Gideon Productions Marches Forward with “Universal Robots”

Postcard graphic for play
"Universal Robots" runs June 3 - 26 at The Sheen Center.

World War I has ended. Czechoslovakia has been declared a nation and a president has been elected. Artists, writers and scientists gather over food and drink to bicker and debate as they have done since time immemorial. Then into the gathering, a doll-like figure is wheeled, and nothing is ever again the same. Inspired by Karel Capek’s 1921 play R.U.R., Mac Rogers’ alternative-history play, Universal Robots, asks what might have happened had such technology been introduced at that pivotal moment. Stepping away from the theater and faced with our modern-day technological advancements, the implications of the question — and its answer — become exponential.

In 2007, Rogers (The Honeycomb Trilogy, Asymmetric, Viral) was volunteering at the now-shuttered Manhattan Theatre Source on MacDougal Street. Faced with several dark weeknights to fill in the space, its managing directors asked if any volunteers could use the venue. Rogers found himself with a couple of nights to fill, and a few short weeks to complete the draft of a play. What was born was Universal Robots, and not unlike each generation of the “automata” generated within his play, each staging of this work somehow seems more vulnerable and terrifying — and electrifying — than its last.

Rogers, together with Sean Williams and Jordana (Davis) Williams, founded Gideon Productions in 2000. Friends and fellow undergraduates at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the trio maintained ties after school and reconvened in New York City. Most of Gideon’s productions to date have been penned by Rogers, and with a focus on sci-fi, horror and fantasy, the company has earned quite a following. Critical accolades have ensued: The Guardian named Gideon’s staging of The Honeycomb Trilogy one of the Top 10 New York Theatre experiences of 2015, and it recently received The New York Innovative Theatre Foundation’s Donn Russell Fund Grant for sustained excellence in independent theater.

Jordana Williams directs the latest iteration of Universal Robots, which runs June 3 to June 26 at the Black Box Theater at The Sheen Center (18 Bleecker St., 866-811-4111) featuring Nikki Andrews-Ojo, Greg Oliver Bodine, Hanna Cheek, Jorge Cordova, Tandy Cronyn, Neimah Djorabchi, Jason Howard, Tarantino Smith, Sara Thigpen and Brittany N. Williams in the cast. Set and production designer Sandy Yauklin, lighting designer Jennifer Linn Wilcox, sound designer Jeanne Travis, costume designer Amanda Jenks, and prop designer Montserrat (Mozz) Mendez round out the creative team.

The CFR has covered Gideon’s work in the distant past, including a 2008 press release (for, believe it or not, Universal Robots); and Jordana Williams interviewed Rogers in 2009. Time to revisit!

And now, five questions that Rogers, Jordana Williams and Sean Williams have never (jointly) been asked:

Story continues below.

Universal Robots
Rehearsal photos: Deborah Alexander.

Amy Lee Pearsall: Gideon Productions recently wrapped-up a massive theatrical undertaking: the staging of Mac Rogers’ Honeycomb Trilogy in repertory — with full-day marathons running on weekends — at the Gym at Judson. There was some talk of you all taking a breather. How did the decision to stage Universal Robots at this time come about? Was it simply availability of venue or were there deeper motives in terms of timing?

Jordana Williams: We’ve had our eye on The Sheen Center ever since seeing FringeNYC shows there a couple years back. It’s such a beautiful space, and the stairways and catwalks in the Black Box offer some incredible staging opportunities. When Mandy Rinzel, the Center’s programming associate, approached Sean after seeing Honeycomb to ask if we had anything that fit their mission, we leapt at the opportunity.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Small moments of frailty, compulsion and grace.[/pullquote]Sean Williams: We’ve never revisited our past work until this last year. Mac and I talked about it, maybe 10 years ago, that we all change and grow so quickly that we often find our work from the past no longer reflects how we feel now, so we are always hesitant about remounting our work. But in looking at The Honeycomb Trilogy last year, and then Universal Robots this year, we found that the plays meant more to us now. These plays are about what makes a family — who do you include, how do you make that decision, how do you forgive or ask for forgiveness — and as we close in on our third decade of working together, these questions are even more relevant now.

Mac Rogers: And to touch on your mention of a breather, yes, that was definitely the plan! But this opportunity was too good to pass up. I always feel like it’s too soon to get back into producing, but what always gets me past that is seeing the work that the other artists — Jordana, the designers, the actors — bring to the table. That always makes me see my scripts in a new way and invigorates me.

Universal Robots

AP: Mac, you directed the workshop of Universal Robots in 2007, and worked closely with director Rosemary Andress on the production in 2009. Is there anything new about the play that has revealed itself to you during the rehearsal process for this production?

MR: The ’07 and ’09 productions of mean the world to me, and were two of the greatest experiences of my life. I know how foolish it is to try to recapture the past, and I knew the only justification for bringing this show back would be if we could take it in a different direction. A big part of that was the chance to turn the dream team of Jordana and our designers — who completely re-imagined how Gideon shows would work — on a script that was mounted before that team came together. I can say, having gotten sneak peeks at what everyone’s developing, that this is going to offer a theatrical experience unlike any we’ve presented before.

