Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A conversation with Chesapeake director Shawn Douglass

The Contributor, Remy Bumppo’s donor newsletter, recently spoke with Artistic Associate Shawn Douglass about his preparations to direct our upcoming production of Chesapeake, the unique challenges of rehearsing a one-man show, and the opportunity to work with long-time associate Greg Matthew Anderson.

The Contributor: What challenges do you feel a one man show will present?

Shawn Douglass: Well, I have directed one other one-man show before, working with Usman Ally to create his one-person show Public Enemy for Remy Bumppo’s thinkTank. Based on that experience and thinking forward about the rehearsal process for Chesapeake, there are a couple of challenges that I anticipate.

The first is simply being sensitive to the physical, vocal and mental stamina that a show like this demands of the actor. It is asking a lot of an actor to work 5 or 6 hours a day, when he is talking the whole time and is also trying to figure out and inhabit the emotional journey of a character. It doesn’t always look like hard work from the outside, but it really is. It demands incredible mental focus. So I have to keep the process rigorous enough that we accomplish our work, but free enough that Greg has time to release his focus for periods of time.

Also, because Greg’s character, Kerr, is addressing the audience directly, we need to find a way to support him in that during the rehearsal process. I anticipate that we will be inviting a few folks in along the way so that he will have new faces to communicate with whose responses haven’t been dulled by having seen the play a number of times. Since we have a relatively short preview process, getting the him comfortable with the audience’s presence early on will be important, I think.

TC: What have you done to prepare for working on a one man show? Specifically working with only one actor/working without any scene partners.

SD: I got this job rather late in the game, and Greg had more experience with the text than I had. We met a couple of weeks ago for a couple of hours of talk. We worked together to try to define some broad parameters for why the character, Kerr, is sharing this fabulous yarn with the audience. We talked about our understanding of place and about the time period in which the play was written. Greg was able to say “Hey, these are my ideas,” and I think I was able to put him at ease by reassuring him that I was open to his suggestions. He is after all the one who has to commit to every word of the play.

We also had an early rehearsal in which Greg read the play to the production team, which was followed by a lively discussion with the designers, Greg, and myself. The designers don’t always have that chance to hear the play that early. And they rarely get to talk one on one with the actor that early in the process. We had some really clarifying conversations.

TC: How do you feel your past experience working with Greg as cast members and as actor-director will help you in this production?

SD: The first way it will help is that I like Greg a lot. I’m looking forward to being in the rehearsal room with him. He’s a talented artist and a generous person, he’s smarter than me, and he’s a charming guy. He does his homework and then comes to rehearsal ready to play and experiment. So he is an actor that needs direction in the best sense. He needs an eye to tell him what is working and what is not, but he doesn’t need to be spoon-fed choices about what his character is thinking or doing. Give him a direction to go toward and he will try it. It makes my job easier!

The second way it will help is that based on working together on Night and Day and The Importance of Being Earnest, we have a sense of trust and camaraderie with one another. He knows that he has a voice in the process, and that even if I ask him to try something “out there” during a rehearsal, I think he trusts me to reign it in or dump it if it doesn’t yield effective results. And I trust him to do the same.

I remember one night when we were both on stage in Night and Day, I was listening and watching Greg do his thing. I started thinking to myself, “Man, this guy is really good!” Of course, the moment I did that, my focus was lost and I promptly missed my next line. It was the last time I spent any time admiring him while I was acting. So I think I’ll stick to directing him!

TC: What excites you about working in an intimate rehearsal process?

SD: I think our process is going to be a cool experiment. I expect it to be intimate early on in the sense that it will be just me and Greg working together as actor/director. But we will also have very intelligent stage managers and an assistant director in the room daily. Not to mention designers who will be joining us throughout the process. I am the sort of director who likes to ask everyone questions about what is happening. “What is confusing to you?” “Why did you laugh there?” “Does that moment seem a bit much to you?’

So I hope that the work with Greg feels more than just a one-on-one experience. We’ll be a community of people working on this.

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