Something Old, Something New :: Weylin Symes on Greater Boston Stage Company's 20th Anniversary Season

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday October 3, 2019

When EDGE spoke with several artists about Greater Boston Stage Company's recent world premiere production of Producing Artistic Director Weylin Symes' original play "Last Night at Bowl-Mor Lanes," there was, just outside the boundaries of that conversation, a larger chat just waiting to happen about the company's 20th anniversary season, now in progress.

With a second world premiere coming up - Christopher M. Walsh's "Miss Holmes Returns," a sequel to Walsh's gender-bending "Miss Holmes" from a few seasons back - as well as the stage musical "Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical," not to mention a play with music called "Marie and Rosetta," which looks at the life of a mid-twentieth century female musician, a madcap English mystery title "The Morors" by Jen Silverman, and the return of GBSC favorite "Miracle on 34th Street," EDGE was happy to circle back to Symes to get a fuller scoop on the rest of the company's Season 20 offerings.

EDGE: As you look back over 20 seasons, what productions most stand out in memory? What marked the high points — and the low?

Weylin Symes: Well, it sounds weird to say, but one standout is we opened with "A Christmas Carol," and it's hard not to look back on that fondly. It was our first production, in December of 2000. It's amazing, but to me, some of these shows were completely overlooked — like "Jonah and the Whale," which we did a few years ago. I think it's just a gorgeous piece of theater. I'm proud of it — if we ever do a retrospective season, I would absolutely want to revisit that. I think it's a show that a lot of people would really enjoy. That was really a wonderful experience.

I often say that over the last five years, as we've been growing and growing, we've been really focusing on new works more, and with the Don Fulton New Play Project that we've started, that a bigger project that we've started that's exciting. Every season we produce a world premiere play and the idea that we are hopefully helping to keep the art of play writing and the art of theater fresh and alive is something that's really exciting.

These are all projects rather than individual pieces, but we also have a new series called the Foundation Trust Series, which is dedicated to pretty much non-straight-white-male playwrights from the last 50 years. That's kind of exciting, too. Those projects really stand out as something that highlights over twenty years of making sure that we balance more known work with newer work, and codifying that approach. That's an exciting part of the second decade of our existence.

EDGE: Season 20 is a real smorgasbord and 2x world premieres: The season opened with a new play, "Last Night at Bowl-Mor Lanes," which you wrote, and coming up there's "Miss Holmes Returns."

Weylin Symes: Yes, and I feel like "Miss Holmes Returns" is in many ways... well, both of them capture so much of what I've tried to do with our programming, which is to find newer work that still has a certain familiarity to our audience. Like with "Miss Holmes Returns," a Sherlock Holmes mystery with this twist of [Holmes and Watson] being women, which brings up all kinds of interesting political commentary about their day and age, and about today.

This particular play, "Miss Holmes Returns," also deals a lot with immigration. One of the main characters is a British Indies woman dealing with the fact that she doesn't look like everyone else who exists in England at the time. Can she get a fair shake in that society? So, that piece is simultaneously familiar to our audience and has a lot of appeal as a genre piece, but also it's a brand-new script, and it is dealing with issues of the day. That is kind of our sweet spot. If I can find plays that feel both new and old at the same time, that's great.

And I actually think "Bowl-Mor Lanes" is similar: It's a brand-new play, but it's a play about our community, and about people in our community. I wanted our audience to maybe look a little bit at some of their preconceived moral ideas, and look at what happens when that meet the generation, meets the reality of their lives.

EDGE: Is that the common thread for the plays you are offering this season? You've got "Miracle on 34th Street," which was a great old movie — still beloved, though it's more than 70 years old now. And then there's "The Moors," which is an old-timey English mystery... so, it seems that "both new and old" feeling might be the common thread.

Weylin Symes: Well, it could! I think the common thread through much of the work we do is where the new meets the old, where the familiar meets the unfamiliar and trying to find that balance. Some of that is just the practical realities of an audience that doesn't necessarily want something brand-new that they have no knowledge of; they want some familiarity. I am kind of personally intrigued by that balance. "[Roald Dahl's] Matilda" is another example of a wonderfully well-known British story, but a fresh new Broadway take on it.

EDGE: Something else I'd like to ask about "Miracle on 34th Street" — it seems like a fraught proposition to take an old beloved movie and try to translate it to the stage.


EDGEWhat convinced you to go with this?

