Liam Castellan: An interview with the director of TRAVELING LIGHT

Liam Castellan takes a photo.

Director/producer Liam Castellan of Liam’s Sofa Cushion Fortress is bringing London’s “Summer of Love” to the 2013 Fringe. His Philadelphia premiere production of Traveling Light, a contemporary piece by local playwright Lindsay Harris Friel about a meeting between two British icons of the Sixties, is garnering a lot of attention in the lead-up to the festival.

Phindie talked to Liam about the play and the issues and characters upon which it touches.

Phindie: What’s this show about?
Liam Castellan: Playwright Joe Orton chases Beatles manager Brian Epstein into a Jewish cemetery late at night.  It’s July 1967, and the Beatles had just commissioned a screenplay from Orton and rejected his script.  Joe wants to know why. They evade and confront each other about music and show business, what it means to be gay at the time, and what the Sixties were (and could have been).  They also evade and confront the police who come upon them.  It’s a play about loneliness, sex, death, police brutality, and searching for “home”.

PhindieWhat made you want to do it?
LC: I saw a workshop of the play in 2009 done by Philadelphia Theatre Workshop, and I enjoyed it very much.  When I decided to produce in the Fringe again, I knew I wanted to do something new, and immediately called Lindsay [Lindsay Harris Friel, the playwright].

PhindieWhat do you like about Lindsay’s writing.
LC: There are a lot of plays (both good and bad) about two historical figures who lived at the same time and may or may not have met in real life.  Picasso at the Lapin Agile and Freud’s Last Session are two examples.  I call them “in-a-room” plays, because usually the only point is “look at these two historical figures in a room!”  Orton and Epstein did meet and had an interesting but little-known connection.  Lindsay builds on the history and shows us two fascinating characters who really walked the earth, but also makes it about something more universal and interesting. It’s about loneliness, about how to connect with other people.  It’s also very funny, and has a lot of cleverness but also a lot of heart.  Too many clever plays are hollow when it comes to any emotional depth.  And a lot of plays with heart have nothing else, no technique or humor or structure.  Lindsay has both.  The other thing I love about it is the elements that pay homage to Joe Orton.  Constable MacDonald is very much in the vein of the authority figures of Loot and What the Butler Saw.

PhindieI’ve never seen or read an Orton play? What do you like about him, which one should I try to see or read?
LC: His writing style is so bold that he has his own adjective, Ortonesque.  He can carve out epigrams that often rival those of Oscar Wilde, but it’s combined with a macabre cynicism about the rules most of society takes for granted. His writing and his life were a kind of rebellion against “keeping up appearances” and blind respect for authority. What the Butler Saw (which I directed for Curio Theatre Company in 2008) and Loot are my favorites, start there.  Although his collected works are in one handy volume (the upside to a genius getting murdered at 33).

Photo by Kyle Cassidy
Kyra Baker as W.P.C. Foster, Doug Greene as Joe Orton, and Bob Stineman as Brian Epstein in TRAVELING LIGHT. Photo by Kyle Cassidy

PhindieThe play is set right after homosexuality was decriminalized in England. Is there a resonance with the recent wave of gay rights legislation?
LC: The current tidal shift in opinion on LGBT rights is wonderful to see.  But I think the bigger resonance is not with the progress here, but with the recent anti-gay legislation in Russia.  Even if you’re straight, you can’t even say anything in support of gay rights in Russia without risking being beaten and arrested.  And just like Constable MacDonald in the play, Vladimir Putin claims that such oppression is all about protecting children, which is so absurd it’s jaw-dropping.

PhindieYou mentioned that you produced in the Fringe before? How many times?
LC: I’ve worked on previous Fringe shows (as actor, director, or helping a friend with producer-y tasks), but the only other time I took the lead and produced something was in 2005.  It was also a new play, but I wasn’t that long out of college and nobody knew or particularly cared who I was, so I had very small audiences.  I’ve learned a lot since then.

PhindieWhat do you like about the festival experience?
LC: I like the critical mass that the Fringe attracts in terms of audience, press coverage, etc.  If I were self-producing any other time of year, I’d need to figure out box office software, and I’d be starting from scratch in terms of marketing and PR.

Phindie:  Are you a big Beatles fan? 
LC: I wouldn’t say “big” fan, but I absolutely enjoy their music.

PhindieWhat do see as Brian Epstein’s role in their story?
LC: Brian Epstein gave them what they lacked: professionalism, stagecraft, and an aptitude for business and salesmanship.  I’m not sure anyone else would have seen what he saw in them.  Without Brian, the Fab Four would likely have never existed in the larger world.

PhindieWhat’s your favorite Beatles song?
LC: The alarm on my clock radio woke me up to the Oldies station every morning in grade school, so I grew up on a lot of the Beatles hits.  I’m not sure I have one single favorite.  I like “Eleanor Rigby” for the driving strings in the orchestration; it’s a nice little break from all the guitars.

Traveling Light runs September 6-14, 2013 as part of the 2013 Fringe Festival.

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