planned.”
But the team made it an easier and fun process.
Though the play does address several serious topics, at its heart it is a lighthearted romantic comedy about two people fumbling and stumbling into love and self-discovery.
“We started from a raw and authentic place and after getting the shape of the play, we’ve added little bits to make it funny,” explained Headington. “It’s not slapstick. Instead you’ll laugh because you can relate to it, because it’s something your friend may do on a first date and tell you about. You will chuckle because you’ve been there.”