5th Wall Productions isn’t afraid to be subversive. The mobile theater company (which most recently occupied a space in Citadel Mall) doesn’t offer apologies for asking tough questions; they believe that good theater is often controversial. 5th Wall’s upcoming performance, The Mating Instinct by Aren Haun, raises eyebrows when the central character, a high school English teacher named Carl, drafts a young adult novel … about a teacher who has an affair with a student.
When Carl’s wife, colleagues, and students discover the subject matter of Carl’s latest work, they’re left wondering where fiction ends and fact begins. “It’s up to the audience and the other characters in the play to determine whether Carl’s novel is based on reality or if it’s just a fantasy,” says director of The Mating Instinct, Jason Olson. “And, if it is a fantasy, is there anything wrong with writing about it?”
Conflict erupts when Carl — whose marriage, career, and reputation are on the line — doesn’t immediately reveal the truth. “Each character gets to have their own individual reaction to Carl’s actions. It’s how everyone responds to his choices that makes this a compelling play,” says Olson. Are Carl’s creative ventures indicative of his reality? Cast and audience alike are left to wonder if we’re able to separate the art from the artist.
5th Wall Productions wants the audience to actively participate in their productions, not only by raising difficult questions, but by engaging with and reacting to new work. They open submissions on their website for writers to pitch their unpublished, unproduced creations. This season, a reading team sorted through 700 submissions and selected 10 plays for a staged reading. Of those 10 staged readings, only two submissions moved forward to become workshop productions. “We had the benefit of a reading where the writer was able to attend. Everyone at the reading had questions for the playwright. We were able to have some in-depth conversations about the play.”
Olson, along with co-artistic director, Blair Cadden, and their staff, put extensive consideration into their selections for the stage. A workshop production offers a unique opportunity to see how a new work is interpreted by both the cast members who bring the production to life and by the reactions of the audience. “For the first two weeks, we just did table work,” says Olson. “All the actors sat around a table and would read a scene. We’d ask questions, analyze the script, and we came up with ideas for how our characters would handle certain circumstances in the play. We really whittled it down.”
As a playwright himself, Olson praises the benefits that a workshop can provide as a forum to discover strengths and weaknesses in the script. They become an organic collaboration between playwright, director, cast, and audience. “That’s the best feeling about new work being staged: Just handing it over and seeing what people do with it. I think Aren trusted us enough to let us put it up, and now he’s going to get to see it. Seeing your hard work on stage is a pretty great feeling.”
Unlike with most plays, workshop productions don’t come with notes, film adaptations, or critical interpretations to guide the direction of the play. “These actors get to create these characters for the first time. That’s part of the fun, sitting around the room. I’ll ask the room what they think, and the actors will shoot their hands up,” says Olson. “Sometimes that leads to questions for the playwright that could make the play better. Sometimes that leads to me changing the direction because of a certain thing that has woken up in the dialogue between the characters. It’s just a really cool, collaborative way of doing theater.”
Previously, 5th Wall’s productions were held at a space at the Citadel Mall, but conflicts with the owners forced them to find a new location. They’ve moved to South of Broadway in Park Circle for part of their upcoming season. “Mary Gould, the producer at South of Broadway, has been very generous to us,” says Olson. “We’re doing three shows there this season because of their transition with their season. It’s a traditional black box space which is perfect for this play.”
The entirety of The Mating Instinct takes place in the English Department of the high school, so a sparse black box is ideal. Olson expresses gratitude for his colleagues at South of Broadway: “Charleston has a really great theater community. There are a lot of active theaters, and we all help each other out. We work hard at collaboration. We’re really feeling the love from South of Broadway.”