Ethan Dubin | Performer of the week
Wed May 2 2012
Photograph: Saverio Truglia
An extended conversation between a father and son that takes place over the course of a car ride, on the surface Dan LeFranc’s Sixty Miles to Silver Lake appears to be another talking-heads drama. Except the pair isn’t just moving through space but also time, traveling through the extensive history of fear and disappointment they both share. As son Denny, Ethan Dubin has the difficult task of playing a character at different points during the biggest transition of his life, a feat he accomplishes with impressive physical and vocal control. Raised in Pasadena, California, theater didn’t become a part of Dubin’s life until high school, and even then he had to force his family to come to his shows. While spending the summer in Chicago as a “Cherub” of Northwestern University’s National High School Institute, Dubin became enamored with University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus, enrolling at the school and graduating last year. He speaks to us about mapping out Denny’s story, how he made the play’s time shifts clear, and his own experiences on the road with his parents.
Did you sit down and map out all the events of Denny’s life in chronological order?
Yeah, in 20 different ways. This play is a beast, and mapping your way through it is a circus act, but a really interesting one. I think at different times, different people in the rehearsal room had different ideas of what was going on, and we were always making sure that we were getting on the same page. When exactly did the kid know about dad having a girlfriend, and was that Darcy, the woman he cheats on the mom with? Or was that somebody else? A revelatory moment for me was going through that scene with all the girlfriends that Denny has. The day I finally sat down and was like, “OK, here’s every age 10–18, and here’s every grade those would have encompassed. Here’s when I was into this girl and this is what she was like.” Going through it like that, things really got on the map for me.
How did you work to make the time shifts clear?
I think a lot of it was just thinking about the way that kids—except for that crazy jump at the end, Denny is covering the ages of 10–18 roughly, and I think there’s something about that age range, it doesn’t matter where you are on that spectrum, but you can’t really hide anything. When you’re in that much younger category and not quite hitting puberty, kids are so super literal about everything. And then you start to layer on the angst from school and the angst from parents, but even as you get to early adulthood and all the way up to 18, it’s all written on your face in one way or the other. That was a helpful thing for me.
In rehearsals, a lot of it was playing with objects. Anything I could get my hands on, the water bottle, the iPod earbuds, there’s just a thousand different ways a kid would play with these things at a different age or in a different mood. Over time, that really started to help out. If I’m sitting there in a certain way it starts to feel like I’m 12–14. I don’t think I have it down to a science, but playing with physical objects really opened up a lot. And vocal work, too. Trying to find consistency with where that vocal range would fall.
I was really impressed with the changes in your physicality. Have you done a lot of movement or clown work?
It’s funny, I did do some clowning. I took a clown class with Dean Evans and I did a little bit of work with [500 Clown artistic director] Adrian Danzig at U of C. But I’d also just come off doing a program with the SITI Company, Anne Bogart’s company in New York, which I did just this past January. I got back from that and two days later started rehearsing [Sixty Miles]. There’s a really incredible physical specificity that company works with, it’s all about finding that freedom within structure. That was something I was always trying to bring into it, and really thinking about how much can affect the way I’m thinking and feeling just based on where I’m looking through the window.
How did director Sarah Moeller work with you to make a conversation in a car feel active?
We got to talk to [writer] Dan [LeFranc] one morning on the phone, and he just said, “You gotta play up the light stuff.” And I think that really is the best way to get at this play. Because this play has some dark stuff, and that relationship can really start to tank. Even my first read of the play was kind of bleak, but there’s always some level of love. The basis is always that they love each other underneath all that, no matter how explosive it gets. I think [co-star] Sean [Bolger] and I are finding so much freedom in it now, because the more we know this thing, the better we get at it. We can listen to each other better and all that.
The comic stuff really works into all the physical stuff, too. It made me think of the time that my dad tried to teach me how to drive stick shift. Because you have these narrow windows when you’re using the clutch, and sometimes that is such a fine line. If I’ve got just a little too much angst on it or it feels slightly too old, it’s just not funny anymore. There’s a real calibration act at play that we spent a lot of time in rehearsal trying to fine tune. And the play as a whole only works if you have this driving momentum that’s going through the entire thing that just pops at the end. But meanwhile, you’ve got stops and starts. The relationship takes one step forward and eight steps backwards with each turn of the page.
The entire situation rang very true to me. When you were younger, did you have a lot of those car conversations with your parents?
Yeah, absolutely. There’s a story that always comes to mind with this. There was a time in the 6th or 7th grade, it was a time when I was too old to be doing this sort of thing, but I got in the car from school, looked at my mom and said, “What would you do if I blew raspberries, if I was just spitting for the entire 13-minute car ride back?” She just kind of smirked, and then I did it. That’s where I really relate to all the jokey stuff in it, but it really covers the whole spectrum. My 18th birthday, there’s an unmarked envelope on my desk, and I open the thing up and my dad walks in and there’s like two condoms in it. At this point I’m 18, this is far too late for this to be the gesture to encourage a sex life. There’s just moments scattered throughout that always come to mind. When we were kids, my dad would be pulling out of the garage and he would say he’s about to launch the torpedoes and it was just him clicking this button that would make an LED display come up. I think about that all the time as the 10-year-old Denny.
You’re from Pasadena; is there any temptation to go back and pursue a career in L.A. now that you’re out of school?
Stay in Chicago is sort of the goal. I wasn’t too much in or around the film scene—I’ve got an uncle who is a photographer, has worked on movies and stuff, but I really fell in love with theater. And Chicago has really been the place. I love it here, and I spent some time in New York earlier this year, looking for the pull, that thing that would make me stay out there, but it just didn’t really happen. I love it here, the theater scene and the city itself. I hope to be here as long as I can.