Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Planet Connections Interview - Melissa Skirboll of "The Closet"

By Byrne Harrison

Name: Melissa Skirboll
Show: The Closet
Relationship to production: Producer/Director

How did you first get involved in theatre?

Is there anyone involved in theatre who can’t point back to childhood and school plays? As a child, I got on stage any chance I could. I took the “sensible” route through college and ended up with a job in finance, but at 25 I decided to pursue my passion and quit the investment firm in order to go to acting school.  And I never looked back. I still love being on stage any chance I get, but when I began directing, writing and producing about five years ago I fell in love with the theatre all over again in a whole new way.

Who are your biggest influences?

When I first started acting, I thought I was going to be a “dramatic actress” but soon discovered I had a knack for comedy. The first few plays I was in when I started to pursue theatre professionally, were all comedies directed by the same woman. I can still hear her voice in my head when I’m working on a comic piece, whether as an actor, a director or a write; her attention to detail and pacing still echo. In addition I studied with Sande Shurin here in New York for years; her passion and insistence on excellence certainly informs my work at a very deep level. On a more universal level, I think that Wendy Wasserstein wrote the kind of plays that I want to be a part of. She created a road map for the next generation of women in theater. And Tina Fey. Pure comic genius who writes, produces, acts…she’s just amazing!

What is your show about?

THE CLOSET is the story of Ruth, a woman struggling to come to terms with her past. It explores the nature of memory and reality. Ruth has glossed over and buried her family history, but her past has come back to haunt her. Ruth, played by Maureen Van Trease, imagines a series of conversations with her long dead mother, Mara, played by Susan McBrien, and with each conversation she gets closer to the truth. 

What inspired you to direct/produce THE CLOSET?

Who are your collaborators and how long have you been working with them?  Amy Gray Piper, the playwright, and I were in a writing group together. When she presented this piece to the group I was immediately drawn to it. It is beautifully written and the way the piece unfolds sparked my imagination as a director. From the first time I read it , I could see it fully realized in my head. I immediately envisioned Susan and Maureen in the roles; I had just finished working with Maureen at last year’s Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, where she played my sister in HELL IS WHERE THE HEART IS. Susan had read for the role of our mother in that play – and had been called back – and I had been keeping an eye out for a project that would allow us to work together. When I read THE CLOSET, I could see those two brilliant actresses in these roles. I could hear their voices in my head saying these lines. Before I submitted the play for consideration, I put out feelers to see if they would be interested; when they both said yes it felt like it was fated! And I have to say, I was right; these woman are amazing as mother and daughter. They bring so many layers to light in their own characters and in each other through the relationship that is being created.

Why was it important to you to be part of an eco-friendly theatre festival?

We’re all citizens of planet earth (as the cliché goes,) and it’s a great way to marry artistic passion with personal responsibility. Plus I think it highlights something that’s inherent in most black box theatre productions anyway. We’re mostly working with budgets that are too small and finding ways to illustrate our stories with whatever is at hand. We’re all expert at reusing and reimagining the detritus of everyday life. It’s great to be part of a Festival that actively rewards that can do spirit!

Planet Connections donates a portion of the box office for each show to a charity.  What charity has your production chosen and why?

We chose to work with Women In Need (WIN). THE CLOSET is a story about two women and their personal struggles. WIN helps women who are struggling – there seemed to be a natural symbiosis between those two ideas. Had Mara had access to the types of services that WIN provides, then Ruth might have been spared the dark night of the soul that we watch play out in THE CLOSET.

WIN serves homeless and disadvantaged women and children by providing basic needs such as shelter, childcare, and counseling. More importantly WIN teaches women specific skills like financial literacy, job readiness and anger management that help them become self-reliant and confident as they progress towards independence.

“Women In Need provides housing, help and hope to New York City women and their families who are homeless and disadvantaged. Through comprehensive programs such as shelter, supportive permanent housing, job training, domestic violence services, alcohol and substance abuse treatment and childcare, WIN offers the tools and guidance which allow our families to return to their communities and live independently.”

What's next for you after Planet Connections?

Hard to say! Definitely want to see my play “Blizzard” produced this year so finding a home for that is high on my list. Plus I want to keep directing and acting. Which comes first, whatever fate dictates. But I’ll be auditioning, writing, submitting. You know the drill.

Finally, if you could work with any famous actor, living or dead, who would it be?

I would love to work with the entire Monty Python troupe. While I could pick out individual members of the troupe, truth is I’d have loved to have been the only female member – and to work with each of them in the projects they’ve created since Monty Python ended. Not just actors, but writers, directors, creators – like Tina Fey who I mentioned earlier and could just as easily have named here – they do so much more than act. To collaborate with talent like this in any capacity would be smashing.

For more information about “The Closet,” visit

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