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BCT’s ‘Tiny Beautiful Things' redefines the theatrical experience as sustained empathy

Boise Contemporarhy Theater
Marissa Price (upper right) co-stars in, and Donna Jean Fogel (lower right) directs "Tiny Beautiful Things."

“Tiny Beautiful Things” was already a runaway bestseller in 2012, and when it was adapted into a play, the story dug even deeper to become a “sustained theatrical exercise in empathy,” wrote Jesse Green of The New York Times when the drama opened in New York in 2017.

Suffice to say, "Tiny Beautiful Things" is one of the most anticipated productions in recent memory for Boise Contemporary Theater. And the production’s director, Donna Jean Fogel and Marissa Price who plays Sugar, the anonymous advice columnist at the center of the play, visit with Morning Edition host George Prentice to preview BCT’s soon-to-open show.

“It is a central human function of community ... and it's really, really beautiful the way it manifests in this play.”

The full transcript:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. I'm George Prentice. Good morning. The subtitle of Cheryl Strayed's 2012 bestseller is “Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar.” Sugar….the once anonymous online columnist at The Rumpus, we learned, was Cheryl Strayed, author of the best-selling memoir “Wild.” And therein lies “Tiny, Beautiful Things,” indeed, a best seller and we’ve heard that it is soon to be a series on Hulu, but smack dab in the middle is Tiny, Beautiful Things, the stage production and it's almost as if it was heaven sent for Boise Contemporary theater. Donna Jean Fogel is the director of Tiny Beautiful Things, and none other than Sugar is none other than Marissa Price. And we'll say good morning to you both.

DONNA JEAN FOGEL: Good morning.

MARISSA PRICE: Good morning.

PRENTICE: Donna Jean Fogel Talk to me about this choice… and how you connect to Tiny Beautiful Things.

FOGEL: Well, it's interesting. I read it quickly the first time and so quickly I didn't let it in. Wow. When I came back to just really sit with it, it just came in on me completely. And it was very clear. I was tremendously moved by it in the offering that I found in it toward ways to accept things that are hard to accept and the acceptance in the voice of sugar, of human foibles and human grapplings that there's no judgment but that she simply shares her own grapplings. So I was quite moved, took away some things even for myself, just on that read. So then I called Ben and said, You know, if you don't have a director yet, I'm please ring me.

PRENTICE: Marissa Price, let's talk about Sugar. In another life, I've been a ghostwriter. I've been an anonymous writer. Have you thought about that…and the freedom and the truth that comes with anonymity that that Sugar held?

PRICE: Sure, sure. I think anonymity is a really interesting question that we're grappling with in the age of the Internet in particular. As a writer, I think the anonymity of sugar gives her tremendous it actually what I think it does is it frees the listeners and the writers to be unfettered by any expectations they have of who she might be. We all, regardless of our intentions, may have some prejudices we carry within ourselves, and we might not invest as much validity in somebody, you know, based on who we think they may be. But not knowing who they are just allows you to accept whatever is forthcoming on its own terms. So I think that's a really one of the things that's important about the work that she did. And then when she finally revealed her name, there's this kind of accountability that happens.

PRENTICE: Donna Jean Fogel , one of the great things about theater is discovery. So help me with that …or maybe tease our audience a little bit. How much do you want us to know before we come into the theater? What can you tell us?

FOGEL: Well, the first thing is always just bring your curiosity, see what you see in front of you. And we are crafting an experience with the help, certainly of Cheryl Strayed's words. It's a it's an interesting piece in that it's not a it's not a kind of play that has a very clear, you know, plot and beginning, middle and end. However, there is a progression that the character of sugar goes through and that I believe and hope the audience goes through as well during the course of it. It's a journey of our human grapplings really, and the very contemporary ones, I think, but also that humans have grappled with in different ways forever. Yeah. So I say bring your curiosity. I don't know if this will come up, but you might want to have a tissue in your bag. There are times when I've needed a tissue and in dealing with this play and that I can't say that will always happen to everybody. But it might be good to have just now.

PRENTICE: You have my full attention. So, so my sense is… just as an audience member, I get to enter where I'm ready to relate? It's without the narrative arc so I can plug in maybe at a very different place than the person sitting next to me?

FOGEL: Absolutely. And some people have asked me, “Should I read the book before I come?” And I don't necessarily think so, although I think it's a great book and I recommend reading it. But I think anybody can receive this play wherever they're at. Don't worry about that. There's no homework involved.

PRENTICE: I'm going to ask you both this question. And Marissa, maybe you can start. We talk so much about being heard…and the need to be heard, but can you talk about the art of being heard, of being listened to and being responded to with respect and accuracy?

PRICE: Oh, it is so absolutely crucial. And it's the, you know, the central function of Sugar as a character in this story. But I have some interesting personal experience with this. In my many years in Seattle, I worked on the phones for lots of nonprofit organizations. And one of the things I realized is that people come with ever whatever complaint or ache or praise they have, and they just want to be heard. It might not be a solvable problem, but they just want to be acknowledged and held and seen. So they feel like they can move beyond whatever, you know, was irritating them or whatever they were feeling at the time. And the same is true in this context. People are riding in with, you know, the deepest wounds of their spirit in some cases. Is a really silly questions and just knowing that somebody is on the other end to hold it with them and to see them through and in some cases maybe to nudge them in a particular direction. It is a central human function of community and it's really, really beautiful the way it manifests in this play.

FOGEL: I have to agree. I think I think I think the way Marissa just what Marissa just said is really eloquent. And I know as a human going through my my journey many times, I have just craved people to hear each other, just to hear in order and not react. Not necessarily just to hear what was in order to be able to then respond. But I do think the art of hearing is as she says, is the art of being with we, especially after all of the our time in COVID. I think we recognize even more the nourishment we get from someone being with.

PRICE: Absolutely. And on top of that, I think there's a really important function of healing that happens in being heard.

PRENTICE: She is Marissa Price and she is Sugar. And Donna Jean Fogel is the director of Tiny Beautiful Things at Boise Contemporary Theater, running through March 25th. Great. Good luck with this.

PRICE: Wonderful. Thank you, George. Really appreciate your time.

FOGEL: Appreciate it, George, Thanks. Great talking to you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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