It’s a story about those who muster the courage to fight the battles of their past and for those whose everyday battle is a constant, heavy reality. But don’t let that intimidate you. Zany, colorful characters, some even with monologues about Jell-O, make 99 Impossible Things ultimately a tale of faith and optimism.
Imagine a coffee shop where miscellaneous characters remain stuck in the mire of their own pain. A personal tragedy prevents each of themÂ from moving forward, until a stranger arrives to shake them from the dark cloud of confusion and depression.
“I don’t write many optimistic pieces but this has hope and inspiration that encourages people to move forward,” says writer and director Chelsea Sutton. “Instead of letting tragedy defeat you, it’s about using it to rise above whatever is holding you back.”
Sea monkeys, clumsy baristas, a homeless wanna-be magician and imaginary friends all help to tell this ultimately triumphant story of battles within the self. It opens Jan. 7 at Eclectic Company Theatre, where Sutton recently co-wrote and directed Traveling Carnival Freakshow.
This new comedy-drama grew from another play Sutton wrote in college. It generated the story of 99 Impossible Things’ character Casey, a man trying to find a way to make his imaginary friend Paul real. Thus Casey and Paul came into existence along with other characters, Harold and Ellen.
As Sutton interwove old and new characters’ stories together, she chose to set them all in a homegrown, independent coffee shop, reflecting both the personal and public trials of coping with tragedy. “Every writer interprets a coffee shop as a very common experience,” she says. “For me pastries and coffee give me a homey feeling. Yet it’s not that relaxed, you’re not in your living room; it’s still a public place.”
In a setting common to most audiences,Â the onstage story quickly transforms into a tangible reality that mimics the inevitable combination of darkness and comedy inherent in life. “I am not good at writing straight comedy or straight drama because life isn’t either,” says Sutton.
Usually Sutton writes darker pieces that do not haveÂ “little bows,” as she calls them,” at the end. But here she leans toward open-ended optimism.
The young writer does not offer a definitive reason for this uncharacteristic hopefulness but rather explains it as a natural progression of the story. The beginning is laden with despair and confusion, allowing a great amount of room for growth and a change of tone.
As a director, Sutton also respects the independent life force of 99 Impossible Things and allows it to have a will of its own. “I think because I don’t see it as a perfect thing, I did a lot of rewriting before the rehearsal process. I was able to see it as an imperfect show and disconnect myself from it,” she says.
Despite this disconnect, she admits a false sense of security going into rehearsals. Eager actors asked questions about holes Sutton had left in her script. Her response to these questions?
“Either I made a decision or didn’t; it was as simple as that,” says Sutton. For example, the actual city and physical location of the coffee shop were much-debated subjects among cast and crew. The lighting designer still swears it is in Pasadena, while another actor definitively set the play hundreds of miles away.
This dispute is one of the holes Sutton has chosen to leave permanently unfilled in the script. No over-arching decision was made. “To me, the coffee shop can be wherever you want it to be, wherever the actor or audience personally needs it to be while they are in the world of the story. I didn’t think about it nearly as hard as a writer as I did as a director when I had actors asking me, but that’s the beauty; I see what I had given actors on the page and go with it. As a writer I don’t need to go as deep as actors do.”
The story of 99 Impossible Things is inherently inspirational, but Sutton takes this theme a step further as a producer by making audience members symbols of hope as well.
Eleven percent of ticket sales will go to City of Hope to fund research and treatment to cure breast cancer and leukemia. In 2010, close family friends of Sutton’sÂ were diagnosed with these two types of cancer, so she decided to do something proactive to help those fighting for their futures. This donation also ties in directly to the struggle of one character who is trying to put together the pieces of her life after a similar serious illness.
“It is amazing that I get to put my small, imperfect voice out there in this show, and I wanted to give a small offering to those who are fighting every single day of their lives,” says Sutton.
As writer, director and producer Sutton tries to encourage people to stand strong against the adversity that life naturally brings. She acknowledges the fight will be difficult and says we may get stuck against impossible odds, especially those within ourselves, but she advocates taking it all in and pushing forward nonetheless.
99 Impossible Things, produced by Ashleigh Boiros, Questa Gleason and Chelsea Sutton, opens Jan. 7; plays Fri.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 7 pm; through Feb. 13. Tickets: $18. Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Bl., Valley Village; 818.508.3003 or eclecticcompanytheatre.org.