Farmer's Branch — Jason Leyva’s L.I.P. Service will close its 2015 season with the North Texas premiere of MacArthur Foundation Fellow Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, which opened off-Broadway in 2012 to much acclaim. The Whale is the story of morbidly obese man, Charlie, who is literally eating himself to death. He spends what’s left of his time on earth trying to make a real connection with his jaded, unpleasant teenage daughter. This season the Dallas Theater Center will host the world premiere of Hunter’s new play Clarkston, but his well-received The Whale will see its regional premiere this fall first. Hunter was first introduced to North Texas audiences when Circle Theatre staged his A Bright New Boise in 2013 (here’s our interview with the playwright from that year).
Leyva, a father of a teenage daughter of his own, was drawn to the play personally for the similarity he shares with the main character. He had hoped to share the stage with his daughter before she got too busy with her high school life, which ended up being the reason she couldn’t be in a play with him. Leyva then went looking for something challenging for himself personally as well as professionally. He found The Whale.
He chatted with TheaterJones about his company and the play.
TheaterJones: L.I.P. Service’s mission is to produce “alternatives the mainstream theater” in Dallas-Fort Worth. What does that mean to you?
Jason Leyva: Most theaters are dependent on ticket sales and funding to select their seasons. I want to work on inspiration—the issues that we as individuals are dealing with. I don’t want our seasons to be necessity based. We should be growing ourselves as artists.
Since you aren’t dependent on outside funding, how do you put your productions up?
I pay for everything out of pocket. This is how we’re able to do shows like Killer Joe and The Whale—we have the luxury to choose them.
Why this play now?
I really wanted our director, Danny Macchietto, to direct something for me. His dedication to the craft was inspiring to me. I wanted to do a play with my daughter and when that wasn’t going to work out I ended up making a real connection with another actor. Which in turn got me questioning my relationship with my own daughter. This play is very much about empathy and compassion, which is something I think we as a society lack. As a father of a teenager that was important to me.
Besides the fact that you’re both fathers, how else could you connect to this character, who is a 600-pound man on the verge of death?
The obesity is the “whale” or “elephant” in the room, so to speak. It’s not about him being fat. The playwright wants you to have to overcome that hurdle. It’s about empathy. We are too quick to judge one another, we have no compassion as a society. We are always seeking revision and change, when we really should be accepting each other and just be.
Talk about the fat suit. How did it come together?
The suit is on loan from the University of Texas theater department. It was used in a Houston production of The Whale and we were fortunate to get a hold of it. We’ve had it since March, which has given us plenty of time to play with it and make sense of it within the play. It is a metaphor for the obstacles Charlie faces, but it gives a real, tangible aspect to those ideas. It is a great asset for a larger message. You have to look past his physicality to see what he’s saying. It is about a man trying to connect with his daughter, but you have to get past those preconceived notions about him.
Have you reached out to the playwright about this production?
Yes, but we think he’s probably pretty busy right now. Later this year he will have a new play produced by the Dallas Theater Center. We hope he’ll appreciate that a small theater not too far away is trying to do great justice to his work. You won’t find a better playwright out there right now.
Where are you housed?
I’m currently the technical director and Stage Manager for The Firehouse Theatre in Farmer’s Branch. They are generously allowing us to use their space for our season. We hope people will take a chance on us, get off the beaten path, and support the small theaters in Dallas-Fort Worth. We are out here making work that will challenge people. We hope they will be willing to see something different.