BY CARY GINELL
Now playing at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard is At the End of the Day, the initial offering from Elite’s Pachyderm Project, a play development program begun in October, 2016. Producer/director/writer Tom Eubanks wrote the play with contributions from high school students Trent Trachtenberg and Hannah Eubanks, who also star, along with Benjamin Wilson.
At the End of the Day is a comedic drama about three young people who, early one rainy evening, find themselves for different reasons in an old residential garage. Their diverse personalities don’t quite meld at first but the humorous disorder leads to events that synchronize their personal struggles, leading them to an understanding of their place in the world.
We talked with Eubanks about the process of collaborating with high school students in the writing and development of the play. The interview took place after a matinee performance, with the trio of actors trying to sort out all the props that were strewn about the theater during the play.
VCOS: Tom, tell me about the genesis of the Pachyderm Project, as you call it.
TOM: Well, the idea was to get three kids who were interested in writing to work on a play. I lost one of them early in the project. Benjamin Wilson came in late so he didn’t really work on the writing, so I only had two, Trent and my daughter Hannah, who actually did the writing. The idea was that I would write the play and we would all work on the storyline a little bit along with some themes and then incorporate their own personal stories into their characters. So we got that worked out and I began working on the play in late November and December of last year. Because I knew I wanted to them to write monologs, I sent them sections of the play for them to work on. I couldn’t have them write back-and-forth dialog because then you would have three different styles and tempos, which would make it very difficult. I knew what I wanted these characters to try and convey.
VCOS: Did they know each other already?
TOM: Yes, Brent and Hannah were friends already. Hannah goes to Ventura High School, Brent goes to El Camino, which is an independent study high school located at Ventura College, where he also takes classes, and Benjamin goes to Oxnard High. Brent and Hannah didn’t know Benjamin until they started acting in the show. He played the lead in Alvin Fernald, Mayor for a Day, which we just closed on our Main Stage, which was a youth production. So that’s how I brought him into it. So they would send me monologs and I would rework them and send them back, and when that was done, we did a staged reading so we could get feedback from directors and a playwright friend of mine who I invited to come out. After they gave me their feedback I did a rewrite and then we started rehearsals six weeks ago.
VCOS: Did you start with a theme and then work each character around that theme?
TOM: No, we tried to do it that way. We started with genre. We knew we wanted to do a drama with some comedic threads through it but they wanted to do a drama. Kids like this usually end up doing musicals and comedies, light, fluff pieces, and the stories that they had to tell were personal stories and they were dramatic. Hannah’s story about Anna and her sister in the play is real. Brent’s story about Trent’s girlfriend is real. So we wanted to incorporate those stories into it.
VCOS: Was their a goal or a conclusion for the end of the story and these three characters had to somehow converge with one another in order to reach that goal?
TOM: No, and I don’t write any play that way. I literally sit down with some basic ideas about characters and story elements. I enjoy that journey in every play I’ve ever written. I just let it happen. Writing is rewriting. So I get that storyline first and then go back and make changes, but things happen while I’m writing. Characters say things and do things that are literally surprising to me. Suddenly these things end up on the page.
VCOS: How do you sum up At the End of the Day in a single sentence?
TOM: Three kids who come to a place in their life where they recognize that they’re beginning their future.
VCOS: After watching the play, I get the impression that they were brought together by whatever force got them together in order to be able to survive and cope. It takes a while before that point becomes clear in the play. And when three things happen, one to each character, simultaneously, that’s when the idea starts to coalesce.
TOM: Right. In the staged reading, that was a bone of contention for some people, to make that believable. But I did that on purpose. I wanted there to be this metaphorical, moody element to it, where the thunder and the rain imply that things were happening that were bigger than themselves and you can’t explain them. Spyder tries to explain it with his mind by talking about synchronicity, but the bottom line is that they don’t explain it.
VCOS: Kind of a global allegory.
VCOS: So they fleshed out their respective characters themselves?
TOM: Pretty much, yeah. There were specific things that, as a director, I suggested, but the storyline was their own so there was a lot of themselves in these characters. Except for Spyder. Benjamin is nothing like that character at all. He had to go outside of himself and come up with the physical tics and the various things that he was doing to make that character stand apart from the other two. He had to be different for it to work.
VCOS: What’s interesting is that even though Spyder is the gifted one, he has no more meaningful answers about what happens than the other two.
TOM: That’s right. The story is not about the weird paranormal thing that happens, it’s about how these three kids react to it, how it affected them, and how it pushed them past childhood to thinking forward. That’s why it ends the way it does. “At the end of the day” means “that which is inevitable.” And they were able to speak it. And by speaking it, you make it happen.
VCOS: Does this play make any commentary about communication among young people? Most kids are so involved with cell phones and social media that they are unable to actually communicate verbally anymore.
TOM: I didn’t approach it with that purpose, but if it does, it’s a nice by-product! But, you know, kids can communicate when they are in private with each other. They’re not like that when they’re around adults. Hannah and Trent have worked together before, they’ve known each other for about two years, so they have a real close friendship. But Benjamin came in, literally, three weeks ago and learned that whole part. And I saw how easily they became these three good friends. What you see in the last scene is the way they really are. The whole poker scene.
VCOS: Was that improvised? Because if it wasn’t, it sure came out naturally.
TOM: In some respects, yes. There are some lines that they have to say, but they’re supposed to improvise the card game and make it loose and fun in order to counter what we just experienced in the prior scene, so that the audience leaves on an up note.
VCOS: Is this a novel approach, having so much input from performers in the creative process?
TOM: Yeah, I’ve never done anything like this before. When I did In the Midst of All That Is Good, the actors did participate in changing lines. I’ve done that in every play I’ve ever done here. We change lines in the script. But this play, they had input into the writing of sections of the play and also changed things during rehearsal. My daughter would say, “Dad, I would never say that. Teenagers don’t talk like that.” And I said, “Well, what would you say?” So we’d change it.
VCOS: Group playwriting. What a concept.
(Hannah comes over, looking for something.)
VCOS: You did a great job, Hannah.
HANNAH: I can’t find the bra.
TOM: (to Hannah) You can’t find the bra? Did you throw it over there? Did it drop down somewhere? You gotta find it! You gotta have the bra. It opens up the show and ends the show! (to VCOS) See, Hannah came up with the opening scene long before we ever started writing this play. At Ventura High they do scenes in their acting class where most of the kids pick a play and do a scene from the play. Well, Hannah said, “I’m not gonna do that, I’m gonna write one myself.” So she’s been writing plays for the last two years.
HANNAH: Three years.
TOM: Three years. Ex-cuuuuse me. (to Hannah) Did you find it?
HANNAH: No. It has to be somewhere.
TOM: Maybe it dropped down behind the trunk there.
HANNAH: That’s what I was thinking, but I didn’t see it.
VCOS: It has elastic, so it travels.
(We stopped the interview to conduct a group search of the set. We finally found the bra behind a door on the opposite end of the stage.)
VCOS: Now that that’s taken care of, if this works, are you going to try the same kind of idea with another play?
TOM: Yeah. Next year I want to do the same thing, maybe bring in some more kids, and if they want to be included, great. But Hannah wants to direct, so maybe we’ll incorporate directing into it and we’ll also write the script with them.
VCOS: Synchronicity drama.
TOM: (laughs) That’s perfect!
At the End of the Day runs through September 10 at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.