Two Dave Barton-Directed Plays Premiere at Garage Theatre


Dave Barton. Photo by Sander Roscoe Wolff.

This Friday, The Garage Theatre is presenting the United States premieres of two plays by Linda McLean. The plays are being directed by Dave Barton who, in addition to serving as Artistic Director of Monkey Wrench Collective, is a contributing editor to Orange Coast Magazine and a writer for American Theatre magazine. Barton has worked across the US, in England, and in Malta.

Long Beach Post: Tell me about the play you’re directing at the Garage Theater?

Dave Barton: The Uncertainty Files are a series of interviews that the playwright did with Americans, asking them about uncertainty in their lives. She transcribed the conversations, including all environmental noises, and then edited them into a spoken word play. The first production was done with three people, a table and a glass of water. We have seven actors, playing 13 roles, male and female.

The second play is What Love Is. It opens the same evening. It is a comedy one act about an aging, loving couple and their less than enthusiastic daughter/caretaker.

I’ve known [playwright] Linda [McLean] for several years, so I always get to read her latest plays. My husband had a stroke seven years ago and, when I read that one of the characters in What Love Is had had a stroke, I read it and was very very moved by it. The Uncertainty Files was unlike anything I’d read before. I’d just done a movement piece to some critical acclaim and thought it would be interesting to do something like that with such a dialogue-heavy piece.

When you read a script for the first time, what is your process for imagining it in a physical space with performers?

If I direct a play, it’s always because I can see it in my head while I’m reading it. It never grows on me. It’s either there or it isn’t. I read it and start to get images. If the images are compelling enough to me, I’m sold. I have terrific, close contacts with some of the biggest playwrights in the UK, so I’m never at a loss for work to look at.

What were the compelling images that came from Uncertainty?

Images: Isolation; embraces that threaten to suffocate; people blindfolded and walking about, aided by others; people walking out of a refrigerator; children playing as dancers moved about them (unused here, unfortunately); Sufi dervishes; punk rock mosh pits, just to name a few.

What is your relationship with Garage?

I went to school with Jamie [Sweet] and Eric [Hamme] and a couple of the original founders at OCC. (One of our former instructors, David Scaglione, is doing the scenic design for the shows.) Jamie and I were roommates at one point. When I ran Rude Guerrilla Theatre Company, I rented them cheap space to produce a show. Jamie has been trying to get me over to the space to direct for a few years, but I always had too many projects, so couldn’t schedule it, until now.

I initially approached them to produce the show with my company there, since the plays were new and I wanted to premiere them in LA, not OC. They read them and then asked to produce them.

What were the parameters of the invitation? What do you bring, and what do they bring?

Like I mentioned earlier, I know a lot of playwrights and have a high success rate of getting US Premieres here from big name writers. My reviews have been consistently good enough that they keep giving me more opportunities. I also have a lot of experience—over 20 years’ worth. They have a machine that can fairly seamlessly get the play produced.

Was it a hard to give up some control to them, rather than bringing your own company in?

Not difficult at all. They trust me and I trust them. While we do some things differently, we’re both open to collaboration. So far, we’ve had no issues. It’s been great.

Because I don’t pay rent on a single space anymore and am starting to focus on site-specific work, my company is scattered around OC. We don’t always work together, though half the people in the show I’ve done shows with previously.

You mentioned that the second play touched you, personally, because of your husband’s stroke. How did that color or shape your approach to the production?

It’s still shaping it. Moments of the staging replicate moments of what happened to us. It’s an emotional play for me, despite all of the humor.

What about the casting? Can you speak, a bit, about how that’s shaping up, and what has revealed itself through that process?

I have a stable of people that I work with, of all shapes, sizes and ages, that I can go to. I handed the script around and asked the people that got it on board. The others that are part of the show came recommended via Garage. I didn’t have auditions, per se, just asked people to share their thoughts on the script and talked with them. I thought I’d try something different and leave a little uncertainty to the process.

Following that theme, all roles in Uncertainty were assigned by drawing them out of a hat, so men play women and women play men. Roles weren’t tailored to the individuals. Individuals were tailored to the roles.

How does that influence the narrative?

It leaves the initial instincts open to chance, and keeps me and the cast on our toes.

What about the audience?

In Uncertainty, each character is announced before they start speaking so, if a man comes on and starts speaking softly or acts more ‘feminine’ or a woman walks on speaking with a deep voice and adjusting her crotch, they’ll know it’s a character choice and not an actor affectation. We’re not doing drag. We are just making the suggestion of the other sex, instead of an impersonation.

How do the two plays, performed back to back, interrelate?

There’s uncertainty in aging, just like there is in other aspects of life. Both plays ask questions about love and death. The style of the two is very different, but the concerns are the same? I’m asking that as a question because it is something I’m still sorting through this month before we open.

For this production, you’ve worked with choreographer Ashley Allen. What has that meant for these works?

Her work has been invaluable. She’s taken the script and helped turn it into something visual. That’s hard to do! Our first three weeks of rehearsal was almost all choreographic work.

I’m the kind of director that generally comes to the work pre-blocked, so that the show has a framework built into it before we even start rehearsing. Giving it over to Ashley for the first weeks, stepping back and just working with her from behind the scenes has been tough, but watching her work has been very rewarding.

Why was it tough?

Because I’m used to diving in and getting my hands dirty on the first day of rehearsal. Ashley’s been doing the heavy lifting, so far. That changes tonight as I start to focus the narrative and work on the acting, but it’s a fascinating experience. The choreography allows for a more poetic expression than the individual monologues—taken directly from transcripts with every um, eh, and uh intact—allows.

You work all over the place. Do you have a sense of the role theater plays here, compared to other parts of the planet?

It’s taken more seriously in Europe, and is honored as an art form. Here it’s more of an afterthought, something to do if there’s nothing else. Interesting that we all have the same distractions, and occasionally the same tastes, but see art through totally different eyes.

In Europe, people go to theatre from an early age, so the dialogue they have with theatre ends up becoming more sophisticated because they’ve grown up with it. Here, if they go as children it’s not to work that speaks to them like tiny adults, but fairly standard, stupid children’s fair. In Europe, the work for children speaks to them as if they have functioning brains. That’s a very broad statement, of course. There are always exceptions, but it’s been my experience.

The Garage Theatre is located at 251 East 7th Street in Downtown Long Beach. Performances for this production start on Friday, May 20, and continue every Thursday through Sunday until June 11th. The showtime for all performances is 8pm. General admission tickets are $20, and $15 for students, teachers, and seniors. (ID is required) For tickets, and information about this and other productions presented by The Garage Theatre, visit

Actors and others can keep track of Barton’s projects through the Moneky Wrench Collective’s facebook page, via Instagram, and Twitter.  

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