UMKC student Marianne McKenzie recently directed a one-act play called Trench Warfare. Described as a surreal take on the lives of two infantry soldiers stationed in the trenches of World War I, the play premiered at the National World War I museum earlier this month. U-News sat down with Marianne to talk about her work in the theater and her experience directing a production inside a national monument.
Q: Can you give me a little history about yourself and your work in the theater?
A: I did my undergraduate degree at UMKC in theater and French. So, I was involved a lot in both departmental shows and at the Fish Tank performance studio when I was an undergrad. I was commissioned to write a play for the Miniature Toy Museum when I was a senior. For me, it’s always been a combination of writing and performing. I went away to France for a year, and then was invited back for the MFA acting and directing program. So nowadays, I’m basically only doing departmental shows.
Q: Where did your love of theater come from, and what made you decide to pursue this professionally?
A: I am the eighth of nine kids, so growing up I think performing was initially a method of getting attention, but it turned into something much bigger. I’ve always loved telling stories and I feel the most like myself when I’m onstage or working in any capacity in theater. I’ve been acting since I was four, in professional theaters and operas and things like that. I didn’t really get into directing until last summer, when I directed my first show in the Kansas City Fringe Festival. During that production, I worked with a lot of the same people who worked on Trench Warfare.
Q: So that was with a bunch of other UMKC students?
A: Kind of, but not exactly. When I was in undergrad, I was roommates with Charlie Weitkamp, who wrote Trench Warfare. He would show me scripts, I would show him scripts, and we would compare, bouncing ideas off each other. I remember he showed me the script for Trench Warfare and being like, “Oh wow! We really need to perform this sometime.” He has always produced plays in the Fringe Festival, and this was his first foray into non-Fringe work. Last summer he produced the play I directed, and we always try to get a UMKC conservatory sound designer involved. For Trench Warfare, we worked with UMKC student Tim Hart. A lot of the actors tend to be from UMKC. Everybody who was on-stage, expect for one guy who comes in at the very end, has been involved with UMKC in some capacity. All of the musicians were conservatory students.
Q: How did this production at the World War I museum come about? Did he approach you and ask you to direct the play?
A: We always talked about how we would love to do theater together, but we were both always so busy that we never were able to find time to collaborate. After he took a break from school, he was producing all of these shows and I was really envious that I couldn’t be involved. So finally, last summer, he told me he was wanting to bring new faces into his company and into his shows. So, I directed his play this summer, and we had a great time. Then out of the blue, in mid-November, he sent me an email that said, “Hey, we’re doing this show. I’ve got a sound designer working on a soundtrack for it, and I have some other people who are going to be involved.” For me, it was obviously full circle. I knew I had to say yes to this. The way it worked out schedule wise, we were able to slip it in right before school started over winter break. He had been prepping it for a couple of months, I signed on in mid-November, and then we did a lot of prep work in December. I was able to cast whoever I wanted, and for me it was no-brainer to bring in my classmate Khalif Gillett, because he reminded me of the character so much already. We only rehearsed for a week.
It all fell in place so nicely, I got to work with so many people who I’d been wanting to work with and who I already loved working with. And the venue was incredible, it was such an honor to be able to do a play like that at the memorial.
Q: That’s another question I had for you. What was it like directing a play about soldiers in WWI at the national WWI memorial? Did you feel any added pressure because of the venue?
A: Oh man! I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself. I always try to do the best that I can do, but I sort of kept going back and thinking “did we give us ourselves enough time?” and what not. It’s kind of the culmination of all my dreams, really. Getting to direct a play written by a dear friend of mine about a subject very pertinent to the museum– it is what you want when you do theater. So, I was just thrilled, but also slightly terrified.
Q: Trench Warfare is the second play you’ve directed, and you’ve been acting your entire life. How do your experiences as an actor influence your work as a director?
A: That’s a very good question. There’s this idea that the more time you spend doing something, the better you get at it, right? I’ve spent a lot of time in rehearsals as an actor. But what I realized as I was getting started with directing is that, in addition to having all of that acting experience, I’ve worked with so many directors. I’ve experienced so many different directing styles. What I’ve come to recognize is that people who are primarily actors who direct tend to act out what they want you to do for you. Which for me, as an actor, is the opposite of what I think the director should do. I’m not going to give my best performance if I don’t feel that what I’m doing is natural. I personally feel that if an actor doesn’t like the idea of standing up on a certain line, why should they? What I usually do is run it and see what their natural impulses are. I have to consciously refrain myself from trying to show people what to do. Instead, I try to lead them to discover on their own.
Q: What kind of advice would you give to new students who are just starting their work in the theater?
A: I would say six years ago, the idea of me directing a play in the national WWI memorial was completely out of my reach. But if you work hard and you focus yourself, you can really do anything. So don’t beat yourself down, just grab every opportunity by the horns and do it. Push yourself. And don’t waste your free time, because that’s where most of the work really comes in.