July 13 2011 12:00 AM

Star John Lepard talks about Williamston’s latest world premiere


A culture clash becomes a comic civil war
in Williamston Theatre’s “And the Creek Don’t Rise.” Penned by frequent
Williamston collaborator Joseph Zettelmaier, “Creek” follows a
work-displaced Michigan couple (Williamston Theatre executive director
John Lepard and Kate Peckham) as they attempt to assimilate to their new
surroundings in small-town Georgia. After participating in a Civil War
reenactment with their neighbor (Tom Mahard), tensions flare as a ‘comic
misunderstanding’ quickly turns into real conflict of epic proportions.

“Creek” marks Zettelmaier’s second
world-premiere production through Williamston Theatre (last year’s “It
Came from Mars” was the first). Lepard shared his thoughts about being
an actor in the production and the process of preparing a new script for
its fully staged debut.

John Lepard: Joe Zettelmaier lived
in Georgia for four years (for school). A lot of this stems straight
from how he dealt with being a Yankee down in Georgia. To the
Southerners, Yankees just seem callous. They’re quick, and everything
has to be rushed. And we don’t listen, we’re just kinda snotty people, I
think. They have a little chip on their shoulder about the attitude
that the Yankees have towards them: “a bunch of redneck bigots.” There’s
the clash, even though it’s not apparent immediately. 

The play starts out, everybody’s on an
even keel. Then all of a sudden, it just takes a dive over. Tom Mahard’s
character signs me up to do this Civil War reenactment, and I screw it
up totally. He gets upset with me and I get upset with him and then we
start this little battle going on back and forth.  

Williamston performed a reading of
this play last year at Renegade Theatre Festival. Is it standard
practice to perform a public reading of a new play before producing it? 

JL: When a playwright comes out
with a play, (he or she) will send it to us and then we’ll just do a
reading ourselves if we like it. (Next) we’ll do a reading in front of
an audience, just to bounce it off of them and see what they think.
Renegade is a great place to listen to it and decide. It’s really
helpful to hear or see what the audience reaction is and where it needs
to change. So yeah, that’s always a part of it. 

Then it’s nice to take a couple of days
with a couple of actors and play with the script and figure some things
out. With the “(Midwest) Voices” series, we did that. We’d take a week
and there were all of these different stories from people, and then we’d
have the playwrights come in and take the stories and make them into
things. Then we would have actors do a little bit of improv to see where
the story could go. 

What are some of the challenges that you face with a world-premiere play? 

JL: The first challenge is we’ve
got a brand-new script, so it’s liquid. As we go through an evening
(rehearsing), Joe will be sitting back there (in the audience
observing). Then he’ll go to the director and (they) will give us changes. (Zettelmaier) will add and subtract as we’re doing it. It’s never been done before, so we have no blueprint for what we’re doing. Actors will say, “Can we change this?,” and he’ll say, “Yeah, this doesn’t
sound right.” That’s the beauty of it — just making something up.
Depending on the playwright, it can be a really rewarding experience or a
really difficult one, if they don’t want to change it and there are parts that need to be changed. 

Is Zettelmaier open to others suggestions and changes to his script?

JL: Yeah, he’s the
greatest. But he knows what he wants in certain things. At one point I
asked him a question about a line, and he said, “Well, that’s meant to be this,” and I went, like, “Oh, I get it now.” He’ll give you a hint as to what he’s thinking about. And that’s
great for actors because if you get a script from a dead guy, you can’t
go back and talk to him. But Joe sitting right there is terrific. 

What happens next?

JL: Then we get the audience in for the previews
and they will tell us right away. Like, “Oh, that whole thing needs to
be changed.” That gives us a whole week (before opening night) to keep
messing around with it. And opening night, we’ve got it set for at least this run. 

The difficulty is that nobody has ever heard of the play before. But now, people know we’re going to do new works and they’re
kind of excited about it — especially for the previews. They love to be
the preview audience in a brand-new play so they can have a little bit
of input into what’s going on.

And our new plays are doing quite well, actually, doing as
well as some of the already established plays. After five years, our
audience is going, “Oh, this will be fun,” rather than (pretending to groan in pain), like, “Terrible!” Because they’ve all been pretty good. We trust our playwrights. It’s been great.

’And the Creek Don’t Rise’
Williamston Theatre
Through Aug. 14
8 p.m. preview performance Thursday, July 14; all seats $15
Regular performances begin Friday, July 15 at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; 3 p.m. Saturdays (except July 23), 3 p.m. July 21.
$24 Friday and Saturday evenings; $20 matinees; $18 Thursdays; $10 students; $2 off regular price for seniors
(517) 655-7469