In the summer of 2017, Erin Wilson watched one of the final shows of “Sweat” on Broadway.
“I was blown away,” she said. And she knew that someday, she would have to be a part of bringing the Pulizer Prize-winning play to stage.
That “someday” is now.
Two years after Wilson watched “Sweat” during its closing weekend in New York City, she is directing the play at Trustus Theatre.
Wilson said Trustus Artistic Director Chad Henderson was “probably painfully aware of my feelings about the play.” When he called to see if she wanted to direct “Sweat” at Trustus, she agreed immediately.
“I mean, duh,” she said. “And then I got to cast it, which was obviously 99% of my work on this show - get a group of crazy talented actors whose work ethics can’t be questioned, and you’re set. We had a short, intense rehearsal process that was filled with laughs, thoughtful (sometimes painful) conversation, deep respect for Lynn Nottage and the story she gifted us with, and a desire to do the best work we could do. Then you add in a design team who gets it, who have the same desires of depth and reality and honoring, and you’ve got all the right ingredients.”
“Sweat” is set in Reading, Pa., a town where generations of families have worked in the plants and factories while paying their union dues.
Best friends Tracey and Cynthia grew up in Reading and work together on a steel manufacturing line. Their friendship gets tested in this “slice of life” drama, inspired by field research and first-person testimonials collected in Reading by writer Lynn Nottage. She captures the stress of trying times, where layoffs, lockouts, and picket lines results in crisis and change.
Wilson took a few minutes to answer some questions about “Sweat,” which will be performed on the Thigpen Main Stage at Trustus through June 1:
Q. As the director, what have you enjoyed about putting on this play?
A. I saw this show on its closing weekend in NYC, and I was blown away. I remember sitting there for a minute as the crowd was filing out at the end, and being overwhelmed with so many freaking feelings. And a deep sense of desire to have some hand in producing this play someday - as an actor or director or whatever, I just wanted in somehow, somewhere. I had just spent two and a half hours with people I didn’t know but knew. My heart was fully engaged, but my head was right there with it, thinking about the fragility of relationships, unions, our call to take care of each other, sexism, old man dive bars, the value of working with your hands, bias, racism, othering, and deep, abiding love.
Q. How would you describe the play for someone who has never seen it?
A. “Sweat” is ultimately about what happens to people when they’re faced with the worst possible circumstances. How do you lean on or repel those closest to you? When survival mode kicks in, what kind of person do you become? Specifically, it deals with a super close group of friends (and family) who work in a steel tubing plant in Reading, Pa. They’ve worked together, shared vacations, raised kids, been there for each other in the toughest of times - but now a promotion and layoffs are part of the picture, and no one is prepared for what happens next. It’s a drama with mystery, laughs, and deep humanity.
Q. “Sweat” takes on some heavy topics: What are the challenges of taking on such a serious performance?
A. “Sweat” deals with political issues, but it’s ultimately about people. We focused on the relationships and the love and the anger and terror and “what if?” of this particular group of people in this particular situation. My favorite kind of theatre deals with huge issues in small, human ways. I don’t know what it’s like to lose my union job after 26 years, but I know what it feels like to have the ground open under me with no warning. And most folks know what that feels like. But we also had conversations in rehearsal about the issues the play brings up, of course. I mean, you have to. They are deeply relevant to why we decided to tell this story. And they can’t just be concepts. I mean, we’ve all heard of NAFTA, but how has NAFTA affected these nine people in Reading, Pa. in 2000/2008? What does it mean when a whole town is built and then destroyed by the same industry? What’s the human cost of greed and convenience? And that’s not just a lesson for traditionally blue-collar industries; it affects us all in the way we make choices every single day. What we value. What we allow ourselves to compartmentalize. What we have the courage to face head on.
Q. What do you hope folks who see “Sweat” talk about on the way home after watching the play?
A. I hope when people leave “Sweat,” they leave feeling something. I want them to spend their time in the theatre leaning forward in their seats, wanting to know what’s going to happen next. I want them to find a little bit of themselves in one of the nine characters on stage, and become fully invested in that person’s story. Most importantly, I want the audience to be satisfied with their experience, to be entertained, and moved, and maybe think about the world and the people around them a little bit more. To consciously exercise their empathy muscle. To know that they’ve just seen a really good story told really well.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
A. Just a cool little anecdote: This is the third production of “Sweat” in South Carolina, and there’s a Trustus connection with them all. Charleston’s PURE Theatre produced “Sweat” last fall for the MOJA Festival, and are bringing it back for Piccolo Spoleto. I play Tracey in that production. The Warehouse Theatre in Greenville produced the show last fall, and it featured Anne Kelly Tromsness and Jayce Tromsness - both former Trustus staff members, and now there’s this production. South Carolina is so lucky to have theatres that honor their audiences with smart, compelling stories, and Trustus has been an incubator of that for years. I love that.
If you go
When: Through June 1
Times: 8 p.m. May 30-June 1.
Where: Trustus Theatre, 520 Lady St.
Cost: $23-28, go to www.trustus.org