A chat with the stars of the world premiere gay comedy-drama ‘Clarkston’


ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor
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At opening night of Clarkston, my companion could hardly control her excitement. “We’re seeing a world premiere! No one else has seen this play before!” she enthused. It was eye-opening to experience her excitement. Dallas has become something of a laboratory for significant world premieres lately, including three operas in 2015 alone, as well as two already this season from Dallas Theater Center (and another opening in a few months).

It’s especially exciting for Taylor Trensch and Sam Lilja, the stars of the most recent premiere. It’s especially gratifying in that these young actors got to work with MacArthur “Genius” Grant Fellow Samuel D. Hunter, who wrote Clarkston.

Screen shot 2016-01-14 at 3.09.09 PM“Having the opportunity to work with Sam and [director] Davis McCallum,” is what drew Lilja to audition for the show; he’d never worked in Dallas before, nor even been here. (Trensch appeared in the national touring production of Spring Awakening a few years ago, so was slightly familiar with the Arts District already.) “I’ve been a fan of theirs for many years. I was really lucky to work with them in a three-person show in such a concentrated place.”

Creating the characters for a world premiere was an especially interesting challenge for young actors.

“Sam and Davis are very generous and open to input from actors, which is nice, because really, we are the bottom of the totem pole. But Sam is almost mathematical about the way he writes, so the script didn’t change a tremendous amount in rehearsals,” Trensch says.

“It felt like being a part of that collaboration was really great. They valued what we had to say,” about creating the characters,” Lilja says. “It’s pretty amazing that in Dallas there are so many new plays.”

Clarkston is an intense comedy-drama, set mostly in a Costco in the Pacific Northwest. Chris (Lilja) is a head-down-get-your-work done local working as a stocker whose life is upended by the arrival of Jake (Trensch), an openly gay Northeasterner who seems to be “slumming” by getting his first-ever job. But there’s much more below the surface. Chris is mostly in the closet, and dreams of a career as a writer — a dream frustrated by having to deal with a meth-addicted mom. And Jake suffers from a degenerative disease that will take his life within a few years. They form a strangely antagonistic yet co-dependent bond, where each tears at the other while somehow giving them purpose. The audience swings back and forth between allegiances, never fully sure which character to root for… which is what both actors like about the show.


Trensch and Lilja in a scene from ‘Clarkston.’ (Photo by Karen Almond)

“What I like about Sam’s writing is, he doesn’t follow those rules,” Trensch says. “The antagonist and protagonist changes — we all play those roles, and each character antagonizes the other. No matter how much research you do it’s impossible to understand a character’s full life, but the more you say the words, the more you find these hidden Easter eggs in Sam’s writing. You get these new gifts, you learn tiny new things. It’s a lot like life.”

“There’s something new every night that we discover together,” adds Lilja.

For Trensch, playing an openly gay 20-something was a comfortable space to occupy, but Lilja, who is straight, says he really understands the closeted Chris as well.

“I grew up in a small town in Iowa so I understand that world,” Lilja says. “I have friends I went to high school with who you knew or had a good idea they were gay but couldn’t say it because of society, so it’s not that far-fetched for me to imagine Chris. And I know what it’s like to be an outsider being an artist in a small town.”

And it’s an experience most audience members can relate to as well.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 15, 2016.