Talking with: David Whalen and Daniella Topol

posted by Carlyn Aquiline, Literary Manager and Dramaturg, Michael Christie, Literary Intern, and Mary-Margaret Kunze, Dramaturgy Assistant

The Morini Strad by Willy Holtzman is about halfway through its run at City Theatre, so we thought it would be a good time to check in with some of the artists and ask them a few questions about their experience of the process.

David Whalen plays violin repairman/maker Brian Skarstad in The Morini Strad. He works often with a number of Pittsburgh theatres, including PICT and the Pittsburgh Public (where he was recently playing Tony Cavendish in The Royal Family as he was rehearsing Brian in The Morini Strad). Recent City Theatre roles include the title characters in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and O’Reilly, the scarred mill foreman, in Speak American.

David answered some questions put to him by Michael Christie, Literary Intern:

Michael Christie: How did you learn about the trade of repairing violins to prepare for the role?

David Whalen: I did a lot of research as I do for every role. I know all about the violin—its parts, its history, the way sound erupts from a violin, etc. I watched videos about the violin process and spent time with a violin maker.

MC: Do you come from a musical background?

DW: I do not come from a musical background—but music has always been a part of my life—I listen to music constantly, sing when no one is (hopefully) listening.

MC: What was the most difficult aspect you encountered when preparing for the role?

DW: Honestly, nothing is difficult if you commit to the work necessary to gain the confidence to achieve “living” the part. Plus, when you have a great script, insightful director, tremendous actress to work opposite from, half the battle is done for you. I cannot say how wonderful this process has been—Daniella [director], Willy [playwright], Carlyn [dramaturg], Carla [actress], Tony [scenic designer], Ange [costume designer], Brad [sound designer], Tracy [artistic director], the whole creative and backstage staff at City Theatre, everyone involved in bringing this lovely show to life—it was truly a labor of love. You better make sure you bring your best—because great artists will!

MC: What was it like to meet with Brian Skarstad? How did the discussions you had with him impact your portrayal of him in the play?

David Whalen (left) gets a lesson in violin repair from the man he plays in THE MORINI STRAD, violin-maker Brian Skarstad (right), on the "workshop" set by Tony Ferrieri.

DW: Brian is such a down to earth man—I met his wife way before I met him. To me, that was very important. The reason being, I think Brian is such a selfless man—willing to do more for others than himself—it gave me great insight into his personality. Plus, I had Willy (the playwright, who is also Brian’s close friend) as my touchstone into Brian’s psyche.

MC: How is it to perform in only a two-person cast of a new work? Is this your first experience in doing so?

DW: Being in a two-person show, you better have ultimate trust in the other actor. Carla is so wonderful as an actor, but more importantly as a person, that it’s so easy to embrace her. She’s wonderful. I feel such a connection to her. I am so blessed to work with her and to call her a dear friend! I have done a two-person show before and am preparing to do another two-person show in Philadelphia in the Spring of 2011—Sebastian Barry’s The Pride of Parnell Street



The Morini Strad is something of a homecoming for Director Daniella Topol, who received her MFA from Carnegie Mellon University and then was City Theatre’s Associate Producing Director before heading off to New York to become a sought-after director of new work, working on staff at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre and the Lark Play Development Center, and now enjoying a thriving freelance career. The Morini Strad marks her first City Theatre-helmed production in 10 years–since she directed The Beauty Queen of Leenane in the 1999-2000 season–and we hope it’s not another 10 before we see her back again!

Assistant Dramaturg Mary-Margaret Kunze asked Daniella about her long-awaited homecoming and the experience she’s had here with The Morini Strad:

Mary-Margaret Kunze: You’ve spent a few years away from Pittsburgh. Has your return to Pittsburgh felt like something of a homecoming? 

Daniella Topol: Pittsburgh was the city where I fell in love with making theater. I spent my formative theater years at CMU and at City Theatre, learning the art and technique of creating plays. Learning what a life in the theater demands. Learning that this was the field I would dedicate my life to. Coming back to Pittsburgh and to City Theatre after 10 years is familiar, affirming, nostalgic, moving, challenging, overwhelming, and life-affirming. 

MMK: What has been unique about this experience with City Theatre? 

DT: It is such a joy to direct a show in a theater with so many people that I have had a history of working with from my previous tenure here. There is a familiarity and a shorthand that informs the work and makes the whole process a joy! Life as a freelance director has a certain anonymity to it – I travel to cities where I don’t know the people or the town. Not here. This truly feels like coming home again.

MMK: This is the world premiere of this piece. Has that lent a new excitement to the experience?

DT: Absolutely! This is the first time that Willy and I have worked together on a production (I have directed readings of others plays of his previously), and I am so thrilled to have found a true collaborator through this process. There [was] nothing like having him in the room with us making changes as we explored the language, staging, music, and dynamics of every moment. Our dramaturg, Carlyn Aquiline, has uncovered a great deal of research about Erica Morini and set up conversations with luthiers and local musicians that has also informed our production choices. These choices will then be integrated into the script for future productions. 

MMK: What was your experience with directing a play about real people and a real story?

DT: I have directed plays based on actual events before, but I have never directed a play where I have spent a great deal of time with the people themselves. Willy and I went to Brian’s violin studio in Pleasantville. Louise Beach, his wife, has composed music for our production. I have met one of his sons who is mentioned in the play. (I only wish I could have seen/met Erica Morini!) All of these encounters have enabled me to honor the play’s authenticity and truth, without compromising the imagination that is necessary to conceive this world as a theatrical event.

David Whalen as Brian Skarstad and Carla Belver as Erica Morini examine Erica's famed Stradivari violin in THE MORINI STRAD.

MMK: Are there any aspects you are particularly proud of?

DT: The team. Carla Belver and David Whelan have been generous, committed, and
passionate about this play, their roles, each other, and the process. This has enabled us to develop a level of intimacy and intensity that is so necessary in exploring this dynamic relationship. The design team has been courageous and imaginative and inspiring. Artistic Director Tracy Brigden has given us the space and freedom to explore the work while providing us with a fresh perspective and keen insights.

It takes a village to make theater — I am grateful for the one that is Morini Strad‘s.


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