“Essentially, I work on stories.”
– Ben Cunis, Interview by Jarrod Jabre

5 p.m. on a Wednesday: Happy Hour for most of the DMV. Grab-and-go dinner time for the cast and crew of Forum Theatre’s Passion Play.

Despite having precious few free moments during the final week run-up to opening night, cast member Ben Cunis[1] was gracious enough to meet me at Panera for an interview. (Silver Spring homer that I am, I had suggested The Classics, but after seeing Ben’s energetic physicality in the production, I cede that a two-Manhattan dinner probably would not have provided the nutrients required for a dress rehearsal. Writers, on the other hand…)

Over a half-hour’s quick meal, we discussed the play, Silver Spring, the D.C. theatre scene, and egg sandwiches. I appreciate Ben’s willingness to meet during time for which he could have found myriad uses – I chalk it up to his obvious passion for his art, and not at all to the fact that I may have certain incriminating photographs from days gone by. Speaking of which…

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Ben Cunis: I was telling somebody a story the other day about  — someone was saying they’d been hanging out with Jessica Dukes, Jessica Francis Dukes, and I was like ‘oh, I used to party like crazy with her,’ and they were like ‘oh yeah, well a lot of people –‘ ‘–no no. I went to college with her.’

Jarrod Jabre: They don’t understand.

B.C.: ‘There was this house we used to go to…’

J.J.: I was just cleaning up old hard drives: found a whole cache of pictures that have ‘somehow disappeared’ from Facebook, but low and behold…

B.C.: You still have them. All of that blackmail.

J.J.: Homestar Runner…

B.C.: (laughing) It’s too bad no one went into politics.

J.J.: Seriously.

B.C.: You could make some serious blackmail happen. Unfortunately, all of us are doing the same kind of crazy shit.

J.J.: That’s the thing, I don’t think any of us ended up in something where we’d easily be embarrassed.

B.C.: If anything, given my profession, it’d be great if something ridiculous were to go out there.

J.J.: I was thinking of printing some off and giving them to you like a fake Rorschach test: ‘Explain this.’

B.C.: I would happily tell you the story of the Homestar Runner, because you know what, that costume was not mine. I didn’t have a Halloween costume, and Clint Herring said, ‘Well, I have a Homestar Runner costume, you can wear that while I wear my pirate costume.’ So the rest is history.

J.J.: Hey, it worked.

B.C.: Home. Star. Runner.

J.J.: So, just kind of get into it: A couple questions that I straight up lifted from Warhol from back when he was starting Interview Magazine — the first time around. What’d you have for breakfast?

B.C.: I had an egg sandwich — well, I had tea this morning, because we were out of coffee. And pretty much everything else, so I had some tea. Did my morning exercises. Went to the grocery store, purchased some bacon, so then I could have an egg sandwich with bacon on an English muffin.

J.J.: You literally left the house, got bacon, went back, made your sandwich. That’s dedication.

B.C.: Yeah. I’m pretty devoted to bacon.

J.J.: What are you reading right now?

B.C.: I’m reading a book that my father-in-law had given me called “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time” by Marcus Borg. I’m also reading the letters of Warren Buffett. “Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders.”

J.J.: Awesome.

B.C.: It’s a great history of how the corporate investing mind has evolved over the past 40 years. It’s really dry. I also learn from it too, because the guy is pretty brilliant.

J.J.: When people ask ‘the D.C. question,’ what’s your answer? What do you do?

B.C.: Hmm. I tell them pretty directly: I act, direct, choreograph and write. If they ask me what I do for a day job, I tell them I do grant writing for a cancer support non-profit. Essentially, I work on stories.

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“What we do is community theatre, Mary. We all have other jobs.”
– John, Passion Play: Part Three

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J.J.: Getting into the theatre side of things a little bit more directly: Before I talk about the show, and I do want to talk about it a little bit, but this isn’t meant to be just promotion —

B.C.: Sure.

J.J.: — I’m not sure how much you paid attention to the [recent][2] cage match over the recent conversation in D.C. about what ‘professional theatre’ is.

B.C.: I paid attention to that, I actually wrote something about it, but never sent it, never put it out there, because I had a lot to say, and some of it was fairly contentious… I have opinions.

J.J.: Looking at the nominations as they came out this year, and seeing a lot of the same names, but now suddenly Synetic’s still getting the nominations that you normally do, but no longer in the categories that Arena, Studio and all those guys are in. We talked a little bit, I think last year, two years ago, how I always considered Synetic to be bigger, and you always considered it to be smaller — because we’re in basketball season now, my brain keeps going to “mid-major.”[3] Where do you see theatres like Synetic, Forum, as we develop this new understanding?

