Actor-turned-first-time-director Kyle Sturdivant had one particular problem in working on Will Eno's Middletown - directing himself. Sturdivant, long associated with Catastrophic Theatre, tells us, "I don't like working with me. I don't recommend it. I don't have enough self-confidence to turn on a dime from the knowing director to the actor filled with self-doubt and strange characteristics."
While Middletown, the story of relationships in a small town, has been described as "an experimental Our Town," Sturdivant says he disagrees with the term. "I wouldn't say experimental. In fact, I don't think there is anything experimental about the show. I would say that it is more honest and more a product of its time."
Some audience members might think the characters have a slightly unusual way of expressing themselves. Again, Sturdivant disagrees. " These characters are blessed with an ability to say the things that most of us think or want to say. They aren't trying to be philosophical about it, they just can be very earnest while talking about themselves and their situations."
At one point in the show, one character asks another: "Did you ever think you might be a normal person?" "Maybe," responds the other character. "I don't know. Bad news for normal people." That exchange sums up Middletown for Sturdivant. "Middletown is a play about people trying to find a connection, to something, to someone," Sturdivant says. "[I often think], 'Other people seem to really have this life thing figured out. What's wrong with me? Why do I feel so alone?' So when I stop to think that other people might feel this way, too, and that feeling this way is actually quite normal, it is comforting."
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But normal in Middletown isn't necessarily what passes for normal anywhere else. In another exchange, one character asks a librarian for a library card application. "Good for you, dear," the librarian responds. "I think a lot of people figure, 'Why bother? I'm just going to die, anyway.' Let me just find the form."
Directing was never part of Sturdivant's plan. He had worked as an actor with Jason Nodler, Catastrophic's artistic director, for more than a decade. In 2012, Nodler asked him to stage manage Endgame. "My role as stage manager quickly evolved into one of an unplanned assistant director. That process got me to thinking about the possibility of directing something. Then, came time to start production on Middletown and Jason asked me to be the assistant director. [He was having medical issues and ] the thought was that he could take some nights off and I would be there to guide people or run lines or something. After the first day of rehearsal, after the first read through, Jason ... asked me what I thought about taking over as director while he stayed on as assistant director. So, basically, I was thrown into the deep end of the swimming pool on this one."
Sturdivant stayed in constant contact with Nodler through e-mail and attended some rehearsals. "I am in the deep end of the pool, yes, but I have floaties!" says Sturdivant. "To be honest, Jason is still very much in the room. I would say that much of the way I work, at least to this point, has been guided by what I have learned through years of working with him. So, often times someone will tell me, 'Jason says that too.' When I hear that, I know I am on the right track."
See Middletown at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Through June 14. Catastrophic Theatre, 1119 East Freeway. For information, visit catastrophictheatre.com. Pay what you can.