The inaugural play of the Station’s summer season, Party is a newer work by a youngish comedian about student idealists who are determined to become involved in politics. Tom Basden, the playwright, is a member of a British sketch-comedy group and has been writing and acting for the BBC and Channel 4 for about a decade. He created a one-man show for the stage, called Tom Basden Won’t Say Anything, before penning this political play, followed by a stage adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial. Originally, this show was cast with up-and-coming young British comedians, like if David Wain had written a stage production and cast it with his friends from The State. But being British, instead of the stoned camp counselors of Wet Hot American Summer, Basden wrote the shed-dwelling distractable political college kids of Party.
Under the direction of Tom Mitchell, Champaign-Urbana will get the chance to see some of our own rising comedy stars take the stage. Smile Politely contributors S. Janjay Knowlden and Nic Morse (also known as Protagonist Pizza Productions) will be acting together for the first time, instead of bantering back and forth off the cuff. Lily Newton is an Illinois student who has been featured in several films in previous Pens to Lens competitions, and has worked with Janjay on the film Indian Ben. Coy Benning Wentworth is an actor who is no stranger to comedy, although Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cripple of Inishmaan lean a little darker. And C-U’s busiest actor of the summer, Tafadzwa Diener, has found time between being Assistant Director of Hairspray, practicing for the Broadway Cabaret at Krannert Uncorked, and learning her numerous lines as the Narrator in Dreamcoat to play a role in Party. I had a chance to speak with the director and the cast about this production, and that conversation follows.
SP: Party seems like it would be fairly amusing for the college faculty and students — is there a reason why this play was better suited to the summer season?
Tom Mitchell: I read the play when I was looking for some outlet to put my feelings after the November elections. After so much angst, it was good to find a comedy that dealt with politics. PARTY is an affectionate depiction of youthful political earnestness. I felt like it was the sort of thing I would want to see in the summer.
SP: I didn’t see an audition call for this play: did I just miss it or did you have specific actors in mind for each role?
Mitchell: There was an audition notice for the play, and I saw a number of actors. I was especially happy to cast a group of young actors with roots in Champaign, Urbana, Mahomet, and Bloomington.
SP: To you, what is the most topical and relevant aspect of Party today?
I have the opportunity to work with many young people who have passionate feelings about politics and society. They are often very active in organizations and take the initiative to express their views. Alongside their development as young artists, I admire their energy and motivation. Party lets the audience laugh with a group of young activists who plunge into the beginnings of a new political party with a little more energy than information. It’s a tonic for the depressing realities we see on the news.
SP: That seems like a good place to segue to speaking with the young actors themselves. So, actors, aside from getting to work with Tom Mitchell, what drew you to your involvement with Party?
Nic Morse: I was drawn to this project because it’s always a great thing to be a part of a Station show and I knew the show would be fun to do.
S. Janjay Knowlden: Two things really drew me to the script: the casting and the Station. I’d never worked in the Station Theatre before this show, so I was curious to see what the process would be like here, [because] I’ve heard wonderful things about the company. Also, I saw the cast and knew just about 90% of the team involved. I trust and respect everyone’s work dearly. Plus it’s just a fun group! Why wouldn’t I want to be a part of this group?
Lily Newton: I was really interested when I heard that this play was a British comedy. I’ve always loved being involved in comedic plays, and I love British humor.
Coy Benning: I got involved with this show because of Tom and because Im always going to be involved at the Station if I can.
Tafadzwa Diener: Before knowing how talented the cast was, the fact that the show was taking place at Station Theatre drew a lot of my involvement with the show. I’ve always wanted to be more involved with the shows here and I’m so happy I finally get to!
SP: What is your favorite personality trait of your character and why?
Morse: My favorite personality trait of Jones is that he, as well as other characters, tend to drift off topic a bit, which I do on a regular basis. So I feel that from him on a spiritual level.
Knowlden: I love how curious Duncan is. He’s given plenty of reason, even from the get-go, to get the hell out of Dodge. He’s always asking questions, he’s always trying to gain a deeper understanding of what’s going on, he even participates at times. It’s definitely a facet of his personality that I’ve been exploring as we work on the show.
Newton: Phoebe sees the best in her friends and even when they are being absurd still wants to be supportive; she is a really fun character to play.
Benning: My favorite trait would have to be his obsession with China. I went there with Tom actually. I had a broken ankle. We rode horses and I got real sick. It was awesome.
Diener: My favorite trait about Mel is that she’s an absolute know-it-all. If you say something wrong she will correct you and if she doesnt agree with something you say, she will tell you. She always speaks her mind and I LOVE it! She’s such a fun role to play.
SP: I can’t resist – this one is just for the PPP guys. Do you have any reservations or think there will be any obstacles to being in a play together? What benefits do you think will come from appearing together onstage considering your close working relationship?
Morse: I don’t really think I had any reservations at all, I’ve always wanted to share the stage with Janjay. He’s a talented, hard working, and fun person to be around.
And i think the best thing that comes from this is that you get to know someone on a more personal level. Janjay and I have worked a lot on trying to make PPP work, but sometimes you forget that this whole thing should be fun, which is what I’m having everyday when I work on this play with my friend Janjay.
Knowlden: Honestly, getting to work onstage with Nic was a major component in my wanting to join the team! We’ve worked together plenty behind the camera, but we’ve never acted before. I’ve seen him act before and heard stories of him killing it onstage; I wanted to see how he created his characters first-hand. I think getting to work in this capacity as well as continuing with PPP only deepens our understanding of how we gel and vibe creatively. There’s a lot of give and take between characters in this play. I’m excited to see how that transfers over to our film work with PPP.
SP: And one last one for the director. Party is an over-the-top comedy, much like the first show I knew I was seeing you direct – Hay Fever. Yet most recently, we spoke about your passion for Tennessee Williams. Do you find yourself drawn to humorous plays as well, or were these just jobs of opportunity?
Mitchell: Comic plays like Party recognize the absurdity of so much of life; it isn’t that far from the darker sense of absurdity that Tennessee Williams depicted in his plays. As a director, I like to vary the kind of material I work on. After this I will direct All the Kings Men and then Hansel & Gretel*. I’m also working on another adaptation of a Tennessee Williams story.
[Editor’s note: Both are upcoming at KCPA, but King’s is an adaptation of the political fiction by Robert Penn Warren, and Hansel & Gretel is an opera based on the faerie tale.]
SP: In parting, is there anything else you’d like readers to know about the show?
Mitchell: I think Tom Basden is a playwright to watch. His plays haven’t been produced in the US too much, but I suspect they will be.
If you would like to start watching Tom Basden, the upcoming run of Party begins next Thursday, June 1st at the Station Theatre and plays through the 15th. You can make your reservation online or over the phone (217-384-4000) but bring cash or check to the box office. Wed/Thurs/Sun shows are $10 while Friday and Saturday are $15. All shows begin at 8 p.m.
[Editor’s note: an earlier edition of this article incorrectly referred to the title of the play as “The Party”, repeatedly, despite the fact that its title is simply “Party”. Sincere apologies to the playwright and production company for this error.]