Olivia D'Ambrosio Offers an 'Intimate' Look at the Narrative Complexities of A Multi-Path Play

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday January 16, 2017

What do quantum physicists and British playwrights have in common?

Well, for one thing, if the British playwright is Alan Ayckbourn, they like to contemplate the possibility that every time we find ourselves making a decision in life the ramifications are more complicated than we know. Physicists suggest that every time we have to choose between two or more courses of action, we might be aware of the one course we followed but, quite outside our experience -- and yet genuine and real all the same -- all the other possibilities also come to fruition.

Ayckbourn spent over a year writing the multi-path play "Intimate Exchanges," which -- in its fullest expression, which would take a huge effort to mount -- offers a sum total of 16 possible endings, all proceeding from branching and re-branching narrative plotlines. The initial decision is made by a woman named Celia, who is in an unhappy marriage; while her friend Sylvie carries on helping her with a project inside the house, Celia steps outside into her yard, where she's tempted to have a quick smoke break. When she lights up her cigarette, an entire web of events is set into motion; likewise, when she skips the cigarette, she initiates an entirely different skein of actions and results. The play's various paths turn out in multiple ways, with marriages and breakups and deaths and other consequences shaking out.

The Nora Theatre Company's production at the Central Square Theater, set to run through Feb. 12, pares some of the enormous complexity away, but there are still numerous endings -- four, in this case -- and two main "tracks." One track follows Celia's stories -- there are two variations on her life that are explored here -- and one track follows Sylvie, who similarly has two possible outcomes.

Making sense of it all is director Olivia D'Ambrosio. If you have seen her work with Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston, which D'Ambrosio co-founded, you may have gained a sense of her talent for cleanly focused, uncluttered, and potent storytelling. EDGE turned to D'Ambrosio to help make sense of the play and its many combinations of possibility and consequence. If you're planning to go and see "Intimate Exchanges" once... or twice... or four times... you might want to start here.

EDGE: 'Intimate Exchanges' is, like, 16 projects in one.

Olivia D'Ambrosio: It's definitely something! Quite an exercise in play structure, and quite a challenge for the director. It's not at all a simple two-hander, but a rather complicated endeavor. It's fun to work on.

EDGE: The full version of the play has ten characters, but calls for only two actors. That's not so unusual in theater, but this play also branches into different possibilities so that you get multiple versions of the play that are very different from each other. How many possible outcomes of the play are you exploring in this production?

Olivia D'Ambrosio: In its entirely, it has 16 possible endings and encompasses more than ten hours of material. We're staging two tracks, each with two possible endings, for a total of four courses of action. Our man is playing four characters, and our woman is playing two characters. In fact, the way we have chosen to focus the production, especially given the Nora's mission is to create theatre from the feminine perspective, was to select courses of action that follow a compelling female protagonist. Of the four tracks that we've chosen, two of them focus on, and show iterations of the life of a character named Celia Teasdale. The other two show variations on the life of a character named Sylvie Bell. The women appear in each other's story, but the first two tracks tilt towards Celia as protagonist, and the other two tracks tilt toward Sylvie as protagonist.

EDGE: How does this work, exactly, if you want to get the 'full experience' of all possible variations? Would audiences need to come in four times? How would they know when to attend to see any given variation?

Olivia D'Ambrosio: We're going to alternate the protagonist each night, so at the box office, a patron can choose between seeing a Celia show or a Sylvie show. That's how they'll know how to differentiate between the two women. Now, say they go to Celia once, and they want to come back and see the other Celia ending -- that we cannot guarantee, because we are having the audience vote each night at intermission about the ending they would like to see.

EDGE: Between two possible endings for each of the female protagonists, two for Sylvie and two for Celia?

Olivia D'Ambrosio: Correct. So we'll get to the intermission of Celia and we'll have a vote station set up in the lobby. What's fun about it is -- cross my heart, honestly -- we are not going to tell the actors which one they are going to act. They will be cued by the sound cue that tells them which story path to go into.

EDGE: So they'd better rely on that Pavlovian reflex!

Olivia D'Ambrosio: Yes. [Laughter] Exactly! These actors are stars, they are such stars. I hope people will recognize the great, masterful work they are doing. Essentially, there's no guarantee that if you came to Celia once you'd see the other Celia ending, because there is this element of randomness that is generated by the involvement of the audience, and that the actors negotiate in the moment.

