Plan-B Theatre has made its mark on Utah theatre by bringing highly charged and politically relevant new work to local audiences. The 2013/2014 ‘Season of Eric’ (featuring 4 original productions by Eric Samuelsen) features stories that hit both close to home and ask for awareness on a national level. The next production, CLEARING BOMBS, places economists Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes in a discourse about the future during a summer night in 1942. Keynes is played by Mark Fossen, a prominent face in the Salt Lake theatre scene and an increasingly visible director with lauded work around the valley. I was able to speak with Mark about his work as an actor and how he approaches new work.
UTBA: What first drew you to the theatre?
FOSSEN: I started in high school, and fell in love when I realized what a complete challenge it was for me. I was a bit of a classic underachiever, always getting grades below what I should have been getting just because I was bored. The juggling act of theatre seemed impossible—in many ways, it still does. The challenge drew me originally, and still does.
UTBA: The first time I remember seeing you as an actor was in Plan-B’s 2006 anniversary production of THE ALIENATION EFFEKT. How long have you been active in Salt Lake theatre and what brought you here?
FOSSEN: My first show in Salt Lake was just before that, in Larry West’s HENRY V at Salt Lake Shakespeare in the summer of 2005. I had been out of theatre for quite a few years before that, as we moved from California to Pennsylvania for work, and then chose to move to Utah to be closer to family. Since those two shows, I’ve kept pretty busy in Salt Lake theatre because I love our community here and feel privileged to work with such wonderful, talented, and passionate people.
UTBA: You’ve been part of a lot of new work with Plan-B. What is it like to be the first actor to attack a role?
FOSSEN: It’s a tremendous privilege, and I still never get over seeing my name in a published script as the actor originating a role. The Plan-B playwrights are friends and colleagues, and I pressure myself to not let them down. This isn’t just some name printed in a script, these are important people in my life and I owe them anything I can do to make their vision come to life.
UTBA: Has being a director changed the way you approach a role? If so, how?
FOSSEN: I think a lot more about story now, about what the play needs and what the other actors need. I’m less concerned with emotional impulse, and more concerned with my function in helping the play work. Though maybe that mindset is what led me to directing, more than directing giving me that mindset.
UTBA: Eric Samuelsen is also the director for CLEARING BOMBS. What is the process like with your playwright as director?
FOSSEN: Eric’s been very conscious of when he’s wearing his playwright’s hat, and when he’s wearing his director one. We joke about how we’ll need to ask the playwright about that line next time we see him. But even with that separation, Eric is such a fount of information and passion. He is steeped in this world, and the richness of detail he gives us makes the play immeasurably better. He knows these men intimately, and it shows.
UTBA: John Maynard Keynes is a pretty significant historical figure. What is it like to play a character based on a real person?
FOSSEN: I’m a research junkie, so I love playing historical figures. I love diving deep into the facts, so I get a sense of their worldview. The challenge is then in knowing when to put that research aside and focus on creating a stage character. I’m not a mimic, and I’m not trying to imitate Keynes. What I want to communicate his essence, and what it would have been like to be in conversation with someone like that.
UTBA: What do you think the biggest challenge is for portraying a character like Keynes?
FOSSEN: The biggest challenge in a character like Keynes is capturing that blazing intellect. He’s one of the leading thinkers of the 20th Century, and he was also a legendary teacher. I’m neither of those things. Capturing the quickness of his mind and his ability to communicate those ideas is the constant battle.
UTBA: What do you think makes CLEARING BOMBS relevant right now?
FOSSEN: We’ve all been caught in this debate, whether we know it or not. Stimulus versus austerity is the major discussion that’s consumed world news the past few years, and it all comes back to Keynes and Hayek. It may take place in 1942, but CLEARING BOMBS is about TARP bailouts and Obamacare and Greek austerity programs and the debt ceiling debates. More than that, it talks about why it’s all so important and what’s really at stake.
UTBA: What do you like most about working with mission-oriented company like Plan-B?
FOSSEN: Plan-B is family. From the artists to the audience, it’s a family that loves stimulating ideas and stirring debate. More than that, Plan-B’s focus on Utah playwrights means that it’s theatre about us. I’m a firm believer that theatre happens everywhere—not just New York or London or Chicago. The amazing thing about theatre is that it’s always about here and now, and Plan-B is committed to that.
UTBA: How do you think the SLC theatre scene has grown or changed since you joined?
FOSSEN: I think the amount of challenging, interesting work is growing. I think a lot of people like to say it’s all the same, stale old shows being done again and again, but it’s really not the case. Maybe it was, at one point, but a quick look at UTBA proves it’s not the case now. If you think Utah theatre is just about endless revivals of JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, you’re not paying attention. A great many companies are doing fresh material, and doing it at a high level. I don’t know if it’s just a particularly great time to be a member of the theatre community, but I see plenty of theatres taking risks these days. I think our scene is vibrant and promising, and will only become more so if we focus on the work that excites us instead of complaining about the work that doesn’t.