Weylin Symes: Well, this is the third time we've done it, and it's intertwining you say that, because every time we do it, we tweak it a little bit. These classic movies don't inherently always translate easily to the stage. With "Miracle on 34th Street," some of the play's drama doesn't resonate quite the same way; the idea of a well-adjusted, thirty-ish-year-old woman raising a child on her own doesn't create the kind of conflict on our society any more [that it once did], nor should it. And yet, it is kind of inherent conflict in the movie: "This woman's raising a child on her own! That's not good! We need to fix it!" So some of these conflicts are less meaningful in modern society, but again there's this idea of taking these old familiar stories and retaining their familiarity — the basic plot points of the movie — while freshening it up a bit and making sure it's relevant to a modern audience. That's a challenge. For this year's production we have looked at gender in many places and decided that there's reason why all of these office people or all of these [characters] have to be man, so we've switched a lot of them just to make it feel a little more reflective of the world today — without sacrificing any of the sweetness and the loveliness of the original story.

EDGE: Speaking of new things — something new this season is the Friday Night Specialty Drink Tastings.


EDGE: What is that about?

Weylin Symes: We started with, I believe, "Onegin" last year, which is a wonderfully fun musical. There was vodka as an actual part of the show, and we started doing these tastings with that show. Our audience loved it so much that we decided to do it for all of our shows. It's really fun.

EDGE: There's a new theater company in Boston, just a season or so old, called The Front Porch Arts Collective. I see that you are co-producing with them for one of your productions this year.

Weylin Symes: This is our second year with them. The Front Porch Arts Collective is a Black and Brown-led theater company, and what they've done for their first two seasons is to partner with other regional theater companies so that their season consists of somewhere between four and five shows at other theaters in the Boston area. Last year we did "The Three Musketeers," which was a swashbuckling, farcical take on that story; and this year we're doing ["Marie and Rosetta," which is] kind of a cross between a play, a musical review, and a bio-piece about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who at the time — the early mid-twentieth century — was a very well known African American female Gospel singer and guitarist who kind of bridged into the world of rock'n'roll and was an inspiration to Elvis Presley and many other rock'n'rollers. She's kind of been forgotten. The story takes a look at her life and reintroduces her to a modern audience in a really wonderful way.

Pascale Florestal is directing that for us — we know her from some other work she's done with us — and it seems like a great project to do with Front Porch Arts Collective. What we love about this partnership is, every theater in the world is working hard on diversity on stage, and hopefully in the audience, and it's great to partner with an organization where it feels a little more authentic that we're working with artists of color to tell these stories.

EDGE You're set to direct "The Moors," and you're bringing Nancy Carroll back to the GBST stage for that show after she co-starred earlier this season in "Last Night at Bowl-Mor Lanes." She's wonderful in everything, and that in itself is reason enough to bring her back!

Weylin Symes: Yes. I'm excited! That is a strange, strange script. That is really just a brand new, exciting, in some ways kind of edgy and fun new play. There's not much familiarity with that one. Nancy Carroll plays a maid who had four different names and kind of, within the play, pretends to be four different people, but doesn't change costumes doesn't really change mannerisms... it's a very bizarre, very funny role. When Nancy Carroll read it, she basically said, "Not sure I totally get it on a first reading, but I'm absolutely in!"


Weylin Symes: It's by Jen Silverman, who wrote "The Roommate," which was at the Lyric last year. She's an amazing up and coming playwright. I'm just really excited by it: It's got a talking dog, it's got a talking bird, it's got traces of Beckett running throughout it, as well as lots of hints to the Brontës and Lizzie Borden. It's got a huge murder ballad in the eleventh hours — it's one crazy piece.

EDGE Ilyse Robbins will be directing "Roald Dahl's Matilda The Musical" — that play sort of jumps out; it seems like a bit of an outlier for what's going on with the rest of the season. Or is it?

Weylin Symes: It's not an outlier in the sense that it is a familiar story told in a new way, but it is an outlier in that it is kind of a family musical. I love the piece. Part of the reason we're doing it is both Ilyse and I have loved the piece for years, and we've often said if we could ever get the rights to do it we would do it; we were lucky enough to get the rights. But I also think that it is a piece that really straddles the family world and the traditional world of theater realty, really well. It can appeal to both, and I think that's why we slotted it into the season. It felt like an opportunity we couldn't pass up.

