Lynn Milgrim and Wyatt Fenner in Rest by Samuel D. Hunter (2014). Photo by Debora Robinson.
In northern Idaho, a retirement home is shutting down. Only three patients remain—and one of them is lost. Gerald, 91 and suffering from severe dementia, has disappeared, leaving his wife, Etta, and her friend, Tom, behind. The facility’s remaining staff includes a new 20-year-old cook and two longtime nurses, women who suddenly face a crisis of their own. In the midst of a record-breaking blizzard, the search for Gerald takes an unexpected turn.
Reflections on the Moment
Wyatt Fenner has appeared at South Coast Repertory in both mainstage and Theatre for Young Audiences and Families shows. In back-to-back seasons, he appeared in two plays by Samuel D. Hunter, including the world-premiere of Rest, directed by SCR Founding Artistic Director Martin Benson (2014). The play has special meaning for Fenner—from being able to create the role of Ken to working with a stellar cast, from the joy of performing at SCR to a deepening friendship with the playwright. In this essay, he talks about all the memories the photo above brings back to him.
There are thousands of happy feelings and experiences that contributed to us getting to this moment onstage for the world premiere of Rest.
I see in this photo the orange-and-pink sky brightening over the 405 as I listened to KCRW during my early morning drive. I’d arrive early to get in a good workout at the 24-Hour Fitness around the corner from the theatre before a day's rehearsal.
I smell from this photo the scent of fresh cookies blasting me in the face as I rush into Specialty's Cafe during a 20-minute break to grab a snack and then sit in the sun with friends on the theatre’s terrace, reflected in the gorgeous glass lobby doors.
I feel my feet sticking to the floor as we find a booth for post-rehearsal or post-performance drinks at Tin Lizzie or, if we are feeling fancy, The Westin, where the sticky floor would be replaced with those lush comfy chairs and that very prestigious snack mix with wasabi peas.
I hear Stage Manager Jenny Butler sternly, but kindly, reminding me to keep my parking receipt in a spot where it won’t (again) get whipped out the window and into oblivion on my drive home. “No matter what, just put it in your center console whenever you’re driving, Wyatt.”
These feelings, these impulses, they just go on and on and I love each of them. But let me start at the beginning: What most of all strikes me when I look at this photo is the kindness that overwhelms my body with a feeling of joy when I look at it.
Years ago, Casting Director Joanne DeNaut brought me on board to do a Pacific Playwrights Festival reading; Founding Artistic Director Martin Benson saw me in that and asked me to do Misalliance. When my dad came out from Virginia to see the play, I brought him around the theatre’s administrative offices to introduce him to everyone and while Dad and I were hanging out in Martin's office, Martin suddenly says, "You know, you have the exact same bright smiling eyes as your dad."
That's the way that Martin moves through the world and works as a director. Seeing the everyday, beautiful things there in front of all of us and, instead of letting that beauty pass by unacknowledged, maybe unnoticed, Martin says "Look at this. Right here." He brings your attention to beauty you might have missed, even in seemingly sad situations, and he adds value to our experience. SCR has always been an institution made up of loving, intelligent, curious people willing to invest in challenging, hilarious, life-affirming plays and that is why work like Rest gets produced. The work that helps people do better out in the world by saying to them: “Look at this beautiful, special thing that is right here in front of you, maybe unnoticed. Look at it and appreciate it. The team of people at SCR is what makes it the sort of place that can, and does, do such great good in the world. The sort of place you want to take your dad around the offices to make introductions. The sort of place where you can't wait to run into your friends from different departments.
I look at this photo and I can feel the rough crispy texture of the fabric on my seat. During previews, Scenic Designer John Iocavelli treated the chair with a coating that transformed it, to become the more weathered piece of furniture just biding its time in an assisted living home about to be shut down, the setting for Rest.
I can smell the melting, icy shards that had, just before entering, been placed on the soft fuzz of the ruff on my coat, which Costume Designer Angela Calin had fixed with a new zipper so that we could use exactly the right one which we found together during one of my fittings with her down in the Costume Shop in the theatre’s basement. Angela and John are two great, inspiring friends of mine and I see them in their beautiful work in this photo and I think of all the laughter and creativity we’ve shared.
