Dallas — In a recent media roundtable, Raphael Parry, artistic director of Shakespeare Dallas, spoke about his transition from stage actor-producer-director to film director with his short film Maid, playing Friday at Dallas VideoFest 29. It’s a surrealist allegory by playwright Erk Ehn (also making his cinematic debut) about Joan of Arc, filmed in the far West Texas town of Marfa, the artist colony that’s also served as the location for some Hollywood classics: Giant, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood.
Parry and Ehn’s relationship goes back decades at Undermain Theatre, and continued in 2012 when Parry’s Project X produced one of Ehn’s plays in a cycle about genocide, Diamond Dick: The Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, at the Green Zone in Deep Ellum. The Dallas crew later took that production to New York for a festival of the Ehn plays in this cycle.
TheaterJones: How did you end up in Dallas?
Raphael Parry: I came to Dallas in ’82 on my way to becoming a famous actor on Broadway. Stopped here and [helped start] a theater company, Undermain Theatre, in 1983 [with Katherine Owens]. Our focus was poetic theater, highly avant-garde stuff, at a time in Dallas when everything was aiming at commercial work. So we wandered around Deep Ellum until we found a wonderful patron, Jim and Michelle Herling. They owned the building that Undermain is in still, but it was in complete disrepair. A gorgeous six-story building with an African art gallery on the second floor. They allowed us the basement for free, as long as we came up to the gallery and entertained Stanley Marcus and some of the guests they would have on the weekends. We did the kind of theater no one was doing in Dallas at the time…like Samuel Beckett, when no one wanted to produce Samuel Beckett.
How did you meet Erik Ehn?
Someone sent me three scripts by Erik. I thought they were beautiful. I wrote a letter to Erik, who was working in downtown New York City at the time, and said, "I love your plays but the ending to this one play isn’t right," which is something you just don’t do. He said, "Sure, do my plays and I’ll rewrite the ending of that one play." He rewrote it and it was beautiful. Later he came in, and it was Texas/OU weekend. We put him up in a hotel. [I said] "If Texas wins, will you write me another play?" He said, "Yes, if OU wins, you have to direct one of my plays." He is from Oklahoma. Texas won, so Erik owed me a set of three plays, which began this long history of working together.
Over 15 years, I did at least seven projects with Erik, including two sets of commissions. He also wrote a whole series of plays about the saints ["The Saint Plays"], which is where this [film] came from. All short, five-to-10-minute plays based on the Catholic saints. Erik is an unapologetic Catholic. One of the things we would do a lot of is called geographic commission. He’d fly to Texas to research the next set of plays. We’d get in the car and would drive somewhere on a mission. We wanted to see miracles happening in Texas, over the course of three trips. We worked up until 1999 when I left Undermain and I went on to Shakespeare Dallas, where I work now as the Artistic Director. We met together in Marfa about three years ago to look into a screenplay he’d written years before. In the process, we decided to narrow it down and adapt the same play [Wholly Joan], which had already been produced in New York and turn it into a short film.
How did you raise money and prepare for the filming?
It took an amazingly long time to do that. We set it in Marfa, raised the money [through crowdfunding] to shoot it on location in 2014. Low budget filmmaking is really intense. This film has a ton of CG work, including the Marfa Lights and other phenomena. The intent was to put Eric’s poetic theatrical voice to the film world and bring theatre artists into the filmmaking world. [It's] my first film, I’m sure I confounded the director of photography [Russell Blair] with some of my requests for certain camera angles and treatments that could not be done on the budget we were shooting on. Erik was on the side the whole time, it was great to have him there. The scene with the blowup donkey was written on the spot when we couldn’t do some other things.
Tell us more about the story.
It’s the story of Joan of Arc set in Marfa. Joan, a hotel maid, is a disaffected person who’s trying to find home. It follows the story of Joan in a 24-hour period, and it closely parallels the actual story of Joan of Arc, which is she had these visions. She had two particular saints that spoke to her all the time, saying, "Go, meet with the King of France, prepare to do battle with the British and help your country." In this very short adaptation, the saints do come to Joan, (who) at first denies her responsibility to God. Ultimately she accepts it, and then the Marfa Lights are three agents representing the Holy Trinity as well. So there’s a lot of Catholic symbology, a lot of mythology, and a lot of good old-fashioned moviemaking, all through this film. The double entendre of the title is, Joan was also known as Maid of Orleans.
Julia Dyer had come to see these plays early on at The Undermain, was a big fan, and wanted to work on Erik’s plays with me, so she joined me as an assistant director on the cycles. After that, Julia started putting film into a lot of the plays I working on. She herself is a really celebrated local filmmaker [The Playroom, Late Bloomers], and she opted to serve as producer. "I’ll produce, you direct. It’ll give you a chance to find out what filmmaking is all about."
What are some of the big differences you learned about producing film and producing theater?
Erik had a quote that this process would possibly destroy us, and I think we all experienced that, being on location in Marfa for 10 days with almost no money. We had an army of people plus a small cast. It was amazing how difficult it was. When you’re a theater person you start rehearsals, then six weeks later you do a show, then the show ends. But in films, it can take two years to finish editing. It’s a totally different discipline, but I think theater people do learn the discipline of hitting their marks, as much as a film person, but you can do it multiple times. A lot of film people who were theater people first, find that training incredibly informative. Staying focused and grounded is one thing that theater people do really well when they’re making films.
How did you cast the film?
We had the good fortune to cast Hayley Orrantia, who is now on TV’s The Goldbergs, as Joan of Arc in the film. She’s a Highland Village girl who knew our producers. We had so many people audition for the part so when the chance to use her came up, I thought, "That’s kinda neat!" She took a midnight flight into El Paso after finishing [filming an episode of] her show. We picked her up, drove her into town, put her in costume and put her into a dumpster on an evening when it was about 45 degrees outside. She was a heck of a trouper, too, because at the end, Joan is burned at the stake! She was great to work with, and sang at the end of the film. Hayley’s got a budding career in Nashville right now too. Nicole Berastequi is one of the saints in the film. Jenni Tooley is the other saint. She was the second wife of the father [Ethan Hawke] in Boyhood.
How has the film been received by religious groups?
We did some screenings, found out that the spiritual community is fascinated by something like this. We found that people who work in ministry who heard about it were like, "Wow, I gotta get my hands on that film." We got a lot of feedback like "What does it mean?" With Erik’s work, you don’t come away with an answer, but you do come away with a lot of questions that certainly promote conversation and dialogue.
Maid gets its showcase premiere Friday, Oct. 21 at 9:45 p.m. at The Angelika Film Center Dallas, theater 3. It is paired with Spider Veins, a 19-minute film by Frank Mosley, starring Katey Parker, Danielle Pickard, and Jennifer Mazza-Nguyen and loosely inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
View a complete schedule in the searchable database on the DVF website, here.