Selma Arts Center gets ‘Dark’ with 1960s classic thriller
She’s blind. There are bad men in her house. You’d probably be a little scared, too.
With “Wait Until Dark,” the Selma Arts Center offers a change of pace for audiences. I caught up with director Juan L. Guzman to talk about the show, which opens Friday, May 17.
So, Selma Arts Center is slipping a classic thriller into the season. You’re mostly known for newer, cutting-edge stuff. What’s the thought process?
We love getting our hands on new and edgy material, I must admit. When building our seasons, we always look to provide a balance, blending the edgy stuff we love with programming for families, comedies, and classics. We try to provide something for everyone and thought this would be a great choice for people who love the theatre but maybe feel like all the new, edgy stuff isn’t exactly for them.
For those who aren’t familiar with the show, give a brief rundown.
The play (and our production) is set in 1966, in a Greenwich Village apartment occupied by Sam and Susy Hendrix, a woman who has recently been blinded in an automobile accident. Sam has brought a doll into the house which, unbeknownst to him, has drugs hidden inside. When Sam loses the doll and leaves for work, Susy has to deal with three con men that drop in to take what’s theirs.
Are you the type of guy who gets uptight when watching a thriller?
I absolutely am. It takes a lot for me to watch a horror film or psychological thriller, whether it’s on film or stage. I’m also the kind of guy, however, that loves the thrill of it once I’m there and in the middle of it. There’s something about the adrenaline, the quickening of a pulse, especially while watching it play out on stage in front of you, which makes for an incredible experience.
Tell us about your Susy. What grabbed you about her at auditions?
I’ve loved watching Alyssa Benitez on local stages for quite some time and had the chance to work with her during SAC’s production of CARRIE: THE MUSICAL. She is so talented, incredibly expressive, and brings a sense of pluck to the character that immediately drew me to her at auditions. She’s really made some fine choices in developing this character, and I’m excited for audiences to experience it.
How did you approach directing a character who is supposed to be blind?
It started with research for me, learning what I could about blindness, especially about people who become blind later in life the way the character does, and trying to gain a sense for blindness so that I could approach the material respectfully and honestly. Alyssa is the type of actor who also relies on research for development and so she spent some time at Valley Center for the Blind where she was able to have questions answered and met people who graciously spent time with her so she could do the work of building her character. I was also fortunate to have Ruth Griffin, who designed movement for the production, by my side. After CURIOUS INCIDENT she said to me, “you know, it strikes me that WAIT UNTIL DARK is a movement piece,” and she was right. Concentrating on body, posture, and movement with Ruth added a powerful element to this production.
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We live in much different times than when the play came in out in 1966. Did you have any qualms about casting a non-blind person (I’m not sure if that’s the proper term) in a blind role?
I did and I know that this was a concern for the actor as well. In my own research I found that one recent production in the UK claims to be the first to cast an actual blind woman in the role and more recently, in January of this year, a community theatre in Wisconsin believes to be the first US production to do the same. I think that’s incredible. SAC is committed to diversity in programming and casting, but providing equitable opportunities for all actors, along with actual representation, is also very important to us and something we are excited to expanding upon with our current and future seasons.
What is the biggest challenge of directing a period piece?
I really had fun, particularly with this era! I think the challenge was in finding a way to unify all of the ideas we had about set and costumes, colors, props, set pieces, etc. under a singular motif that spoke to the era but also allowed us to stylize in our own unique way. I’m grateful for a production team that made that easy.
What’s up next for Selma Arts Center?
So much! We are super thrilled to be bringing BE MORE CHILL to the Selma Arts Center this summer, a production that is currently playing on Broadway. Along with BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and CABARET, it rounds out our season, but not our programming. Look for the staging of original works with SELMA ORIGINALS, later this year. We’ve also got a super exciting and top-secret workshop planned for our next SACademy course. You’ll have to wait and see what that will be! One more thing, after WAIT UNTIL DARK, SAC will be making some changes that will certainly enhance our audience experience. We will be ready to share those changes just in time for BE MORE CHILL.