The Hippo


Jul 19, 2019








Jen Sassak and Joe Paoni. Courtesy photo.

Want to fall in love?
Take the 36 questions in Talking to Starlight

By Kelly Sennott

 The first reading of Talking to Starlight by Lowell Williams at the Riverwalk Cafe & Music Bar a couple years ago was so packed, some audience members had to watch the show while standing in the back of the coffee shop. The turnout shocked Williams — mostly because it was the same night as the Season 5 Game of Thrones premiere. 

“I didn’t think we’d get much of a turnout, but we got almost 100 people,” said Williams, a New Hampshire resident, via phone.
Michael J. Curtiss directed the two-person play — then called 36 Questions in a Quiet Cafe — and Kath Palmer and Aaron Compagna read. Afterward, audience members provided feedback, including Williams’ friend, Ernest Thompson, best known for writing On Golden Pond. Williams took the responses, edited the piece and sent it to regional theaters. Some New York companies showed interest, but nobody wanted to commit.
“You’re just sitting around, waiting. They have maybe 300 other scripts they’re reading,” Williams said. “Statistically, my chances were not good.”
So this year, Williams decided to take things into his own hands. He pitched the idea to the Hatbox Theatre and recruited local actors and real-life couple Jen Sassak and Joe Paoni to play his leads. They pull it all together in a full-fledged production at the Concord venue this weekend, from Friday, June 30, through Sunday, July 16.
Williams said the idea for Talking to Starlight started with a New York Times story by Mandy Len Catron called “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” published January 2015, which looked at a test psychologist Arthur Aron created in 1997. It comprised 36 questions, starting easy (when did you last sing to yourself?) and moving increasingly more personal as you go on (what’s your relationship with your mother like?). The final task involves the couple taking the test to stare into each other’s eyes for four minutes. Six months later, Aron’s two participants, who met in the laboratory, were married.
“I thought it would make a great two-hander — a play with only two people in it,” Williams said. 
His story follows an astrophysicist named Eleanor deciding whether to take a dream job, which would require an enormous move, or stay with her new-ish boyfriend, Daniel. She resolves to make the decision by taking Aron’s test, which they do on the terrace of an outdoor cafe. As questions become intimate, secrets are revealed, the relationship tested.
Williams and the couple have been rehearsing regularly in a Nashua Public Library conference room, rewriting the script as they go. Some edits were small — ironing a joke here, changing a line there — but others involved major overhauls. The ending saw a total makeover.
“I wanted to cast a couple who’s already in a relationship. I thought it would be more intimate and believable because of that,” Williams said. “One of the biggest benefits I’ve had with Joe and Jen is I’m rewriting it as we go and fixing some things, which of course Michael couldn’t really do. … I give as much credit to Joe and Jen for just being funny and getting to the heart of [the story] and injecting some of what their relationship is about.”
For Sassak and Paoni, it’s equally rewarding. They received the first draft April 10 before deciding to take it on together. Outside rehearsals with Williams, they’re running lines at home, in the car, maybe even at a restaurant while waiting for food.
“So often, you don’t get to talk to the playwright; you just have to interpret the word as it’s written,” Sassak said.
Costumes will be modern, and Williams is building an “outdoor” 20-foot by 20-foot terrace with real bricks to go onstage, complete with a fence and lights.
“People have said, ‘Why are you doing this?’ ... It’s the details that make the difference between good theater and fantastic theater. Why do good when you can do fantastic with some back-breaking labor?” Williams said with a laugh.  

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