EDGE It sounds like a delight, and so does "Miss Holmes Returns," by Christopher M. Walsh, which we touched on a little while ago. It's a sequel to "Ms. Holmes," which you produced in 2018, and this production is another of this season's world premiere.

Weylin Symes: We did the second production ever, I think, of "Miss Holmes" years ago and had a wonderful time with it. We just absolutely loved it. I knew that the playwright was considering writing a sequel, so I reached out to him. He originally thought it was promised to another theater, but in talking to him more I said, "Look, we are very interested," and he agreed to let us premiere it. It's kind of thrilling because six of the actors — out of a cast of nine — will be returning. They'll be playing the same characters as last time, and that's just a rare opportunity to see not just characters retuning, but actors returning [to those characters] and to get that serial type feel to it. It really picks up the story from where we left off — which, the basic premise is that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are women, but we are in the 19th Century Britain, and so it's fun to imagine what it would be like if women, given their position in society at that time, were trying to solve crimes and trying to help people? What could that look like? It inherently looks at gender and, in the case of this new story, looks at immigration.

EDGE: That certainly is a timely issue.

Weylin Symes: Yeah, it's really timely. It's funny — we chose the script... well, I say script; we chose the title without having a script, which is always a bit daring, and then we got a detailed outline — and I had talked with the playwright, so I knew what was coming — but, we got a detailed outline, and we were really excited about what we were going to have. And when I finally got the script I was pleasantly surprised at how much he is speaking to our current world via this genre murder mystery.

EDGE: It's interesting how some gender roles are getting flipped recently, as with "Miss Holmes." Supposedly, after this next James Bond movie with Daniel Craig, 007 is going to be a woman.

Weylin Symes: I've been reading a lot of scripts that have been doing the same thing. Actually, here's a script that I've been looking at for a couple of years that looks at the classic epic poem called "The Highwayman" that does a gender-flipped new take on that. There seems to be something in the air right now with the reimaging of these classic characters as women — which seems like such a wonderful way to say, "Hey, why can't we let women play these roles as much as men?" And trying to, in our own way, go back in time and let that happen. That makes it fresh. You look at Sherlock Holmes and think, "Holmes is great, but how many different ways can we tell that story?" And the idea of making them women adds some new complexities to the story, and that's just inherently fun.

EDGE: As we mentioned before, Season 20 kicked off with your own new play, "Last Night at Bowl-Mor Lanes"... will you be preparing another new work in the next season or two?

Weylin Symes: I don't know. I did write a musical called "Lobster Girl" that we did a few years ago. I'd been tossing around the idea of "Bowl-Mor Lanes" for several years, but didn't quite have the whole plot lined up and, finally, last year figured out the whole plot and wrote it, and then we decided "It's twenty years — this is the time to do this." It felt like a celebration of my time here, and an homage to our area and to our building, which used to have a bowling alley in the basement. I have some ideas for what's next, but nothing that's very far along, so I'm guessing it'll be a couple of years, at least.

EDGE: There are also several special events associated with this season — you've already had a couple this past summer, with a Buddy Holly tribute and, of course, the Calamari Sisters graced the stage. Still coming up are a New Year's Eve concert by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and the jazz ballet "Swan Lake in Blue." How do you figure out what special events are going to complement and round out a season at GBSC?

Weylin Symes: Our kind of two major programs that we do are the main stage professional shows and our educational work with The Young Company, which is a huge program that goes from December to January and culminated with January and February performances. That takes up, I'd say, about 80% of our calendar — but we love to fill in around that with a small, three-to-five event concert series, and that's what you're referencing. We've been doing a New Year's Eve concert for, boy, I bet over ten years now. We do two shows on New Year's Eve, and our audiences love it. When we found out that we could get Martha Reeves this year we immediately snatched her up. It's going to be a great concert.

And then the "Swan Lake in Blue" you referenced is — we've known about this show for a few years, too. It's [by Steve Bass], a music director we work with, and he did an incredible sixteen-piece big band version, all-new compositions version of the story of "Swan Lake" with eleven dancers doing tap and musical theater jazz dance. Ilyse Robbins is actually choreographing that, and it's a world premiere, so that will be a brand new take on that. It's something so rare — it's all dance, no spoken words, with a giant big band on stage. We're excited! It's going to do a full three-week run in February. Again, this is the theme of this conversation: Something old and something new, right?

For more information on Greater Boston Stage Company's 20th Anniversary Season, please clkick here.

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.