Pegasus Launches Online “Intimate Conversations Series”; Premiere Features the Director and Composer of “Seneca”
“SENECA”: Pegasus Theatre Company presented an online conversation featuring the film’s co-writer, co-producer, director, and editor Jason Chaet; and its composer, Robert Manganaro. Above: Actor David Seneca (Armando Riesco, left) struggles to be a good father to his daughter Annette (Claudia Morcate-Martin). The film is available on HBO and HBO Max. (Image Courtesy of Kosher Quenepa LLC)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
Pegasus Theatre Company of West Windsor premiered its “Intimate Conversations Series” on September 3. The online discussion featured two of the artists behind the 2019 film Seneca: director and editor Jason Chaet, and Princeton-born composer Robert Manganaro. Pegasus board member John Paxton, a teacher and independent filmmaker, curated the conversation.
The event came about because Manganaro is a family friend of Managing Artistic Director Jennifer Nasta Zefutie. “I grew up with Jennifer’s husband, John. He and I have remained close friends for years,” Manganaro says in an email to this writer. “I was best man in his wedding, so it’s fun that this came full circle.”
As a songwriter and performer Manganaro has collaborated with Hamilton star Anthony Ramos on songs including “Ocean City,” “Take Me To The Middle,” and “Freedom.” He has performed the National Anthem at NBA and NCAA basketball games, in stadiums such as the Prudential Center and Barclay’s. He met Chaet through the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, where both are on staff.
The bulk of Seneca’s score — which is by turns ethereal, pensive, and driving — was completed in Manganaro’s Manhattan apartment. There he “recorded, produced, mixed, and mastered every one of the tracks,” he recalls to Paxton and Chaet.
“I’ve been writing music for a long time, [but] never for a film, until I started working with Jason,” Manganaro says of his background. “You bring with you what your experiences are … for me it’s about sitting down at the piano, [or] sitting down at the guitar, and writing.” Of the extent to which his musical influences — which include jazz and 1970s rock, rather than film scores — inform his compositions, he adds: “It’s this sort of fusion of all that music into whatever organically comes out.”
Chaet is a theater director, producer, and acting teacher who got his start at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. He founded and was the artistic director of Stage One, an off-off Broadway company. He served as a creative consultant on the film Kissing Jessica Stein. His film Putzel premiered at the 2012 Woodstock Film Festival. Additional credits include Remember (produced in association with the Puerto Rican film commission); and the web series Just Words, which Manganaro also scored.
Manganaro recalls that his previous collaboration with Chaet gave him his initial experience in “matching music with picture, which I had never done in any kind of true meaningful way. As a songwriter, I’m just writing whatever I want, and it doesn’t matter what it matches with. Doing this was a totally different process, but that’s what made it fun: that collaborative effort. In order for it to be successful, the score writer has to be well connected to the director; that’s absolutely essential.”
Concept and Themes
Seneca is written (and produced) by Chaet and actor Armando Riesco. The film depicts a Puerto Rican actor and father, David Seneca (portrayed by Riesco), who struggles to confront challenges to his career; his crumbling relationships with his wife, Bianca (Susan Misner) and young daughter, Annette (Claudia Morcate-Martin); and Hurricane Maria’s devastation of his homeland.
Chaet recalls that inspiration for Seneca came when Riesco, whose experiences as a Puerto Rican actor inform his onscreen character, “sent me a video about the stoic philosopher Seneca. That was just a spark; it’s not what the movie became about, [though] the last name of the main character stuck. But there was something in that video about the philosophy of the stoics: no matter how wealthy they were, they wanted to live very simply.”
“I got this image of a guy who’s been kicked out of his house … away from his family, and in a room by himself, with no furniture,” Chaet continues. Classifying the film as a “character study” he adds, “To me it’s about learning how to be a mentor; being a dad when you don’t really feel great about that; and the burden of expectation. There’s a lot about identity in the movie.”
Manganaro agrees. “It’s [about] learning how to be a dad, but also recognizing that it’s not learning how to be a dad the moment you become a dad; it’s continuous. It’s a process throughout his entire life. That was interesting to me; I was able to connect with that emotion. That’s ultimately where the music came from.”
“Theater is so much about language, and film is so visual,” Chaet observes. “After I’ve done a scene, I like to watch it without the sound on — no dialogue, no music, no atmosphere — and if the cut is starting to make sense purely visually, then I start to feel good about where things are. I get a sense of the rhythm of the scene through the cut, without the sound. Then, I know that Rob’s amazing music, the dialogue, and the sound design is going to enhance it.
This has come to influence Chaet’s work as a director of live theater, giving him an idea for a rehearsal technique. “I make the actors do the scenes without dialogue, just trying to figure out in their heads where they are by reading the other person, and going through their physical actions, and the visual aspect of the scene.”
Similarly, Manganaro preferred to prepare to score the film by watching it without “temp cues,” existing musical excerpts used by a director to convey the style of music that a scene requires. “I wanted to watch it with nothing. I didn’t want a temp cue … because I wanted to understand what the emotions of the actors were.” He feels that using temp cues “would have colored how things ended up turning out.”
In August 2019 the film received a sold-out world premiere at the HBO NY Latino Film Festival. Subsequently it won several awards, including the Ultra Indie Feature Award at the Woodstock Film Festival, and Best Screenplay at the Queens World Film Festival. Seneca is available on HBO platforms as of August 28 of this year.
“Intimate Conversations Series”
The “Intimate Conversations Series” exists because Pegasus has “been working during the pandemic to develop programming that is both appropriate to the digital/online medium we’re required to work in, and continues to further our artistic mission,” Nasta Zefutie explains in an email. “These casual conversations — with guest actors, directors, writers, and more — during which our patrons are also able to engage with our guests by asking questions through Facebook comments, allow us to continue to build and strengthen community through theater and performing arts.”
The series will continue monthly. The next installment, featuring Kyle Scatliffe, will livestream October 8 at 8 p.m. Scatliffe has performed in the Broadway revivals of Les Misérables and The Color Purple, and the National Tour of Hamilton. The November 5 installment will feature Bill Bowers, an award-winning actor whose Broadway credits include The Lion King and The Scarlet Pimpernel.
To view the first installment of the “Intimate Conversations Series,” or learn about future events, visit Pegasus Theatre Company’s Facebook page. Seneca is available on HBO and HBO Max.