The Nashville Repertory Theatre’s season opened this past weekend with Gina Gionfriddo’s witty and funny Rapture, Blister, Burn. That alone is a reason for Nashville theatergoers to rejoice. But the show comes with an added appeal: the return of director Lauren Shouse to Nashville. A beloved and respected former member of the city’s theater community, Shouse has just completed her MFA in theatre directing at Northwestern University and is working as the dramaturgy consultant at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre. She returns to the Rep where she directed Superior Donuts and A Christmas Story. Her other Nashville credits are numerous: the world premieres of Long Way Down with 3Ps productions; Religion and Rubber Ducks with Ovvio Arte; Rear Window at Chaffin’s Barn Parallel Lives, and several plays with Street Theatre Company, including The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, among others.
In Gionfriddo’s Pulitzer Prize nominated Rapture, Blister, Burn, a play The New York Times calls “intensely smart, immensely funny,” friends Catherine and Gwen reunite after more than a decade apart when Catherine returns home to care for her mother. Catherine has had a successful and soaring career as a high-profile author while Gwen has stayed close to home to raise a family – after marrying the man Catherine gave up to pursue her goals. As they catch up, each woman begins to covet the other’s life and question her own path. It explores life choices in the wake of 20th century feminist ideals.
We caught up with Shouse via email during the show’s opening weekend — it runs at TPAC’s Andrew Johnson Theatre through September 19 — to welcome her back to town, ask about Rapture, Blister, Burn’s themes, and the wonderful challenge of casting it in Nashville.
HTP: First off, welcome back to Nashville and congrats on getting your MFA at Northwestern. I know you worked with the REP before as an associate, so it must be a thrill to return and direct the season opener. Was this a play that you were approached to direct, or one you felt a personal or professional connection to and wanted to direct? Do you have a relationship with Gionfriddo’s work?
LS: Thanks, Joe! It is great to be back at Nashville Rep. It feels like coming back home. Rene Copeland approached me with Rapture, Blister, Burn as she was excited about the stimulating conversation this play provokes. And it has fantastic roles for women. I have been a fan of Gina Gionfriddo’s work for a long time as I think she is a smart, witty and provocative writer. I had also seen the play at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and immediately connected to the question of what it means for a woman to have it all. It hits really close to home for me right now as I am pursuing a directing career, but also considering a family. So I was thrilled when Rene asked me to direct. This conversation is so prescient for me. I think the audience will find genuine connections to these questions as well.
In the play’s promo material, you’re quoted saying that “In the pursuit to make a ‘better’ choice, it is not surprising that we get caught up in how we should be living our lives rather than how we want to live our lives. In this play, a woman comes face to face with all the choices she didn’t make.” This a heavy and complex struggle, one that conventional wisdom says is particularly unique to women, and your answer above seems to echo this. So while we’re living in the age of Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to “Lean In,” is Gionfriddo suggesting we may not be completely out of the “can women have it all” weeds? And really, perhaps we’ve been oversimplifying it all this time?
Well, I personally think we have moved beyond the reductive choices of can a woman be a mother AND have a career. We have so many examples of women who are able to do both, but it inevitably involves sacrifice. With Sandberg’s Lean In, there is this new standard that in order for a woman to be fulfilled they should want both children and a career. So now there can be a lot of judgment when a woman makes a choice to focus solely on her career or to be a stay at home mom. Gionfriddo offers us many different perspectives around this question of what it means for a woman to have it all. She doesn’t provide us any answers and that is one of the reasons I love this play. As women, we can get caught up in this pursuit to ‘have it all’ and I wonder what would happen if we just choose the path that feels right to us.
Nashville has a particularly strong base of women actors, and with four of the five characters in the play strong women, I imagine casting was both an embarrassment of riches, and fairly difficult. And while you were probably familiar with some actors from your time here, there was likely some new faces in the auditions. Can you offer some insight on the actors and casting?
Nashville has an amazing talent pool and you are right that auditions provided an embarrassment of riches. What I love about Nashville actors is that they all support each other. There is a genuine camaraderie and encouragement in the room. This cast includes Nashville favorites Shannon Hoppe, Amanda Card, and Ruth Cordell. These ladies provide a depth of friendship and humor that translates directly to their relationships on stage. It is really beautiful to experience. And then we are excited to introduce Nashville to two extremely talented actors, Cheryl White and David Ian Lee, who are just lovely people as well. I promise you won’t be disappointed with the level of acting in this show. They are bringing it!
While a Pulitzer Prize-nominated play, I imagine the casual theatergoer will not be familiar with Gionfriddo or Rapture, Blister, Burn — as opposed to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead or Chicago. It provides a nice balance in the season of new and challenging work with crowd pleasers. So for the uninitiated, what should the audience expect from a night at the theater enjoying Rapture, Blister, Burn?
The audience can expect smart and deliciously funny dialogue. The characters engage with disparate feminist ideas from Betty Friedan to Phyllis Schlafly. The stimulating classroom arguments have two women in their 40s engaging with perspectives from a 21-year-old and a seventy-year-old. Gionfriddo provokes discussion about how multiple generations of women have regarded each other’s choices and think they can do better. She claims that “women take pride in avoiding their mothers’ disappointments only to disappoint themselves in new ways that will make the generation below them cringe.” There will be a lot of laughter as the audience finds themselves caught up in the argument.
The audience can also expect complicated characters. I think they will relate to this quote from Gionfriddo: “You can be an incredibly evolved and smart and liberated feminist and still go to pieces over a boy.” It reminds me that I’m not the only one who has made some mistakes when it comes to love.
The Nashville Repertory Theatre’s production of Rapture, Blister, Burn runs through September 19 at TPAC’s Andrew Johnson Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit NashvilleRep.org.
For a comprehensive list of Nashville theatre productions, visit NowPlayingNashville.com.