EDGE: Do you have a contingency for if the actors do get mixed up or start on the wrong path?

Olivia D'Ambrosio: Nope!


EDGE: It's live theater -- anything could happen!

Olivia D'Ambrosio: They'll have to figure it out.

EDGE: You've had to prepare a full production in terms of lighting and sound design and everything for each of these four variations, so this must have been a lot more work than the usual project.

Olivia D'Ambrosio: That's correct. It's been a humongous amount of work for everybody. The actors are memorizing -- and not only memorizing, but mastering -- more than three hours of material, which for two people is just unbelievable; meanwhile, the design team is also full of incredible geniuses. We have worked in very thoughtful and methodical detail how to endow each part of each course of action with its own design choices, so all of the design is part of one vocabulary, but within that overall vocabulary we're making nuanced variation. If it's a Celia night or a Sylvie night there have to be different cues. The transitions are slightly different, depending on which scene the audience votes us into; each scene within each course of action carries a different mood, and different tonal qualities. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for how we execute the design and transition elements. It's really been quite an exercise for all of us. I feel like an Olympic athlete of a theater maker, because it's really challenged all my muscles.

EDGE: I'm embarrassed to admit that I got so caught up in researching the play and its multiple possible ways of unfolding that I completely forgot to look into who your actors are.

Olivia D'Ambrosio: I would be delighted to tell you who they are, because I think they are just spectacular and they deserve lots of credit. The woman is named Sarah Elizabeth Bedard, and she's a terrific local actor. She's been in many, many things; she was most recently in 'Significant Other,' at SpeakEasy. She is a virtuosic genius, and I'm in awe of her work ethic and skill level every single day. The man's name is Jade Ziane, and he's a colleague that I know from New York, where I do some producing. I was part of a project there last year where we gave Jade his first Equity contract, right before he graduated college. Then I thought of him for this and worked with Central Square Theater to make it possible for him to join us. Sarah and Jade are a unique and gifted pair; it's been a joy to lead them. I look forward to letting them fly very soon.

EDGE: It seems that or this project you'd want actors who are flexible, maybe actors who have a certain amount of improv experience so they know how to roll with what's happening.

Olivia D'Ambrosio: What I really looked for, for this play, were: first, their ability to transform physically and vocally in order to create unique characterizations; I also looked for actors who are physically athletic, because this play requires an enormous amount of stamina. What they're doing up there for the amount of time they're doing it requires a certain kind of physical gift, and they both have that.

Next I looked for excellent language skills, because the text of this play is incredibly dense. It's not necessarily heightened or poetic in the way that Shakespeare is, but again, it's just unbelievably dense, and they needed have to great facility unpacking each exchange, if you will, and getting very specific in their moment to moment work.

Finally, I was looking for their chemistry as a pair; I wanted to have two people who were evenly matched in terms of their skill level, which is the case with these two. There's also something about their energies that is similar; they're both in-between being a leading character type and a "charactery" character type, so they make a fun pair where they're able to take on leading qualities, and they're able to take on character qualities, and they have amazing comedic timing. So casting them, even though its just a man and a woman [that's needed for the roles] was not a simple endeavor. I was looking for very specific qualities, both within each individual actor and in terms of how their chemistry matched up.

EDGE: Let's hearken back to something you noted a earlier. You mentioned that the Nora Theatre Company typically does plays with a feminist point of view; but at the Central Square Theater more generally, they often have a scientific point of view. Physicists speculate that reality does, in fact, branch in different ways so that very possible path plays our and every possible permutation is realized, even though we're only conscious of one path our of many possibilities in our lives. Is that something that's informing this production?

Olivia D'Ambrosio: Absolutely. The notion of parallel lives is inherently coiled up inside of the script; not only parallel lives, but also this notion of asking, 'If I had made this choice in my life,' or 'If I had made that choice in my life,' or 'If this other person had made a different choice in my life, how would it all have been different?' While the actors are acting the moment to moment work in the scenes as they would play out in real time, the design environment that we are putting them in speaks to this notion of 'Sliding Doors.' I've also built in a gentle framing device, which I won't say too much about that, except for the fact that, to me, the art form of theater-making itself, and the transience of theater, also speaks to this episodic nature of something happening and then disappearing; like a moment arriving in life and then falling away. To me, theater itself is part and parcel with this notion of what could be, or what might have been.

