Dallas — Actress, playwright and director Carla Parker has been working with the creative, wildly productive and close-knit Ochre House Theater company from its beginnings nearly a decade ago. Ochre House founder and artistic director Matthew Posey determined at the outset that the theater would produce all original work. He started writing and producing new, compelling plays in the now-iconic East Dallas storefront theater at a fast and fascinating clip. Other members of the company were invited to write plays, as well, and all say they benefitted from Posey’s generous support and experience.
Parker has been involved in theater since first grade and has a master’s degree in theater production. She came to Ochre House after a long, “soul-sucking” stint teaching elementary and middle school children in DISD’s “broken” school system. Now she’s a full-time thespian. Parker has acted in many original plays over the years, and last August Ochre House premiered her first play, Kaptain Kockadoo, a fierce feminist satire of the misogyny at the heart of a fundamentalist religious cult.
Parker’s latest work, Mousey, which she is also directing, premieres Aug. 18 at Ochre House. Described as “a dark musical” where “things have gone rotten in the world of toys,” the new play examines what happens when the toys question their narrow, compliant life, and begin turning on one another in a chaotic awakening far removed from their previous harmonious existence.
The cast includes many actors familiar to Ochre House audiences, including Justin Locklear, Marti Etheridge, Dante Martinez, Mitchell Parrack, Kevin Grammer (Parker’s husband in real life), Ben Bryant, and Korey Parker. Posey designed the set, and Amie Carson designed the costumes.
TheaterJones talked to Parker about the origins and process of the new play.
TheaterJones: Toys that come to life have a long tradition in theater, dance and film (The Nutcracker, Toy Story, Copellia, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, etc.). Why did you choose this path for Mousey?
Carla Parker: The simplest answer is I was cleaning out my attic and found a stuffed animal from childhood I lovingly call Mrs. Mousey. Then I found a bag with more stuffed toys that evoked even more memories. I had a special relationship with my toys. I played with them and acted out stories going on in my life with them. I knew I had to write the play. I debated back and forth if the play should have a child, but then decided to see what happened if the toys were left on their own to speak and act.
The press materials refer to a “dark musical" about the search for Utopia. Is this like a lost Eden? Is the child who owns the toys benevolent?
The toys know only the room they occupy, and this room is a sacred place and all they know of life. They also know there is an entity who appears at bedtime that they spend snuggle time with, and who gives them the orders for the day. Questions arise among the toys about this voice. Is she telling the truth? What is the truth? Rivalries start up among the toys. They can’t control what the child does, so they begin to compete among themselves about who is the most important of all.
Your first play, Kaptain Kockadoo, was a stinging feminist satire with a polygamist villain. Any elements of that theme in the new play?
My experience with Kaptain Kockadoo was part of the impetus for this show. That play made me question everything. There was nothing sacred anymore to me for a time, not religion, not the afterlife, not God. I saw it was time for me to ask questions and more questions. The doctrines we’re fed as children can be terribly wrong, but we accept those ideas because we are innocent. The toys accept their world for a time.
How do you develop a show in the communal atmosphere of Ochre House Theater?
We are a very tight-knit group, so it’s a good thing that we all get along. We disagree on specific items, but that’s part of the process of developing a production. Working with Matthew Posey on developing a script is an honor. This is my second play, and I’m still learning so many new approaches. Matthew is incredibly supportive in making the finished play a true vision of my idea. Sometimes when we all meet in the morning he will say something like, “Pull out your notes, and let’s look at the plot.” Then we do what amounts to a master class in plot development. That’s always valuable. He wants each of us to be successful as part of a 10-year plan for the company. Things are falling into place now as we approach our 10th anniversary season. It’s exciting.
Who wrote the music for Mousey?
Justin Locklear wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics that rise from the play. I’d come in with a tune in my head and the words, and Justin would forget the tune and set the lyrics to a fresh, original melody. He honors my phraseology and we work well together. The orchestra is a band of monkeys, the new toys in the room. There are four musicians, including Justin, who has acting role and plays the accordion. The other monkeys play a cello, a guitar, and percussion.
What do you want audiences to walk away with after the show?
I hesitate to comment on this, but as I worked on the show I began to see that, just like the toys, we are always preparing for the grand extravaganza in our lives. In fact, life itself is happening at every moment and will finally end. It’s how you handle the in-between moments that matters. What will you do with that time?
Sounds cosmic. Do toys die or are they immortal?
Everything is a ball of energy and when a person dies that energy changes to something else. Even toys end their existence. The wacky characters in the show are funny to watch, but they have the fear of death in them. That’s the dark part of any comedy.