What do you know about the people sitting across from you at work? Do you know what they hope for or dream about? Do you know what they think of their job? Do you know what’s going on in their home lives? Work can be a place of tremendous joys and frustrations, a place where we create unique relationships with one another.
What happens when all of that – the structures of work and the relationships we build – begin to fall apart? How do we handle it? What obligations do we have to one another? For all of the comedy and drama at the heart of the world premiere of The Consultant, taking place on Stage II in January, this is the main question playwright Heidi Schreck is seeking to answer. “I am interested in finding out what are our responsibilities to one another? How can we be of use to each other?” she said.
Schreck knows of what she speaks when it comes to the drama of the workplace. Before her days as an Obie Award-winning actress and lauded writer, Schreck was hired to work at a pharmaceutical marketing company as a consultant. She, like her central character of Amelia, was charged with helping an executive with his presentation skills. “The main problem is that he was very depressed. He ended up getting fired. I felt responsible. I felt that I was there to help him but I didn’t know how to help him. His deep problems were addressed in a superficial way,” she recalled.
The play is, in many ways, a period piece. It’s set during the steep economic downturn of 2008, a period when real panic seemed to set in amongst the nation. The American Dream of a secure financial future never seemed further away. Pensions were decimated, layoffs were common, and trust in the entire economic system was virtually nil. When the character of Tania answers the phone during the play, she repeatedly tells callers that no one works at the fictional New York City company at the heart of Schreck’s play. “During the economic downturn, there was huge stress of living in a community where money is very important,” Schreck said.
The experience of the world of The Consultant can be a bit absurdist – the play veers from screwball comedy to serious emotional exploration in the blink of an eye. The characters are vibrant, empathetic and almost completely at the mercy of unseen forces impacting their work lives. “There is absurdity to the piece because I think there is absurdity in the corporate world,” Schreck said. “In really painful situations, there is also humor. These things co-exist.”
In addition to her experience as an actor and playwright, Schreck was also a journalist, a career track which seems to have influenced her writing for the stage. “I’m interested in telling human interest type stories, stories taken from reality,” she said.
The reality of work relationships is, from Schreck’s perspective, complex. “I do think these environments are steeped in love in a way we don’t realize. People care for one another in ways that aren’t expected,” she said.
— Steve Scarpa