It’s Family Friendly But It Still Has Hot Cowboys: Quince director Rich Rubin on RODEO by Philip Dawkins

After enjoying 2013 stagings of his Failure: A Love Story (Azuka Theatre) and The Homosexuals (Quince Productions), Philadelphia theater fans should be on the lookout for new productions of playwright Philip Dawkins. Here comes one bucking into the arena now: Quince is putting on RODEO, Dawkins’s family friendly play about a cowgirl in disguise.

We talked to Quince artistic director Rich Rubin about his company, its latest production, and the unique challenges in staging a family show. [Walnut Street Theatre, Studio 5, 825 Walnut Street] April 7-23, 2016; quinceproductions.com.

Michael E. Manley (left) and Jenna Pinchbeck star in RODEO. Photo by John Donges.

Michael E. Manley (left) and Jenna Pinchbeck star in RODEO. Photo by John Donges.

Phindie: How long have you been running Quince?

Rich Rubin: This is Quince’s ninth season. It began in 2008. I was happily out of the theater world for ten years, I’d moved here from New York three years earlier, and I went back to see The Bang Group, a New York-based dance company. I had this wild thought, “You know, I could bring them to Philadelphia!” and sure enough, I was suckered right back into the theater world. Quince’s first show was The Bang Group’s Backward and in Heels at the Painted Bride. We’ve had a really productive relationship with them since; they’ve come back to Philadelphia twice to open GayFest! (2012 and 2014) and in fact are returning this year to once again open GayFest!

Phindie: Quince is probably best known for its annual GayFest! Do you think of it as a “gay theater company”?

RR: Quince is obviously a gay-friendly theater company, but I don’t think of us as strictly a “gay theater company”—LGBT plays are always of interest to me, and even before GayFest! existed we did such plays as Martin Sherman’s Passing By and Victor Bumbalo’s Show/Tell and Niagara Falls. We’ve also, however, done an awful lot of work that isn’t gay at all: Mister, Mister, Beirut, Vanities, Three Days of Rain, and Educating Rita, to name a few.

Phindie: What do you look for when choosing a play?

RR: That’s a hard one, and I wonder sometimes whether what I look for as a director is the same as what I look for as a producer.

Phindie: As a director then?

RR: As a director, first and foremost is that a play “speak to me” in some way, though that’s admittedly vague and one of those “I know it when I see it” kinds of things. Since my background is as a writer, language is important to me. And I often look for plays that to me are somehow more than just “sitting around a living room talking about relationships” (though there are good and bad versions of those also!).

Phindie: And as a producer?

RR: As a producer, I have to think about practicalities. Is it full of 75-year old characters? Not likely. A cast of forty people? No @#$* way. Seventeen different sets? Don’t think so. So there are those practical considerations.

But you know, sometimes the best thing I can do as a producer is to trust my instincts as a director and stop trying to second-guess audiences. I was speaking with Elizabeth Rogers, Quince’s board president, when From White Plains (in last year’s GayFest!) became the best-attended show Quince has ever done. A basically pretty heavy play about bullying (though not without its humor, to be sure), performed in the middle of the summer in a gay festival and NOT some light comedy with lots of nudity? Likewise You Know My Name: A Daniel Talbott Trio—a weird, dark, brilliant set of short plays by one of my favorite playwrights—is in our top five attended shows. “What does this mean,” I asked Elizabeth, “when these plays that don’t seem on the surface to be crowd-pleasers end up being our best-selling shows?” Her answer was immediate: “It means you find a good play and do it well.” So that’s my new philosophy.

Phindie: It’s a good one. What attracted you to Philip Dawkins’s RODEO?

RR: I fell in love with its rich, idiosyncratic language (including the stage directions… people should buy the script just to read them!), and the lovely characters. I like the way it considers many of the issues important to us – gender roles and their fluidity, opportunity and breaking through barriers of prejudice—but in a light-hearted way that appeals to everyone.

Phindie: And of course it has cowboys.

RR: Yes! This is a family show but our GayFest! regulars always appreciate a hot cowboy, so it’s the best of both worlds! 

Jenna Pinchbeck, Dexter Anderson, and Katherine Perry in RODEO. Photo by John Donges.

Jenna Pinchbeck, Dexter Anderson, and Katherine Perry in RODEO. Photo by John Donges.

Phindie: How does it compare to the other Dawkins work we’ve seen in Philadelphia?

RR: RODEO is completely different from The Homosexuals and Failure: A Love Story, just as those two plays are totally different from each other. That’s something that amazes me about Philip Dawkins, how he gets into such utterly different worlds with each play, and you never get the feeling, “Oh yeah, that’s a Philip Dawkins play, so it’s going to be a, b, and c, can I leave now?”

I wonder how many people who saw both The Homosexuals and Failure even realized they were written by the same person—that’s how different they are! While there are obviously some linguistic and stylistic similarities, to my mind the differences far outweigh the similarities, and I have great respect for a playwright of such versatility, who gets so completely into these very different eras, personalities, and places, and makes each equally vibrant.

Phindie: What are the special challenges in directing a family-friendly play?

RR: The biggest challenge in directing a family-friendly play is to FORGET it’s a family-friendly play.

Phindie: What do you mean by that?

RR: I mean we don’t want to condescend the characters or the audience; we need to approach a family-friendly piece with the same reverence for the characters’ motivations, feelings, and challenges that we would with a more adult play. The minute we start playing the broad humor or trying to tailor it in some way for a “family” audience, we’ve lost. These things are in the script, and will shine through. Our job is to play the characters, the situation, the truth, as we would in any play. To respect the script and to respect the characters.

Phindie: Nicely put. Looking further ahead, what can we expect from GayFest! this year?

RR: GayFest! is shaping up to be very interesting this year. It looks like we’re going to be using three theaters: Plays & Players, The Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, and Studio X. As I mentioned, we’re thrilled to have The Bang Group back to open the festival with an evening of their best dance works, including my favorite, “Slapstuck.” We’ll be doing a mix of mainstage plays and a series of special events as usual. I‘ve been talking to Quince (and overall) superstar Will Connell about helming one of these special events, and I’m in discussions with a New York artist about bringing his one-man show here. We’ve gotten the rights for a fascinating, dark and intense play called “Wolves” which is going to be directed by Michael Osinski, one of the founders of Flashpoint. And we’ll have the usual mix of comedy and drama, light-hearted and more challenging.

Phindie: Exciting stuff; thanks Rich!

[Walnut Street Theatre, Studio 5, 825 Walnut Street] April 7-23, 2016; quinceproductions.com.

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.