Nearly two years ago, The Pond Theatre Company, in conjunction with the Barrow Group, premiered their inaugural production of Mike Leigh‘s classic play, Abigail’s Party. It received rave notices including the coveted NY Times Critics’ Pick and played to sold-out audiences.
Since then, this female-led troupe has staged readings and works from contemporary British and Irish Playwrights, all of which have been praised by reviewers and audiences alike.
This Wednesday, September 12th, they unveil their third fully staged play, The Naturalists. It marks the world premiere from Irish playwright Jaki McCarrick. Last week, it opened to previews and is slated to run through September 23rd at Walkerspace in Tribeca. The play has been published and copies will be on sale at the theatre.
McCarrick hails from Dundalk, a county town bordering Northern Ireland. Although her characters are a work of fiction, the event that surrounds the play actually occurred near McCarrick’s home. In 1979, The IRA bombed the British Army near the Narrow Water Castle.
Her play focuses on the aftermath of that event.
Pond Theatre Founders Colleen Clinton and Lily Dorment (both of whom starred in the company’s last two productions) will direct. Recently, after a long day of rehearsals and resolving technical issues, the two indefatigable theater-makers sat down with Manhattan Digest at an Italian eatery close to the theatre to discuss the new work and the future of The Pond. Their third co-founder, Sarah Street, joined the conversation by phone.
MD: How did you come to pick The Naturalists?
CC: We read so much. It’s not easy coming to something that we’re all collectively passionate about. We read two of her plays in our reading series and really loved both of them. We’re big fans of the work.
MD: What was it about this one that made you say, ‘We’ve got to do this?’
LD: We read a lot of plays that are fun and have an interesting theme but feel very “written” to me–there’s a scenario, there’s a set-up, there are some characters who each have a point of view and a moral that is taught to you through these characters, but often times, they don’t feel like real people to me.
There is something about Jaki’s writing that feels real. Even though issues come up, this is a character play. It feels subtle and there is much that is as important in what is not said as what is said. It’s not in your face. There is a realness to it that is unusual in comparison to most plays.
MD: This is the 2nd time you’ve been able to interact with the playwright when working on your plays. Did they offer input or did they give you free rein to bring her story to life?
CC: Jaki spent a week with us in the early process of rehearsals and she has just been tremendous. Her generosity and willingness to communicate about the slight differences that have happened have been terrific.
LD: She’s been open to tweaks along the way. She’s getting it to a place where she wants it for the world premiere. One can get nervous when the writer starts to get involved because you wonder if you’re on the right track or that you’re doing something they won’t respond to or honoring their vision. I think its been remarkably smooth. She seems pretty aligned with what we’re doing and what she’s envisioned. And she’s been flexible if changes have had to be made.
MD: You’re doing a work that is based on a real historical event in Northern Ireland. Is there any concern or is it helpful to come into the play with background knowledge of that or can it be enjoyed without it?
SS: It is the backdrop of the play, but with these characters, there’s no need to know about the Northern Ireland troubles. The way Jaci has written it makes this accessible to anyone.
MD: Tell me something about The Naturalists that can’t be found in a press release.
CC: It has revealed itself more and more to me in rehearsals. Three people find each other together and they wind up healing each other even though they are all wounded. In that way, it becomes this beautiful, unconventional love story
LD: it’s a play about atonement. How do we atone for our sins and our past decisions? What does it take to do that?
CC: There is a line that Sarah’s character says in the play: “Don’t we need other people to have faith in us in order to keep our promises?” That’s about people seeing the best in us even if we don’t feel it.
MD: Is there any comedy in this or is it strictly a drama?
SS: With an Irish play, there is always comedy.
MD: When you look to the future of The Pond Theatre Company, do you plan to exclusively focus on contemporary playwrights or do you also want to do the work of the ‘old dead guys?’
LD: Our mission is to bring contemporary British and Irish writers to the States, either to introduce or re-introduce them. We want plays that reflect our current time. There are plenty of other companies that do amazing stuff with the ‘old dead guys.’
MD: How did you form the company?
LD: For a while, I kept wondering why there wasn’t a British theatre company in New York that did contemporary British drama. It felt odd to me that there was an Irish Repertory Theatre but no English repertory. It had been percolating in the back of my mind, but I didn’t do much about it.
Then, about three years ago, Colleen, Sarah and I trained at the Barrow Group under Seth Barrish. We were in his master class. I had wanted to do a scene from Abigail’s Party. We did the scene and the response was extraordinary. Through that, we boarded our friend Nick Hetherington.
The Barrow Group came to us and offered to put Abigail’s Party into their next season and asked if we’d be interested in co-producing. We decided that instead of just co-producing this play, maybe this was the moment to start this company we’ve been talking about. That’s kind of what happened.
MD: What do you see for the long run?
SS: We just want to keep going and producing this type of work for a long time.
LD: The next step is to get to a place where we get to the point where we have the resources to work in a full-time capacity and curate a full season of work. We want to keep discovering new work and bring fresh voices to New York.
CC: What we would love to do is to do multiple plays in a season and then actually secure a property. Right now, we’re wearing all of these hats all the time. We’d really like to grow the team
LD: I just want to take my hat off for a few minutes (laughs).
MD: Do you want a resident group of actors or do you prefer new faces?
CC: It’s really great. The three of us all came out of the same training and our aesthetic is tied to that. It is wonderful to work with people who understand the language and trust.
LD: It would be nice to find other theatre companies with which to partner. That way, we can get our work seen more broadly. Resident companies have a lot of benefits but sometimes casting can start to feel pigeonholed.
CC: In the cases of Abigail’s Party, Muswell Hill, and The Naturalists, we all speak the same language. It’s like playing tennis with someone who hits the ball back to you. I always say that my favorite place in the world is backstage with these two (Lily and Sarah). I just know that we’ll go out there and have fun. It’ll be different each time.
SS: We’ve got each other’s backs.
MD: When asked if there was any additional information they’d like to add, Lily jumped in, posing a cheeky question to Sarah: “What is it like to be directed by Colleen and Lily?”
SS: It’s wonderful because I know how collaborative they are. I don’t feel afraid to say something to them if I feel like something is wonky. I also know that they don’t have egos so it feels pretty safe, collaborative and exciting to be working with them as directors.
The Pond Theatre Company’s Production of The Naturalists runs through Sunday, September 23rd at Walkerspace (46 Walker Street NY NY). For tickets and more information, visit https://thepondtheatre.org/