This is the first scene in the play. Lynn Milgrim and I would stand together backstage until the lights began to dim, at which point I would wrap my right arm around her waist and take her left hand in mine. She'd give my hand a squeeze and whisper a little giggle noise in my ear while the lights settled into blackness and then together I'd walk us out of the wing and through the darkness of the stage to her couch; once she was seated then I'd hop over to my chair. The lights would pop up on us and, together, Lynn and I would dive into the evening. Staring into one another's eyes, navigating the initial responses from the audience with our actor antennae stretched peripherally out from us, feeling them climb on board and ease into the story we were going to be sharing with them that night. Using those first few pages of the play to elicit their laughter and help them let go of whatever their day, their week, their year, had tensed up their shoulders with. Like a friendly pair of bank robbers Lynn and I wouldn’t take the audience's attention from whatever had been occupying their mind and get them to do just what we want by making them feel what we feel.
In this photo, I can feel my body as the character of Ken. During a Saturday morning talkback event, I remember a man in the audience who had seen me play Puck over at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles the summer before. Now he asked, “How do you make your body do such different things, because in Midsummer you looked like a completely different person.” I stood up, thought about Puck and suddenly I had musculature and airiness. Puck felt like a vine stretching up along a wall reaching towards the sky and the sun. Then, I thought about myself as Ken and everything covered up and cloaked over itself. My body reduced the space it needed to take up in the world by about thirty percent. Being Ken felt like being looked at was the last thing in the world I’d want. Any character takes over your nervous system. Someone like Ken, dealing with such uncertainty, that feeling takes hold of your limbs in a kind of way that piles them up to best and quick as possible tuck your existence away and hopefully find placement on the back of some dark shelf in a laundry cupboard that maybe smells like dryer steam several times a day. As uncomfortable as that sounds, I love it. I love being someone brave enough to be that uncomfortable but persist—to have the kind of faith that, despite every indication that things won't work out, there is still a willingness to try your best. It's inspiring to be an all-powerful forest god, sure—but the power it takes to carry on when you feel powerless, to be self-sufficient when you've been told you're worthless. That's another kind of inspiration.
When I look at this photo I think of my friend, playwright Sam Hunter. Sam is a genius. Literally. He actually was given a cool award that says so [Editor’s Note: Hunter was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called ‘Genius Grant.’] But, when you’re spending time with a mind and heart like Sam has, you can’t just sit there continuing to say, “Oh man you’re a genius. Oh boy, you are really brilliant!” So even though I always feel that way when I’m at work with him, and we've collaborated on many of his plays, I learned to funnel my admiration for him into the project we are making together. Fortunately, we also spend a lot of time outside the rehearsal room, where it’s less about the realization of his brilliant writing and more about just kicking back and cooking a good steak, driving down to the Stone IPA Brewery on our day off, pulling our feet up off the sticky floor of Tin Lizzie. Our friendship is littered with moments of being in the right place at the right time, or sharing an idea before either of us says it out loud. I think those experiences of synchronicity are an indication of things lining up and cooperating. When you are spending time with someone special, you can feel life, invisibly without words, saying to you, “You're on track."
Sam and I first met when Joanne introduced us to work on his play, The Few, which we went on to workshop in Colorado and Massachusetts. Then we did The Whale at SCR and, on the morning of that play’s opening, we did the first in-house reading of Rest. I look at this photo and I see the sky full of stars above the hot springs in Steamboat. I see the Dunkin Donuts bags we both had grabbed for our train from New York up to Massachuestts. I look at this photo and I can taste the delicious Trader Joe's French Roast coffee, which I had about 19 cups of that morning of our Rest reading.
This is all a part of how we got to do this play—and how we will all get to the place where we do the next play and the next. Everyone involved allowed the world of the play to work on them to get to the right place through caring for the people we are all meant to share our time with, shared the beauty you see in the world and encouraged your friends and loved ones. This photo reminds me of the gift of our ability to do that every day, and how when you live your life that way you find yourself in a position to create something incredible with an unbelievable company of people.
I can’t wait to be back onstage! Love to each and every one of you.