When Deborah Staples walked into the coffee shop for our interview, there was a hush that settled over everyone. It's not just because she has an easy and radiant sense of beauty; it’s more about a woman who moves with a confidence and awareness of who she is, knowing what her place in the world is and fully understanding of the mountains left yet to climb.
She is an actor and an associate artist at the Milwaukee Rep. She is at the absolute top of her game and delivers memorable performances wherever she appears. It would seem that with her career and her family, there would be no room left. However, she has begun to scale a new mountain in her life as she steps behind the footlights to direct her first play.
She is at the helm of "Welcome Home Jenny Sutter," the moving play that opens the season at Next Act Theatre, where artistic director – as well as Staples' husband – David Cecsarini has finally persuaded his wife to direct a play.
"I had been telling him for years that I’m not directing," Staples said over a cup of black coffee at Stone Creek in the Third Ward. "Not yet. Not now. I had been resistant because I didn’t need another career. He asked me again this year, to direct another play. I finally told him that I was kind of ready but if I’m going to take this thing on I’d rather direct 'Jenny Sutter' because I’m so passionate about it. He said it was harder than the other play, but I said I really wanted to dive into this. And he said okay. And here I am."
"Jenny Sutter" is a quiet little play by Julie Marie Myatt that is driven by the characters. Jenny is a war veteran, returning home without one of her legs and with a heart wracked with demons. She can’t bring herself to return to her family, so she ends up hanging out with a corps of fellow broken souls who have slipped off the grid of normal life.
"I brought this play to (David) while he was stressing out, trying to put together a season," Staples said. "I told him it really got to me, and he read it. And it stayed with him and stayed with him. And then two weeks later, it was even stronger in his mind."
Actors and directors often talk about how their current production is "special" to them and really "talks to their souls." It’s a part of the buildup to any production. But listening to Staples talk about "Jenny Sutter," there is an absolute absence of anything phony. This is a genuine mission for her.
"I really wanted to tell this story," she said. "It’s as simple as that. It really struck me and changed me in a fundamental and elemental way. I found it easier to move through the world and really understand and appreciate that each person I come in contact with has a whole world and a whole story behind them. People are not always going to behave the way we expect them to. It helped me forgive myself for my own foibles and imperfections and forgive the imperfections in others."
The world of theatrical art is littered with actors who thought they could make the jump to director and have success. Often, experience on the stage does not translate well to guiding a play from the director’s chair. Staples, though, seems as if she is going to avoid some of the most common pitfalls.
"I am on an incredible learning curve right now," she said. "Figuring out when those understandings and those feelings and those decisions get made. It’s so much more different as a director than as an actor. Sometimes you don’t realize when you are making a decision how crucial it can be."
"As an actor, I have always looked at a part as not a single role but how it fits into the whole," she continued. "I think of each play as being an orchestral composition, and I’m only playing the violin or the oboe. I’ve always had an eye toward the big picture. This play is about the relationships between the different characters, and I think my feel for the characters and the instincts of the actors is helpful."
Cecsarini is a demanding artistic director and has set a very high bar for Next Act. He has always tried to bring plays that have a relevance to meaningful current social issues. The reintroduction of our war veterans into civilian and family life is a troubling and problematic issue for America, and there have been any number of plays written about it. "Jenny Sutter" is different, quieter and restrained without the sometimes angry flights off the handle of many of the other efforts.
"A director’s primary task is to tell the author’s story in a clear and engaging way," Cecsarini said. "A good director must also be able to identify what story needs telling. As an actor, Deborah has always had a strong affinity for figuring that out. This ability is more instinctual; more of a talent than a learned skill. Deborah is a theatre artist of tremendous depth and talent."
That depth will serve Staples well as she helps to create a story that both drives home a point while helping an audience laugh, think and perhaps even draw some conclusions about life.
"I think the story of Jenny is both our worst nightmare and, perhaps, our great fantasy," Staples said. "Our worst nightmare is to fall off the grid, to be homeless and a squatter. But it’s also a fantasy to be able to not have to play this game we all play. To just not care about all the stuff we care about all the time."
Staples has an unwavering sense of self, but even she admits that despite all her years on stage and working with other directors, there have been moments of surprise on this, her maiden voyage.
"It almost seems trivial," she said. "It’s such a small thing. But as an actor, I used to wonder why the director didn’t notice something going on during rehearsal, a crucial missing word or something that wasn’t working. Now I see that from a different perspective. I find an actor raising a hand and asking me about something, and I’m surprised. Your eye is on a million different things, and there are things I don’t notice until an actor brings it up."
"Jenny Sutter" opens Friday at Next Act, and it’s going to be a time of reckoning for Staples.
"At a basic level, I understand that I am not right to play any one of these characters," she said. "All of them are playing the characters much better than I could ever dream of doing. So, figuring out in collaboration the psychology of these characters is fascinating."
It could perhaps mark the first step on a brand new career path for one of the best and most popular actors Milwaukee has ever seen.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
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