Call it Americana Noir. It reads a bit like Tom Waits lyrics:
“High atop a railroad trestle that spans a bone dry creek, two teenagers plan to race across the bridge against an oncoming locomotive. At first their scheme adds excitement to life in a small factory town during the Great Depression, then sensual experience awakens dangerous passions in an era of stifled ambitions. With theatrical flourish and lyrical finesse, award-winning playwright Naomi Wallace delves into a world where people struggle to change lives.”
This is the synopsis offered by the Station Theatre for its next summer offering, Naomi Wallace’s The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek. You might never have heard the title before, or of the playwright, but odds are you’ll soon be hearing a lot about the show’s director, C-U native Saskia Bakker. A student at DePaul University, Bakker first came to my attention when I heard what, at the time, seemed like a tall tale. The story I heard was that Bakker had, as a high school student, staged Sarah Ruhl’s modern myth Eurydice in a classroom. Having, at the time, recently directed the reality-bending play myself, this seemed utterly fantastic.
And it turns out that it was true. Bakker confirmed the story for me this past Saturday as we sat outside the Station, where her next bit of magic is set to take place.
To aid in this feat, Bakker has combined a couple of Station veterans with several newcomers—a trend at the Station this summer. Her cast includes: Katarina Blakeslee (as Pace), Gabriel Halstead-Alvarez (Dalton), Christine des Garennes (Gin), David Heckman (Dray), and Kevin Wickart (Chas).
Via email, I posed a few more questions, and here’s what the director had to say.
Smile Politely: First of all, congratulations on making your Station debut. Why did you pick The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek to submit? What’s your history with the play (or the playwright)?
Bakker: Thank you, I’m really excited! I fell in love with Naomi Wallace’s work this year at school when I stage managed her play One Flea Spare. From the very first read-through I knew Wallace’s work carried something truly special. She has such a beautiful and lyrical way with words and dialogue that, along with her passion for true history and her rejection of realism, makes for wonderful pieces of theatre that go deep into concepts of humanity and how they interact politically and personally with history.
I read an anthology of her plays and immediately connected to The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, which is a coming-of-age story that explores the theme of being a young person in America in a time when hope is fleeting. Dalton Chance and Pace Creagan are desperately trying to navigate their small-town lives in the midst of the Great Depression, and they are faced with questions of the past and future that very much exceed their teenage years. I related especially to Pace; so rarely are young women written in an empowering and thoughtful way, so I was delighted to find a play that did.
I knew I wanted to submit a play to direct at the Station ever since I worked on The Aliens last summer, and The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, which primarily takes place beneath a train track, seemed to be absolutely the perfect fit for the Station Theatre. I also wanted to do a show by a female playwright, as well as one that I believed would be relatable and impactful for the people of this town to see.
SP: The Station is a really versatile—but notoriously small—space. What, in your opinion, makes Trestle the right show for that theater? What are you planning to do to make your show fit into the Station’s parameters?
Bakker: I’m really excited to be working in a small space, believe it or not! I don’t think this play would have the same impact at all from a distance. We’re actually making the space even more narrow by doing a sort of pseudo-alley-style seating arrangement that allows us to have the audience on both sides without having to move the risers. I really wanted to be sure that the audience was in on the action, and as immersed as possible with the characters. Alley-style also adds a really interesting quality of human reflection that I wanted to access as well. Audience members can watch both the play and the audience on the other side if they wish to do so. I personally love watching others’ reactions to plays, and I think it adds a whole other layer to the empathy and discussion of humanity that this production is hoping to promote. I also wanted to play with the idea of length on the stage. The shape is sort of reminiscent of a train track or a timeline in its more direct narrowness, and I think it creates a really interesting effect despite making the playing space even smaller than it already is.
SP: I know that you’re pursuing a degree in directing. What draws you to directing? What do you enjoy most about it?
Bakker: I think I’ve been directing all my life. Ever since I was young I’ve been formulating skits or scripts or plays for my friends and I to put on. When I realized that I could do it for a career, it was a done deal. I love the conversations we have with the cast and designers most of all – digging into the text, making new discoveries together, figuring out issues and fixing them. It’s an incredibly exciting and satisfying feeling, and has taught me so much about what it means to communicate with other humans about deeply personal and profound topics. I believe that being a director is mainly about being a good person, someone who is able to draw emotion and intuition from the actors, to help plant seeds that each individual grows themselves into something beautiful. It’s about drawing truth from the text, seeing how it translates in this time, in this place, and understanding how it will change the people who see it. It’s truly an amazing experience, and to do it in the town I grew up in is a dream come true.
SP: Is there anything in particular from your studies that you’ve been able to apply to this show?
Bakker: My professor at DePaul, Barry Brunetti, has taught me so many of the techniques and thought processes that I’ve used in directing this show. From taking three of his classes this past year, on everything from Anne Bogart to “Bodies in Crisis,” and, first-hand, watching him direct One Flea Spare, also by Naomi Wallace, he has given me many invaluable tools and techniques that I’ve used in the direction of this show. Although I have yet to take any actual directing classes, he has taught me about thinking, questioning, and how to really dig into difficult texts. I’ve also utilized William Ball’s book A Sense of Direction, which thoroughly outlines everything a director may need to know about the rehearsal process, and has taught me about stepping back and trusting the actors’ intuitions. The most important thing I’ve learned in this process so far is that, to learn about directing, you simply have to do it. Everything comes from experience, from working with actual humans, speaking aloud, and having an end in sight. I am so grateful for this opportunity and the first-hand experience it has given me. Every day with this cast and crew I am learning how to be a better director and a better person.
SP: Is there a certain feeling or message you’d like your audience to take with them when they leave Trestle?
Bakker: This is something the cast and I have been discussing for a long time. Due to the play’s non-linear timeline, all of the pieces of the story don’t come together until the very last scene. We have come to the conclusion that, for this play, all of the important discoveries on the audience’s behalf will come afterward – in conversation, or meditation, or reflection. It is a play that will likely make the audience uncomfortable in both its familiarity and distance – and this discomfort is something we did not shy away from in the rehearsal process. I personally believe that discomfort is a really wonderful tool for thought and action. This show is definitely risky in some of its subject matter, but I think that’s exactly why it should be done. Overall, I just hope the audience will leave itching to reflect in any way they feel comfortable. I don’t mind which conclusions people come to, as long as some sort of thought takes place.
Audiences will have their opportunity to see, experience, and reflect on Naomi Wallace’s The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek starting this Friday, July 5th. The play runs July 5th through 7th, July 10th through 14th, and July 17th through 20th at the Station Theatre in Urbana. All performances begin at 7:30 p,m., with the exception of the single matinee performance on Sunday, July 14th, at 3 p,m.
Photos courtesy of Station Theatre Facebook page.