Though Austin’s Paper Chairs theater company marks its 10th anniversary next year, the celebration has started a little early with the return of co-founder Dustin Wills. He's directing the company’s latest production, Will Arbery’s “Plano,” running Sept. 12-28 at the Ground Floor Theatre.
The aesthetics of design have played a huge role in Paper Chairs’ work throughout the past decade. “As much as we value the content and the story itself,” Wills says, “there’s something that we find of equal value in the image and the visual storytelling of a show.”
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Recently, Wills says, the company has also been focusing on developing new plays with a local focus: “Things that feel really rooted in Austin, Texas. We’re a company that doesn’t necessarily have this desire to broaden out into the L.A. or New York market. We’re more interested in finding that way to reach old Austin while also opening space for the new Austin that’s coming in. How do you go deeper as opposed to wider?”
In Paper Chairs’ latest production, “Plano,” this dual emphasis on design aesthetics and local focus comes together for a show that Wills describes as an “ever-sprawling web of time and space. Time moves so fast that it forces the characters to connect in a way that’s surprising. Things that would normally be withheld come out because of the sheer nature of how fast this play moves.”
On its simplest level, Wills says the play is about three sisters who talk about their lives on a porch. "Or I should say, try to live their lives and attempt to connect as they suffer and endure the male presences in their lives.”
Playwright Will Arbery is originally from Texas, like Wills, and the pair have collaborated before. What Wills appreciates about Arbery’s work is the sense of surrealism: “He makes the familiar in a play seem so strange that, after a while, the strange sort of becomes familiar. And then the characters in the play start to wake up unsure of what’s true and not true, and where they’re located in space and time.”
Wills says Arbery “puts these mysterious things in his plays, these unexplainable occurrences, that do not want to be explained. He has a bravery in letting questions just linger in the air and doesn’t feel any kind of need to force feed you what the answer is. Because that’s just not real. Everyone’s lived experience that they bring into the theater is going to let them experience something so strange and surreal in their own way.”
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This will be the second production of “Plano,” which premiered in New York, and Wills says the playwright is excited to see it staged in Texas. Part of the impetus for this production, he says, is that the company has the right cast assembled, including the actors playing the three sisters: Hannah Kenah, Heather Hannah and Paper Chairs co-founder Elizabeth Doss. In addition, the play features Janelle Buchanan and Harold Fisch and sees the return of Josh Meyer and Matt Hislope, co-founders of performance art collective Rubber Repertory, to the Austin stage.
Ultimately, Wills feels that it’s the clear emotion behind the surrealist text that lies at the heart of “Plano.” He explains that “the sisters are so lovingly drawn that you can tell Will is writing from a place of deep care for these women. And the men are so (expletive) up that you can tell he’s really wrestling with his own (expletive) at the same time.”
Or more succinctly, “It’s just life. These three white women’s lives. That’s the subject.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of the director of "Plano." It is Wills, not Willis.