The Howl of the Under-Represented: Interview with WOLVES director Michael Osinski

Michael Osinski is a Philadelphia-based director, educator, and deviser (a person who works with a form of theater where the script originates not from a writer but a collaborative, improvisatory group of people).  A co-founder and former producing artistic director of Flashpoint Theatre Company, he directed the Philadelphia premieres of Far Away, Autobahn, Schoolgirl Figure, The Dead Guy, An Impending Rupture of the Belly, and Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake). Most recently he directed Azuka Theatre’s production of Moth by Australian playwright Declan Greene.  

Osinski has worked at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, The Old Globe in San Diego, and Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater. He received his MFA in Directing from The Theatre School at DePaul University, and now teaches at Rowan and Temple, and works as the Arts Administrator for Applied Mechanics. He also teaches acting at the Cherubs program at Northwestern, where he directs one of the eight shows they produce every summer. Michael-Osinski.com

Osinski directs WOLVES by Steve Yockey for GayFest! 2016 (“a darkly comic, predatory fairy tale for adults that explores the conflation of sex and fear in modern culture.” [Excerpt from OUT Magazine review, quoted by Samuel French.])  Yockey is a Los Angeles based writer whose plays have been produced throughout the US, Europe, and Asia. He was one of two writers selected for the first US/Australia playwright exchange in February 2013. He is also the recipient of the inaugural LA Weekly Playwriting Award in 2013 for his short play cycle, Very Still & Hard to See.

[Louis Bluver Theatre @ the Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street] August 22-27; QuinceProductions.com.

Michael Orsinski

Michael Orsinski

Henrik Eger: The prolific Steve Yockey, according to American Theatre, has “a cult-like following.” Tell us more about his work.

Michael Osinski: He’s a puzzle maker, a storyteller, and a poet at the same time. His plays aren’t easily digestible, but once you figure them out, they’re incredibly rewarding. His plays also have an “otherworldliness” about them. His characters have some supernatural obstacles to contend with. I met him a few years ago at the National New Play Network’s Showcase of New Plays, and I would LOVE to direct more of his plays. I’ve been trying to direct his play Pluto for the past few years.

Eger: Of all the many plays that show the tragic side of the human psyche, what drew you to WOLVES?

Osinski: I’m always attracted to plays that deal with the darker side of humanity. What can make people so riled up, so angry, or so desperate they believe violence or cruelty is the only answer? I’m always trying to answer that question with every play I direct. I’m also attracted to plays which use unconventional storytelling methods. Whenever a playwright gives me a puzzle to solve, I’m on board. WOLVES checks off both of these boxes. I think Steve [Yockey] would agree that WOLVES is not a play ABOUT violence. He has even said that violence isn’t a theme in his work—it’s a means to an end.

Eger: You said you believe, “it’s a damn shame [his work] hasn’t been produced in Philadelphia before this.” Why do you think Philly has not embraced him?

Osinski: I wish I knew the answer to that question. Hopefully I can change that.

Eger: Sarah J. Gafgen, Philadelphia actor, director, and organizer of the highly successful Love Can Build a Bridge anti-violence concert, said, “Much violence and hate is inspired by feelings of insecurity within us.” How does WOLVES relate to the insecurities of people in general and the LGBT community in particular?

Osinski: I don’t want to speak for an entire group of people. I can relate to the character of Ben in WOLVES. When I was single, I never wanted to go out to gay bars. I was afraid. I didn’t feel accepted by the community, and I didn’t like subjecting myself to all that judgment. Whether the other people in the bar were actually being judgmental or whether it was all in my head, that’s certainly up for debate. I just know I felt worse about myself when I went there—until I started drinking, of course. Here’s what I will say: I believe kindness is a much more valuable currency than cattiness. I wish all members of the LGBT community felt the same way.

Eger: Tell us about your choice of actors: Evan Raines as the hypersensitive, insecure Ben; Peter Varga as the house guest who first resists but then caves in to his host’s phobias; and the popular Michael E. Manley who performed in Chad Beguelin’s Harbor during this year’s GayFest! and last year in Philip Dawkins’ Rodeo—always the flawed hero, but this time as both the wolf and the prey.

Osinski: I like to cast generous actors who will bring their own ideas into the room and who are willing to try just about anything. I saw Ben and Jack as a couple of “gay nerds” who never should’ve ended up together. I don’t know whether other directors have seen them this way, but that was the idea I went with going into casting. Evan and Peter really embraced that. And Mike had a lot of great insights about the character of Wolf and his evolution over the course of the play. They’re a great group of guys.

