Collaboration is more about a shared passion or language or creative impulse — or all three — than shared space. Such is the case for director Todd Weakley and playwright Jeff Donnelly, who are, together and separately, working to stage Donnelly’s play The Devotees. The production, performed by The Cardboard Sea in association with Sublime Theater, will run at The Bebe Theatre Thursday, Aug. 1, to Saturday, Aug. 10.
The challenge is that Donnelly is based in Florida, while Weakley and the rest of the Cardboard Sea cast live in Western North Carolina. But the writer and director are in constant conversation, Weakley says. “It’s a cool setup because, as a director, I just want to f*** around with theatrical form. … My graduate school professors would be like, ‘Dude, just do the play. The play tells you what the form is.’ But Jeff is wide open to it.”
The two met in a theater program at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla., after which their paths diverged. But, when another Asheville-based theater company that Weakley had been involved with folded, Steven Samuels of Sublime Theater (who was then with The Magnetic Theatre) offered an opportunity. “I said, ‘I do want to do things, and I’m sad that I’m not doing things,’” Weakley, who is also a theater teacher at Hendersonville High School, remembers.
He reached out to Donnelly, who was in Charlotte at the time. “I remember saying to him in college, ‘If I could do anything, I’d have a little theater company and you could write stuff and I’d figure out how to make it happen.’” That’s the CliffsNotes version of how The Cardboard Sea came to be. Donnelly has written seven of the company’s nine productions. The newest, The Devotees, “unfolds through a single night, in a single line outside an electronics store as a group of strangers await the release of the latest and greatest device,” according to a press release. “It’s a play about waiting, about expectations and about loyalty. It’s about choosing your family.”
“I think it’s a deeply personal play for him,” Weakley says of Donnelly. While the director can’t speak specifically to what experiences the playwright is drawing on, Weakley does posit that “in a sense, it’s about dealing with, ‘I care about this, and that matters.’”
The play stars Cardboard Sea company members Kristi DeVille and Kirstin Daniel, with newcomers Stevie Alverson, Sam Yoffee and Travis Lowe. Olivia Stuller is the stage manager for the show, and there’s original music by Ryan Anderson of local self-described “basement arena rock” outfit Minorcan.
“I loved the ideas of the script, and the characters are awesome, and the story has a satisfying arc, but then I thought of it as a production and I desired something else,” Weakley says. “In an early draft of the play, there was an overheard voice, prompting some action [and] we stumbled on the idea that maybe that could be a musician.” Immediately, Anderson popped into his head.
“I think he’s authentic at what he does, and he’s also, in a sense, critiquing rock ’n’ roll presentation,” Weakley says. “I feel like that’s what I’m after in any live performance and especially in a theatrical context. I want it to be rigorous, I want it to be honest, I want it to be heartfelt — and also can we just step back and remind ourselves that this is all kind of silly?”
The very idea of a play, sitting in a darkened room pretending the people onstage are people other than who they are in real life, “is both revolutionary and also humorous,” Weakley explains. It’s an element he hopes Anderson’s music will underscore.
The play itself — even with its big questions (“What are we really committed to anymore?” Donnelly asks in the press release) and experimental staging — is meant to be funny and have “a wild sense of theatricality,” Weakly says. “That’s what we’re after. … In the end, this play is a comedy.”
WHAT: The Cardboard Sea presents The Devotees, devotees.brownpapertickets.com
WHERE: The BeBe Theatre, 20 Commerce St.
WHEN: Thursday, Aug. 1, to Saturday, Aug. 10. Thursdays-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., $15