On Target: Matt Pfeiffer talks about directing ON THE EXHALE

on the exhale theatre exile

Suli Holum and Matt Pfeiffer in rehearsal for ON THE EXHALE at Theatre Exile.

We have mixed feelings about firearms. Over a quarter of Pennsylvania residents own a gun. Indeed, there are 18 guns for every person in the state and over 300,000 animals are killed by hunters here each year. At the same time, more than 100 kids under the age of 18 died of gun violence in Philadelphia in 2019 and over 1,200 people have been shot this year in this city alone.

This month, Matt Pfeiffer directs a 2017 play by Martin Zimmerman which looks at our two-sided relationship with firearms through the eyes of a grieving mother–turned–gun enthusiast, played by Suli Holum. Phindie talked to Matt about On the Exhale, guns, and the challenges of directing a one-actor play.

[Theatre Exile – 1340 S. 13th Street] November 29–December 22, 2019;  theatreexile.org

Suli Holum on the exhale

Suli Holum in ON THE EXHALE. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Phindie: What appealed to you about On the Exhale?

Matt Pfeiffer: I felt like the play explored the issue of gun violence in a way I’d never seen. We’re so numb to the tragedy at this point, even starting to ask questions or engage in conversation can feel daunting. I thought the play opened things up and posed questions in a provocative way.

Phindie: What’s your own relationship to guns?

Matt Pfeiffer: I’m not a gun owner, but I did earn two firearms merit badges in Boy Scouts. I have family that own guns and family that’s very anti gun. I’ve witnessed the threat of gun violence in person. So I’d say my experience is fairly common place and that I have complicated feelings about guns. I do recognize ones right to defend themselves and their family how they see fit. I also believe that violence begets violence, not peace or order.

Phindie: What issues or themes did you discuss with Suli Holum during rehearsals?

Matt Pfeiffer: We talked a lot about mourning. How we’ve dealt with grief. We’re both parents, so we talk about our kids. We talked about the oral tradition of theater. How the piece works as primal storytelling. We also talked about our relationship to violence and guns in particular.

Phindie: What are the challenges in directing a one-actor play?

Matt Pfeiffer: Helping the actor build and maintain stamina. In taking on a story of such emotional heft, you’re main task is helping the actor find meaningful action to play. Both to guide the audience and alleviate the actor of having to play all the emotion all the time. I’m a firm believer that, in acting, emotion is a by-product of action. You also have to help the actor orchestrate the flow of the story telling. When does it slow, get quite, what are the stakes at moment to moment. And finally being a surrogate audience. “I missed this line”. “I felt left out of that moment” “this really hit me, more of that.”

Phindie: There’s a tendency of overtly political plays to be didactic, to forget characters and the human ramifications of politics. How do you think Zimmerman avoids this, and how do you avoid it in your direction?

Matt Pfeiffer: This is far from didactic, in fact quite the opposite. The character is in full-on process and fails frequently to find meaning or be able to assign blame. The psychology of that process is the focus of my direction and Zimmerman’s writing. This process never allows for the character to fully grasp an absolute opinion, but rather go on a journey of comprehension. I hope this leads to a more fully formed picture, as opposed to something more binary or didactic

Phindie: What do you hope audiences take away from the play?

Matt Pfeiffer: I hope that people think more critically about the toll of these tragedies. There’s an eroding of basic decency around people in mourning. But I also hope people find some common ground around how we process loss. That people who’ve experienced unimaginable grief feel seen and have solace with the character and the play. The best tragedies are about catharsis. I think Zimmerman captures that beautifully.

Phindie: Thanks Matt!

On the Exhale by Martín Zimmerman runs November 29 – December 22, 2019. Talkbacks with Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia will be held Thursday, December 12 and Wednesday, December 18. theatreexile.org

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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.