EDGE: You referenced 'Sliding Doors' just there -- an American film that follows a somewhat similar idea, presenting two different tracks in a woman's life. One is what happens if she misses a subway train; the other is what happens if she makes it onto that train and doesn't have to wait for the next one. This play was, itself, adapted into two movies: 'Smoking' and 'No Smoking,' which explore a different ways the story might go. Are you looking back to any of those three films?

Olivia D'Ambrosio: No; I mean, 'Sliding Doors,' I sort of just used that with my team as a reference for this notion of parallel lives. I actually haven't looked at any of them. Artists are all different, and I try not to look at things that are direct representations of things that I am working on. If I'm playing a role and there's been a movie adaptation, I won't watch how some other actor did it. I have not actually used those apart from using the title 'Sliding Doors' as a shorthand for the notion of parallel lives. I've really just worked with my team to create our own vocabulary for how we want this to take place at Central Square.

EDGE: Having that touchstone is helpful because it's a complicated concept, and having something to reference and make into a shorthand like that helps people comprehend what it is you're dealing with.

Olivia D'Ambrosio: Yeah; I think people are going to be really engaged by that aspect of the production. I hope they'll come back. I hope it will engage them enough that they'll say, 'I wonder what happened in the other life?'

EGDE: Have you done much of playwright Alan Ayckbourn's stuff previous to directing this play?

Olivia D'Ambrosio: I have not. I mean, I've used a couple of his monologues to audition, but this is really my first stab at a real experience of one of his plays. It's a very particular kind of voice; it's a very particular kind of humor, In this case, the play is called 'Intimate Exchanges' because -- and this is just my take on it -- it's about an incredibly rich and vivid and detailed look at the moment to moment exchanges between these quite banal people. It's not especially plot-driven in the way that 'The Crucible' is plot driven, for example, or driven by an engine of huge worldly events; it is driven by these intimate exchanges from moment to moment to moment to moment, between these ordinary people who are stepping through their lives.

That's actually part of what makes this a great acting showcase; this play demands that we as an acting and directing team bring a level of specificity to the text that is not overtly apparent. It has been our job to make it unbelievably specific, so that these little exchanges are so layered and textured and complex that the audience is compelled to lean forward.

EDGE: Plus, there's the fun of the pun in the title, since an 'exchange' is where a train can switch from one track to another... How did you come to direct this production for the Nora Theatre Company?

Olivia D'Ambrosio: When Lee Mikeska Gardener moved here as the new artistic director [for the Nora], I was earlier in my time at Bridge Rep, and I was just starting to direct things, and I wanted her to know my work. She has been wonderful -- not just with me, but in general she has been really wonderful as a new artistic director in town, about going to see things and meet people and learn about the artists here. She saw some things that I directed, she saw me act, and we became friendly colleagues.

Last year she asked me to be the director of voice, speech, and text on her production of 'Arcadia,' so I essentially assisted her but also independently worked with the actors on their vocal work and their dialects and their text work, because that play is also enormously demanding in terms of language and dialect. It was around that time when we were working together on 'Arcadia' that they announced this year's season, and she felt from what she had seen of my own work, and the work we were doing together on 'Arcadia,' that I would make a strong and appropriate director for this other British play. That's my understanding of how I came to be hired, but you should corroborate with her!

EDGE: That brings us to something else I wanted to be sure and ask about: You are the producing artistic director for Bridge Repertory Theater. Following your work on this production for the Nora, will you be directing and acting in Bridge Rep productions as well?

Olivia D'Ambrosio: Our next Bridge Rep production begins rehearsals on February 6, and I will be playing the title role of Mrs. Packard in a play written by Emily Mann. We're doing that over at the Multicultural Arts Center, on the other side of Cambridge -- so, I'll have a couple of weeks off and then I'll put my acting hat on and I'll head over there. It's really fun to have these different hats and different identities. I'm blessed, and appreciative of Lee giving me such a big opportunity outside of Bridge Rep, and Central Square Theater having me there. It's been really great, and I hope to do them proud!

"Intimate Exchanges" runs through Feb. 12 at the Central Square Theater. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/shows/intimate-exchanges

For a schedule specifying which performances are the "Celia" track and which are the "Sylvie" track, please go to https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/read-watch-listen/news-articles/2016-2017-season-articles/intimate-exchanges-performance-track-schedule

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.