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Triple play

Heller Theatre Company closes season with three one-act plays

“Sometimes you have to do ‘Oklahoma!’ to pay the bills, but what we’re interested in is theatre as an art form, exploring empathy and the human condition,” said Angela McLaughlin, director of “Going Out of Business, A Comedy with Food References and Salty Language, in One Act.”

Written by Michael Wright, “Going Out of Business” represents one-third of Heller Theatre Company’s upcoming Triple Feature! showcase of three one-act plays by local playwrights.

“It’s a comedy, mostly, with a dramatic-tragic undercurrent of people losing their jobs,” Wright said. Wright worked as a cook at a French restaurant in New York City in the 1970s, and some characters are loosely based on people he knew. One character wants to go back to school but can’t afford it; another is a musician, but all of his instruments are in the pawn shop.

“Throughout the play we explore the idea of rebuilding things, especially people who would be considered ‘lower class,’ people who are living paycheck to paycheck,” McLaughlin said. “There’s this idea of creating family in a community out of what’s in front of you, versus your family or relationships that you’re born into.”

Directing a complete story arc in under an hour presents a unique set of challenges, according to McLaughlin. “Everything we do or say has to have meaning. It’s pacing, it’s energy, everything is high stakes.” And how do you smash 15 plates without anyone severing an artery onstage?

“Four Ways to Die,” written and directed by David Blakely, is the longest one-act of the evening. Blakely informed much of his play with “‘Bloodland: A Family Story of Oil, Greed and Murder” and
“The Deaths of Sybil Bolton” by Dennis McAuliffe Jr.

McAuliffe’s investigation revealed truths about his family mythology and a historic murder-conspiracy plot during the so-called Osage Reign of Terror.

“This is the story of a man trying to tell the story of his grandmother, of the way she died—there’s a difference between dying of kidney failure and dying because you were part of a group that was systematically murdered.”

“There’s a part of me that wants to get out the injustices that are swept under the rug,” Blakely said. He might one day expand “Four Ways to Die” into a lengthier project and already has ideas percolating for the centennial of Tulsa’s 1921 Race Massacre.

“Stories resonate. If a story is about a particular group of people, it doesn’t mean that other groups of people can’t identify with it,” Blakely said. He then offered an anecdote: “A friend of mine is a poet, and he identifies as white. About a year and a half into Jamaica with the Peace Corps, he started writing Rasta poetry. He felt bad, because he’s not a part of that culture, but his writing was reflecting that culture. One of his Jamaican friends said to him: ‘Don’t worry about it. If you feel the music, you are the music.’”

Blakely, who helms the theatre program at Rogers State University, is also indirectly responsible for the third play appearing in Triple Feature!

“I’m not very self-confident at all,” said Archer Williams, writer of “Speak with Dead” and one of Blakely’s former students.

The young playwright lives in Oklahoma City now, occasionally drops the Gs at the ends of verbs, and, at 24, still sounds like a teenager over the phone. He recalled how he felt after he wrote his first play: “I was like, oh, this is dumb, but David [Blakely] said it was good. I was still like, are you sure?”

Blakely must have a sense for untapped talent, because every play Williams has written has made it to the stage.

“I haven’t always been a writer, but I’ve always had ideas. … Like, what if you died and had to talk to the grim reaper, like, how awkward would that conversation be?”

This is, essentially, the plot of “Speak with Dead,” Williams’ fifth play. He said he hasn’t seen “The Seventh Seal,” Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 knight-plays-chess-with-death classic, but is aware of the trope. As a kid in rural Oklahoma, he was more interested in Monty Python and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” than existential Swedish epics.

His one-act opens with a woman slipping on a discarded banana peel. But her slapstick pratfall is fatal, and even more awkward, thanks to her guardian angel’s ill-timed taco run.

“I just, I dunno, the world isn’t always a real happy place, and even though everything kinda sucks right now, you can still have a good time. Comedy is there to remind you that you can still smile.”

He said he wrote the first draft of “Speak with Dead” in the breakroom of the Walmart Neighborhood Market where he works. “It feels good when something you put time into works out. Not like, okay, I wrote this script, now it’s gonna sit on a shelf, or sit in my computer, forever.”

Triple Feature!
April 6, 7, 13, 14 | 7:30PM | $15
Nightingale Theater | 1416 E 4th St.

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