Ask any director around town the hardest part about casting a show, and as often as not, you're going to hear something about finding enough male actors to fill the roles. It's one of many ineffable elements of theatre in that, while boys are often scarce in the talent pool, there is a wealth of roles for them. Think of all the leading male roles in the popular musicals of our day: The Music Man has Prof. Harold Hill, the Mayor, and a barbershop quartet, to name but a few. Guys and Dolls has Nathan and Nicely and Benny and Sky. And when was the last time anyone tried to mount a production of 1776, a show with 20-ish men and two women?
Billie Sue Thompson's answer is to pick show with no guys in it at all.
That's what she's done with ACT's latest offering, Women on Fire, by Irene O'Garden. Thompson, who not only directs the show, but also founded and serves as artistic director for ACT, said she came upon the play through a friend of the playwright.
"One of my colleagues that I went to OSU with went to the Guthrie theatre to get his master's or whatever, and he worked with Irene O'Garden and her husband John Pielmeier, who wrote Agnes of God," Thompson said.
When the colleague suggested Women on Fire to her, she was intrigued, and after reading it, she was hooked.
"We called Irene in New York, and she said, 'Oh, I'd love for you to do this play,'" Thompson said. "But I never did anything with it until a couple of years ago in my adult acting class."
The nickel tour of the show is as follows: 12 female characters deliver 12 monologues, each character "on fire" in some fashion -- with passion, with fear, and one is even on fire for shopping. The characters range from a stay-at-home mom to a construction worker with many others in between.
"It's described as a slice of America, a portrait of women through the ages," Thompson said. "I have a nice variety of ages and types of women, so it's an all-woman show, and it's all monologues. They're vignettes."
Each vignette provides a peek into the life of the woman speaking.
"It's like a pit stop on their spiritual journey. Each monologue has something to do with fire -- one of them is called 'Smoldering,' one is called 'Explosion,'" she said.
With that in mind, it stands to reason that Women on Fire -- unlike so many of ACT's productions -- is not suitable for children.
The use of fire in this piece is certainly multidimensional. In addition to the metaphoric fire each woman's story involves, Thompson said that there's also the purifying element of it to consider.
"It's the way these women deal with their own story, their own passion, their own emotions, their own secrets on their spiritual journey," she said. "It's dealing with a renewed sense of hope and love and personal strength. Even though fire can destroy, it can create too. Like the phoenix rising from the ashes."
ACT itself might be considered phoenix-like. Founded by Thompson 20 years ago, the company shuttered its doors more than a decade ago in the face of a divorce for Thompson and general hard times. But since Thompson has re-opened ACT, it's going on three strong years so far, and in a way, kind of propelled this production to the stage.
"Originally, it was just going to be the adult women in my adult class," she said. "Then when I started reading the script closely and realizing how great the monologues were, I realized I needed some seasoned and experienced actresses in it. So I started calling around."
Those calls netted some big names in Tulsa theatre (Thompson already is) like Ione Blocker, Sloopy McCoy, and the revered Julie Tattershall of Heller and TATE Award fame. This last bit of casting is special to Thompson, who is also in the show herself.
"I meant for it to be women who are on fire in Tulsa theatre, and they are," she said. "Julie hasn't done any acting in several years, and I talked her into doing one of these monologues. Years ago, she was just starting to do things at Heller, and she played Piglet for me. She was wonderful."
Tattershall is so respected in Tulsa theatre that you'd be hard-pressed to find someone in the theatre world who doesn't know her. That said, they don't usually know her as an actress, but as the very talented, creative, and resourceful director that she is. Thompson hopes this show will add to the things for which Tattershall is known.
Very recently, Thompson and Tattershall worked together in Heller's Chasing Manet, and their proximity during that show allowed them to rehearse Tattershall's monologue for Women on Fire pretty much whenever they wanted, before or after a Chasing Manet rehearsal.
And it worked that way for everyone else, which makes sense, considering the conceit of the show as a collection of monologues.
"It's rehearsing pretty much at their convenience," Thompson said. "It's just unbelievable how hard it is to work around people's schedules. When I was teaching high school, I could force them, but you can't force volunteers in community theatre."
Next to finding enough men to cast in a given show, rehearsal scheduling is the Achilles' heel of community troupes, to be sure, so Thompson embraced the ease of this rehearsal schedule, which meant that the entire cast never gathered together in the same place until last week for full runs-through of the show.
Being on fire for Tulsa theatre will most certainly help in putting it all together.
Women on Fire debuts Sunday, Nov. 18 at 2:30pm and plays again at 7:30pm in the PAC's Liddy Doenges Theatre. Tickets are $15 and are available through the PAC's website at tulsapac.com. Mature content suggests that the show is not for kids.
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