Loretta Walsh and Ben Ratner. Photo credit: Brian Markinson

Dinner with Friends premiered at the 1998 Humana Festival of New American Plays, worked its way to off-Broadway the following year, and later received a 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was also adapted into a TV movie in 2001.

The Dirty Manhattan Equity Co-op and Loretta Walsh are bringing the story to Vancouver. The story is a journey to find balance and truth in marriage and friendships, as well as the unspoken sorrow that can creep up on us as we approach middle age.

I spoke with Loretta Walsh and co-collaborator Ben Ratner (both Vancouver based acting coaches) about Dinner With Friends, asking them a round of questions to get audiences ready for the upcoming run.

What made you decide to stage this play?

Loretta: Winning a Pulitzer was a good start! ‘Dinner with Friends‘ is a play that we worked on together when I was a student in class at Haven Studios with Ben as my teacher. I was moved by Donald Margulies’ writing and universal appeal of this play so much that I was inspired to approach Ben, Jennifer Clement, Noel Johansen, and Jenn Maclean-Angus to stage our own production. Audiences can expect to be entertained, but should leave with questions and discussions about their own lives and how they relate to the story and these characters. A perfect blend of entertainment and hopefully the sparking of discussions and thoughts to be mulled over dinner with their own friends.

Were you enticed to watch the 2011 movie (starring Dennis Quaid, Andie MacDowell, Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette) in order to prepare for your roles?

Ben: We both have seen the filmed HBO version. Other people in the cast have not, although they have watched clips from painfully amateurish productions of the play on YouTube. Some actors avoid watching anyone else do their part because they are afraid of being too influenced by another performer’s interpretation. I come from the school of “learn from the best and the worst”. Watch what works and what doesn’t. Learn from their triumphs and misfires. Never flagrantly steal their choices, but borrow from and re-imagine certain aspects of their creations. As far as the film version, although very talented people were involved, I felt the part of Gabe was very oddly cast (Dennis Quaid) and it threw the believability of the whole thing off. However, the film won several Emmys and was praised by critics, so what the hell do I know?

Have either of you had similar experiences to what the actors go through in the play to prepare for your role(s)?

Loretta: I think that for all of the actors there is a deep understanding of this play as at some point we have all been forced to question the choices we have made in our lives, just like our characters do. In terms of the actual experiences that our characters go through, there are varying degrees of similarities, but as actors we are required to bridge the gap between ourselves and our characters. We can do this through relating our characters journey to our own life experiences or by using our imagination (or a combination of both!). The very human themes of this play resonate for us all. At this stage with opening just days away, we are definitely feeling like we are walking in our character’s shoes for the hour and a half we are on stage.

Have you updated any aspects of the 1998 play for today’s audiences?

Yes, Donald Margulies has given permission to change some of the references in the play to update it to 2012. The changes are minimal (mainly to do with technology).

Dinner With Friends will be performed at Studio 1398 on Granville Island from November 8 to 24. Click here for tickets and schedule information.

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