In Their Words: The cast of ROW AFTER ROW discuss their characters and the show.
How would you describe ROW AFTER ROW?
Rosie Benton (Leah): This play is very funny. Jess, our playwright, is hilarious. It deals with very heavy issues, but on a certain level, it’s just about three Civil War re-enactors who meet in a bar. The ideas that come out of re-enacting and discussing the civil war help the characters recognize things about themselves that forever change all three of them.
Erik Lochtefeld (Tom): The emotions of the show will surprise the audience, like a ghost would. They’ll come to see a comedy, and it is funny, but the real emotions and the real power and the emotional scars of the Civil War are still underneath.
PJ Sosko (Cal/General Longstreet): It’s sad and powerful and a little bit mysterious. I think it’s going to take you on a really wild trip.
Can you introduce your character and tell us a little bit about what happens to them?
Rosie Benton (Leah): I play Leah, a New Yorker who has recently moved to Gettysburg, PA. She’s struggling with her career and her relationships, and she gets drunk one night, closes her eyes, and puts her finger on a map, and it lands on Gettysburg, PA.
Erik Lochtefeld (Tom): I play Tom. He’s an American history teacher, he’s grown up in Gettysburg. He’s been friends with Cal for 20 years and has really identified himself as Cal’s best friend, and as a Civil War re-enactor. We meet Tom as he is beginning to question all those parts of his identity; his job, his family, and his friendship with Cal.
PJ Sosko (Cal/General Longstreet): I play Cal and also General Longstreet. He is a take-no-prisoners type of character. He makes no apologies for who he is. He’s sort of like a bull in a china shop.
What appeals to you about your character?
Rosie Benton (Leah): I enjoy the wild energy she has in her life. She acts and then thinks, and I’m sort of the opposite in my life. So I enjoy the wild energy she has, and her ability to grasp things, to take situations and make them hers very quickly.
Erik Lochtefeld (Tom): I’m at a similar point in my life to Tom. I’m a father now, and you reach a point in your life where your identity becomes more than just you. Tom is saying “Can I actually do this?”, and that’s where I connect most with him.
PJ Sosko (Cal/General Longstreet): I just love that Cal says what he thinks. He doesn’t shy away from his opinions. He’s a guy’s guy. I think someone calls him a “meathead douchebag,” but there’s a lot more to him than that. That’s his defense mechanism. And the events of this play really broaden his scope.
So you went to Gettysburg with the cast on a field trip – how did that influence you?
Rosie Benton (Leah): I got to stand at the exact spot where the union defended the stone wall and Pickett’s Charge came over, and you could feel it in the earth, in the vista around you. It’s such a beautiful place. As we discuss those things in the play and recall them, it’s so nice to have that visceral memory, having your feet in the exact streams they’re talking about.
Erik Lochtefeld (Tom): It was essential. Seeing that battlefield, seeing how vast it was. We also took a trip to the local regimental quartermaster, and we essentially met Tom and Cal, or very similar people, and that was unbelievably helpful. You don’t get that opportunity very much, unless you’re playing a real person, you don’t get the opportunity to meet those people, and we randomly happened upon it and it was really exciting.
PJ Sosko (Cal/General Longstreet): Standing in the actual footsteps where so many people died to protect what they believed in…there was a feeling there. It enhances your imagination. There’s a great line in a Kings of Leon song that’s “I walked a mile in your shoes, but now I’m a mile away and I have your shoes”. It gave us something to hold on, and it has stayed with us. Having the opportunity to do that is rare.
If you took part in a re-enactment, what part would you play?
Rosie Benton (Leah): I’d really love to be a nurse. I’d love to wear a hoop skirt. I think I became an actor so I could wear corsets and hoop skirts. I’m a little bit more of a homemaker, so I think I’d like to cook. Leah would be very disappointed in me for saying that, but it’s true.
Erik Lochtefeld (Tom): There’s a lot of statues of the flag bearers at Gettysburg, who I believe are not armed, who are just holding the flag, saying “this is my side” and stepping into combat. When they go down, someone else has to pick up the flag. I find that incredibly brave and moving.
PJ Sosko (Cal/General Longstreet): I would want to be on the front lines and leading the charge if possible. I would want to be there so I could experience that first hand. What that walk was like, what it was like to have the guns firing right at me, and to keep going. That’s where I would be.
In the spirit of the play, what’s your signature drink when meeting a stranger in a bar?
Rosie Benton (Leah): The fact that it’s meeting a stranger in a bar is a very specific drink. I’d have a dirty martini. There’s something very stranger-y about that. It’s a classic drink, and it’s delicious.
Erik Lochtefeld (Tom): Back in the day, I would have ordered a vodka gimlet, if it were summer, or a Makers Mark on the rocks to seem tough and cool. In retrospect, I would change that and make it a Dark and Stormy. I think maybe I want to be dark and stormy secretly, on the inside.
PJ Sosko (Cal/General Longstreet): I like fruity drinks. And I make no apologies for that. So I will walk up and order something like a pear vodka with a seven up, and ask you to put a little blow up animal in it, or frozen is even better. That makes me really happy.
From the Director’s chair: ROW AFTER ROW’s Daniella Topol on what it means to be an American and how we carry the past with us
What drew you to want to direct ROW AFTER ROW?
I love how the play surprises you; how in one breath it’s comedic and fun and light and easy, and then all of a sudden the bottom drops out and we realize it’s about so much more. As somebody who is in in her late thirties, I can relate to the struggles the characters are dealing with – what kind of fight are we fighting? Who are we fighting for? Why are we fighting? In a certain way, Row After Row is about our individual fights, but in a larger way it’s about what are we as a country fighting for. What have we fought for? Are we a union? How do we learn from the past and what are the seeds we’re planting for the future?
