Updated: Mar 12, 2020
CONNECTIONS OF THE HEART
Dagney Kerr’s new play at STAGESTheatre illustrates the greatest gift is also the most terrifying
By Joel Beers
Theater, like life, is about connections. Writers connect scattered ideas to words that make a script. Actors connect those words to characters they create. Directors connect all of it in hopes of making the most important connection: production to audience.
In life, there are small connections, like the person who bags our groceries; big connections, like the friends and family who ground us; and abstract connections not to people but to symbols and concepts. Political ideologies or a flag. A divine creator. Or, in the words of Alan Ginsberg in “Howl,” that “burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.”
But no connection is as mysterious, powerful, life-affirming or devastatingly fragile as that of love. Not the “love-thy-neighbor” kind, or fraternal love, or even the love a mother has for a child. But that jaw-dropping, ear-popping, earth-quaking, legs-shaking, crazy-making feeling that comes out of nowhere, hits you like scripture, and bends space and time to a place where, as another poet named Bob Dylan wrote: “God and her were born.”
And anyone who has ever experienced it knows that connection can be the greatest of gifts, or the most crushing of curses—sometimes in the same moment.
So no wonder the two characters in Dagney Kerr’s “Deanna and Paul,” receiving its world premiere at STAGESTheatre March 7-21, are having a difficult time connecting even though every indication seems they should. Kerr, an actress with a myriad of TV and stage credits (she played Buffy’s ill-fated roommate on two memorable episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) has taken a well-trafficked situation—a warm, friendly waitress at a roadside diner and a reserved, burdened customer who just wants to read his paper and drink his coffee-but stretched it across an emotional and metaphysical canvas that makes it universal. Grounded in a realistic setting and filled with quirky witty dialogue, each of the characters is also given a powerfully expressive monologue near the play’s end where we realize that as much as they yearn for that white-hot connection with someone else, their baggage and doubts make it difficult, if not impossible, for it to ignite.
“I think all my plays are simple stories, but big on emotion,” Kerr says. “ With my acting background it is a natural thing for me to tap into the emotion of the characters. Deanna and Paul is probably the most poetic and stylized of my current plays. But all my work definitely has a similar theme of love and loneliness.”
When Kerr heard about the inaugural Page to Stage new play festival last October at the Brea Curtis Theatre, she didn’t know anything about OC theater. But she was glad she submitted, as her play was one of the 400 unpublished plays by women that made the cut.
“Page to Stage was a chance to discover, celebrate and champion new female playwrights and introduce them to the community,” she says. “ They did a wonderful job of that. My play is at STAGESTheatre because of the festival.”
Kerr grew up immersed in the arts. She began performing in theater, dance and opera at a young age and graduated from Stephen College in Columbia, Missouri with a degree in dance and theater. But writing wasn’t on her radar.
“For me I guess dance was the way I expressed myself, so the written word was not that interesting to me,” she says.
That changed after relocating to Los Angeles in 1999 and joining an acting class in which actors were encouraged to write. Almost by accident, she discovered she could write.
“One day I was sitting in my car and I jotted down some thoughts in a notebook. Essentially without knowing it…I had written a great monologue.”
Encouraged by her teacher to write, she wrote two one-woman shows, one about a Pat Benatar-obsessed, woman; another themed around the question of “what do you want to be when you grow up, but you’re already grown up, “she says..
Then she stopped writing until about six years ago when another acting class started a writer’s group.
The first exercise was to write a play that took place in a park.
“I really struggled,” Kerr says. “Then one day walking in the park I started watching these two dogs sitting next to each other under a tree.”
That sparked the idea for her first play, “STAY,” a “poignant comedy about a Maltese Poodle and German Shepard,” she says. “Up until I wrote ‘STAY’ I was an actor writing to give myself an opportunity to perform. Now that other people have performed my work I feel like a true playwright.
Kerr describes “Deanna and Paul” as “quirky poetic and romantic, “ and says both men and women can relate to the characters. It’s also laced with humor as all her plays are.
“Funny comes pretty easy for me and I have a natural rhythm for it. But just like anything there still is a craft to it. One word too many can be the difference between a giggle and a big laugh. You have to structure it. Also, funny comes from the character. People are naturally funny. So if the humor is coming out of the character instead of a funny line, that’s what I enjoy.”
Kerr believes her performing background is “probably the main reason I’m able to write plays. Performing on stage you understand the important connection between the players and the audience. You have that pulse and sense when you are up there…if they are getting bored or restless…you have to engage them and make adjustments on the fly. Writing is the same. Without having a background already in theatre from such a young age there is no way I would be able to understand the craft of storytelling.”
“Deanna and Paul” features two polar opposite characters, one engaging and imaginative, the other closed-off and burdened. So how much of Deanna and Paul is in the writer?
“I always start with myself,” Kerr says. “Whether I’m acting or writing. So there are elements of me in both characters. Most people probably hear Deanna…but people closer to me hear Paul. Once I start from myself then I can let my imagination take over. That’s the fun part. Diving in and imagining the characters’ past, how they grew up, what were they like as children, what kind of place they live in….But there will always be my own thoughts and feelings in the characters…for instance, just like Paul I also loathe Costco. So his rant about Costco is definitely in line with how I feel.
Joel Beers is a freelance journalist and journalism instructor at Cal State Dominguez Hills. He has also written and adapted 10 full-length plays produced in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
'Deanna and Paul'
Presented as part of a night of Two One Act Plays
STAGESTheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton
Mar. 7-21. Sat., 5 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. & 5:30 p.m.
(714) 525-4484, www.stagesoc.org