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Friday, June 22 Living

Connecticut performer part of acclaimed NYC theater collective

Most artists have the freedom to practice their craft even when their work isn’t selling.

A painter can paint in his or her loft until someone finds value in their art. A would-be novelist can keep slaving away at a book in-between other jobs. Stage actors, however, are in a different category because they are most often relegated to a horribly passive position in which they cannot practice their art until someone else hires them for a play.

Lauren LaRocca is part of new wave of performers who are creating work opportunities by developing their own material. She is a member of a New York City theater collective, The Associates, which just received strong reviews for “Sheila,” a play the group has been working on for the past two years.

“It’s a passive (profession) otherwise,” the Glastonbury native says of waiting around for someone else to allow her to work on a play. “The company provides all of us with an artistic lifeline. Otherwise, you would always be up in the air.”

LaRocca often uses the term “theatermaker” for herself and other members of the Associates because they are putting their own work up on the stage. The performer has spent time developing new plays at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven and at the NYC Fringe Festival, where she took the prize for Overall Excellence in Acting.

The Associates met at a training program at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky five years ago. Upon their return to New York, the five performers decided to start making their own plays. Formed in 2014, the company has presented two full-length plays publicly and has sponsored a series of salons in which new material is showcased. The troupe begins by deciding who the people in a new play might be.

“We work from a character-oriented place. We see things through the lens of character rather than plot or an issue first,” LaRocca says.

“Sheila” started with the notion of a play about two women. Over the course of many months, the piece slowly evolved into an examination of a troubled female friendship. In the play, LaRocca is Gloria, a 28-year-old woman who has just returned to her hometown a decade after she fled under mysterious circumstances. Her closest friend from childhood, Mary (Peregrine Heard), turns up for a reunion, with barely tamped-down anger over being abandoned by Gloria with no explanation.

“We want to make manifest the art we want to see in the world,” LaRocca says of the gripping and sometimes shocking play that has been honed into a seamless piece of work. If you didn’t know how “Sheila” was created, you would assume it is the tightly focused product of one imagination rather than a collective.

“What we aim for is a play with a unified voice,” she adds.

The intimacy of the play (which closed its first run Jan. 27) was heightened by the way it was directed by Jamal Abdunnasir at the A.R.T./New York Theatres on the West Side of Manhattan. The set was in the middle of the space, with the audience sitting on both sides of the action (and no seat more than a few rows from the actors).

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Because of the intense realism of the reunion of these former friends, and the way that the two women tease long-buried secrets out of each other, “Sheila” has an aura of emotional intimacy that is rare in the theater. We in the audience eventually come to feel like a third “friend” in the room.

“We like to examine the unspoken rules and norms for our relationship with the audience,” LaRocca says of the physical closeness of theatergoers and actors. “Too often theater insulates the audience from a play — keeping them separate. With this play, you are right there (in middle of it).”

LaRocca credits a lot of her passion for theater to her studies at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts. “That’s where a lot of the things I was sort of feeling came together in a real way. It was so formative and I met a lot of great people who are still my friends,” she says of her transition from Glastonbury Middle School to theater studies in Hartford.

The Associates hasn’t zeroed in on its next collaborative project yet.

“We are taking a little breather, so we have time to ask ourselves a few questions, especially, ‘What do we do with this momentum?,’” she says. “One of our goals is to tour the piece.

“We’d like to present it in middle America where the play takes place. It might be new to audiences there in a way that it isn’t to our peers (in New York). It’s always fun for us to have new people come — those who haven’t heard of our work before.”

jmeyers@hearstmediact.com;

Twitter: @joesview

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