The fall of the American dream: Jennifer Rockwood brings ‘Detroit’ to ToledoWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Much of the human experience in the modern age is an ever-shifting landscape of our own expectations. What the average American wanted out of life decades ago — or even a few years ago — is nowhere close to what they want now.
Turning an eye on that kind of change is the sort of thing that Toledo stage director Jennifer Rockwood has been drawn to throughout her illustrious career. Her latest expression will come on Oct. 10 and 11, with a reading of Lisa D’Amour’s quirky satire “Detroit” at Studio A of the Valentine Theater.
“’Detroit’ is a play about couples’ expectations,” Rockwood said. “Couples’ expectations of the American dream. It’s about two couples who end up in the suburbs, and it’s about how today is very different from, I guess, where it used to be. And maybe we are, in our own ways, mourning the past.
“People used to have block parties, and hang out in the neighborhood, and Big Wheels, and now, of course, people don’t even know their neighbors. Or they may live next to their neighbors for ten or fifteen years and they may not even learn their names. So it’s about the changing world of what we see as the American dream.”
Though the show may be named after the Motor City, nothing in the play itself gives any indication of where the story of its bored and disgruntled suburbanites may be taking place. Which, of course, is part of the point, Rockwood said.
“It’s anywhere. Anywhere on the outside of a downtown, where people — the dream used to be to have a home, to own a home and live in the suburbs, and a nice car, and raise your family and go to the right schools. And people can’t do that anymore —the economy is wrecked, and people are under water, and the ability for us to communicate with our neighbors, and the idea that we are not friends and have block parties and those kind of things is kind of gone.”
This reading of D’Amour’s play — a Pulitzer Prize finalist for Drama in 2011 — fits right in with the canon of material Rockwood has made her own in the city for years. The area’s avid theatergoers have long become accustomed to the director’s affinity for works that are both seeing and humorous — finding the funny side of issues, but with a sting in the tail.
“Those are the kind of plays I like. I like to take serious issues — I mean, laugh, get the audience to laugh, and think about serious issues. While you’re laughing, on the inside you’re going, ‘Oh, God. You know, this is true.’ Or laughing at something that’s really sad. I’m watching the death of something that used to be an important part of America.”
Putting “Detroit” onstage is another passion project in a career littered with them for Rockwood. She jokes about how it often seems her muse has a pattern — discovering a work, becoming obsessed with a work, sharing it with others and, finally, a pressing need to bring a production of it to life.
“I was passing this play around a year ago, telling people that I want to do it. Maybe even longer than that. And that’s what I do — I glom onto a few different plays.
“I find these plays, and I just start passing them around to actors and passing them around to friends and saying, ‘Don’t you think these are great? Tell me what you think about this.’ So some of these people, even though they weren’t cast yet, were on board and liked the play, when I was passing it around a year ago.”
It helps that Rockwood has a core of actors that she has worked with regularly and is comfortable sharing the creative process with. “I like to work with small casts. There’s a joke that big casts are like herding cats,” she said.
“I have a sort of small ensemble that I’ve worked with for quite a while. I have the actors that I like to work with, and they’ve worked with each other before. And we sort of speak the same language. They know how I direct, and I don’t have to use too many words to get them to do something.”
Rockwood has more projects in the months to come — in addition to more directorial work, she’s been focused a lot more on writing in recent days, working on a few plays of her own. Theater may be ephemeral — much like life — but the emotions it can generate live on well after the curtain falls.
“I don’t want to lecture to people. I mean, a lot of plays do lecture to the audience. But I don’t want that — I prefer to make people laugh a lot, and then afterwards, maybe see something a little differently, or maybe understand the human condition a little different.”
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