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The Exit Interview brings unconventional ideas to Iowa City

BY SAMANTHA GENTRY | JANUARY 24, 2013 5:00 AM

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“Give me an O, give me an F, give me an F-E-N-S-I-V-E. What’s that spell? Offensive.”

Cheerleaders in white pleated skirts with red and white sweaters and pompons lead the audience in this cheer at the start of the play The Exit Interview.

They warn the viewers from the beginning that some of the ideas about to be presented may be more unconventional than what they’re used to.

The daring new comedy The Exit Interview will take the stage at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Riverside Theater, 213 N. Gilbert St. Performances will continue through Feb. 17, with Sunday shows beginning at 2 p.m. Admission is $15 for students and youth, $25 for seniors, and $28 for the general public.

The play is a part of the National New Play Network, which Riverside Theater joined to help playwrights get their work on stage and bringing audiences new scripts.

Because of Riverside’s involvement, director Ron Clark had the opportunity to see the production in San Diego and had access to a lot of research material.

“It’s really made me a smarter director as I went through this process,” he said. “It’s a great community approach to foster new plays.”

The Exit Interview follows the tale of Professor Dick Fig, who is fired from his job and has to go through an extensive exit interview before leaving the university.

As the interview unfolds, the campus emergency-alert system notifies the students, faculty, and staff that a masked gunman is headed toward the building in which Fig works.

He is then faced with some serious existential questions as the audience members ask themselves what they would do in a similar situation.

Playwright William Downs was inspired to create the play when he heard about the infant in a baby carriage who fell under a commuter train and survived in Melbourne, Australia.

Many were labeling the incident a miracle, but Downs thought, “What happens to the babies who fall under the train and don’t survive?”

“I got to thinking how we live our lives and our thought process,” he said. “What happens if people are put in a difficult situation during an exit interview, and they have to answer these questions about life?”

But the Iowa native said he broke all the rules and ended up creating a comedy.

“You have to be able to laugh at all the absurdities of life,” Downs said. “I usually deal with the problems of life by laughing.”

The idea of a “philosophical comedy” drew Clark to the story.

“When I first read the script, I was captivated by the intricacy of the scenes and the way that [Downs] molded them together,” he said. “They form an interesting line that is very funny.”

With the somewhat controversial aspect of the gunman in this play, Clark said, in his role as the primary storyteller, he had to find a way the audience felt comfortable laughing one moment and gasping the next.

“I think one of the keys to this play is we are never allowed to forget we are watching a play; we don’t try to show this as a slice of life,” he said. “I think that the play is so well-structured, and I hope my work as the director and the company of actors have found a way for the audience to be captivated and to think about the funny and the issues.”

Guest artist Scot West, who plays the role of Professor Fig, said during his interview has to answer some “ridiculous questions” while his mind detours through his imagination.

The actor was hired for The Exit Interview a couple weeks before the shootings in Aurora and then came to Iowa City for rehearsals shortly after the tragedy in Newtown, so the effects of those shootings were very much on his mind.

But West and fellow actor Maura Clement said this play as an opportunity because people wanted to have a dialogue about the tragedies.

“There seems to be one way television wants us to experience these shootings, but the art of theater invites us to experience it in a number of different ways,” West said. “The play makes a really strong argument that as well as dealing with tragedy, you have to engage in the positive aspects of life as well.”

Clement is most excited about the important questions the play asks about society, and she also looks forward to the intimate experience the actors will have with the audience.

“It’s one thing that television and Internet cannot do,” she said. “Theater is a unique experience, and how [the audience] reacts with us will make a perfectly new version of the play. I think it’s a way for theater to stay relevant.”

Clement plays seven characters in the play, one being a cheerleader in the beginning persuading the audience to spell out the word “offensive.”

She said the company has had a debate on whether the audience is going to respond and interact with the actors.

“I think we would like the audience [members] to interact as much as they feel comfortable, but it’s not like a game show,” she said. “It’s certainly a play that encourages the audience [members] to be awake and on the edge of their seats, and I’m certain some people will vocalize their performance.”

Downs, who will be in the audience for the opening night, will also hold a panel discussion after the performance.

“As a playwright, I live a pretty isolated existence, and most of the time, I don’t get to see [my plays], so things like going back to Iowa, being able to sit there and watch the audience’s reaction, and then meet them after is a rare opportunity,” Downs said.

He said The Exit Interview is a play that does not rest, and if audiences are tired of going to the theater and being bored, they will not be bored in his play.

“The script is going to leap off the page,” he said. “From the opening cheerleaders to the final climatic moment, it will keep the audience engaged.”

THEATER
The Exit Interview
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday through Feb. 17, with 2 p.m. Sunday performances
Where: Riverside Theater, 213 N. Gilbert
Admission: $15 for students and youth, $25 for seniors, and $28 for the general public


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