Entertainment » Theatre

Change of 'Fortune' :: Zach Winston Takes the Helm

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Jul 10, 2014

No, he's not that Zach Winston: You know the name that pops up when Facebook sends an email telling you about how someone in your circle just posted something new. In fact, Winston didn't believe me at first when I made mention of the coincidence when I saw him in passing after a play not too long ago. I had to fish out my phone and show him.

"Would you look at that," he said (or words to that effect).

Nope. This Zach Winston, a slight fellow in his early 20s with an aura of friendly, intelligent curiosity, is a member of Boston's own Vagabond Theatre Company. It was as such that Winston saw his first produced play, "The Unfortunate Cutthroats," enjoy a run at the Boston Center for the Arts in 2011. [This EDGE correspondent interviewed Winston at that time.]

Now Winston is set to shift from his roles as writer and actor to the triple-threat-status defining role of director, with the premiere of Leslie Moreau's new play "Fortune's Favored." The play is set to run July 11 - 26 at the Factory Theater, the same venue where Vagabond's premiere of "Breaking the Shakespeare Code" won plaudits this past season.

The Factory Theater is only a few blocks from the EDGE office, so I invited Winston to step in from the July heat one recent afternoon and partake in the air-conditioned splendor (and creative foment) of the EDGE work environment. We took to a couple of chairs in the reception area and settled in for a chat.

EDGE: So let's talk about how you've gone from writing "Unfortunate Cutthroats" to directing "Fortune's Favored."

Zach Winston: A lot in between then, too. This is my directorial debut in Boston; I directed a play at Salem State a couple of years ago. I wasn't a student there at the time, but I was doing a play with the student theater ensemble, and they allow directors up to a year after you leave school [to return and direct productions]. I directed a play that I did with Zeitgeist Stage a couple of years ago -- "Bad Jazz." That was a little ways back, a pretty heavy play. That was my first taste of directing. I'd taken some directing classes and what have you, but this is the first time I've taken the gloves off and I'm having my own way. I'm doing this with my own company, too. I've sort of got free reign up to this point; I've had a great deal of support from the rest of our board, which is to say, James Sotis, our artistic director, and Allison McDonough, our marketing manager.

Lots of friends are involved from the theater community, also -- so far, it's been a pretty satisfying experience.

EDGE: This is the Boston premiere of this play as well, and it's the work of a Boston playwright. So is this a world premiere?

Zach Winston: It's the first full production of this play. It's by Leslie Moreau, who works for Happy Medium. They did a reading of it a while back, and it's come a long way since then. I got a draft of the script that came soon after that, and we chose it for "There Will Be Words," the Vagabond reading series. From the point Leslie submitted it to us all the way up to the reading we had gone through three drafts of the script and then after the reading we did another draft of the script, which is the one we started rehearsals with. Of course, we've been nipping and tucking from that point until now.

EDGE: From the thumbnail description of the play, it seems like it could either follow a supernatural fantasy path, like an episode of "The Twilight Zone," or it could be a family drama that's precipitated by a piece of junk in the cellar.

Zach Winston: I'm glad you said that because one thing I wanted to play with when we originally got the script was that psychological roller-coaster ride. But I think we're going more toward the family drama side; it's a play that, at its absolute core, is all about family. It's about the sacrifices we make for the people that we love; it's about family conflict; what happens when money is introduced into family affairs.

That's immensely attractive to me. I'm an only child; it's just been me and my mother my entire life. But I have a very extensive extended family -- lots of aunts, cousins, uncles. This is a play I'm sort of doing for my family. It's not about my family, but I'm taking the knowledge I've gathered over the years from being with my family, and I've applied that toward my directing style with this play.

EDGE: How did this play end up being the one you undertook for your first "gloves come off" directing assignment? Did you see the script and say, "I want that the one!" Or did you put yourself out there to direct, and that's the play that came to you?

Zach Winston: Every year we open submissions for full production and for our reading series. This play was submitted to us maybe three or four months ago. Much like any play we've produced thus far, it needed some work. I would rather pick a play that I really connected to on an emotional and psychological level, rather than just finding a good play. When this one came into our in box I was absolutely captivated by the level of passion and education that went into the script. I couldn't ignore the play -- I really just couldn't because it had such a great level of passion and drive. I always say when comes to selecting a play that it doesn't have to be polished, as long as there is passion behind it, and there is a good work ethic from the playwright. And Leslie has been fantastic. If you have those two things, we can work together and make this a fantastic play that people will really enjoy.

It took a little bit of convincing to get this play produced, but in the end I think people are happy with the way the play has turned out.

EDGE: As a director, have you had a hand in further developing the play, or suggesting the rewrites that might still be in process?

