By LAURA QUEZADA News Review Staff Writer–
This is the first time that Burroughs graduate Daniel Stallings, playwright, producer and director, directs a play that he didn’t write. It had to be a Agatha Christie play who is Stallings’ favorite writer of all time. He brings Witness for the Prosecution to the stage at the Community Light Opera and Theatre Association (CLOTA) Thursday-Saturday nights, September 16 to October 1 at 7:30pm with a matinee at 2 pm on September 25. The three-act play is about two and a half hours long.
Stallings tells us, “Witness for the Prosecution is Agatha Christie’s award winning and most famous courtroom thriller. It is about the infamous murder trial of Leonard Vole, who is accused of murdering a wealthy widow named Emily French. There are a lot of impassioned outbursts from the dock, the barristers are constantly arguing, there are a lot of twists, turns, and surprise evidence, the most shocking which is the witness for the prosecution: Leonard’s own wife. In true Agatha Christie fashion, she throws out all these clues and then she has this wonderful bit of misdirection for a surprise ending that none of my cast saw coming and I absolutely loved watching their surprise.”
Stallings is having fun directing his cast: Haley Puckett, Ed Kramer, River Cotterell, Monica Dwyer, Olivia Holm, Nicole Johnson, Madeleine Smith, and Murolo Patchin. “Leonard Vole is played by stage veteran Calvin Johnson. We recently saw him in his award-winning performance in Closer to Heaven at Moe’s Music as Angel Archer. Beth Sparks-Jacques, who was most recently seen in CLOTA’s Murder by Farce, plays Romaine, the witness for the prosecution, Leonard’s wife. Jonathan Blair has returned from a hiatus to theater to play Sir Wilfrid Robarts who is the counsel for the defense.” Stallings plays John Mayhew, Leonard’s solicitor.
Stallings delights in all of the aspects of live theatre. With his creative eye and attention to detail he has transformed the CLOTA stage. “The difficulty with Witness for the Prosecution, especially for community theater space, is that it has two very grand sort of sets. There’s an office set and a courtroom set. I designed a sort of stylized, neutral background, which is the full the Faux Marble granite sort of feel that we have with the whole set, which gives this sort of stateliness to it but it also reads like blood splatter, you know, veins, lightning bolts with all sorts of strong, bold connotations to it. We have modular pieces that when they move, they transform completely, all of a sudden we’re in the office, and it looks just like an office. And you just buy that it is what it is. It’s a lawyer’s office and then can we dramatically unfold into the courtroom
“I wanted this really hyper stylized Christie, because Witness for the Prosecution is usually played very straight, very realistically. I said, ‘Well, that’s been done. Why do we have to do that? Let’s do a kind of cool, different stylized, kind of sexy Christie.’ We have Agatha Christie’s words and all of her amazing plotting remains the same. We’re not changing any of that, but we are giving it kind of a pretty wrapper.”
Fun for the audience includes that the CLOTA theatre naturally lends itself to looking like it has a jury box. Folks who sit in that side of the theatre have the opportunity to be a part of the action. Not to worry, it isn’t mandatory. “You do not have to be in the jury,” Stallings assures. “There are plenty of seats to go around. All of your lines are given to you. There are only three lines: One person gets sworn in and one person delivers the verdict which we will hand to you on a card. It’s a super low-stress. It’s not like you have to learn anything; but, you can have fun with it.”
As we see in TV courtroom dramas, the barristers talk to the jury. “Any guests that we’ve had come to watch a rehearsal who sat in the jury box say it is an absolute hoot. Olivia Holms, who plays Myers, the counsel for the prosecution, comes up and looks them in the eye and talks to them about the evidence. It’s more immediate, it’s less, ‘I’m sitting here and I’m watching a play and I have absolutely no connection to it.’ It’s just it makes it feel more alive and it’s a lot of fun.”
The entire production gives the theatre-goer a 1950’s courtroom experience that is immersed in the crime, down to the programs which look like one is reading a newspaper story about the trial.
Stallings came to love Agatha Christie’s work at a young age. “When I was 11, 21 years ago, my family used to do movie nights. This was back when VHS tapes were still the norm. It was on two tapes of the 1970s version of Murder on the Orient Express with Albert Finney and that great star studded cast. By the end of the first tape I begged, even though it was a school night, I had to see the end of the movie. I needed the second tape in and they put it in. By the end of the movie I was inches away from the screen, trying to figure out who all these actors were. What was this story? It was so fascinating.”
The next time he was in a bookstore he bought his first Agatha Christie novel. Since then he says, “I have read every word the woman has ever written.” That encompasses 74 novels, 28 collections and 14 stage plays. Someday he will direct Mousetrap, the longest running play in the world.
Becoming involved in theatre was a transforming experience for Stallings. “The PAC (Parker Performing Arts Center) is where I found myself. That is where I fell in love with theater. I was a BHS drama student under Pamela Marshall when I first took drama in freshman year as an elective. Just on a whim. The PAC is magical to me, especially as a playwright and a theatre artist. My favorite thing is an empty theater because it’s like a blank page. I can do anything I want. I would sit in the PAC alone just dreaming. I always felt safe there, included there. I belonged there. It was like when I first watched an Agatha Christie movie and first read Agatha Christie, it made sense. I belong there.”
Middle school was tough for Stallings. Everything was fine in grade school, then in sixth grade he needed to get glasses. Bullying ensued. “ I lost every friend that I ever had. had to basically start over with all of my friend groups. Middle School was rough. Finding theater and knowing that there was a place where the strange ideas I’ve always had as a creative person would be okay and would be celebrated was life changing. It’s the best feeling in the world. As a director and as a producer that’s the world I constantly strive to create to let people who need that kind of space, have that space. I frequently get actors, who I still work with years and years later, say, ‘This is my home, working in theater with you, you make me feel safe and I feel like I belong.’ I feel I am paying it forward to how theatre made me feel when I was a kid.”
You can read more about Daniel Stallings “It’s an interactive murder mystery” online in the May 6, 2022 Issue of The News Review. Tickets for Witness for the Prosecution can be purchased at Red Rock Books or online at CLOTA.org. CLOTA Center Stage is located at 1425 North Inyo.