B.C.: Synetic’s in a unique position, because show is pretty much an original adaptation. The production is something that would spread around, but you couldn’t have the script of a Synetic show that you send around so someone else can do, except with some of our more verbal pieces, some of the stuff my brother and I wrote. And even then, it’s so specific to this type of theatre. I think that on terms of the Helen Hayes awards, I think the scene has gotten so big, that this kind thing was inevitable. I’m not gonna say if it as good or bad, but it was pretty inevitable.

J.J.: We have the model from Chicago.

B.C.: It happens, and that’s understandable. Theatre is huge in D.C., compared to where it was even five, eight years ago. There’s a lot of stuff happening, and it’s evolved, and there’s competition for the audience, and for the dollars. The good thing is the scene is bigger, and people are going to see theatre, and that’s great. I think as far as the Helen Hayes awards go, Synetic came along at a time when the scene was a little bit smaller. [Synetic] was able to be a tiny company that won up against the giant companies, and now it’s built up to a certain level — I see it as something that’s having to turn to other means as a way of growth, as opposed to relying on the Helen Hayes year after year. Just like you have to get to a point where a bad review doesn’t ruin your show, where you build up enough of a loyal audience that they’re going because they love your theatre. I think that all theatres have to eventually get to that point.

J.J.: I recall you talking about how the process was at Synetic for your interview in New Gay,[4] and discussing the project essentially starting at zero and growing from there. When you come to a theatre company like Forum, that’s maybe a little bit more… I don’t want to say traditional, but–

B.C.: Much more traditional.

J.J.: Traditional.

B.C.: It’s a little more traditional.

J.J.: What has to switch for your process?

B.C.: Let me think about that for a second. One of the really wonderful things about working with Synetic is that whether you’re a writer or not, you’re spending a lot of your time writing. Your time in the rehearsal process is spent with the ensemble, creating a story, creating the physical language, creating the scenes. You take the words away and you figure out the beats of the scene, you break it down. A lot of the same work is done in the early stages of this kind of traditional play, where you’re looking at what are the bones of the scene, but the tools you use are already laid out for you — the playwright has given you a blueprint for a play… a blueprint for something that becomes real on stage.

Now doing something at Forum, you have to work really hard to figure out what the blueprint means. And to understand it on a deep level, and sometimes that just takes putting it on its feet, so the switch…what do I have to switch? So much of it is based in the text, the physical life has to be there, must exist, but it’s based in the text. I will say that we get to the brass tacks of nuances of character much sooner in this kind of process.

J.J.: Into Passion Play – don’t give me Emily’s copy or anything like that — when we come see this show, what are we seeing? What are you living?

B.C.: I think…it’s a beautiful exploration of the relationship between love, religion, community, and art. If I were to sum it up it would be that: All the little lines that you draw between these things, the ways that we’re constantly attempting to express how we feel, and we’re trying to feel what other people express, and we’re trying to feel what someone a thousand years ago expressed on a page, and we feel like we’re supposed to feel that and we’re supposed to be, you know, all these iterations of what is it to have faith, what is it to love. That’s what it comes to. It’s transformative, because the piece is constantly transforming. People are transforming before your eyes, both within each individual story and from literally transforming from actor, into a character, into another character, into another character.

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“I cannot fathom why any subject would be willing to die for any leader other than a monarch. What man would die for a leader who was not rushing to the battlefield with him – their blood soaking into the dust together.”
– Queen Elizabeth, Passion Play: Part Three

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J.J.: Michael [Dove] had some good things to say about you when he talked to DCMetro, I believe one of the quotes was regarding you that “experience has informed … really great.” I’’ve known Michael Dove mostly as an artistic director at this point. How is he in rehearsal? How’s that process been?

B.C.: The process has been very good, very different from what I experience at Synetic. Michael is a great questioner. He reminds me a little bit — do you remember Grover Gardener?

J.J.: Oh yeah, yeah[5].

B.C.: He reminds me of Grover in the way he directs, in that he works through asking you questions and asking you what you can come up with. And knowing myself, I had to go up to Michael at the beginning of the process and say ‘look, if I start to come up with an idea about something we can make, I’m just gonna start going, so feel free to tell me to stop if you need me to.’ I come from a place where I’m a director and a choreographer and an actor, sometimes simultaneously, and so I just have a tendency, personally, to just start going. And he’s very receptive to that, and receptive to ideas, I’m like ‘here’s how we could physically realize this moment,’ and some things got in and some things didn’t, and that’s how it always is, I think.

J.J.: I’m not sure I understood how tough it could be: I was just recently in a staged reading, and it was so different, it’s been so long since I’ve been directed. Just sitting there:  in the back of your mind…I can’t stop thinking as a director.