Zach Winston: Yeah -- much like any Vagabond show, I've worn a lot of hats in this one. Obviously, the priority is as director; and, since we do new plays, I also play the role of literary manager. Also, myself, James Sotis, and Alison McDonough are playing the role of producer as well. But obviously, if you're directing a play you're there every night and you grow very, very familiar with the script. Even if you're doing an established play, you're still going to find things that get you thinking, "What if we change this word, or this sentence... What if we changed the objective of this character..." Obviously, with an established play, you don't really have the freedom to do this sort of thing. That's what I love about working with new plays -- you have that freedom, and you have the playwright in the rom with you, which is a rare opportunity. Having the playwright there is a resource we wouldn't be able to have if we didn't work with new plays.

EDGE: Tell me a little bit about the cast in "Fortune's Favor."

Zach Winston: The main character is Eudora; she's played by Annie Hochheiser. She auditioned for us for "Breaking the Shakespeare Code"... make that "the Eliot Norton-nominated 'Breaking the Shakespeare Code' "... [Laughter] I thoroughly enjoyed her audition, but scheduling-wise it didn't quite work out. That wasn't the case this time, and I've had the pleasure of working with her, and she's fantastic.

The other young lady that we're working with is Lauren Robinson, who I actually went to college with -- and to take it a step further, she's an old roommate of mine. So she and I have a very close relationship. We haven't really had the opportunity to work closely in the theater together, so this is a sort of level of fulfillment in terms of working with her. She is fantastic; she's been making some great choices. As soon as she walked into the audition room I was sitting there -- it was me and Leslie at the table -- and Lauren walked up into the room. Obviously, as director, you don't want to play favorites. I saw her audition, and I was very impressed by it; as soon as she walked out of the room I turned to Leslie and I said, "What did you think?" And she said, "She's exactly what I was picturing for the role." At that point it would have been almost irresponsible of me not to cast her! She's been fantastic, also.

A newcomer to the theater scene is Conor Walsh, who I actually went to high school with. He was a freshman, I was a senior; Conor was sort of my project. Then I graduated and went to college, so we lost touch. Then he turned up at this audition! I thought, why not continue what I started? And he's been doing some great work. He's a very promising young actor.

EDGE: It sounds like Old Home Week at the Family Drama.

Zach Winston: A little bit! Yeah; a lot of old and new friends involved in thus project. The work that everybody's been putting in is just unparalleled.

EDGE: It's just those three people in the play?

Zach Winston: The cast was originally four characters. I thought it would benefit the play if we cut one of the characters -- and I won't tell you who it is right now. I'm sure people will figure it out.

EDGE: You mean you cut the character just for this production? Or the script was totally reconfigured to make the play a three-person show?

Zach Winston: Totally re-written. Yeah, there was one character who had some very interesting dialogue and who was very valuable to the back-story, I would say, but in terms of the action on the stage I thought it would be more valuable for us to not see him... [Ruefully] But now you know the gender of the character! [Laughter]

EDGE: I take that out in the editorial process for the interview.

Zach Winston: No, no! Don't take anything out. We're just two guys talking about theater.

EDGE: Cool... Now, you've been working on things since you saw "Unfortunate Cutthroats" produced, and you've been rewriting "Cutthroats," so what are you thinking in terms of having another of your plays go up one of these days?

Zach Winston: The play that I've been working on, aside from "Cutthroats," is something pretty different. One thing that surprises people about me is that I'm a huge pro-wrestling fan.

EDGE: Because, obviously, you look just like a pro wrestler...

Zach Winston: [Laughing] Right. I think I'd be a good hard-core wrestler -- swing a steel chair here and there. So, that's one thing that I really love, and one of the things I love most about it is the parallel between pro wrestling and theater. I've been doing theater since I was about ten years old, and I've gathered a lot of knowledge about theater since then. I love theater; I don't think I'll ever give up on it, but, obviously, like anything you do for that long you develop a lot of frustrations with it. You don't just want to write a commentary, so I thought a good, healthy, and entertaining way of voicing those frustrations is to put it on a different platform. I thought I could express those same feelings that I have about theater by talking about professional wrestling. So, I'm writing a play about pro wrestling right now. Much like "Cutthroats," I have a feeling it's going to be really long because I have a lot to say in this play. There's going to be a lot of trimming.

