Dallas — Proper Hijinx Productions debuted in 2015, and has already given us three full-length productions and now enters its first Festival of Independent Theatres with Stefany Cambra's Missed Connections. All four shows have a few things in common: Cambra, the founder and artistic director, has directed and/or written them all, including this spring's Finding Myself in Bed and Missed Connections. And all four have starred actor Jeff Burleson. We chatted with Cambra and Burleson about the play, the company and working in the Dallas theater scene. Burleson, in particular, has mixed thoughts.
TheaterJones: The description says Missed Connections is a "look at the struggle to find love in the big city and how our biggest obstacle is often all in the timing (or a lack thereof)." Can you give me a little more about the plot?
Stefany Cambra: We do have it set in the city, but I don't think this is just a big city struggle; I think it's something we experience everywhere. As for the plot, it doesn't follow the typical linear pattern you expect from shows. Instead, it's a series of monologues and group scenes that reflect on missed opportunities in love. It follows eight characters as they kick themselves for not saying hi or expressing an interest when they had the chance. It falls in line with the style of Love, Loss, and What I Wore or The Vagina Monologues, but it deviates from that pattern by not being a show geared towards people with vaginas. I think this is one that everyone will be able to connect with, regardless of what man or lady bits they're sporting.
What was your inspiration for it?
The major two sources of inspiration were Craigslist and my own cowardice. There's a section on Craigslist called Missed Connections where people can post about the woman they met on the subway or the weekend fling they had four years ago—with this idealistic hope that maybe the person they're talking about will see it and they'll find their happily ever after. Some of the stories on there are weird and a little creepy, but most are honest, hopeful, and a little heartbreaking. When I first discovered Missed Connections, I spent hours reading posts because, despite the occasional online weirdo, I really connected to the majority of the people. I found their stories relatable and thought maybe others would too.
As for the second source of inspiration...I'm a giant wuss when it comes to talking about my feelings. I don't initiate conversations with men I find attractive and I certainly don't let them know of my interest. I kick myself for it often, because that teeny tiny part of me that hasn't iced over from cynicism really loves to play the "what if" game and imagine the happily ever after—but it's really hard to have that happily ever after when you aren't willing to say something. I may have been crazy enough to start a theater company, but opening up and taking a chance on love is something I struggle with. I think this is a universal struggle; most everyone has their own missed connection where they weren't quite brave enough. The sense of "we've all been there" was a major driving force in writing the script.
Did you write this before/after Finding Myself in Bed? If you wrote it before, has any of it changed since you've had another of your plays produced and seen by audiences?
I wrote the first draft to Finding Myself in Bed about three years ago. It's gone through major revisions since then (some rewrites were still happening on Tech Weekend) and somewhere in the midst of all that, I wrote the first draft to Missed Connections. Comparatively, Missed Connections is still a very young script, and I'm sure it will continue to grow and develop well after FIT has come to a close. It's by no means a perfect piece and it would be egotistical and wrong of me to sell it as such.
The script has certainly changed a lot in the past several months. Seeing audience reactions to Finding Myself in Bed was certainly helpful in how I looked at this current production, but they're both so different in style, I knew I had to approach this one differently. Honestly, my cast has been a major help in creating rewrites that work for them and the show. The benefit of being the writer and director is that I can listen to the thoughts of my actors, consider them, and actually make improvements to the script. It's nice to have that level of collaboration, and I truly appreciate having a supportive team that is equally invested in the show.
Rewrites for this production have been put to bed (thanks to my magical stage manager and her ability to take away my pencil), and I'm excited to share this version with Dallas audiences. It's a simple show, but I think it will resonate with a lot of people
Jeff, you've been in every PHP show so far. What draws you to keep working with Stefany and this company?
It’s no secret that I love new voices: writers, actors, and, yes, even theater companies. I was proud to be on board for Theatre of North Texas’ inaugural show One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; a mentor once told me “more theater makes better theater.” Perhaps my only God-given gift is the ability to portray a character onstage, but I’m proud to use that talent to help others’ visions come to fruition. Proper Hijinx is just another instance of my hopelessly romantic rooting for the underdog.
