BY CARY GINELL
It’s time to check out the progress of our local children’s playwright, Victoria Sayeg. Victoria, who works at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts, is also a natural storyteller with a whimsical imagination – a perfect combination to deliver her entertaining plays for children, which also have immense appeal for adults as well. Victoria is readying her latest project, The Gone Deers, and sat down with us to talk about preparations for the show, which will be presented in four performances at the Hillcrest Center in Thousand Oaks over the next two weekends.
VCOS: So, Victoria, how many plays does this make that you have written??
VICTORIA: This is my fourth full-length play, to go with my two one-acts.
VCOS: The last time we spoke, you were sending your publisher your last show. How has that been going?
VICTORIA: It’s been going great! So far, everything I’ve submitted to Dramatic Publishing they’ve bought. So there’s Wanda, the Psychic Wombat, Farmageddon and the Undercover Crop, and Polly Wants a Curtain Call, which was just mailed to me yesterday. So hopefully they will like this show, too.
VCOS: So this one is called The Gone Deers. Tell me what it’s about.
VICTORIA: The theme is “just because something is dead to you doesn’t mean it’s dead to everyone.” It’s about the importance of being here now versus being isolated in your technology world. There are also elements of friendship, communication, and stuff like that, but essentially, two astronauts crash on a planet inhabited by animals previously considered to be instinct, like the woolly mammoth, the dodo bird, a T-rex, the quagga, which is kind of a half-zebra, and things like that. The quagga has an insecurity about being incomplete. These are all real animals that have gone instinct. I started thinking about this one time and it made me sad that they don’t exist anymore so I thought, “What if they’re really still here, but just somewhere else?” So I put them on Venus and that’s what the show is about. The animals come back to Earth and I have incorporated gondolas into the show because we are using the set of The Gondoliers, which is kind of how the play got its name. I wanted it to be a “Who’s On First” kind of thing, so that every time someone called Hillcrest to buy a ticket for The Gondoliers, I’d say, “Oh, did you want The Gondoliers or The Gone Deers?” Maybe I went a little too far with this one (laughs).
VCOS: When you come up with these ideas, does it usually revolve around a message that you’ve come up with, and then you develop it into a story?
VICTORIA: Yes. The character of the dodo bird gets judged by his name and he just squawks incoherently through the whole show. But at the end, there’s a twist where actually he is revealed to be very intelligent, very communicative, and that’s the message that started the show for me – trying to shed light on how you can’t snap-judge people. Sometimes a person’s failure to understand another person’s language, whether it’s metaphorical or literal, doesn’t mean they have nothing important to say. It just means that there’s a language barrier. So there’s a lot of that in the show.
VCOS: So it’s more than just “don’t judge a book by its cover.”
VICTORIA: Right. Sometimes you hear things, but you don’t understand them. Life takes effort. You have to put effort into hearing people when they talk to you. My favorite part of the show comes at the end when the dodo finally speaks and says a lot of really poignant things. I just pour all my existential life crises into children’s theater (laughs). But the kids have fun and they know what they’re saying and feeling and it’s really cool to watch those wheels turning and see them understanding the messages that their characters are preaching.
VCOS: Do you ever worry about the themes becoming too heady for them to get?
VICTORIA: When I write, I never worry about that because I try to go into it without talking down to anyone. Children can get these things; they just haven’t learned them yet. For example, I use the phrase “existential roller coaster” in the show. And the kids went home and looked it up and now they’re teaching their friends at school what “existential” means. And they come back to rehearsal and they’re all excited, telling me that half their school is now using the word “existential.” I don’t know if I’m proud of that or not – I don’t worry about it because I always pair it with slapsticky, funny, quirky, fast, light humor. So I feel like it’s a nice mix. If there was too much of it, yes, I would be concerned.
VCOS: Who were your inspirations for this kind of writing that you do?
VICTORIA: I like Pixar’s stuff a lot and how an adult can appreciate it as well as a child can and not be bored to tears. And I like that kids aren’t talked down to in Pixar films. They touch on real topics, but in a light sort of way, and I think that’s the best way to communicate anything. Dr. Seuss is also interesting because he started out working on films about World War II, and people think of him just in relation to The Cat in the Hat and being super-one-dimensional. I’ve gotten into so many heated discussions defending Dr. Seuss because he understood how to communicate to the aggregate and he’s saying a whole lot beyond what there is on the surface. It took a lot of time to craft his work so that it comes out appearing to be simple, and that simplicity is deceptive.
VCOS: How do you cast for characters that you’ve just invented?
VICTORIA: That’s actually a cool question. Sometimes the actors don’t know what I’m talking about when I describe a character, but they fill it in and add to the character as they audition.
VCOS: Do they ever audition for a specific role?
VICTORIA: No. They present a monologue or a poem of about a minute long that they’ve prepared and we listen to it and then ask them to recite it again as if it were the first day of school or if you have to pee really bad or if you’re really, really mad, or you’re starving. And then we see what they do when they go in those different directions. Sometimes they’ll bring some little quirk or character trait to their performance and that will often end up being part of the character’s make-up, which is cool, because the character doesn’t exist yet, and then it does. So they’re really launching these characters in their entirety. And sometimes they go all the way to the publishing house.
VCOS: Are they given a concept of what the story is about?
VICTORIA: Yes. They get the flyer showing the animals on the spaceship and that’s enough, I guess.
VCOS: Do you get requests to audition for specific characters?
VICTORIA: The dodo bird exists because my assistant director Amy Moore’s middle child once told her, “I want to play a dodo bird who doesn’t talk until the end of the show.” So I wrote that into the play and he didn’t even come out to audition (laughs). But yeah, they influence it, and sometimes it comes in the form of a joke or sometimes they don’t think that I’m listening to them, but I’m listening.
VCOS: What kinds of production challenges are you facing?
VICTORIA: We’re on the set for The Gondoliers and I’m using the gondola that they built. The gondola has become part of the story, but it was much smaller than we anticipated it to be. So now I have to figure out how to fit seven children into a gondola that, realistically, can only fit four. We haven’t loaded it into the theater yet, so I’m not entirely sure how we’re going to do that, but come and see the show and see how we do it!
VCOS: Well, one of them has to steer.
VICTORIA: That’s the deer. The gone deer gondolier. My mom makes the costumes for me and one of the production challenges she is facing is finding a quagga costume. You just can’t go online and find one very easily, or a dodo bird costume where you can see their face. So we’re coming up with creative solutions for those. The woolly mammoth is my favorite.
There will be four performances of The Gone Deers, on March 18 and 25. See the VC On Stage Calendar for showtimes.