Perspective shift: Denise Stewart plans for change in The Sugar

Live Arts launches its 2014-15 season with The Sugar, a locally sourced comedy written by Denise Stewart. Photo: Martyn Kyle. Live Arts launches its 2014-15 season with The Sugar, a locally sourced comedy written by Denise Stewart. Photo: Martyn Kyle.

Local playwright, actor, UVA drama lecturer, and wellness coach Denise Stewart is on a sugar fast.

“I’m on day four because I thought it would be interesting and fun and maybe something to blog about. It’s already hard,” she said. But not as hard as the 30-day raw food fast she did earlier this year. “I’d feel rage that moved very quickly into a superior attitude. I would see breaded chicken at a party and think, ‘What is the world coming to? What are these people thinking?’ I knew that was a different place for me.”

Art reflects life in Stewart’s newest play The Sugar, which kicks off Live Arts’ 2014-15 season. “I’m not a moderate person,” she said. “This is a play that celebrates and highlights the extremist in all of us.”

The show follows Sally Dawson, a wellness coach in a small Southern town who decides to go on—you guessed it—a sugar fast. Her resolutions are quickly tested by the appearance of her freeloading brother, a national headline-making murder trial, and other issues locals might recognize.

“It’s not about dieting, of course,” Stewart said. “I think it’s about this idea that everybody’s got a plan. You watch 30 days in the lives of six people and what they’re working on. People have plans for other people who don’t want to go with the plan, so the plan gets spoiled, and then you have another plan. The things you planned are sometimes trivial, like a sugar fast, yet there are major repercussions when you’re trying to get control through renunciation. Like becoming a stranger in a new town, and then your old life comes right back to you.”

Her own experience has no doubt shaped Stewart’s multifaceted perspective. Encouraged from an early age as both a writer and an actor, and working on and off as a teacher since age 23, she was invited to return as a playwright-in-residence to her alma mater Catawba College, just after her graduation. “Jim Epperson brought me back [in 1998], and that same year he pushed me to apply to UVA’s MFA in playwriting program. That was pivotal.”

Eventually, a string of blog posts about her childhood became an hour-long performance piece and a lasting influence on her career. “So much of the work I’m doing now, from teaching to coaching to writing, has been created because of people who knew Dirty Barbie and either wanted to see it again or see more of my work,” she said. “The biggest lesson has been to be true to my roots, my storytelling, and my personality. I hadn’t trusted myself like that before.”

The Sugar, which was commissioned by Lee Street Theater in Salisbury, North Carolina in 2013 for an early 2014 opening, likewise drew on autobiography. Though the work itself would be fictional, Stewart said, “I knew I either wanted to write a Southern rock tragedy about my brother or a zany comedy. I’m not a musical person, so I thought, ‘Lets do what I have time for.’ I thought this was going to be a zany office romance, but it wasn’t too long in the process before the brother came knocking.”

That organic discovery is part of the creative process Stewart would like to see more of onstage. “We’re in a time where we don’t have enough new voices, enough new playwrights churning stuff out. I know for sure not enough people are writing, because we’re always doing old plays [in the UVA drama department],” she said. “It’s a fun way to talk about aspects of theater history. As a working playwright I feel comfortable talking about my process and how I’ve made my way. I want to encourage people to write more.”

Fortunately, she said, life in a good arts community makes that possible. “I think someone put a bug in Julie [Hamberg, artistic director of Live Arts]’s ear [about The Sugar]. I knew that if Live Arts could make that commitment, I would make a deep commitment to changing the script.” With feedback from director Ray Nedzel and the show’s cast, she’s made improvements throughout the rehearsal process in preparation for the show’s Halloween launch.

The Sugar will be the first piece to run in the newly renovated Live Arts space. After a major capital campaign investment, the building offers a new lobby, lounge spaces, stairways, and classrooms, and the season line-up is more ambitious than ever. On December 5, the largest cast in Live Arts history will take the stage for Les Misérables, and in February, the Virginia premiere of Crooked will explore issues of family, faith, and adolescence. The 2013 Tony Award- winning comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike opens on March 6 and two spring repertory shows, The Mountaintop and Gruesome Playground Injuries begin in April.

Live Arts will host the U.S. premiere of 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival favorite Fight Night on May 15. This immersive performance will ask audience members to vote for onstage personalities and examine democratic peculiarities in the process. The season will close with the musical Xanadu, so prepare for roller disco and sidewalk chalk starting July 17.

Through 11/22. $20-25, times vary. Live Arts, 123 E. Water St. 977-4177.