This is the fourth show I’ve worked with Stefany—this time a year ago we were rehearsing PHP’s inaugural show, Lee Blessing’s Two Rooms, a playwright and a show that I think most audiences find heavy-handed and preachy. I complained as much to Stef when she pitched the show to me, she understood my reservations but insisted that the show could be adjusted to play down the rhetoric and to bring out the parts of it that are still impactful today. Ambitious, yes, but her dissection of the text made it palpable, and—unfortunately—the underlying stories of violence and terrorism still ring true. After that, she took on a show with a role I’d been dying to do and—once again—I was certain she bit off more that she could chew, but I agreed to take the fall with her. And once again, the ovation at the end of closing matinee show proved her right. Ask my friends, sometimes I can be a curmudgeonly, pessimistic wart of a human being—but there’s something about being around the fresh optimism of a young person that hasn’t been broken yet that is refreshing; Stef reminds me that art—for some people—is still an enjoyable endeavor, a welcome aide-mémoire.
Tell me about your part in Missed Connections and can you relate to it personally?
The best part of a show like Missed Connections is that it tackles a universal truth by virtue of a single theme; the universal theme of “what if” permeates our daily life in many, if not all facets. Sure, I relate to my character wondering how his life would be differently had he ended up with someone else—especially in the light of the past few months of my personal life—but even further than a romantic or relationship level, the piece resonates. Stefany has used this trope of exploring relationships to allow the audience the freedom to wonder about the any number of aspects of their life. Perhaps one doesn’t wonder with whom they will end up, but perhaps they wonder about how they chose this job over that job, how they chose to move to this town over another. That’s what’s true for me; I often wonder how my life would have been different if I had moved to Kansas City instead of Dallas three years ago. But the theme of the show will have a different impact on every person in the audience.
You've been in the DFW scene for a few years no, what are your thoughts about living/working and doing theater here?
Overall, what a great community. Even before I moved here—I drove the three hours [from Oklahoma City] to see some great shows and performances—my college friend Lee Jamison’s lovely performance in Uptown Players’ production of Equus proved to me that art can be made anywhere—even in Texas. Since then, I’ve made a great group of friends from the venerable John S. Davies and Connie Coit Kitchens to the lovable DR Mann Hanson, Kyle Montgomery and Jenna Anderson, and the ridiculous number of people that I expect to text me asking why I didn’t mention them. There is not a greater group of theater fans and friendlier faces than you will see in this Metroplex. I had the honor of working with Jac Alder on two shows; Dallas has been good to me, please don’t think that I don’t cherish this place, but it’s a bit lackluster. There are plenty of terrific productions and unmissable performances all over this area—but that is greatly eclipsed by the uneven casting decisions, the bewildering season selections and a talent base that is depressingly underachieving because (in my opinion) it’s prohibitively difficult to make a living wage as an artist in this town.
That’s why I think FIT is such an exciting creation; art is going to spring up, everywhere, regardless of the harsh environment surrounding it. Even if all a society can do is apply paint to cave walls, it will find a way to make a mark, the story will find its way to the surface. We can’t help it; it’s how we’re made. And it’s going to be a terrific festival, with new stories, new viewpoints and a celebration that this thing that we love will continue as long as there are plucky little optimists who ignore the naysaying of grumpy old me. Hodor.
» See more info about the 2016 Festival of Independent Theatres in our special section here, where you can also learn how to download our FIT app. In that app, you'll see a section for the playbills for each company, which includes cast, creative and director's notes.
See more info about the 2016 Festival of Independent Theatres here.
Missed Connections is performed in the following blocks:
- 8pm Friday, July 15
- 2pm Saturday, July 16
- 8pm Thursday, July 21
- 8pm Friday, July 22
- 2pm Saturday, July 23
- 5pm Saturday, July 30