In its second season, Dog Days Theatre hopes to reel audiences in with two fun plays that aren’t too heavy for a hot summer’s day.
There are certain things that just make sense in the summer — Popsicles, long days at the pool, and for Greg Leaming, sex farces.
The director of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training and producer of the conservatory’s summer theater company, Dog Days Theatre, says the company’s two 2018 productions, “What the Butler Saw” and “The Turn of the Screw,” are perfect for the summer.
“There’s a kind of wonderful lightness to a sex farce, and there’s a wonderful chilling lightness to something that starts off as a ghost story,” Leaming says. “That kind of lightness speaks beautifully to an audience in the middle of summer. I mean Florida is horrible in the summer, it’s so hot!”
Dog Days Theatre is an initiative of the conservatory that allows graduate students to perform alongside conservatory alumni and other professional actors from around the U.S. in two professional productions. Leaming created the company to take the place of the Banyan Theater Company, which rented the FSU Center for the Performing Art’s Cook Theater for 14 summers before its founder, Jerry Finn, died in 2016.
Leaming recalls going to the movies to escape the summer heat while growing up in Florida, and how a cartoon penguin with a fan would cross the screen accompanied by the words “Come on in, we’re a tradition!”
In its second year, Leaming hopes Dog Days Theatre can begin to give year-round residents a new summer tradition.
“There’s an enormous amount of fun in both of these plays that makes them great for a summertime audience,” he says. “And also sophisticated writing.”
The Dog Days producer and founder is directing the company’s first 2018 production, “What the Butler Saw,” which is playing now. Joe Orton’s risqué farce follows the story of Dr. Prentice, the head of a private mental health clinic that gets shaken up after he tries to seduce his prospective secretary — right as his wife unknowingly walks in. Her husband’s shameful intentions spark a manic fury in Mrs. Prentice that entangles a state inspector, bellboys and the minister of mental health in a tornado of wit and hysteria.
“What the Butler Saw,” the final play written by the British playwright, was written in the 1960s. But its biting commentary on sexual obsession is still applicable today. Leaming says Orton’s writing is as dense and witty as anything Oscar Wilde ever produced, even though Orton was far less famous.
“Orton is pointing out the hypocrisy in the world he sees around him — the conservative figures who hide their desires and go after them at night,” Leaming says. “He has no interest in being part of that world, he just wants to show them up and when he does, it’s hysterically funny.”
The second show of the season, “Turn of the Screw,” was written by American literature icon Henry James and follows the tale of a young governess in the English county of Essex raising two suddenly orphaned children. She soon begins witnessing several inexplicable supernatural events and is forced to explore if what she’s seeing is real or figments of her own wild imagination.
Leaming says this plotline, more so than Orton’s farce, is about misguided passion and the power of a passionate human in general. James shows how destructive passion can be, and that’s what Leaming finds most interesting about the thriller.
This production of “Turn of the Screw” is an adaptation directed by Chris Clavelli, the associate artistic director of Florida Repertory Theatre, and adapted for the stage by Jeffrey Hatcher.
“The ‘Turn of the Screw’ first appeared in serial format in Colliers Weekly magazine,” Clavelli said in a release. “If Henry James released it today on Netflix, we’d all surely binge watch on our smart phones. Jeffrey Hatcher has crafted a play which capitalizes on the magic of the theater — and as any child playing in their backyard knows, real terror lives best in real time.”
Only two actors will tell this chilling story in the Dog Days production: conservatory graduate Brian Owen, who plays multiple characters, and current conservatory student DeAnna Wright as the governess.
“Hatcher has taken this deep language (of James) and complex story and used two people to make it highly theatrical,” Leaming says.
After directing the first production of the season, Leaming says he’s particularly excited to sit back, let Clavelli take his place and experience the production with the audience.