Director, actor and educator Janet Shea knows about collaboration. She believes the key is open ears.
“There is no more important tool an actor can bring to the table than their ability to listen,” she said. “I often find many of my most successful students and collaborators are the ones who listen to what is going on around them.”
For Shea, that tool is especially crucial on new work, because it requires director and playwright to come to agreement about the scope and vision of a play under development.
That process of listening will be on display as Shea presents “The Human Buffet” this weekend at Mid-City Theatre. The creation of Bunny Wingate, “Buffet” expanded under the supervision of its producer/actor Paulette Crain with an assist from David Traveras into a full evening of theater.
Recently retired after 21 years at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Shea has appeared on every major stage in the city, performed in countless local movies and continues to serve as a vocal coach and acting teacher across the New Orleans region.
She hasn’t slowed down as an actor either. She just completed a successful run as the title character in “Driving Miss Daisy” at The Bayou Playhouse in Lockport.
And even before chauffeur Hoke had taken Miss Daisy on her last drive, Shea had already turned her attention to her next assignment: directing “Buffet.”
Based on the author’s real-life experiences, Wingate’s script involves a woman named Tally’s attempts to throw herself, later in life, into the deep end of the online dating pool.
Featuring the talents not only of Crain but also Margeaux Fanning in the lead along with local favorites Andee Reed and Mikko, “The Human Buffet” is a comic musing about a woman’s journey out of the world of Internet love and into the real thing.
Initially approached to be in the show, Shea instead felt she was uniquely suited to help tell the story in a more comprehensive way. A decision was reached that she would direct, and she and Crain immediately set out to give stronger shape to the story of the search for late love.
“Paulette and I worked on giving the piece a sense of rising action,” Shea said, “to give the piece an emotional payoff.”
Once the script began to fall into place, Shea cast Fanning, whom she describes as “funny and easy to work with,” and began to focus on that crucial aspect of listening.
A comic bit involving Fanning answering a phone while hungover is demonstrative of Shea’s process.
Having posted her online profile while drunk, Fanning’s character is awakened the next morning by a ringing phone and forced to lie her way out of promised volunteer work at a nursing home.
Creating the scene with director Shea was, in Fanning’s words, a process of “lighthearted discovery.”
“The comedy did not only come from being on the phone but also the act of answering it,” she said. “Janet brought a real sense of encouragement: Comic ideas would pop out, and we would try them.
“When something didn’t work, we would try something else. After a while, it began to occur to me that, although it was a loose way of working, it was all part of a plan.”
While believing the show will entertain any and all who choose to attend, Shea thinks “The Human Buffet” “is best suited for middle-aged women who are looking to have a good laugh at men. Not so much at their expense but in a way that all too many women can recognize.
“Don’t get me wrong. I love men. But they can be such a source of frustration and comedy.”
Perhaps that loving frustration springs from the fact they don’t always listen.