Taking a dramatic monologue about an autistic young girl with cancer originally written for radio and staging it for a theater audience would seem challenging enough for most people
But apparently not for Jerome Davis, artistic director for Burning Coal Theatre Company.
For Burning Coal’s production of “Spoonface Steinberg,” which opens Thursday, Davis decided not to use a professional actor. He also decided not to use a child and not to limit the role of Spoonface to females.
The play is largely about the idea that the things that bind us together are stronger than the things that separate us.
Jerome Davis, Burning Coal’s artistic director
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“I didn’t want to ask an 8-year-old to carry an hour-long play on that subject, and having an adult actor fake being on the spectrum did not seem like a great idea,” he explained in a phone interview. “ I decided to do it as simply as possible with just regular people.
“The play is largely about the idea that the things that bind us together are stronger than the things that separate us. A way to represent that idea seemed to be by having people from the community come in and do it.”
That’s right – people. Rather than work with one person in the role of Spoonface, over the course of 12 performances he’s working with 16 – only four of whom list any acting experience – and for most of them it was during their college years.
Davis downplays the challenge, noting that most of those chosen are used to public speaking.
There is a method to what some might consider Davis’ madness, and he readily admits it.
He approached people with a following, who through their own work and interests, would give the show a broader reach and a greater splash.
So among those taking the stage are Barbara Goodmon, president of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation and a member of numerous other nonprofit boards; the Rev. Chris Chapman, pastor of First Baptist Church; Charman Driver, founder of the lifestyle company Driver Mindbody and board chair of CAM Raleigh; N.C. Appeals Court Judge Lucy Inman, Chatham County potter Mark Hewitt, Angela Salamanca, owner of Centro, and Leslie Lillard Walden, vice president of public affairs for Fidelity Investments.
Their reaction when he called?
“Terror,” Davis said. “Sheer unadulterated terror.”
But that didn’t stop them from saying yes. “The only people who said no weren’t going to be in town,” he said.
The play is compelling – as is the story behind its successful production
Spoonface Steinburg is a young girl who is autistic and dying of cancer. Her parents’ marriage is rocky and her mother has a fondness for vodka. Spoonface (so-called because of her perfectly round features) takes comfort in opera. (Burning Coal’s production will feature lyric coloratura Julianna Tauschinger-Dempsey.)
The show was written by British playwright Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) as a play for radio. It aired on the BBC in January 1997 and the acclaim was immediate and overwhelming. It was adapted for television in Britain and for a stage play in London. The (London) Times reported: “It caught a listening nation by the throat: people stopped in lay-bys, wept in car parks, ran late for appointments and stormed the BBC into repeating it. Thousands of recordings were sold, and still are.”
Davis was similarly moved.
“I read the script and I fell in love and decided I wanted to do it,” he said.
To prepare his non-actors for their big night, Davis has had them rehearse on Burning Coal’s stage rather than the warehouse the company usually uses as rehearsal space. “I wanted each from the get-go to know what was required to fill that space,” he said.
As for direction?
“We talked about what we didn’t want,” he said. “We didn’t want the men to try to be female. We didn’t want the adults to try to be children and we didn’t want any of them to try to reflect the autistic elements of the character.
“What we did want was for the passion of the character to come through.”
What: “Spoonface Steinberg”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, April 7-24.
Where: Murphey School Auditorium, 224 Polk Street Raleigh
Cost: $25, $20 seniors, $15 students and active military; $15 Thursdays, $5 student rush (available 5 minutes before curtain with a valid student ID).
Ten percent of each night’s sales will go to a different charity, including the Autism Society of North Carolina.
Tickets and info: 919-834-4001 or burningcoal.org/spoonface-steinberg/
Meet the cast:
April 7: Barbara Goodmon
April 8: Alec Donaldson
April 9: Trish Healy
April 10: Wendy Tingle
April 14: Rev. Christopher Chapman and Lexie Hallman*
April 15: Charman Driver
April 16: Bob Geolas* and Mary Miller
April 17: Lucy Inman
April 21: Angela Salamanca
April 22: Mikayla Welker, Sophia Bean, Katie Kinkade*
April 23: Mark Hewitt
April 24: Leslie Lillard Walden
*Chapman, pastor of First Baptist Church on Salisbury Street, has community theater credits including “Romeo and Juliet” and “Godspell; Hallman, director of Jewish Music at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, was in summer stock during her college years; Geolas, president and CEO of the Research Triangle Foundation, was a thespian in high school and college; Kinkade, 17, of Chapel Hill, has been in youth productions. Source: Burning Coal production credits.