And the script just keeps feeling relevant to me. I wrote it in the last year of the Bush administration, and one of the defining questions in it was “Could those of us on the other end of the spectrum, the liberals, the artists — could we do better?” I think this has only become more germane in the last year of the Obama administration, about which there is much to admire, but also much to question. Universal Robots deals head-on with how hard it is to know how your good intentions can go bad, and that feels more urgent when there are people in power that I more nominally “identify with,” for lack of a better term. Obama had the cast of Hamilton to the White House, and has increased drone strikes several-fold. It’s easy to forget to question leaders who, like in Universal Robots, seem to share our enthusiasms and appear to really be trying to do the right thing.

Story continues below.

Mac and Jordana, how does your own work benefit from working specifically with each other? Have you discovered anything surprising this time around regarding your creative process? Jordana, was there something about this particular work of Mac’s that inspired you to direct it?

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The implications of the question become exponential.[/pullquote]JW: There’s nothing like long-term creative partnerships. You develop a shorthand. You trust each other enough to move beyond turf wars. You keep each other honest. Mac’s writing inspires me like nothing else does. There’s a tremendous amount of overlap in the Venn diagram of our passions and preoccupations. But it’s not just the two of us — it’s the entire production team. Without Sean’s bold producing moves and deep investment in community and relationship building, Gideon likely wouldn’t even exist. Sandy’s set and production design and Becky [Comtois] and Pete [Boisvert]’s graphic design create a specific aesthetic for each show, which Jennifer, Jeanne, Amanda and Mozz embrace and enhance. And Mikell [Kober], our resident Young Person, translates all that to various social media platforms.

In terms of Universal Robots, I’ve admired it from afar for many years. It’s Mac at his best: small moments of frailty, compulsion and grace that cascade into massive global consequences. Mac and Rosemary both directed beautiful productions, and I was worried that I would feel like an interloper. But the moment I started thinking about these characters and what drives them, all at once I was too far inside the whole thing to worry anymore. So, that was a surprise. A very pleasant one.

MR: I’d add as well that we’ve honed a very respectful rule of boundaries toward one another’s work over the years, which I think is vital. She gives me script notes and I give her directing notes — but only once. One time per note. If the other doesn’t agree — and we agree with each other’s notes quite a lot of the time — then that note is dropped. We respect when each other draws a line in the sand. We trust each other. With Universal Robots, the pleasure has been in watching Jordana’s very different approach to both mine and Rosemary’s. It’s amazing to watch scenes be calibrated quite differently and still work. She’s taking full advantage of the space in ways I think people will find thrilling.

Universal Robots
Director Jordana Williams addresses the cast.

With this production, Gideon launches an outreach program for under-served audiences, including performances for the deaf and blind, and the company is offering a family support matinee with free childcare for parents who attend. How did the decision to start this initiative come about?

SW: With science fiction, your storytelling exists largely in allegory. People see zombies or aliens and they insert real-world analogs and discover their own meaning. When we tell stories of people who don’t see the world in the same way, or don’t hear the same messages that everyone else hears, there is a specific real-world analog for that — the blind community and the deaf community — and we’ve never done enough to reach out to them.

But there were practical things to overcome. A performance for the blind required some investigation into supporting technology, but the performance for the deaf and a parent’s matinee required some negotiation with other organizations. Actors’ Equity Association makes it impossible to pay anyone more than any of the actors, but as of last year our actor stipends have grown enough that we could hire interpreters without breaking union rules. And anyone can hire teaching artists to lead kids in theater games and projects, but most venues won’t provide a company with the space for these programs. The Sheen Center has been enormously generous on every front, but nowhere more so than in providing us with two rooms during the parents’ matinee.

Story continues below.

Mac, your podcast The Message recently won a Webby for Best Use of Native Advertising. Jordana, you recently directed a few pieces for the One-Minute Play Festival at The New Ohio Theatre. And Sean, you recently had a humor piece on parenting go viral for The New Yorker. Do any of you have any upcoming projects, independently or together, to tell us about?

JW: We don’t have any productions in the works, but we do have a number of scripts in different stages of readiness. Before we recovered from Honeycomb exhaustion, we were in pre-production for Universal Robots. I wouldn’t change a thing about that, but I’m also looking forward to taking a breath and regrouping, so we can find just the right home/platform for our next project.

SW: I have a couple of other pieces set to publish and have been working on a book that explicitly mocks my children. Gideon Productions has also been interested in branching out in new directions, specifically with film and podcasting. We hope to fill up a channel dedicated to each within the next two years.

MR: In addition to some Gideon projects in development, I’d like to write a lot more audio. It’s an exhilarating art form. I loved writing The Message, and I listen to audio plays every day. I love that you can reach so many more people, and that you can create that intimate auditory storytelling bond with them. Several audio projects are under discussion right now, both within Gideon and without, and I hope I’ll be emailing The Clyde Fitch Report to announce the next one soon!