Plano — This week, Plano’s Fun House Theatre & Film opens repertory productions of Sam Shepard’s True West and David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow. In case you don’t know Fun House’s work, they feature youth actors.
But don’t let that scare you. Fun House does youth theater differently, training its students on works from the greater theater canon, including Shakespeare, Albee and Stoppard. They’ve visited Mamet before, in Jeff Swearingen’s devilishly clever Daffodil Girls, Inspired by David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, which earned him a playwriting award from the Dallas Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum. Actress Kennedy Waterman also received an award.
In True West, Sam Shepard’s brothers are played by real life brothers Josh and Jeremy LeBlanc (15 and 16), who have appeared in smaller roles in Fun House’s productions of The Chicken Who Wasn’t Chicken, Jeff Swearingen’s Robin Hood and His Merry Women, Man of La Mancha, Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Laughter in the Stars, The Sound of Fannie, Mortgage, all three shows in Jeff Swearingen’s Ultimate Holiday Trilogy.
This is their first Actor’s Exploration Series production, which is “aimed at challenging our young actors while pushing the boundaries of what audiences expect to see from ‘children’s theater’.”
We chatted with Jeremy and Josh about playing the brothers in one of Shepard’s best-known works.
In the interest of disclosure, Fun House producer Bren Rapp is also the Director of Sales and Marketing for TheaterJones.
TheaterJones: How much of your actual experience as brothers are you putting into your performances in this show?
Jeremy: Less than we initially anticipated. The brothers in True West are very different and contrasting. We are pretty similar in comparison. One thing that I think rings true though is how people have a tendency to label brothers. The “good” one, the “smart” one, the “tall” one. It is easy to imagine, through the subtext of the lines, that Lee and Austin have been label all their lives. We have definitely experienced that.
Josh: While some, it's not a whole lot. The brothers in the play don't get along well, since they don't really share a similar lifestyle. We, at least at this point, share similar interests.
What kind of insight has your actual relationship and the fact that you are brothers given you on the material?
Josh: We've had small rivalries or competitions between us. Lee and Austin, the brothers in the play, have extreme rivalry between them so even though theirs is amplified we do have some experiences to draw from.
Jeremy: I think as brothers, there are different stages of the relationship that we go through and realizing that helps to add a layer of subtext to the lines, that Lee and Austin have gone through these.
Do you think that Sam Shepard has captured the nature of what can often be complex about being a brother?
Josh: Absolutely. Sam Shepard shows that the relationship between the two brothers is something that is far more complex than how it appears. In real life, it is easy to say “they are so alike” or “they are totally different” about brothers but it is more like you are two sides of the same coin. You come from the same environment, you are raised the same, you are influenced by the same things. The differences come in how you react and respond to the things but the core, the foundation is the same.
Jeremy: I think all brothers, especially those close in age, want to be seen as individuals. Some go out of their way to prove how different they are. In the end though, they have so much of each other inside them. Not only does this play show that, I think it is a major theme.
For much of this play, it is only you and your brother on stage. Do you find it challenging to carry so much of a production?
Josh: Yes. It is just you out there. No one is coming in to save you and in this play, it isn’t like there are major effects or stunning set changes. Jeff [director Swearingen] made it a point to reassure us that we are more interesting than we may think. It was hard at first to fight off the thoughts of I should be do something more. At the core is the relationship and that is what is compelling. Realizing that makes the challenge something we can handle.
Jeremy: Agreed. This play is so character driven. It all boils down to the relationship. This play could take place on the moon or in a submarine and it wouldn’t matter, it would be the same and that is the genius of it. The fact that it is just us out there becomes easier by focusing on that.
Is it easier or harder to primarily be working with your brother on this production instead of just another actor?
Josh: Easier. Because we interact so often throughout any given day, it makes it easier to act the play realistically. Also, since we are always learning and running our scenes together, we know each other's lines pretty well, so we can back each other up.
Jeremy: Definitely easier. It's much more convenient to run lines or work on a scene together when we both live in the same house. It also helps that when I'm working alone on a scene, I can always walk across the hall and get Josh to help me out.
Sam Shepard’s work is not often something actors your age get to tackle. How do you feel it has helped to develop your skills as an actor? Has it helped you to add anything new to your process?
Josh: It has definitely helped my overall process of character development as an actor. There is so much in the subtext regarding Lee. It is almost like his past, his choices leap off the page. It is amazing how well Sam Shepard has given the actor what he needs, but so much of that comes from what isn’t said. I think this is the first time I have really encountered this to such an extent.
Jeremy: For me, just the genre of the play has helped me developed. The type of realism this play calls for is something I really hadn’t tackled before this. Also, it is a dark comedy and that is something I hadn’t really done before either. Understanding where the humor comes from, not overplaying things, remembering when you cross the proscenium, you are still just a person and that is all you have to be.
You have done a great deal of work with Fun House Theatre and Film. How do you think it has prepared you for this play and this type of material? For work you will be involved with in the future?
Josh: At Fun House, you are constantly coming in contact with famous playwrights and great works. They aren’t what most kids come in contact with and they build your knowledge of what is out there and makes you an informed actor. On top of that, Jeff and Bren don’t only direct you or teach you about the play, but all about the genre’, the style and how to perform it successfully.
Jeremy: Fun House focuses on very advanced material all of the time, so when Jeff and Bren tell us that they are planning something like doing True West our first impression isn't that we are terrified. Our first impression is that we want to tackle this show head on. We know that we are going to do something that through the work will build our skills and give us an advantage over other actors our age. Like with True West, a relationship driven, dark comedy, centered in realism. All of those things we can now say we have done and we can take with us to the next thing we do.
After getting to know this play, and your characters, Lee and Austin, do you think you might look at being brothers a little differently now? After working so closely together on this production, have you learned anything new about each other?
Josh: It definitely does shed some light on the way that brothers are in general. It can seem like either you're the smart or dumb brother, the cool one or the weird one, etc. But this play has helped show me how much of each other we really are.
Jeremy: Though we pride ourselves on our individuality, we are kind of one in the same, and that definitely make us better friends in the long run. We are very similar in many ways, but our differences from one another are what makes us extraordinary. On a personal note, I think we have both discovered our love of toast.