University of Montevallo’s David Callaghan on this weekend’s reading of ‘Life Sucks’

David Callaghan directs Nick Crawford, left, and Chris Sams in a reading of “The Normal Heart.”

For one-night only this weekend, you can catch a reading of “Life Sucks,” an “Uncle Vanya”-inspired comedy written by Aaron Posner.

The play gets a reading at the University of Montevallo, and it has an impressive cast, including Nick Crawford, Meagan Oliver, Kelsey Sherrer Crawford, Leah Luker, Kyle Holman, Chris Sams and Mary Barrett.

The reading – not an all-out production – takes place Sunday at 7 p.m. at Montevallo’s Center for the Arts Dance Studio.

It’s all directed by David Callaghan, who teaches at Montevallo but has directed theater on Birmingham stages, too.

Here, he talks about the reading, his theater work and more.

David Callaghan.

Can we start with your story? Where are you from, and where have you done theater?

I grew up in New Jersey and spent a lot of my professional career in Philly and New York City before going into teaching full-time.  I worked on the East Coast at theaters like Surflight and McCarter as a director and actor, but also worked for several years in NYC casting offices on TV, theater and film, including Manhattan Theatre Club and on the original Tony Award-winning productions of McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!” And August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars.” I came to Alabama and Montevallo in 1999 and have had a blast here, directing over 30 plays and musicals. I was department chair for 16 years and loved  seeing us move into our new facility, the Center for the Arts, in 2021. I’ve also had fun directing in Birmingham on occasion, with my two favorites being “Parade” way back in 2009 and “Next to Normal” at Red Mountain Theatre’s cabaret theatre.

Tell me about this one-night-only reading of “Life Sucks.” What is the play about?

The play follows the basic plot of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” with a group of family and friends on a country estate, negotiating or regretting  their life, career and relationship choices and hoping for something better. However, it’s a contemporary spin and setting with lots of humor,  as well as taking on the big, serious life questions found in Chekhov’s plays. The characters fear that life might “suck” forever and are trying to decide if that’s not the case. It also includes interaction with the audience at times to help figure it out.

Will fans of “Uncle Vanya” enjoy it or be upset with the liberties it takes?

I think they will enjoy it.  I am a huge fan of Chekhov’s work and saw the play Off-Broadway in the summer of 2019 and absolutely loved it and felt it captured the essence of “Vanya” with exciting new elements, too.

Why the decision to do it as a reading? Does it just lend itself to that, or is it easier to put together and slip into the schedule? And maybe you’re trying it out to see if it warrants a full production?

I think all of the above, ha!   I actually talked to Nick Crawford, a friend and UM theater alum who  I’ve directed in several shows, about doing a reading of it in 2020, but then the pandemic hit.  It was easier for everyone’s schedules this August, but we have talked about possibly doing it somewhere else, too, reasonably soon, and then we’ll see.  Also, after I directed “My Fair Lady” at RMT in summer 2019, several of us wanted to  do a reading project together at some point that was more friendly to schedules, and at UM. It all finally converged this summer, happily.

How is it different directing a reading vs. a full production? I assume there are some challenges and benefits to each?

Definitely having a limited number of rehearsals is challenging, although this cast is so fun because they really make strong choices right away.  Zoom is a great tool, but of course we prefer live rehearsals and looking forward to working in our actual space this weekend.  As a director, I really enjoy staging with a full production, but you can create a style of sorts with a staged reading, and that’s fun in a specific way, too. One advantage is being able to get the cast that we have for a limited window of time.

Speaking of which, you’ve assembled a truly all-star cast. Can you tell me how that came together?

I agree we have a really stellar cast who all love the material.  The shorter rehearsal time commitment definitely helped with their availability.  Most of the cast are UM theater alumni, but I’ve also worked with several of them on productions in Birmingham, so I do know everyone well and just reached out. Happily, they were immediately available and excited to work on the play and with each other.  I am very grateful to the UM Theatre Department for sponsoring the reading and hosting us in the Dance Studio at the Center for the Arts, especially with so many of our talented alums in the cast.

Do you want to talk a bit about what you (and Montevallo) are doing next?

I’m directing “Pippin: here at Montevallo in the spring and also possibly continuing to work on “Life Sucks” and have interest in producing/directing some more staged readings with Birmingham-based actors in the future.  The UM Theatre Department is producing “Pill Hill” with guest director Chalethia Williams (Oct. 5-8) and the “Sondheim Tribute Revue,” directed by Marcus Lane (Nov. 16-19).  Come see us!

“Life Sucks,” a free reading at the University of Montevallo Center for the Arts Dance Studio. Sunday, Sept. 17, at 7 p.m.

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