B.C.: And to shut up the director brain is a really profound task, because to be an actor, you have to be attentive to detail on a level the director can’t be. You can’t expect a director to tell you all the things your character has to do. You have responsibility for the minutiae, the depth of that piece. When you’re a director, you have to be extremely patient; as an actor, you have to be remarkably sensitive, because you have to be listening to the other actors, you have to be listening to the director, you have to be paying attention to the environment around you.

It’s a different rhythm of life when you’re an actor than when you’re a director. Actors work in these bursts of lines, of a sine wave, it’s like ‘Bam! We’re working!’ — then we collapse, and ‘We’re working! Working! Working!’ — and we collapse. Writers are like that too, but directors have to be up, and on, attentively listening, patient, ideas, keep working, idea, keep working, and directors rarely get the satisfaction of a great burst of the idea and then they get to relax. They never get to relax.

J.J.: I’ve had those great bursts of ideas. Usually it’s about two years after the show closed – ‘Damn, that’s what I should have done.’

B.C.: ‘If only! I could feel…the things!’

J.J.: I see why some directors just move around the country chasing shows, like “I wasn’t done with that yet.” 

B.C.: Well, yeah.

J.J.: I think we’re drawing towards the end of our time, so just a couple smaller things I’d love to get your thoughts on. I saw your epic guest turn on House of Cards

B.C.: I fetched those bar floats.[6]

J.J.: What’s it like working with Ron Goddard? Because he’s always going to be Agent Goddard to me.

B.C.: Well, everybody on set was amazingly nice, extremely professional; getting on set of a production like that, especially something I respect as much as House of Cards, was just a marvelous experience. It’s like being in the midst a great big army operation, because everyone’s on radios and then, as you get closer and closer to set, there’s more and more people doing more and more important things. It’s amazing. Michael Kelly is extremely generous, and thoughtful, and good actor. I mean, it went from like ‘okay, we’re hanging around, chatting a little bit’ to ‘and go,’ and he just turned into the guy. It was amazing.

J.J.: Now that you’ve re-entered the television world; gonna go down that road a little bit more? Are we gonna see more Hamilton Carver?

B.C.: I would love to do more film stuff. It’s a little tough around here, which isn’t to say that there isn’t stuff, there’s stuff to do. And yes, Clint [Herring] and I are talking about producing some of our own stuff. Hamilton Carver? I don’t know if that’s in the cards again. It’s almost something I would wanna remake someday, on a bigger budget.

J.J.: About [Passion Play] itself, in a sentence, or two sentences: What do you want people to get from this? We talked about what you are living, but what are you putting out? What do you want people to take from you, from the show? What’s one of the truths that you’ve found?

B.C.: Oh, I’ve discovered some wonderful things in the process of this show. I’ve been challenged in ways that I’ve never been challenged before. What would I want people to take away from that? I think it’s just a sense of that…[A full minute’s pause.] I just want people to feel that experience of striving for love and striving for an experience of the divine at the same time, and how there’s sometimes this great tension between those things, and to ask questions about that.

J.J.: And softball: Favorite parts of Silver Spring?

B.C.: Favorite parts of Silver Spring…oh man, that’s tough.

J.J.: Have you had time to explore?

B.C.: Not a whole lot. But, I do dig the ice rink — you know what I really like? I like walking around and hearing live music regularly, it’s just amazing. I think that that is something that makes a place feel like a community and feel exciting. I remember the first time I visited New Orleans, I was really sick, and so we got there and I fell asleep in the hotel room, and then I left and was walking around by myself, on every corner there was live music playing. It just made me want to be there, to have this sense of artists playing music and there’s art galleries and everything like that. I think that’s my favorite part, is every once in a while I’m walking to my car or walking from something, and hearing this live music, and that’s awesome. It’s a great thing. There should be more.



[1] Longtime company member at Synetic, Helen Hayes Award winner, and fellow CUADrama alum.

[2] Names removed to protect the innocent, but you know who you are, you beautiful Facebook gladiators, you.

[3] For those of you keeping score at home, Synetic is obviously Xavier in this scenario; but I’ll save that essay for Grantland.

[4] Wingert, Chris. Interview with Ben Cunis: Synetic Theatre’s Ben Cunis: The New Gay Interview. The New Gay, 2/27/2009. http://thenewgay.net/2009/02/synetic-theaters-ben-cunis-new-gay.html. Accessed 3/25/15.

[5] Grover Gardner: great director, actor, member of Woolly Mammoth. The kind of guy who would bring a knife to a gun fight. If by “gun fight” you mean “kegger,” and by “knife” you mean “pie.”

[6] Season 3, “Chapter 33” for those wondering. I was unable to secure a screenshot of this scene from Netflix. Believe me, I tried. Those bar floats, though.

 

 

Passion Play is running at Forum Theatre now through April 11th. Details here.