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Entrevista: Heather Cunningham Of Retro Productions

by Antonio Miniño on November 3, 2009

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If I said to you I was an old time fan of Heather and Retro Productions I would be lying … and why start off with a lie? Who would I be! Despicable me … so lets start with the truth and nothing but! I first became acquainted with their work about a year ago as a matter of … chance.  I reviewed their production of Mill Fire for The Fab Marquee and was taken in by their attention to detail, something that made me think they had been around for  – oh, I don’t know – 10 years. To my surprise they are only a couple of years old, but seasoned in talent and determined to bring back quality pieces – and as I learned after interviewing their Artistic Director Heather Cunningham – new works as well.

Heather Cunningham

Heather Cunningham Artistic Director Retro Productions

Their mission is to present works of “retro theatre”, and they so wisely include the American Heritage Dictionary definition of Retro (since everyone has different ideas of what that is), as “involving, relating to, or reminiscent of things past“; in their case with extra emphasis on the 20th Century.

They were nominated for 6 New York Innovative Theatre Awards last year (2 leading actress, costume, lighting, set and sound nominations for Mill Fire), meaning they left a lasting impression on more than this theatergoer.

Premiering this Friday, November 6th at The Spoon Theater, is their production of Holy Days, a play set in the Great Depression written by Sally Nemeth and directed by Peter Zinn.

I did say this was an interview right? enough blabbing about, lets ask Heather some questions…

AM: How did Retro come about? do you consider yourself a retro girl – stuck in the fashion and art trends of the 50′s and 60′s?
HC: I’ve been told I’m “retro”, certainly I have my share of vintage inspired fashions, but I’m really a jeans and sneakers kind of girl. Musically I’m a big fan of the swing and big band sounds of the 30′s through the 60′s, my favorite artist is Bobby Darin!  I don’t claim to know much about contemporary music.  I also happen to love old things, from 30′s kitchen gadgets to 50′s children books, to 70′s advertising.

As to contemporary theater, I like quite a bit of it, both as an actress and as an audience member.  I started producing out of frustration as an actress for the quality of work I was getting, and part of that had to do with the fact that everything was either new works that were simply not ready for production or Shakespeare.  There was no happy medium!  And I love the plays of the middle of the 20th century!  They are the plays I grew up with.

AM: In your quest to bring back these plays … do you ever produce (or will you ever produce) new work?

Heather in Still Life ©Kristen Vaughan

Heather in Still Life ©Kristen Vaughan

HC: I would love to produce new work if it was “Retro”.  The plays we’ve done have not always been written in the time period they take place in, for example, Holy Days was written in the late 1980′s but it takes place in 1936.  A play doesn’t have to be old to be retro, it just needs to take place in another time period.

AM: You come from a theatrical family – your parents (Jack and Rebecca Cunningham) are a dynamic set design duo.  What’s it like working with them?  And do you always see eye to eye when those sketches are presented?
HC: I could not do what I do without my parents’ support, first and foremost.  Sometimes they think I’m nuts (Dad might still be in denial that we are doing The Desk Set in May!), and sometimes when I say “let’s do this bare bones” I get this incredible set!  I usually make my requests before the design is conceived, but on those rare occasions when I ask for something afterwards, they are great about incorporating my requests.  But above all, I am a huge fan of their work.  I think it is stunning.

AM: Six IT Award nominations for the same production is a great accomplishment!  What has it meant for the company? Have you sensed any  “drama” with colleagues because of it?
HC: It was absolutely thrilling.  I didn’t sense any jealousy at all.   In fact there seem to be a greater number of people from the Off Off Broadway community interested in Retro Productions now than before our nominations.

AM: What has been your most challenging work as an actress in or outside of Retro?
HC: There is no question… Still Life was the most challenging thing I have ever done as an actress.  The memorization alone was mind numbing.  I don’t think I have ever done a play before or since where the adrenaline of going on stage was as high from just fear of going up.  And the subject matter was not easy either … it was a play about a Vietnam vet and it was quite graphic and included pictures. And my character, the vet’s wife, was someone who was actually really far away from who I am, so playing her simply was an added challenge.

AM: What can we expect from your upcoming production of Holy Days?
Holy Days is a beautiful play, and on surface quite simple.  But like some of Pinter’s best writing, people aren’t always saying what they are thinking.  These are stoic people and they don’t (or can’t) always express their feelings.  It makes for a lot of palpable tension between the characters.

The play takes place during the Great Depression in the Dust Bowl.  Our characters are farmers and their wives and they are struggling with the devastation around them.  There is dirt and dust piled up, there is loss everywhere they look; out in the fields, in their homes, in each other.

AM: It seems the Great Depression is a recurring theme in these recession times, a true testament that artists need to express what is going on in their surroundings. What connects you to your fellow cast members?

Heather in Mill Fire

Heather in Mill Fire ©Kristen Vaughan

HC: Sure, we can all relate to the fear of losing our jobs, our homes, our livelihoods.  That it is reflective of the times we are in just makes it closer to the surface and therefore easier to tap in to.

AM: Is this your first time working with director Peter Zinn?
Peter and I go way back … more years than either of us probably wants to admit!  But seriously, we went to undergrad together (at Denison University) and I was in the first play he ever directed there.  The play was Betrayal by Harold Pinter and it was quite honestly one of the highlights of my University theater experience.  I hold that project close to my heart to this day.  Pete and I lost touch, but were reunited last year.  I told him how I felt about Betrayal and he admitted to me he felt the same way.  It’s been a joy to work with him again.  Not just because it has been wonderful to reconnect with my old friend, but also because he is such a passionate director and so perceptive.

AM: I enjoy the Spoon Theater, but if you could take over any existent theater space in New York City, which one would that be and why?
HC: Oh, I couldn’t possibly answer that!  There are so many wonderful spaces in New York … I will admit to playing a game whenever I’m in a theater, it’s called the “if this was my theater” game!  But I don’t see that happening any time soon, unless I start playing the lottery and actually manage to win!

You can catch Heather Cunningham in Holy Days from November 6-21 at The Spoon Theater. Be on the look out for our lovely managing director Karen Tortora-Lee‘s review of this production.

Ticket are only $18, available at

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Diánna MartinNo Gravatar November 4, 2009 at 11:18 am

I absolutely loved their production of “When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?” – and she did a fantastic acting job. Great to see a theatre company successfully do revivals and have the Artistic Director be able to wear the hat of actor – and pull it off. I reviewed that over at TheFabMarquee in May.

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