BY CARY GINELL
This weekend, Camarillo Skyway Playhouse will be presenting When We Were Young and Unafraid, a play about a quiet bed-and-breakfast in 1972 that serves as a sanctuary for victims of domestic abuse. Before Roe v. Wade and the Violence Against Women Act, we see how women sought refuge in a world where they really had nowhere else to turn and few realistic options. Jolyn Johnson is directing the production, and like many of the properties she takes on, it has had a transformative, emotional impact on her. The play runs through June 25.
VCOS: How did you hear about this play?
JOLYN: Interestingly enough, I had not heard about it before I was asked to direct it. It was chosen by Camarillo Skyway Playhouse and then after that, they approached me to see if I would be interested in directing it. When I read the script, I loved it and said yes, absolutely, I would love to direct it.
VCOS: What specifically attracted you to this story?
JOLYN: Part of it was because it seemed so relevant to today’s society in terms of the political landscape that we’re in now, in terms of women’s rights, in terms of having a play that really speaks to a variety of different women and their viewpoints and feelings, the domestic violence aspect of the play, and women seeking help for these things. I’m very much attracted to plays and musicals where there is something that empowers women.
VCOS: This play came out three years ago, so that’s before Trump came onto the political scene. Was it just as relevant even then?
JOLYN: I think the time scape when this was first workshopped in 2011 in Ojai was slightly different. We had, for lack of a better word, more of a hopeful look towards people’s rights and equality and it seems that this has been slipping backwards now, which is why this play, even though it was written before then and it takes place even before that, very much hits home. That’s what I find interesting. It really fits what’s happening today in so many ways. After it was workshopped in Ojai, it went Off-Broadway in 2014.
VCOS: I had heard of the author, Sarah Treem, in relation to her work on House of Cards.
JOLYN: Yes. She’s also done other television plays, but House of Cards is what she’s most famous for now. The Affair is another one.
VCOS: As a director, do you often find yourself using your firsthand knowledge of a topic to help impart motivation on your actors?
JOLYN: I do (laughs). It’s a very intimate show; there are only five characters and we all sat around before rehearsals started and shared stories. It’s really interesting to see how many of us have bonded and become more open about events that have happened to us. It’s sad that these events have happened to us, but I think it’s also a good thing that we are able to have this dialog. I’m hopeful that the play will do the same thing for our audiences after they see it.
VCOS: So for you and the actors it’s part acting and part group therapy?
JOLYN: It is, in a way. When I’ve talked about it on Facebook, I’ve had other people send me messages about certain personal things that happened to them that I had no idea about. If the play changes or helps these people who have been privately messaging me to talk about it, I’ve done something good and hopeful for the world, I’d like to think.
VCOS: Was there another show you worked on where there was a lot of angst and opening up behind the scenes?
JOLYN: Yeah, they seem to be the shows I’m really drawn to. There were two shows, actually. I directed The Laramie Project, which was, in my opinion, not just about the murder of Matthew Shepard, but also about homophobia and ultimately the humanity and tolerance that came out of it. After that, I directed Next to Normal, which had a lot of feelings in terms of mental health and mental illness and how to overcome it, how a family bonds and survives when it affects everybody. So those are the kinds of shows that I’m particularly drawn to, those shows that are true to life. It’s not that I don’t enjoy comedies. I actually do, but shows like this one speaks to a part of me in a good way.
VCOS: So instead of a casting couch, you have a psychiatrist’s couch.
JOLYN: (laughs) I guess so! I never thought of it that way.
VCOS: In the play, Agnes, the owner of the bed-and-breakfast, is the character around who the other characters, her tenants, rotate, but is her steadiness in the story a facade? What do we know about her and her own past?
JOLYN: She has her own secrets that get revealed, but you’re right, she is the more solid, steady rock and the other characters circle around her. She’s very strong but very closed off to people, for a very good reason. She’s hiding some hurt of her own.
VCOS: How about the other characters?
