Juergen Tossmann, Marci Miller, & Matt Orme at an early rehearsal for Helper. Photo: Keith Waits

Patrick Tovatt’s Helper Receives Its World Premiere In Louisville

By Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Theatre producers hunger for plays with something to say beyond the surface pleasures of laughter and easy tears. A play that will resonate with audience members and provoke them to think differently about the world the moment the curtain falls.

Just over a year ago, Juergen Tossmann supposedly retired, yet here he is producing a play that, for him, does have something to say. His old friend Patrick Tovatt wrote it, and another long-time friend and collaborator Steve Woodring is directing it. It’s called Helper, but the title is a bit cryptic, even mysterious. It tells you next to nothing about what happens in the play, introducing three characters in a coffee shop in the small town of Helper Utah. 

As Producing Director, Tossmann had produced previous plays by Tovatt, so he was excited at the prospect of a new script. Woodring, known to all as “Woody”, met Tovatt in 1971, when he worked at ATL and Tovatt was a member of the Resident Acting Company, but the relationship extended outside of the theatre, the two sharing interests in farming and fishing. Woodring makes split bamboo fly fishing rods of such quality that he tempted Tovatt out of retirement with the promise of creating one for him. “I had hold of  a new Sam Shephard play, Ages of the Moon,” explains Woodring, “and I wanted Patrick to come back to Louisville to act in it.” Tovatt has made Portland, Oregon his home for many years, and was not anxious to return to the stage after such a long absence. “Once I offered to make him a custom bamboo rod, he agreed immediately.”

Tossmann produced Ages of the Moon at Bunbury and that is when he met Tovatt, Woodring credits the Moon experience with reenergizing Tovatt, who started writing again. A new script, Boatwright, was produced by Bunbury in 2018, and while Tovatt was in Louisville he brought along another piece for a reading. It was Helper.

“I could not put it down,“ recalls Tossmann. “ It was extremely compelling and poetic. I had such a visceral reaction that it took me a while to process what I had read.”

Originally, Tossmann and Woodring had expected to produce Helper in 2020. Then  Covid scuttled live theatre for the next year, and then Tossmann chose to retire. But over time, Tovatt, with Woodring’s input, reworked the script, adding a second act and tightening it up. Matt Orme, a former Bunbury mainstay and also supposedly retired, was cast as the bigoted Helper resident Emmett, and after another actor became unavailable, Tossmann stepped up to play Serge, a landscape painter traveling through Utah. When three-time Emmy nominee Marci Miller relocated to the area, eager to return to the stage, the casting was complete.

Tossmann explains Miller’s importance: “Having worked with Marci when she was starting her career, we all knew this was the perfect casting choice. There is a reason she has been nominated for three Emmy Awards, she is a gifted actor. Also, she is a very giving person that brings such positivity to the process, and we needed her energy to make this play work.”

Helper is an examination of the cultural divide dominating social discourse in the United States in the last several years. Racism, sexism, and anti-immigration all raise their ugly heads in Emmett’s character, and Serge cannot help but enter the debate while Clarice, the very pregnant coffee-shop waitress mediates. 

So many of these issues are framed in the context of larger cities; urban environments, police shootings of Black Americans, mass shootings and domestic terrorism, etc., yet Tovatt chooses a small town in Utah and three white characters to frame his drama. Woodring talks about these choices. ”Patrick is writing from personal experience, he grew up in the West and Emmett is drawn from people he knew growing up, while I believe Serge is basically based on his own point of view.”  

Woodring emphasizes the deliberateness in the playwright’s choices. Despite the image of Utah as being predominately White (and Mormon), he explains that “…Helper Utah is historically diverse. Chinese and Hungarian immigrants settled there to work in the local industry several generations back. Serge’s family is originally from Hungary and that triggers Emmett to call him “bohunk”.” It is the kind of epithet you only know from living in and around the population it is directed at. 

That Tovatt doesn’t reach for the obvious context of Black and White race division and avoids having any characters of color is not for a lack of understanding. He seems to want to separate his examination of the Great American Division from the headlines of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Black Lives Matter to take a clear-eyed view of the deeper, darker roots of the American character that need not be defined as simplistically as Black and White.  

Deep into rehearsal, Woodring and the cast keep discovering. As an immigrant himself, Tossmann has experienced slurs like the ones heard in the play, but he became unexpectedly connected to Emmett. “As an actor, I found Serge pretty quickly, however, as an intellectual Serge does a fair amount of processing over the character of Emmett and that made me more sympathetic to Emmett’s plight and how he came to be the person that he is.” 

“The longer I live with this play the more I admire it,” Woodring explains. “The harder we dig the more remarkable the play becomes. We struggled with the stylistic shift from realism to expressionism between the two acts but we are now at a point where we can make the connections between the two.” 

Helper depicts people who have been left behind and examines the issues of social resentment, racism, and gun violence,” observes Woodring. “That covers a lot of ground in today’s world. But at its most elemental, this is a play about fear and hatred. What could be more timeless or more universal?”

ONE-OFF Productions in partnership with Bunbury Theatre presents Helper by Patrick Tovatt

June 30, July 1, 6, 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, & 15  @ 7:30 pm
June 2, 9, & 16 @ 2:00 pm

The Henry Clay Theatre
604 S. 3rd Street,
Louisville, KY 40202

Click Here To Purchase Tickets.

Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of Artists Talk with LVA on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.