"Cutthroats" is still on the back burner. That's a thing I go back to every so often. If I find myself in a block, I'll often go back to old writing. I'll admit that I haven't been doing as much writing as I'd like to, because one of my major weaknesses as an artist is that I can't make something out of nothing. When you're an actor or a director, you have the script; you have something tangible. That's a starting point. Play writing... There's the old adage about Michelangelo seeing the block of marble and he saw the statue of David [waiting inside the block]. I don't have that ability, so I can't just look at a blank page and see a lay there. What I like to do instead is stuff like working on "Fortune's Favored" or "Breaking the Shakespeare Code," where you actually have something there, and I can work with the playwright, we can go through it beat by beat, and we can tighten the script.

One thing I'm working on now... I guess I can talk about this, because it's not really a secret at this point. We, in Vagabond, we're working on "A Southern Victory," by Kevin Mullins, which is a trilogy of plays portraying pre- to beginning of World War II America as if the South had won the Civil War. Or, not even so much as if the South had won the Civil War, but rather as though the Civil War had never ended; so it's sort of like a Gaza Strip sort of situation.

[It may be worth a brief editorial interruption here to note that Mullins' play has attracted a fair amount of buzz and attention. Let me cut to the chase and quote from an article at Interim Writers:"Kevin's play A Southern Victory was a semi-finalist for the WordBRIDGE Playwrights Lab, a finalist for the Eugene O'Neill National Playwrights Conference, and a finalist at PlayPenn." Intriguing stuff! But now back to Zach, in mid-comment.]

Zach Winston: You have pre-World War II America, Prohibition, flappers -- that's the North. And then the South is still Confederate America. There's still that divide, and there's essentially still a war going on, even as both sides are going into another war. It's a fantastic play. As soon as we got Part One, James and I just fell in love with it, and we knew it was this fantastic opportunity to do this edgy really different kind of play. Our process at this point is to do as much work on the script as we can, and then eventually get three plays to the point where we can produce them. That's my work right now in terms of being literary manager at Vagabond.

In terms of my work as an actor, I've been auditioning here and there. I don't have any solid acting opportunities coming up... Actually, last time I directed was for Heart and Dagger's "Sex Fest," and then I went right from that into this. That's what's going on in Zach Winston's theater world right now. Lots of stuff.

EDGE: Aside from "A Southern Victory," what has Vagabond got coming up?

Zach Winston: As of right now, we're still looking to book spaces. But of course, we'll have our "There Will Be Words" reading series, at Trident bookseller and café; we'll be opening up submissions soon for that. And then... my time with Vagabond is slowly coming to an end. I'm directing this play right now, and I think after this my priorities with Vagabond are going to lie with "A Southern Victory," and from that point forward I'm looking at working with other theater companies around the country so that I can gather a certain amount of knowledge and then come back to Boston -- because Boston is about to become the new hotbed for plays, and I want to be involved in that. I want to develop my skills to the point that I can be the person that people come to when they have a new play and they either want to produce it or work it to a point where it can be produced. That's what the future is looking like.

EDGE: You are taking the long view.

Zach Winston: I 've always looked pretty deep into the future. It doesn't always go as planned, but I like to have at least the next decade planned out.

EDGE: One late-breaking bit of news... and a seismic shift in fortunes in itself for Boston's small theater community... is the news that the Factory Theatre is going to shut down his fall, and the space will be converted into a gym. What was your reaction to hearing the news?

Zach Winston: It was like I had been punched in the gut. The Factory is everything fringe theatre stands for. Sure, it's not the most cosmetically appealing space. It's not the BCA, it's not The Arsenal. But the imperfections are what make it perfect -- the exposed brick, the humming electrics, the sweltering heat...

I remember my first time at The Factory. I was seeing the late Counter-productions Theatre Co's "Glengarry Glen Ross," directed by Devon Scalisi. I fell head-over-heels in love with the space, and knew I had to work there. I'll admit, I was a bit distracted during our final dress tonight, appreciating everything around me like it was my first time being there. It's a poor time for business everywhere, but it's a shame how the arts are the first thing to go. These next three weeks will certainly be bittersweet for myself and Vagabond, as well as the entire Boston theatre community.

Here's my plea. To audiences: Between now and October, see theatre at The Factory! Support small theatre! Theatre, regardless of size, is nothing without an audience.

To Mayor Walsh: Thank you for being an advocate for arts in Boston. Your speech at the Nortons was immensely encouraging. I'm not sure if you've ever been to The Factory, but I'd love to treat you to a night of theatre. We need your help, so consider this my personal invitation to Fortune's Favored.

To the Piano Craft Guild: Please don't turn this place into a fitness center. It's a slap in the face to not only the theatre community, but arts in Boston as a whole.

"Fortune's Favored," by Leslie Moreau, runs from July 11 - 26 at The Factory Theatre, 791 Tremont Street in Boston's South End. Tickets and more information available at http://vagabondtheatregroup.wordpress.com

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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