Freud's Last Session Opens in Austin
Actor David Jarrott turns producer to get a drama about Freud and C.S. Lewis onstage in Austin
For an actor to see a play and say, "I want to do that play" is the most common thing in the world. What's uncommon is for an actor to say, "I want to do that play" and then go on and produce it himself.
That's part of what makes this week's arrival of Freud's Last Session notable. It shows the profound response that actor David Jarrott had to this two-hander by Mark St. Germain. When no one else in town was keen to stage the drama, this veteran of scores of stage shows (All the Way, Peter and the Starcatcher, Ragtime) formed a production company and mounted it on his own.
A 2011 Wall Street Journal review of the off-Broadway production caught Jarrott's eye at a point when he had a keen interest in a play asking big questions about spirituality. He had recently completed a four-year intensive seminar course called Education for Ministry at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd. "It doesn't train you to go into the ministry," he says, "but it does try to broaden your theological view and discern what your particular ministry might be in life. A lot of the questions that we discussed there are questions that everybody thinks about at some time in their life, whether they're a believer or not: Is there a God? And if there is, why is there suffering? When we're no longer present on the Earth, what happens to us?" So coming across a play in which such questions are discussed by Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis felt like divine intervention.
On his next trip to New York, he took in the production of Freud's Last Session at New World Stages and "just fell in love" with it. "It was probably the best straight play that I'd ever seen – as written, as performed, as directed. It's a very dynamic play, and the interplay between the characters is marvelous." Set on the day Britain entered World War II, the play has Lewis visiting Freud in the home that friends set up for him after arranging his escape from Nazi Germany. Cancer has all but finished off the 83-year-old psychoanalyst – he'll be dead in three weeks – but he insists on meeting Lewis to discuss faith. "They're debating each other on all these questions that people struggle with all their lives, and St. Germain handles it so even-handedly," says Jarrott. "The play contains so much historical and factual evidence about both men, so you learn a lot where they are in their life's journey, and yet at the same time, it's very entertaining."
Leaving the play, Jarrott felt an actor's itch to pick up Freud's cigar. "When we mature as actors, sometimes the big, juicy roles are not as plentiful as when we're younger," he says. "You know, I'm fine with being a character actor. I don't need to have my name above the title, but when a role like that comes along – a Willy Loman or a King Lear – that's in your age range ...." And he was convinced the role would come along, that at least one Austin company would want to produce Freud's here. But when two years passed and it didn't show up on anyone's season, Jarrott wondered if he should just do it himself.
After giving the idea of producing the play a lot of thought that spring, in June he "leapt into the fray," as he told Lisa Scheps on the KOOP radio program Off Stage and On the Air. He obtained the rights – "an amazingly easy process, a lot easier than I thought it was going to be" – with the idea of a run in October, 2014. But then he tried to find a theatre that would be available in four months. "That's not as easy in Austin, Texas, as one might think," he says – his first lesson as a fledgling impresario. He was forced to postpone the run until the fall of 2015, which, he says, "turned out to be a very good thing. Knowing what I know now of the timelines and peoples' schedules, I don't think I could have successfully mounted that play within that short a period."
Since then, Jarrott has learned many more lessons about being a producer. "I've been in this business for 60 years, so it wasn't like I was unaware of what a producer does," he says. "I've just never had to do it." Rights, venues, rehearsal space, budgets, contracts, casting, production teams, PR, ticket sales ... it's a lot. Small wonder that Jarrott says this project has "consumed the last year and a half of my life." And it never lets up. One night after rehearsal, he checked his email to find a friend who needed to exchange tickets for another night. And it was Jarrott who made the swap. The one place, though, where he can let his production responsibilities slide is onstage. As he told Scheps, "We have a little rule that when I walk into the theatre, I'm not the producer. I'm the actor."
And Jarrott the actor has found his part of this project as exhilarating as Jarrott the producer has found his exhausting. He's relished digging into the historical icon with the signature cigar and finding his humanity: "There are some stories that Freud tells in the play that help reveal why he became the atheist that he was, and whether you share his view or not, you can at least understand why he felt that way, why he felt abandoned. And he had a really good sense of humor. [In the play] there are a couple of humorous stories that are told, and the playwright didn't make these up. Freud really told them."
Despite the fact that his maiden voyage as a producer hasn't yet set sail, Jarrott has already been asked if he'll produce again. He's confident that he will, but ducks the question of what, preferring to focus on this effort and getting through the run. And when the show closes, he's giving a gift to himself: a vacation to England, where, fittingly, he'll pay a visit to the Freud Museum in the home where Freud spent his last days.
Freud's Last Session runs Sept. 23-Oct. 18, Wed.-Sat., 8pm; Sun., 2:30pm, at Trinity Street Theatre, 901 Trinity. For more information, visit www.jarrottproductions.com.