National artists and resident Hoosier actors assemble starting Nov. 1 in Carmel, Indiana, for rehearsals for Kenneth Jones’ new comedy Hollywood, Nebraska, the first public staged reading in Actors Theatre of Indiana’s inaugural Lab Series that develops new works. New York City-based guest director Scott Alan Evans helms the 20-hour rehearsal/reading process which culminates in a public presentation and audience talkback with cast and playwright 7:30 PM Nov. 5. Dean Biasucci, the former Indianapolis Colts placekicker whose life as an actor pre-dates his NFL career, stars opposite ATI co-founder Judy Fitzgerald in the cast of six.
The company for the comedy — about two fortysomething actresses returning to their hometown in the same week for separate family emergencies — also features guest artist Amy Bodnar, a Broadway and ATI veteran, plus resident artists Lizzie Farrell, Suzanne Stark and Adam Tran. Fitzgerald (ATI’s recent Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and many regional, touring and concert productions) and Bodnar (Broadway’s Oklahoma!, ATI’s A Comedy of Tenors) play old pals Jane and Andrea, respectively. Kevin Casey is the stage manager.
ATI bills Hollywood, Nebraska this way: “In the panhandle of Nebraska, two actresses of a certain age are making a homecoming in their dying small town. Jane’s in from L.A. to check up on her ailing mother. Andrea’s back from New York to bury her father. Will a disappearing dot on the map of the Great Plains provide a second act for each of them? A new rueful comedy about the urge to be creative, the itch to move away and the ache of reconnecting with the family and feelings that you thought you left behind.”
The two-act Hollywood, Nebraska is set in a remote small town called Hatcher, in the panhandle of western Nebraska, near the Wyoming border, “during a recent autumn in a kinder moment in the early 21st century,” according to the playwright. Theatre industry folk may request a free perusal copy here.
Playwright Kenneth Jones is currently represented at ATI with his acclaimed drama Alabama Story, which has earned rave reviews since opening Oct. 25. It continues to Nov. 17. Learn more about Alabama Story’s history here. The play is published and licensed by Dramatists Play Service. According to the playwright, “As with Alabama Story, audiences should expect a tears-and-laughter experience out of Hollywood, Nebraska, though the new play is more interested in family issues than social justice issues.”
Teenager Lizzie Farrell is the daughter of ATI co-founders Don Farrell and Judy Fitzgerald. She’ll play Katie, the wannabe actress and daughter of next-door neighbor, Robert, played by Biasucci. (In the play, Fitzgerald’s Jane becomes a mentor and acting coach to Katie.) New Yorker Biasucci has worked in regional theaters, including Indiana Repertory Theatre, and in TV and film. Adam Tran (recently of “Chicago Med”) plays Robert’s fellow carpenter, Lance, and Suzanne Stark (an Indy favorite from ATI, Beef and Boards and beyond) plays Jane’s vulnerable but steely mother, Alma.
Director Scott Alan Evans, former artistic director of Off-Broadway’s TACT/The Actors Company Theatre, staged an earlier developmental workshop of Hollywood, Nebraska at Wyoming Theater Festival. Biasucci appeared in that incarnation in 2017. Rewrites followed and the draft being presented script-in-hand Nov. 5 represents changes since 2017.
Actress Amy Bodnar introduced Jones to ATI, leading to the Indiana premiere of Alabama Story and this developmental reading. She also introduced Jones and Evans to Biasucci when they were auditioning for the Wyoming workshop of Hollywood, Nebraska. “If you want an actor who can play a character who is strong-but-silent, salt-of-the-earth, corn-fed, ex-military, a cool dad, a regular guy, the boy next door, a rescuer and the love interest, you get Dean Biasucci,” Jones set. “He’s great casting for this. We were lucky to get him before and we’re lucky now.”
Jones told the Carmel Current, “Jane and Andrea, two actresses, left their hometown years ago and are now returning, coincidentally, in the same week,” Jones said. “Whether we’re just back from college or returning in middle age after years away, we all look in the mirror and feel some sort of tension about who we were, who we are today and how our hometown experience shaped us. As these women are actresses the title takes on a new meaning: the comma between ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Nebraska’ carries two meanings. It’s a city address in Los Angeles, but it also suggests the pull between Hollywood and Nebraska. Which will win out? Which will be chosen? Hollywood? Nebraska?”
Hollywood, Nebraska also had earlier development by TACT/The Actors Company Theatre (2016) and the California Bay Area’s Alma Theatre Company (2019).
“I’m grateful for another step to sharpen the people and world of Hollywood, Nebraska in the hope of a future world premiere,” playwright Kenneth Jones said. “It will be great to see it in the heartland — this a play about Midwest people, after all. I’m excited to be in the first-ever ATI Lab Series of new play readings, and to become part of what will be a rich heritage of the company developing new works.”
Jones further explained Hollywood, Nebraska in this playwright’s note: “There’s a small town in far western Nebraska where I have spent time, as an outsider, with people I love. Its heyday is over. Its population has dwindled to about 2,400. There is drought. Some storefronts are boarded up. There are farms both fallow and fertile. Missile silos that once held weapons aimed at Russia during the Cold War have been decommissioned. An oil boom ended. A railroad cuts through town, but it no longer offers passenger service. Interstate I-80 diverted traffic away from Main Street — the old Lincoln Highway — a long time ago. When I visited there, I walked around town. I browsed at a thrift shop. I took pictures of broken windows at the Wheat Growers’ Hotel. I attended a church service. I shared dinners and played cards in a parlor with widows who loved to laugh and talk about their history. I was curious and inspired. I wondered about residents past and present — who left? who stayed? and why? — and it all made me think more deeply about what it means to lead a so-called creative life. That was the jumping off point for my writing Hollywood, Nebraska.”
Playwrights Lindsay Adams of Kansas City, MO, and Ethan Mathias of Fishers, IN, will also see their new plays — Rattler and Provenance, respectively — get developmental staged readings in the 2019-20 ATI Lab Series season.
This is the first formal new works development program in ATI’s 15-year history. Tickets for the series are on sale now, at $20 per reading (or less for subscribers).
The goal of the Lab Series is not necessarily to channel plays to the ATI mainstage, but to engage audiences in this early phase of the theater-making process and to be part of the community of regional theaters developing new plays and musicals toward world premieres that will enrich the future of the American theater. The ATI tagline says it all: “Will you be able to say, ‘I was there when it all began’?”
The ATI Lab Series is presented by United Fidelity Bank. Actors Theatre of Indiana is led by co-founders artistic director Don Farrell, associate artistic director Cynthia Collins and associate artistic director Judy Fitzgerald.
ATI performs at the three-quarter-thrust, 200-seat Studio Theatre in The Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, IN. The campus is also home to the American Songbook Foundation, the Civic Theatre, Carmel Symphony Orchestra, Central Indiana Dance Ensemble and other groups. The Studio, The Tarkington and the Palladium are the three major performance venues.
By spring 2020, Jones’ six-actor social justice drama Alabama Story will have been produced in more than 27 cities around the country since its 2015 premiere.
Jones’ recent plays — Two Henrys, Circa 1976 and Hollywood, Nebraska — have all focused on Midwest characters and roots; the playwright was raised in Michigan and now lives in New York City. The three-character Two Henrys, about an Indianapolis native reconnecting with his late partner’s family in Florida, had a recent workshop presentation by Red Mountain Theatre Company in Birmingham, AL, and is seeking further development toward a world premiere.