The Commonwealth Theatre Center’s Walden Theatre Alumni Company has been knocking it out of the park lately, and that trend is set to continue when “Ghosts Like Us” opens Thursday, July 26.
The production is directed by the Seattle-based artist and dramaturge Maggie Rogers, who happens to be a Walden alumni. Her Alumni Company production of Annie Baker’s “The Aliens” completely knocked our socks off two summers ago, and we’ve been eagerly awaiting her return.
Rogers’ work on “Ghosts Like Us” would have been enough to get excited about, but this summer she also is bringing Louisville a visit from her Seattle collaborator Tatiana Pavela, whose one-person show “Brandi Alexander” was directed and developed by Rogers and is being shown this weekend, July 20-21, at the Louisville Fringe Festival.
Insider spoke with Rogers and Pavela by phone to hear more about ghosts, devised works and anger.
Rogers is a Louisville native who studied acting at both the Youth Performing Arts School (YPAS) and Walden Conservatory. She went to Columbia College of Chicago for her undergrad, where she switched her artistic focus.
“When I was in college is when I figured out I really hated acting,” she said. “I started getting more into directing my sophomore year.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s in directing, she moved to Seattle to complete an apprenticeship at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.
She liked the Emerald City enough that she stayed, and she’s now the literary manager and resident dramaturge at the Washington Ensemble Theatre as well as a company member with The Horse in Motion and the resident dramaturge for Cherdonna Shinatra’s company Donna.
She brought her craft back to Louisville first as an actor, performing with the Alumni Company’s production of “Fat Pig” by Neil LaBute. The play explores the ultimately doomed relationship between a “fat” woman and a more conventionally “attractive” man.
Rogers isn’t a fan of the play, but she did take inspiration from it.
“Doing the Alumni show ‘Fat Pig’ sparked my interest in fat representation on stage and allowed me to start crafting my work in a more inclusive direction,” she said. “And Walden let me explore that.”
Walden also brought Rogers back as a director once her interests shifted, and each time she’s returned to work with the Alumni Company, she’s also taught at Commonwealth Theatre Center’s Walden Conservatory summer program.
Rogers met Pavela in Seattle.
Pavela studied theater and devising at New York University. That process — essentially performers getting together in a room and creating something new using a series of tools, techniques or prompts — is still one of Pavela’s main focuses, so much so that she doesn’t really consider herself a writer, despite her creation of several one-person shows.
The first urge to create a one-person show came in part from the other roles Pavela was being offered.
“You work on good stuff, but you work on a lot of crap,” she said. “And you say, ‘I know I can do more.’ Just this thing of, man, I’m f#@king tired of being sidelined.”
She’s written other shows, including one that explored the immigrant experience. Pavela is a first-generation American whose parents came from Croatia.
The ideas that eventually led to “Brandi Alexander” date back to 2016. Trump hadn’t been elected, but he was gaining ground in the election, and Brock Turner and Bill Cosby were in the news.
“And then a friend of mine, she called me and told me that a mutual acquaintance of ours had raped her,” Pavela explained. “The first thing, obviously there’s shock and then so much anger. And I was like, ‘Oh, they can just take whatever, they can literally just take whatever they want.’ That was how men were operating — and a lot of times still do.”
That idea, that men take, wasn’t limited to assault in Pavela’s mind, but also to a general way of operating. Pavela realized she was the opposite.
“I was very much a ‘raise my hand, wait for permission, wait in line, don’t assert yourself too much’ … A lot of men just take their space, say what they want,” she said.
Pavela began to imagine a woman who took her space, who said what she wanted. That idea mixed with her anger over her friend’s sexual assault.
“What if you just had a woman who said whatever the f#@k she wanted?” she asked.
The result is “Brandi Alexander,” a show that functions as both a piece of real-time drama and a live standup comedy set.
Brandi Alexander, a comedian, is back on stage for the first time after taking a long break to try to deal with the trauma of being sexually assaulted. But her first show back happens to be opening for her former friend … who is the person who assaulted her.
Pavela completed a draft of the play and knew she needed a solid director. She didn’t know Rogers, but mutual friends connected them.
Rogers remembered her first contact with Pavela, which was by email.
“She was like, ‘I have this one person show … but it’s not for everybody, so give it a read.’ And I read it and was like, ‘I AM directing this play,’ ” said Rogers.
As a director with new play and dramaturg experience, Rogers does a lot of different jobs on a show like “Brandi Alexander.”
“I helped her develop the story and talk about, like, what is this play for you? Why are you writing this play? And thinking a lot about how women haven’t had the opportunity to be angry on stage, without being, like, ‘Oh it’s fine.’ It’s not fine. It’s a huge problem,” said Rogers.
That anger will express itself in comedy and rage when Pavela hits the stage in Louisville Friday and Saturday.
At CTC, Rogers also was actively involved with the development of “Ghosts Like Us,” which she collaborated on with writer Sage Martin, a fellow YPAS alum.
“Sage and I are both obsessed with folklore and hauntings around Louisville,” she explained. “We talk about it, we’re both obsessed with the Goatman. We both have Goatman Lives T-shirts.”
The second half of the idea for “Ghosts Like Us” comes from Rogers’ previous success with site-specific theater. “The Aliens,” which Rogers staged outside in the CTC courtyard, was partially so excellent because the courtyard perfectly mirrored the setting of the play, in a way no set ever could. It also allowed the use of fireworks.
Tailoring the play or production to the site can be used in other ways, and “Ghosts Like Us” will take an audience of 20 through a series of rooms at a supposedly haunted local school, with different scenes and stories playing out in a variety of spaces.
It’s hard to say if “Ghosts” will have an afterlife past its production next weekend, but Rogers and Pavela have high hopes for the future of “Brandi Alexander.”
“Everyone’s goal is always Edinburgh (Fringe Fest) — that would be incredible — but to get there, you need some Fringe street cred,” said Rogers. “So I knew I was going to be in town, and I saw that Louisville Fringe was going to happen, and I was like, oh my god, this is perfect.”
With razor-sharp one-person shows and site-specific theater combined with immersive experiences, Rogers is becoming an important part of the Louisville scene, even if she mostly does it from a few thousand miles away.
“I want to bring this type of work to Louisville. It’s super important,” she added. “The arts scene here is incredible and booming. And we are moving in a direction where we can do these risky things and have the audience base to support it.”
Be that audience on Friday and Saturday, July 20-21, when “Brandi Alexander” hits Louisville Fringe Festival at two venues in Germantown-Schnitzelburg. On Friday, she’ll be at Four Pegs Lounge for a late show starting at 11:30 p.m. And on Saturday, she’ll perform at Kaiju at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the door.
“Ghosts Like Us” will haunt the halls of St. James Parochial School, 1826 Edenside Ave., from July 26-28 and Aug. 2-4. Performances run each night at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $10. The audience is limited to 20, so it’s best to get your tickets in advance.