Theater Artists Olympia’s latest offering, “Seven Ways to Get There,” has that hometown appeal.
The play, about seven very different men brought together in group therapy, is a new one from Olympia playwright Bryan Willis. The play made big news when it premiered in February 2015 at Seattle’s ACT Theatre.
“In my career as a playwright, I’d never had so much written about one of my plays by people who didn’t see the show,” Willis said. “It was national news.”
Why so much coverage?
The play was a collaboration between Willis and Dwayne Clark, the chief executive officer of Aegis Living, a line of high-end housing for seniors. The play, which is about 70 percent nonfiction, is based on Clark’s experience in group therapy.
What drew attention was the fact that first-time playwright Clark financed the production, directed by John Langs, now ACT’s artistic director.
In an article in The Stranger, Brendan Kiley suggested the show was a model for a new kind of patronage, similar to the kind that financed art in Renaissance Italy. And he wasn’t the only one.
But Willis said he didn’t write the play for the money. Although he calls himself “the only person I know in the state of Washington making a living writing plays,” he also jokes that it’s not the career to choose if making money is your primary goal.
Instead, the playwright was drawn to the story.
When Clark pitched the idea in 2011, Willis said: “Essentially, he was describing my life. I’d gotten divorced a week before. My life was falling apart.
“It was perfect timing for me.”
If Seattle reviewers didn’t fall in love with the production, audiences did.
“We had standing ovations for every show, which is not always the case,” Willis said. This arts writer witnessed one such ovation.
In those appreciative crowds were a number of Olympia’s theater lovers, including Pug Bujeaud, who’s directing the Theater Artists Olympia production.
“I came out of there going, ‘God, I’d love to get my hands on this show,’ ” Bujeaud said. “I like shows that are driven by connections. I’m interested in the interpersonal connections of people and processes of communication, and that’s really what this show is all about.”
And the show’s eight juicy roles — the seven men and the therapist who runs the group — were fun to cast. With Heather Christopher already cast as therapist Michelle, Bujeaud put out a call for actors to play the more-or-less troubled men in the group.
“I had the most amazing auditions I’ve ever had in all my years of doing theater,” Bujeaud said. “Practically every actor in Olympia worth his salt who was not busy or committed to something else showed up.”
What most impressed her, she said, was that many of the actors showed new dimensions — and so will the roles they play.
“I ended up casting in ways that I had not suspected I would,” she said. “You’ll see local actors in roles you wouldn’t expect.”
Christian Carvajal plays Anthony, whose anger issues are such that the court has mandated he be in the therapy group, while Brian Hatcher, often cast in dark roles, plays the shy and indecisive Mel.
Willis appreciated the challenge of writing a piece for such a large ensemble cast. Working with real people and situations was fun, too.
“It’s always a fun challenge to tell the story of someone who actually lived or is living,” he said. “The English major comes out in me when that happens.”
He got the inside story about the group not only from Clark, whose character in the play, Nick (Michael Christopher), was a wealthy lawyer coping with the end of his marriage, but with two of the other men in the group — one the inspiration for Mel and the other for Vince (Brian Wayne Jansen), a charming sex addict.
Willis admitted one of the play’s characters is based on him — but he wouldn’t say which one.
“There is a character who’s very much like me and faced a lot of the same situations,” he said. “That isn’t unusual at all, of course. I put myself into a lot of my plays.”
He admires Clark’s willingness to go public with his story.
“It’s extraordinary that he’s sharing a very vulnerable part of his life. That takes more guts than most of us have.”
Willis is excited about seeing the show produced in an intimate venue and grateful that Theater Artists Olympia decided to take a chance on a new show.
At least a couple of the men the play is about will be in Olympia watching it, he said.
After the Theater Artists Olympia production concludes, Willis will likely do more rewriting to get “Ways” ready for whatever is next.
“I think the show is going to have a lot of life,” he said. “Dwayne is ready to put a million dollars into it to take it to Broadway.
“A million dollars is not going to put a show on Broadway,” he said, “but it’s a nice start.”
Seven Ways to Get There
What: Theater Artists Olympia presents a new play, co-written by Olympia playwright Bryan Willis, about seven men in a therapy group.
When: 8 p.m. Friday (May 6)-Sunday, Thursday-May 14 and May 19-21, with a matinee at 2:30 p.m. May 15.
Where: Midnight Sun Performance Space, 113 Columbia St. NW, Olympia.
Tickets: $15, $12 for students and seniors.
Information: 360-292-5179 or olytheater.com.