New Mockingbird play presents different, unrehearsed actor every performance

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For his first stage role in nearly two years, QC actor Ben Gougeon will star in the area premiere of the unique two-person “An Oak Tree,” by Tim Crouch, at Mockingbird on Main, 320 N. Main St., Davenport.

Ben Gougeon stars in “An Oak Tree,” at The Mockingbird on Main in downtown Davenport.

Directed by Max Moline, and featuring a different (and unrehearsed) stage partner each performance, “An Oak Tree” will be performed at The Mockingbird on Main from Nov. 26 to Dec. 5. Inspired by Michael Craig-Martin’s 1974 conceptual art work of the same name, “An Oak Tree” was first performed by author Tim Crouch at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival, where it took home the Herald Angel Award.

It has subsequently played at theatres and festivals around the world, winning a Special Citation Obie during its run at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City, and breaking box-office records during its run at London’s Soho Theatre.

A synopsis from the playwright says: “A man loses his daughter to a car. Nothing now is what it is. It’s like he’s in a play – but he doesn’t know the words or the moves. The man who was driving the car is a stage hypnotist. Since the accident, he’s lost the power of suggestion. His act’s a disaster. For him, everything now is exactly what it is. For the first time since the accident, these two men meet. They meet when the Father volunteers for the Hypnotist’s act. And, this time, he really doesn’t know the words or the moves…”

On the surface, “An Oak Tree” tells the story of a grieving father confronting the driver who killed his daughter in an auto accident. Yet Crouch has taken this basic conceit and “created a nuanced and layered examination of grief, identity, and trust set within the world of a struggling stage hypnotist’s show,” according to a Mockingbird release.

“An Oak Tree” runs Nov. 26-Dec. 5 at The Mockingbird on Main, 320 N. Main St., Davenport.

The Hypnotist is being played by Gougeon, but the Father will be played by a different actor at each performance. The actor playing The Father will walk on stage never having seen the script, and the world of reality and The Hypnotist’s show run in parallel tracks, before blurring together and making both the audience and performers question what is real and what is part of the show. 

“First off, I’m fascinated by hypnosis; both stage hypnosis and hypnotherapy, and have participated in both,” Gougeon said recently. “Plus logistically, with the concept of not having a consistent stage partner, I knew we could create a rehearsal schedule that worked around my family needs. And the more I read the play, and the more its complexities were revealed, the more I fell in love with the challenges it presented to the actor.”

Gougeon (a veteran actor of stage and screen, who has a 16-month-old son) is actually playing three different versions of The Hypnotist during the course of the show, “though sometimes those versions blur together and the characters themselves aren’t sure what version they are,” he said.

“Crouch has written a beautifully nuanced piece about how we deal with grief, and like grief, it’s layered and messy and complex and has moments of profound sorrow and profound joy,” Gougeon said. “The last few years of my life have brought both the most joyful and most sorrowful times I’ve experienced to this point, and I really connected to the themes and ideas An Oak Tree is exploring.”

“I can’t wait to share this piece with our audience, and with the actors who will be joining me on stage,” he said. “We’ve had some tremendous performers join us for rehearsals who’ve really helped us to shape the show: Alex McCarthy, Eric Teeter, Kiera Martin, and Katie Griswold. Their input has been invaluable as we’ve shaped the piece and tried to pull out all the specific moments of the show: the humor, the macabre, the heart. We couldn’t have done it without them, and can’t wait to see what our guest stars will bring each performance.

“It’s the ultimate test of trust for an actor; stepping on stage with another performer that you’ve not worked with and just diving in,” Gougeon said, noting he hasn’t rehearsed with anyone who will perform in the actual run. “There’s a saying that I try to live my life by: ‘Jump and the net will appear.’ An Oak Tree is that sentiment personified.”

