Inspired by the real-life convention of the same name, FST’s World Premiere production of America in One Room by Jason Odell Williams explores what could happen if you put a diverse group of people from across the country in the same room and ask them to open up about some of their most firmly held beliefs. As the conversation moves from the hotel’s continental breakfast to more serious issues, sparks fly and tempers flare, often to humorous results. It is all up to the group’s moderator, Lisa, to make sure that the convention participants stay on track…and that they all make it out alive.
Sarah Stockton, a New York-based actress who previously performed in FST’s productions of In the Book Of (2013) and Blackbird (2009), brings Lisa to life in America in One Room. We sat down with Sarah to talk about creating a character, what it’s like to work on a World Premiere, and the importance of humor.
You play Lisa, an optimistic single woman in her 30s who is deathly afraid of screwing up. She serves as the moderator for one of the convention’s breakout groups, making sure that all of the topics are covered during their limited time together. How did you prepare for this role?
The first thing I did was read, and then re-read, the script. A good playwright will tell me plenty about who the character truly is. So I started there.
When I approach playing Lisa, I don’t focus as much on her fear of screwing up as I do on her passion for the project and her deep desire to help bridge the divide in our country. She is a diplomat at heart and I can relate to that.
The stakes are very high for Lisa. This job is extremely important to her. It’s important to come in with a “moment before” as an actor. When I enter at the top of the play, I have a strong personalization for where I’m coming from and what my objective is coming in.
While this is a comedy, we do touch on some hot button issues like race, immigration, and reproductive rights. At times, you wonder how the audience is feeling. Are they on edge? To be able to break that fourth wall, check in with them, and see that the audience is with you, and are often quite eager to participate and engage, is very rewarding. Feeling that connection with the audience is what theatre is all about.
America in One Room deals with some serious issues, but is imbued with comedy. What are your thoughts about how comedy plays a role in exploring serious themes?
This question reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Steel Magnolias – “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”
True human experience has no genre, our world is this massive amalgam of beauty and pain, love and hate, hilarity and tragedy, every day all the time. I love plays like this one, that dig in and really explore and reflect it all. And of course, when exploring really weighty topics, the audience needs that relief every now and again. We need to laugh, or it’s just too heavy.
This is your second time working with Kate Alexander, FST’s Associate Director At-Large, who also directed In the Book Of. What do you most enjoy about working with Kate? Were there any moments involving Kate during the artistic process of America in One Room that really stand out to you?
I’ve loved working with Kate. Not all directors are as open as she is, and it really feels like a collaboration during rehearsals. We all had a lot of fun finding these characters and creating the world of the play together. She was also very mindful about creating space to discuss and explore the sometimes sensitive subject matter within the play and any feelings that might come up along the way.