Driving along Mills Station Road and seeing a row of granite supply warehouses and storage facilities, one can feel that nothing special happens in this part of Rancho Cordova. That is how I felt pulling into the parking lot of the Mills Arts and Culture Center, whose building doubles as a bus terminal. Earlier that week, I was granted access to sit in on the rehearsals for The Lieutenant of Inishmore, a black comedy written by Martin McDonagh in 2001 about an Irish national whose usual day of torturing drug pushers is interrupted when his cat is killed.
Walking into the performance space really helped me to understand the nature of the play that I was about to witness. The upstairs of the Mills Arts and Culture Center, also known as the MACC, resembled something like a banquet hall from the 1970s. Built in 1911, the building has had many incarnations including a post office, bar, gas station, fire station, restaurant, and dancehall.
As opposed to the common presentation associated with theatre on a proscenium stage under an arch with velvet curtains, director Danielle Mercado presents The Lieutenant of Inishmore at a ground level view with the audience encircling the performance space so there is no barrier between the audience and the performer–a liberation from the arch! It is much less passive viewership and more interactive as a small audience is allowed to experience the play from a more intimate and democratic vantage.
Being in the back of this room watching a comedy involving IRA splinter groups and their cat friends on a weekday night, I couldn’t help but get the ever familiar “How did I get here?” feeling. It was like seeing what the old heads talk about when they claim they were there when [insert classic punk band here] played a local VFW in the 80s.
While there, I had the opportunity to speak with director and co-founder of Hummingbird Theatre Co., Danielle Mercado, about her new production at the MACC as well as her early years directing theatre.
TUBE: You had studied theatre arts locally at Sacramento State before further pursuing directing at Roosevelt University in Chicago. How do you rate the two theatre scenes?
Mercado: The theatre scene [in Chicago] is fantastic. There is a theatre on every corner, people put them in attics and basements and places you would never anticipate for theatres to be, and here I notice things tend to be very established–usually it’s a proscenium stage, there’s a lot of funding for the big theatres. Of course, there is a lot of that in Chicago too, but what I loved were the small neighborhood theatres that basically people would line up to go see. Instead of going to see a movie, people would line up to see theatre–it was a very normal occurrence, it was just part of the lifestyle in Chicago. I got to see fantastic plays there and original works too, which was inspiring. I wanted to bring that kind of local flavor back to Sacramento when I decided to move back.
TUBE: Was the Sacramento theatre scene different when you moved back from when you first left?
Mercado: I don’t know if it was all that different, I would say that the plays started to lean more modern which was exciting. The thing I wanted was to not see the same things over and over like the big musicals we see time and time again. What I want to do are shows that are off the mainstream and are stories people haven’t heard before and that I would personally love to go to and be entertained by.
TUBE: You had served a long tenure as the drama director at the Bradshaw Christian School. You have a lot of experience working with younger actors, but your new play skews to a mature audience and features a cast of established actors in their early twenties. Was that a difficult transition?
Mercado: Yeah, it kind of was. I’m very used to guiding my students along and bringing them through the process, however, in this play it almost felt like I didn’t have enough to do because I got to trust my actors because they were so experienced and have done theatre for years. It was nice to have a little more hands-off actually and trust them to make decisions on stage, whereas with kids you tend to guide them along.
TUBE: Previously, you had directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is a more well-known production than this one. Which is the more difficult production: The more well-known play or one that people may not be familiar with?
Mercado: I would say the lesser known play [because] you’ve never seen this before–I’ve never seen this before live. With a more well-known show, there are more resources to pull from. You can go onto Youtube and see other people’s ideas of what you may or may not like. With lesser-known shows, there is no template, which is kind of fun actually…I first heard of this play when I was in a theatre history class at Sac City with Christine Nicholson. She had us divide into groups and look up playwrights in different areas around the world. I chose Ireland as part of my group because I’m half Irish, and so here’s this [list] of names and I pick up Martin McDonagh and I couldn’t believe what I was reading. It was so weird, so dark and so funny…When I got to my directing class at Sac State I ended up directing that [torture] scene. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.
TUBE: You had also hired a consultant to advise on the Irish dialect, how was that?
Mercado: It was great, I actually knew him before we started the show. He was the reason why I decided to go for it because we did have somebody. His name is Kevin O’Neil and he’s in his late 60s. He is from Belfast and he’s been here for 20 years and he’s like ex-military. He’s seen a lot of life and is hilarious. He came and worked with the accents and some of the slang that we couldn’t figure out. He would tell us things like, “You don’t pronounce it Jee-zus, you pronounce it Jay-zus, Mairead.” Just stuff you wouldn’t know without having a cultural consultant.
TUBE: As someone who runs her own theatre company, how do you come to a decision on what productions to put on?
Mercado: Usually it’s about what people get excited about. I usually take my current pool of actors and see who wants to do something next and kind of shop around a couple of ideas. Maybe we could do a Sondheim musical because I really admire his work. It really attracts people because he is difficult to sing. It’s the saddest thing in the theatre world if you can sing Sondheim. It’s kind of mass appeal, but it’s also what are your actors excited to do because if the actors are excited than your audience is gonna have a great show.
TUBE: Are you just focusing on this for right now or do you have anything in the works for the future?
Mercado: We applied for a grant with the city of Rancho Cordova and we are in consideration to receive funding for our next production, so it is possible we may receive a grant for our next production. If we do, I’m looking at doing Sweeney Todd.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore has come and gone, but you can check out future Hummingbird Theatre Company productions and purchase show tickets at their website.
Words and Photos: Benz Doctolero.