What’s your vision for the play, and how has the design process helped to illuminate your vision?
In looking at the play, we know that it has to be set inside a bar. But it also needs to expand and surprise us when we move into 1863. [Set & costume designer] Clint’s design creates the bar very realistically and keeps the action contained. But the perimeter of the design is made up of the logs and woodchips that help give a sense of the world, of the depth of the history and the resonance of 1863. Therefore when I staged the scenes that take place in 1863 I used the whole expanse of the stage AND the log and woodchip area, so we get a sense of the fullness of terrain. We’ve been really trying to figure out how to create a vocabulary that’s full of surprises as we shift from world to world, from tone to tone, from character to character.
What do you think audiences will enjoy most about the experience of coming to see the show?
Jessica is asking questions about our country, and what we stand for, and what the ground is that we stand on in ways that I haven’t seen in the theater. What does it mean to be American and how we’re carrying our past with us, and what the resonances of the Civil War are in our culture today. The freedoms we have or don’t have, or the unions we have or don’t have as a country. I think there’s a deep resonance.
What has your collaboration with [playwright] Jessica Dickey been like?
I first met Jessica as an actor, then I got to know her a playwright. We went into production last spring at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater on her play Charles Ives Take Me Home. I love Jessica’s vision for creating work, and how muscular and clear and innovative and visionary she is, and yet really warmhearted and generous and easy. Our friendship and our collaboration is very much one of mutual respect and appreciation.
So you’re a member of WP Lab and this is your fourth show with WP, how has your relationship evolved with this company over the years?
It’s amazing! I was thinking about that, about how lucky I feel to have such a deep collaboration with Women’s Project Theater. To have such trust and deep familiarity. I’m just honored to be continuing my work with WP. I feel like together we are building a body of work. There is this incredible amount of trust between me and Julie and the company. It makes me feel very safe, that we can be innovative because we trust each other so much, and there’s an ease. I would say I also feel very lucky to have the design team that I have because I worked with each of these designers before and they have all worked with each other, so collectively there’s a real trust and commitment and loyalty that enables us to do our best work.
In the spirit of the play, what’s your signature drink when meeting a stranger in a bar?
WHISKEY! So everyone knows not to mess with you unless they really want to…
Meet Jessica Dickey: A Q&A with the Playwright of ROW AFTER ROW
Playwright Jessica Dickey taking part in the 150th anniversary of Pickett’s Charge re-enactment, Gettysburg.
Can you tell us a little bit about Row After Row?
It’s a comedy about Civil War Re-enactors. I grew up in Civil War territory. I’m from right next to Gettysburg, a little town called Waynesborough, PA. I kind of grew up in those fields and creeks. I’m interested in the Civil War and how it kind of lives or vibrates in us as contemporary beings. That’s where the play comes from.
What do you think people will enjoy most about the show?
I think they’ll enjoy the performances. These actors are really kicking ass. They’re funny and brave and fierce and earnest and are really putting their hearts on the line and fully embodying these three people and what they’re really trying to do. The questions and problems and joys of these characters hearts are really being honored onstage. People will really relate to them, and they’ll enjoy laughing with and at these characters, but I also think in the end they’ll see themselves. It’s a great way to spend some time with the themes and ideas that are evoked by the Civil War. I hope that that helps us shed an interesting and new light on that narrative that we’re carrying from 150 years ago.
What excites you about Civil War re-enactments?
Before writing this play, really nothing! I now think of it as kind of this secret subculture. Once I started encountering that subculture, I felt an immediate affinity to it because it reminded me so much of theater and being an actor. By re-enacting or participating in something false, you encounter something true. There’s also some really juicy fun terrain. I found re-enactors to be warm-hearted, generous and passionate about their subject but also private and defensive about it in a particular way. Again, it reminded me so much of the theater. And then I had the opportunity to do a re-enactment. This was the 150th anniversary of Pickett’s Charge. Through a series of coincidences and lucky encounters, I was able to meet two re-enactors from the South Carolina Second Rifles. They had an extra uniform and they invited me to join them, and literally snuck me in, so I got to do Pickett’s Charge as a Confederate.
What is “Farbing”?
It’s when something in your gear – it can literally be your eye wear, your earrings, your thread count – is inaccurate to the historical context. Even something about the way that term was presented to me – the comedy just kind of wrote itself, vis-à-vis the terrain of the re-enactors.
So you’ve now written about Gettysburg and Amish communities. Is there something that draws you to American subcultures?
The answer must be yes. I’m from rural Pennsylvania, and it’s sort of deeply embedded in my DNA and my vernacular as an artist, so when I write, it’s coming from that vocab, mixed and remixed. It’s interesting always taking a look at something very specific as a means of understanding something universal. Amish culture, the Amish Project, re-enacting, the Battle of Gettysburg and Pickett’s Charge are these specific slices, but are a means of contacting and questioning and being in dialogue with something vast.
How have you found your whole experience working with WP?
Women’s Project Theater has been so great. I was thinking about the level of support, in preparing the script for production, has been so luxurious, and yet without any trappings of pressure, oddly. And I think that’s just because of the candor and generosity and natural charm of the staff and Julie. It’s been this kind of dreamy experience of having endless opportunity to get into the script, to work with actors and team, and really articulating the specifics of the piece, and being in dialogue with others about how to usher it through, how to really sculpt the architecture of the evening of the play. But all in this warmth and creative synergy. It’s really kind of amazing, and I’ve probably taken it for granted, how at ease I feel coming here to work on the play. I feel trusted and I feel championed and adored. It’s been pretty great.
In the spirit of a scene in the play, what is your signature drink when you meet a stranger in a bar?
I’m not really in the phase of life where I meet strangers in a bar. Truthfully…a Coke with lemon. Now I’m not cool, but its really true. God, I just love me a soda.