Crafting Intimacy & Exploring Sensitive Themes: A Dialogue with Andy Arden-Reese, Director of the Rover

Wednesday, Oct 4, 2023

The Ravishingly Offensive Unleashed Gentlewomen's Entourage Presents THE ROVER

THE ROVER premiers at the Abe Burrows Theatre on October 5 at 8:00 pm ET, and runs until October 14.

Finding the right balance between creating a safe and supportive atmosphere while authentically portraying intimacy on stage is like a carefully choreographed dance. Associate Arts Professor Andy Arden-Reese, the director of the TISCH DRAMA STAGE production of "The Rover," does this skillfully.

"The Rover," a Restoration comedy, delves into the romantic entanglements of a group of English gentlemen vacationing in Naples during Carnival weekend. The play grapples with a number of sensitive themes, ranging from social hierarchies to sexuality and gender dynamics.

Arden-Reese, also the Director of Professional Training  at Drama, oversees the Department's guidelines for theatrical intimacy–providing a structured approach to ensuring a safe, respectful, and genuine exploration of intimate themes in theatre. 

This discussion is an exploration of Arden-Reese's approach and how it encourages creativity and a supportive environment, allowing the cast to deeply engage with themes explored in "The Rover." It showcases the transformative effects of collaboration and trust in theatre.

"The Rover" premiers at the Abe Burrows Theatre on October 5 at 8 pm ET. The production will run in the Abe Burrows from October 5-14. Get your tickets here.

Fostering a comfortable and supportive atmosphere for the cast is critical, especially when dealing with intimate scenes. What strategies did you employ to create an environment where students felt safe and empowered to authentically explore the play's themes?

This process began with our audition notice. I explicitly named that this show involves non-consensual intimate encounters and that the explored themes would be intimate in nature. As part of the callback process, I spoke with each individual to remind them of what they would be signing up for and to ask if they had any questions for me. Many commented even then that by putting this out there early, they already felt that this would be a supportive environment that would be well-tended. This was echoed once we got in the rehearsal room together. 

Whether a show asks for an "ensemble" or not, it feels really, really important to connect as humans together in the process - that we feel like a collaborative ensemble regardless of the individual roles. A good part of our first week was getting to know each other, including our stage management team and any designers visiting the room on any given day, and diving into why we were there and what we hoped to do together. Tending the experiential, emotional, and intellectual garden we were seeding. One of my primary interests and of highest priority (and my biggest hope for this production) was that the entire team - designers, actors, and stage managers - felt the collaborative spirit with each other and, dare I say, even joyful in the process! TD STAGE is such an opportunity for students across our Department to experience each other's incredible work and collaborate, so anything I could do to support lifting us up as a full team felt hugely valuable to me. 

Through that first week, we made agreements about how we wanted our space to function to bring out our best work with each other and also agreed to do process checks along the way to hold us accountable. This intention made it possible for us to traverse through the themes. The play's language and ideas are free, open, and transparent. I wouldn't say moving into challenging terrain is ever "easy," but I will say that with this group of amazing collaborators, it felt quite effortless. We could be frank with all the business of the play because the foundation was strong, and we believed in the best of each other. To me, these steps create the bedrock of collaboration, where each individual can feel confident in the messiness of art-making, no matter the content, but certainly in regards to intimate scenes and emotional subject matter (which is just about any scene with heart and guts.)

As far as the actual staging of physical intimacy, we worked the steps. We limited the room to only those involved and members of our SM team, acknowledged boundaries, agreed on the story we wanted to be told through the physical vocabulary, and then worked creatively together to find ways to tell that story. We gave it time and space for it to breathe and for us to connect.

We created a foundation strong enough to hold the room and anything that comes up in the room. One of my mantras, when I'm feeling especially strapped/stressed/trapped by a challenge, is "I have space. There is room" (to figure it out, to not know, to experiment, to take a walk, to breathe…whatever.) And sometimes, that was exactly what we needed in the room in certain moments to work with, not against a challenge. Maybe it wasn't in the timeline, but we took a break. Maybe checking in is more important than jumping into the scene. We will get there. And we will be carrying ourselves there when we do. We have space. There is room. To hold us exactly as we imperfectly perfectly are.

The Rover is emblematic of its time. How have you adapted certain aspects of the play to resonate with a modern audience?

I'm going to plug in my concept statement here because this was a huge part of my pre-production personal think-tank. I absolutely wanted to remain honest to the spirit of the play that was filled with fun while also serving up a hefty punch. The Rover is known as a dark comedy. What Aphra Behn had her female characters do in the play was radical for the time. How could we match it within the wildly different context of our present-day circumstances? Unfortunately, the same sexism, classism, and inequity (to name just a few) of the 1600's proliferate our world today. We are still fundamentally ruled by inherent patriarchal structures, and the struggle continues.

Historically, Restoration Comedies played to the lowest common denominator of their audiences, who (even within the nobility) were game for the low-brow nature of it – equal parts spectacle and base, immoral content…pushing, pushing into the extremes of behavior. Known expectations of characters and storylines were played out by a troupe of actors/performers. The audience comes as much for the skill, prowess, and excellence of the performers as they do for the storytelling/character plotlines. There is a spirit of FUN in the playing, but also real DANGER and the sense that the characters Hellena, Florinda, Angelica, and Lucetta are struggling to overcome very real stakes set up by an oppressive Patriarchal system. Behn's characters specifically are sexual, bawdy, and provocative; she was exploring light and dark interplay, turning suddenly from one to the other in surprising, if not shocking, ways. We leaned into this as part of the discovery/acting/playing process, with the very real experimental question: what happens when all of the actions and behaviors are embodied by women? Do we experience the play differently? 

It was important to me to set the play in our contemporary time, in structures that feel contemporary in nature. We are playing with the spectacle of it through the action being embodied by our troupe of Players, now affectionately known as the Ravishingly Offensive Unleashed Gentlewomen's Entourage, or ROUGE. You'll have to come see what they're made of to know what they're doing to bring this play to life!

In a student-led production, there's often a strong emphasis on learning and growth. How do you see The Rover contributing to the educational journey of Drama students in terms of performance and their understanding of complex themes?

As I said in your first question, being part of a holistic collaboration is a huge part of this process. My hope is that anyone in it takes away what it felt like—and what they did to make it all so possible—as what they can carry forward into other processes in which they embark, both within the Department and out into the world. Intentionality creates confident space. I feel like moving through fear is something we all grapple with all the time as artists and thinkers - and to know that fear is something we can dance with rather than be hijacked by. The fear/joy equation is something to keep breathing into and to always stay in process with. To keep practicing. I don't believe it should ever get too comfortable. And we actually do have the capacity to keep engaging with this essential equation to make our work better, fuller and vibrating with life.