Home in the QC for two years

Gougeon, a graduate of Western Illinois University’s MFA Acting program (2007), moved to the QC in the fall of 2019. Before relocating back to the Midwest, he had spent the last decade-plus working in New York City as an actor, appearing on TV shows such as the Emmy-winning “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Law & Order: SVU,” “The Blacklist,” “Bull,” and HBO’s “The Deuce,” where he performed with Oscar nominated Maggie Gyllenhaal. He’s performed Off & Off-Off Broadway, at the Metropolitan Opera, and on stages in almost every state east of the Mississippi, and a couple west.

Ben Gougeon, who earned a master’s in acting from Western Illinois University, moved to the Quad Cities in fall 2019.

Gougeon’s last stage role was December of 2019, when he last did a production of “A Christmas Carol” in Missouri, playing Bob Cratchit and Fezziwig. He’s done virtual productions during the pandemic, and has been working on “An Oak Tree” on and off since August.

“It’s gonna be a lot of fun, each night is going to be a completely different experience for us,” he said recently.

Director Max Moline has lined up a star-studded cast of local performers to portray The Father: Daniel DP Sheridan, Kira Rangel, Roger Pavey Jr., Susan Perrin-Sallak, Anthony Hendricks (Martin Luther King Jr., in Mockingbird’s “The Mountaintop”), and TJ Green.

Moline said he’s “excited to be producing shows that are unlike other shows in the Quad Cities, and with actors that the Quad Cities needs to see more of. I hope this show makes you think about what theatre can be.”

Despite the fact that the Father figure comes in not having the script before, there’s no improvisation in the show, Gougeon said. “It’s all controlled by the actor playing the hypnotist,” he said.

“They’re given sections of text to read, and I’m feeding them instructions on stage,” Gougeon said. “In portions of the show, I’m feeding them things through an earpiece. There are lots of different ways we kind of create the show, and each actor brings their own take.”

Originally, they discussed the possibility of getting a volunteer from the audience every night to play the Father, but with the technical components, it made more sense to bring in an experienced actor, he said.

“There’s a level of comfortability you need on stage in front of an audience,” Gougeon said. “They have no script, have no idea what’s going to happen.”

He’s attended stage hypnosis shows in the past and has been called up on stage. “That was something I was susceptible to,” he said. “If you are willing to accept the power of suggestion, you are more likely to yield to it, I guess. I’ve also utilized hypnotherapy for a couple things, self-hypnosis techniques, meditation and centering practices. I think it’s a really powerful tool, if you’re willing to believe in it.”

“The thing I find most challenging and fun as an actor in the show, the hypnotist functions on several different levels,” Gougeon said. “Within the show, there is the stage hypnotist show. I’m playing as both the creator of the piece and the stage hypnotist.”

“The dialogue that is in the play is very intentionally gray in some areas, so you don’t know what level you’re working on,” he added.

Father played by women and men

Crouch also specified that it doesn’t matter the age or gender of the actor playing the Father.

“I think everyone’s going to interpret what it means to play a father from a different lens, based on age, their own experience,” Gougeon said. “It’s going to bring a lot of different versions of that character out.”

“Something I’m really looking forward to, rehearsing with different actors, all of them have brought something completely different,” he said. “That’s great for me, learning to adjust to different actors, just being ready for anything could happen. Any particular actor could respond to a line an infinite number of ways.”

Daniel Sheridan of Davenport Junior Theatre is among the guest actors, to be featured in “An Oak Tree” on Dec. 3.

The following actors — who were all told not to read “An Oak Tree” or anything about it beforehand — are scheduled in these performances —

  • Friday, Nov. 26 at 8 p.m.: Susan Perrin-Sallak
  • Saturday, Nov. 27 at 8 p.m.: Anthony Hendricks
  • Sunday, Nov. 28 at 2 p.m.: Kira Rangel
  • Friday, Dec. 3 at 8 p.m.: Daniel Sheridan
  • Saturday, Dec. 4 at 8 p.m.: Roger Pavey Jr.
  • Sunday, Dec. 5 at 2 p.m.: TJ Green

Doors open to the public 30 minutes before curtain. Advanced reservations are highly encouraged as the venue is intimate and seating is limited. Tickets are $15, and are available at TheMockingbirdOnMain.com.

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