By Jason Jenkins & Sean Miner
Orono actor and playwright Jenni Charrier said the idea for her newest play came to her in a vision – literally.
“A lot of the ideas I have come in a half-awake state and this was no different,” Charrier said. “I was just waking up in the morning and realized that I had dreamt this entire storyline.”
Not wanting to let a single plot point fade back into her subconscious, Charrier (who writes under the pen name of J. L. Charrier) grabbed her MacBook and began to type.
“In four hours, it was done,” she said. “The core story was finished and I just had to flesh it out… I have all kinds of inspiration, and this one just happened to come from a dream,” Charrier said.
The basis of the idea that came to Charrier in her dream centered around a painting by American realist artist Edward Hopper is known to most for his 1942 painting “Nighthawks,” which portrays people in a downtown diner late at night.
But Charrier’s dream was focused on another one of the Hopper’s works – his 1940 painting “Office at Night.”
“I have a lot of his prints, but I hadn’t really thought about that painting recently… So I don’t know why in particular that one,” Charrier said.
The painting depicts two characters in an office: one an attractive young woman in a blue dress standing at an open file cabinet while a slightly older man dressed in a suit works behind a desk.
In about a month, Charrier said she had the play’s script written from beginning to end, complete with three additional characters entering into the single-room production. The play was ready to become the next project for Charrier’s theatre promotions and production outfit, Foxhill Studios.
Charrier said her play is a fitting homage to Hopper, who regularly attended the theatre to find inspiration for his paintings.
The Orono playwright said that it was only after she had submitted her play for this year’s Minnesota Fringe Festival, an 11-day performing arts festival in Minneapolis, that she realized she would need the rights to use the image.
Luckily, she didn’t have to go far to seek permission. The original “Office at Night” hangs at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The painting is his only work on display in the Twin Cities.
“That was just fortuitous,” said Charrier. “And the Walker was very supportive of me being a local artist and definitely was helpful as far as giving me the rights to use the image.”
Added Charrier, “Everything just worked out really well.”
Art begets art
Charrier’s “Office at Night” begins with the scene in Hopper’s painting being constructed before the audience’s eyes. Two actors, Brandon Holscher and Tabitha Kerr, enter the scene, and the action freezes, with the two actors reenacting the painting in a way strikingly recognizable to anyone who has seen the piece.
The experience is surreal. Charrier related that much of her love for the painter’s work comes from his use of perspective in his paintings, using the perspective of an outside observer.
“He’s that observer, that person looking into the scene,” said Charrier. “He’s not part of it, he’s not allowed to participate.”
In the same way, the audience watches the painting come alive. Charrier’s stage interpretation of the artwork also introduces two new Hopper-styled “paintings” in the same way.
“Every time there’s a new painting introduced, the light changes and everybody freezes into position,” Charrier said.
These two “paintings” have never graced a canvas, but those familiar with Hopper’s work will find them thematically similar to his existing portfolio. Charrier said that she didn’t originally write the script with the intention of having those two new “paintings” transpire, but said that certain scenes felt particularly Hopper-esque.
“Throughout the progression of the script, it seemed like there were certain moments where I could capture the essence of what he painted,” said Charrier. She continued, speaking to the characters in the scene, “Each one of them is disconnected from each other, in the thematic style of Hopper.”
Charrier recalled seeing her first Hopper painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. when she was 17. That work, entitled “Cape Cod Evening,” was the first print she bought, and has inspired her to this day.
“That’s really what started my love affair, I guess, with his work,” remembered Charrier. “I’d never seen anything quite like that.”
Prints of the painter’s work populate the walls of her Orono home; rehearsals for the small-stage production have taken place in a basement room lined with those prints. While rehearsing, the five actors have had not only a copy of “Office at Night” in the room for easy reference, but over a half dozen other Hopper paintings from which to draw inspiration as well.
Once more unto the Fringe
This year marks Charrier’s second consecutive year producing work for the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Last year, she produced and acted in the musical “The Ohman Stone” by Apple Valley writer and director Sheridan O’Keefe. In its 22nd season, the Minnesota Fringe Festival will host more than 174 productions that run 60 minutes or less on stages throughout Minneapolis.
In addition to writing, directing and producing “Office at Night,” Charrier will also act in the play in the role of the wife (not portrayed in the painting) of the man sitting behind his desk.
And while Charrier’s theatre career consists mostly of acting and singing (she began performing when she was six years old), the Orono mother hopes to continue directing and writing, and she has already inked her second play.
“It’s a two-act drama that’s based on a missing persons case that still remains unsolved,” she said. “I’d like to put that on stage next. It’s a pretty unique play too.”
With “Office at Night,” the director said audiences should expect anything and everything. The hour-long play, set in 1940’s Boston, features humor, romance and surprises throughout, according to Charrier.
“They should be prepared to feel a huge mix of emotions,” said the playwright of her work.
The cast will put on five shows at the festival. If “Office at Night” performs best out of some half-dozen productions using the same venue, they’ll earn the chance to put on one additional performance.
In the meantime, rehearsals continue for cast, which is composed of Charrier herself, Brandon Holscher of Champlin, Tabitha Kerr of Shakopee, Shelley Smith of Eden Prairie and Penn Bowen of Mound. Charrier reported that everything was coming together in the weeks before the show.
“I’m pleased to see, even with every rehearsal, the actors digging in more, getting that pitch-perfect sense of comedy,” said Charrier. “Every night, we still iron stuff out.”
Charrier’s interpretation of the painting derives an hour of laughs, tension and more from a single still image. The finished product certainly has life of its own, but still certainly feels Hopper-esque.
“He walks that line,” said Charrier of Hopper. “It’s that hazy place, before you fall asleep.”
“It’s a dreamscape,” added the playwright.