When the play Trust premiered in Seattle in 1992, it was the height of the grunge era. Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" was on heavy radio rotation, Kate Moss was the face of heroin chic, and everyone wanted to be a rock star. Change the city and the timeline and you could argue that the same is true today. Even in sunny Charleston, a city where few regularly know the feel of flannel, the music scene is booming with bands like Brave Baby, PUNKS&SNAKES, and Dumb Doctors. So it makes sense that director Michael Smallwood thought audiences would appreciate Steven Dietz's play about fame and celebrity. But to make it really tie into the Holy City, he decided to give it a local hook by including the music of Charleston musician Samantha Church.
"It's a great play that not a lot of people know," says Smallwood. "It had its moment in the '90s but then just disappeared." Smallwood initially saw Trust at the College of Charleston nearly 10 years ago when he was an undergrad.
Set against a music industry backdrop, Trust tells the story of a group of characters navigating their way through various stages of fame, engaging in various love triangles along the way. Cody is a musician in his prime engaged to Becca. Leah is a washed-up rock star. Gretchen is a dress maker creating a gown for Becca. Andre is a public radio DJ, and Holly is a young groupie desperate to see Cody's band in concert.
The play unfolds as a series of vignettes between two or three characters — often remarking on love and lust. Although Becca and Cody are engaged to be married, Cody's dealings with celebrity lead him to become infatuated with Leah. At the same time, Becca and Gretchen's relationship lights up, while Roy pursues band-aid Holly, who has an eye for the rock star Cody rather than the nerdy public radio DJ. Through confrontations and surprises, the characters maneuver through a tangled web of relationships — often looking out for only themselves.
"I remember seeing it then, and I was kind of blown away by it," Smallwood says. "It had some of the best language in a play that I had heard. It's such a lyrical play." He points to one of his favorite lines as an example: "She has hearts to live in and rooms to break. She has people to be."
Such language has stuck with Smallwood, even a decade after first seeing it. "It's always been there in the back of my mind, so when I got the opportunity to direct for Jimmy [Ward, founder and artistic director at Crabpot Players], I re-read Trust," he says. "I was struck that I was just as impressed by it. It was every bit as good as I remembered, and better in some parts. The immediate familiarity I had with it after all that time was something I haven't always gotten from scripts long after I've seen them."
Putting it on in Charleston was another desire Smallwood had. "It's time to bring this play back, especially for Charleston being such a theatre town," he states. "There are incredible parts for some local actors." And Smallwood knew the people he could get for the show would be amazing.
Smallwood points to his casting of Andre Hinds and Allison Arvay, who play Roy and Gretchen, respectively. "Andre is a great performer, a really subtle actor who, after just a reading of the script, knew this character inside and out," says Smallwood.
He calls Arvay a hidden gem in Charleston's small thespian scene, adding, "She's a committed and deep actress with a well of talent that only a few people in town really have seen or understand."
Working with a group of actors from the area, Smallwood is happy to have cast people who can bring in their own experiences to help personalize each character: "This play is about relationships and artistry, something everyone in the cast has experience with," he says.
Although not required, Joanna Cretella, who plays Leah, has experience as a singer, which he says allowed her to relate to her has-been rock star character.
As for local musician Samantha Church, Smallwood invited her to provide music for the play to pull together the 1990s vibe. Though Trust is not a musical, the stage directions suggests certain songs to be played between scenes — for instance "Turn You Inside Out" by R.E.M. and "Big Sky Country" by Chris Whitely. Instead of using the music suggested by the play, Smallwood is using recorded segments of Church's songs.
"Her music fits the show really well — it's very acoustic, it's one girl with a guitar, which is how I picture Leah's career," says Smallwood. "When I think of Leah's music, I think of simple music. It's just her, it's very raw, it's very open, it sort of bleeds." Church, incidentally, acted in the College of Charleston production of Trust Smallwood saw 10 years ago.
To round out the rock 'n' roll feel of the show, Smallwood is dressing the stage crew in custom roadie T-shirts and projecting interviews with the characters — for instance, from Leah's past during her glory years — in between scenes.
"Even between scenes, I want that sense of celebrity to keep going so the run crew members will be coming in an out, doing everything for them so they can walk into the next scene," Smallwood says.
Naturally, the play will have a very different tone from the first time Smallwood saw Trust, a tone that will be very much rooted in Charleston's local creative community. "I've grown as an artist and writer since then. I see things differently, and so my approach to the show is inevitably different from the production that hooked me a decade ago," he says. "But I'm still in love with the characters and the language of this play. Those things will never be different, which is why I'm doing it all over again."