The UF School of Theatre + Dance’s production of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, a recent comedy by Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage that chronicles seventy years in the life of Vera Stark, a determined African-American maid and would-be Hollywood actress, is on stage in Black Box Theatre located in the Nadine M. McGuire Theatre and Dance Pavilion July 9-12, 2014. We recently sat down with the play’s director, UF Assistant Professor Tim Altmeyer, for an inside look at the production. Here, Altmeyer talks about what attracted him to direct this play and how Vera Stark is the perfect example of someone in pursuit of the American dream.
By Hannah Fell
Why this play? What attracted you to By the Way, Meet Vera Stark?
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is, first and foremost, a fun ride. Lynn Nottage, the playwright, has written this fascinating piece of historical fiction that craftily plays with reality to tell the story of a legendary African-American film actress, Vera Stark. Through her wits and talents, she manages to break through the glass ceiling of early Hollywood by capturing a star-making role in a Gone with the Wind-style weeper, The Belle of New Orleans. The play ambitiously spans seven decades, first chronicling the direct events that lead to Vera’s meteoric rise in the 1930s (told as a zany screwball comedy) and then, in retrospect, her gradual fall from grace (told almost as a satirical docudrama, flashing back and forth between 2003 and 1973.) And then, as if that wasn’t enough, Nottage ups the ante by including filmed sequences from The Belle of New Orleans in her live theatre experience to create this multimedia investigation of the seeds of racism and sexism in Hollywood and, in a larger sense, America. It’s an exploration of big ideas, but it’s also a darn good (and highly entertaining) mystery.
What was different about directing this play verses others in the past?
The tone shift between acts is tricky. I think for the play to work the audience should think that the play is going in one direction at intermission and then be ambushed by where the play goes in the second act. But it needs to be done in such a way that the play doesn’t appear to be “schizophrenic,” but rather one that generates power from surprising juxtaposition.
What was your favorite moment in directing this work?
My favorite moment was putting the play in front of an audience in our initial run in June. A director sometimes spends so much time inside a play, focusing on minutia, that he loses a sense of its entirety; he can’t see the forest for all those trees. Our audiences revealed to me how this play works — not so much a linear construction with a traditional climax, but rather one whose resonance comes from all that doesn’t happen, and the questions that are posed, but remain unanswered.
What do you think the audience will enjoy the most about this play?
My hope is that we root for Vera Stark. She is an incredibly driven, likeable woman who only wants her fair shot. And, in an age of few options for black women, she has to find a way to get it. Some people need to dream a little harder and a little more aggressively to make their American dreams come true, and Vera Stark is a perfect example of that.
What are you most proud of with this production?
The student actors and designers are doing some very sophisticated work that belies their years, embracing unfamiliar styles and attitudes that the play demands of them. Also, the filmed sequences, helmed by UF College of Journalism and Communication professors, James Babanikos and Houston Wells, are not only beautifully conceived, but another fine example of inter-college collaboration at the University of Florida to contribute to its Creative Campus initiative. By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is a showcase of the depth of creative talent at the University of Florida, and a work of dramatic art that inspires laughter, reflection and —hopefully — dialogue.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark performances are at 7:30 p.m. July 9-12, 2014. Tickets are $13 for UF students, UF faculty/staff and senior citizens, and are $17 for the general public. Tickets are available through the University Box Office located at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, by calling 352-392-1653 or at ticketmaster.com.