Eger: What did you think about the role of the all-knowing Narrator, played by the spectacular Janice Rowland, as the woman who holds it all together and tears it apart, often within split seconds—as an American Oracle of Delphi, a Grimm reaper in an elegant dress, a caring mother and best friend, the snake in the Garden of a gay Eden, a contemporary femme fatale, Ben’s subconscious voice—forever oscillating. As the unreliable Narrator with dominatrix tendencies, she halts and revitalizes at will any action by clapping her hands. She becomes not only an important part of the drama on stage, but she even teases, tickles, and ties up the audience’s constantly changing perceptions and judgments. Controlling our feelings and thoughts, she doesn’t hesitate to lash us with her admonishments, presented with a disarming smile, “You probably shouldn’t go looking for a moral.”

Osinski: You’ve pretty much said it all. Janice and I talked a lot about who the Narrator actually is. We made some decisions, but I don’t really want to share any of them with the audience. I’d much rather they come to their own conclusions.

Eger: Tell us more about the evolution of gay theater in the US, as witnessed by WOLVES.

Osinski: Gay theater has evolved as we have won more acceptance and legal rights. At first “gay play” meant a story about someone dying of AIDS. Then “gay play” meant a story about a couple who couldn’t get married or adopt children. Now gay characters are becoming more mainstream. Playwrights are telling stories that don’t focus solely on sexuality. That’s not to say that we don’t still have some work to do—gay people are still treated like second-class citizens in many communities. But the term “gay play” is definitely harder to define.

Eger: What would you say about the state of drama in the US—and in Philadelphia in particular?

Osinski: I think the American theater—Philadelphia included—is figuring out how to properly represent under-represented voices on stage. Sometimes we do a good job, sometimes we fail miserably. My hope is that we are learning from our mistakes.

Eger: You started as a director who founded the Flashpoint Theatre, and then left the area to study for grad school.

Osinski: I moved to Philadelphia in 2003 to start Flashpoint with some of my college classmates. At that time there weren’t nearly as many companies and ensembles making theater, so we were much more unique. I stayed with Flashpoint for its first six seasons. Some of my happiest memories are from those years. There’s something great about working with people who already know and support you. You can challenge yourself, but you don’t have to prove yourself. It was an ideal working environment.

However, as the producing artistic director, I found myself worrying more about our bank account than about the art, so I went back to school. I got my degree from The Theatre School at DePaul University in 2014. It was the greatest, but also the most expensive, decision I’ve ever made.

Eger: Tell us about your experience returning to the Philadelphia theater world. Has it changed?

Osinski: It’s a different climate than it was when I left. The subscription season isn’t the predominant model for theater-making anymore. This town is full of self-generating artists who create work when they feel the need to create it, not when the calendar dictates. I think we’re figuring out what that means for the future of Philadelphia theater, but that’s exciting to me.

Eger: Would you be willing to talk about something that only your best friends know about you?

Osinski: I can’t swim. I’ve almost drowned twice. I got scared during swimming lessons when I was younger, and I never went back. If I ever have children, I’ve told myself, I will need to learn how to swim.

Eger: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Osinski: There are only a few more chances left to see WOLVES. So get your tickets now!

Eger: Thanks, Michael, and may we see more of Steve Yockey’s dramas under your direction.

WOLVES, part of GayFest! 2016—with set design by Sara Outing, lighting design by John Allerheiligen, costume and prop design by Admiral Grey, and sound design by Damien Figueras—is being performed at the Louis Bluver Theatre @ the Drake, 302 S. Hicks St. (between 15/16, Spruce/Pine), Philadelphia, August 22-27, 2016. For tickets,  QuinceProductions.wix.com.

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About the author

Henrik Eger

HENRIK EGER, editor of Drama Around the Globe. Bilingual playwright, author of Metronome Ticking. Born and raised in Germany. Ph.D. in English, University of Illinois, Chicago. German translator of Martin Luther King, Jr’s Nobel Peace Prize mail. Producer-director: Multilingual Shakespeare, London. Retired professor of English and Communication who taught in six countries on three continents, including four universities and one college in the U.S. Author of four college text books. Longtime Philadelphia theatre correspondent for AAJT, the world’s largest Jewish theatre website. Articles published in Classical Voice, Los Angeles; Kayhan International, Tehran, Iran; Indian Express, Mumbai, India; The Jewish Forward, New York; Philadelphia Jewish Voice, Phindie, and Broad Street Review, Philadelphia; The Mennonite, Tucson; and New Jersey Stage. Contact: HenrikEger@gmail.com