JOLYN: Mary Anne is a woman who is running away from an abusive husband and is seeking Agnes’ help. Agnes runs a bed-and-breakfast but only to the outside world. To the few that know, it’s a safe house for women who are trying to get the help they need and hopefully find a better life away from domestic abuse. So Mary Anne finds out about it and goes there and so the play is also Mary Anne’s journey as she struggles being a survivor, and also her interactions with the other people we meet in the play. Then we have Penny, who is Agnes’ daughter. She’s sixteen years old and to most people, she’s just an average teenager, but she’s very frustrated with her mother and wants a normal life, but unfortunately, she’s living in this safe house and has to grow up very fast. There’s also Hannah, who, to most people, appears to be a militant feminist, but she’s actually someone who’s looking for a purpose in life and doesn’t know where to turn or even what ideology to turn to. So she latches onto a whole bunch of different ideologies, hoping that one of them will speak to her. She’s a traveler that just comes to the B&B and somehow connects with Agnes and the two of them have an interesting relationship. Finally, our lone male character, Paul, is just a guest, but begins to slowly learn that the B&B is more than what it appears to be. He comes from San Francisco and is trying to discover himself in terms of something more creative: songwriting, and wants to get away from what he describes as “dirty hippies.” All of these characters come from very diverse backgrounds and opinions, so the play shows what happens when they all get stuck in this house together.
VCOS: Times have changed a lot since 1972, which is when this play takes place. It was the year before Roe v. Wade, and it was a time when there were very few options abused women had to get help. Did you do much research to find out what people did back then when they became victims of domestic violence?
JOLYN: I did and the whole cast did as well. We also had the help of Linda Livingston, who has worked with the Coalition in Oxnard, and who came and spoke with the cast. There was an entire rehearsal where we just spoke about what it was like back in the late ’60s and early ’70s as opposed to what it’s like now; how it’s changed, how it has not changed, and what you do when you’re a survivor of domestic violence. Who do you turn to? What are the warning signs if it’s someone you know, and what are the warning signs if it happens to you? So we did a lot with that in terms of the actual time era, like the Equal Rights Amendment, and all of that. One of the really cool things about this show is that I was able speak to Sarah Treem, and one of the pieces of advice she gave me in terms of the play was not to get bogged down with the time period. She said that that was one of the mistakes that she made when it was first staged in 2014 at the Majestic. So I said OK. When I read the script I saw that it didn’t have to be so specifically set in 1972 because so many of the themes of the show are still relevant today.
VCOS: I read where some productions stereotyped some of the characters in terms of the times, such as Hannah.
JOLYN: Yes, I read a review of it that talked about that. So I sat down with Julie Fergus, who is playing the part of Hannah, and we talked about how we wanted her to come across and about the criticisms of her character. Julie does a great job making her more three-dimensional and more of a real person who is as lost and seeking something as the other characters. She might have her own funny moments, but so do the others. She’s not just the comic relief, which was one of the main issues when it was first produced.
VCOS: Who else is in the cast?
JOLYN: Lynn Van Emmerik is playing Agnes. She was just in, strangely enough, Agnes of God at the Elite Theatre. I had never worked with her before but she’s doing a fantastic job bringing the repression of that character and her humanity to life. Katie Rodriguez, who was Anne Frank in Conejo Players’ The Diary of Anne Frank is Mary Anne, and she’s a delight to work with. Not only is she fun off-stage, but she really is not afraid to go into these hugely emotional places that are hurtful and scary and I don’t know how she does it at every rehearsal. She’s so lovely. Rita Nobile is Penny. She’s mainly acted in shows at Ventura College and in musicals in the Ventura County area so this might be her first really big role that she can really sink her teeth into a character. She brings a fun, useful energy to Penny that is great and you totally believe that she is Lynn’s daughter. They have a really cute relationship together. Evan Proffer did a couple of things; I remember him from 1776 as Thomas Jefferson and then he went to CSUN and was able to do a couple of things there. He did Sweeney Todd where he played the judge, so I knew that he’d be able to do the role of Paul with a little more fun and lightness. There’s another side of him that the audience might not expect.
VCOS: Anything else we should know about the production?
JOLYN: We will be having some information from the Coalition and also Interface in terms of pamphlets and things, just in case someone in the audience decides they see themselves on stage and want to seek some help. If anyone reading this would like to check out their website, it’s www.thecoalition.org.
When We Were Young And Unafraid opens this weekend at the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.