Michael Kahn on Strange Interlude

Hello, I am Michael Kahn, the Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Welcome to my new blog, “Stage Interludes from Michael Kahn.” Every Wednesday for the next eight weeks, I am going to be writing an installment of this blog about our current show, Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, which I am directing.

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And so we begin
[posted February 15, 2012]

Michael Kahn (Photo: Scott Suchman)

Strange Interlude is a play I have wanted to work on for a very long time, longer, in fact, than I’ve been at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. I was approached in the mid-1980s to direct Strange Interlude on Broadway (with a very famous actress as Nina Leeds), and for various reasons those discussions fell through. I was very, very disappointed and thought I had missed my chance. I came to Washington, D.C., the next year and I didn’t work on another Eugene O’Neill play for the next ten years. When I wanted to direct a play from the modern canon alongside Shakespeare, I went back to O’Neill. I chose Mourning Becomes Electra, and it was a great success here in Washington. I think people were stunned when it was over. They didn’t realize how powerful a playwright Eugene O’Neill could be. And now, here we are, with Strange Interlude in STC’s 25th Anniversary Season. I like to think of it as a gift to myself, and a gift to the Washington theatre community.

I think that Eugene O’Neill is an extraordinary playwright. He is America’s greatest dramatist, and his ambition – the denseness, the very human weight of the stories that he tells – makes him very exciting. Every time you see an O’Neill play, it is like climbing up to the top of a mountain. And when you get to the end of the evening, I think everyone has had a cathartic experience. It can be hard work but it is also incredibly rewarding. He was a very serious, weighted playwright. In his ambition and the cumulative power of his plays, O’Neill compares with Shakespeare.         [Continue reading here]

Week 2 Notes from the first week of rehearsal
[posted February 22, 2012]

Like all of O’Neill’s plays, Strange Interlude is profound and intuitive and also a little over-written. This week, I’ve finished tableworking the play with the actors and we’re on our feet now, continuing to explore. The first week of staging can be a complicated time, and we’ve been taking it slow, learning carefully about the play. We make new discoveries every day.

I’ve known about Strange Interlude almost as long as I have been alive. My mother had been married to a bookseller before she married my father, so my home growing up in New York was full of old books, including all the old Boni and Liveright first editions of O’Neill’s plays. I can still remember picking up Strange Interlude when I was very young. I didn’t understand a thing, only that it was an epic. I saw José Quintero’s revival at the Actors’ Studio in 1963 with Geraldine Page as Nina. It was the first revival since the 1920s. I think it was then that I realized how much I loved the play, and how much I needed to do it someday. My chance has finally come.         [Continue reading here]

Week 3 We finally have a text. The exploration of characters continues
[
posted March 1, 2012]

Michael kahn (left) and the cast of Strange Interlude

Strange Interlude rehearsals continue. We entered rehearsals with a carefully edited script, but it has kept on changing and evolving. There were times when we would stop, in the middle of rehearsing a scene, and put some dialogue back in. I know the play pretty much by heart at this point, and I could see that there were moments when the rhythm needed to be massaged, or the logic worked out.

Every line of subtext is spoken, exposing the beats in the characters’ thought processes, and I had cut some of those, thinking not everything needs to be made clear, but it is such a delicate issue. If the thoughts are clearer moving through the line, you can follow them with more ease than if you have to make a huge leap in logic or thinking, and the subsequent spoken material follows that logic. [Continue reading here]

Week 4 We find O’Neill within the lines, the actors get comfortable and we begin to see the contours of the scenes
[
posted March 7, 2012]

To perform Eugene O’Neill, an actor has to be ruthlessly honest—with themself as much as with the play. It can be a tricky thing to sculpt for a director, and for the actor, it can exact a terrible toll. I once directed José Ferrer, the great actor and matinee idol, famous in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s as the Cyrano de Bergerac of the American stage.

It was a role he could never totally escape. We were doing Long Day’s Journey into Night in Boston, and José was playing James Tyrone. Tyrone, of course, was based on O’Neill’s father, James Tyrone O’Neill, the great actor and matinee idol, famous in the 1870s, ’80s and ’90s as the Count of Monte Cristo. Like Ferrer’s Cyrano, James O’Neill could never fully escape being the Count of Monte Cristo. [Continue reading here]

not here
Week 5 Landing the final scenes
[posted March 15, 2012]

It’s week five. We just keep marching through the play like Sherman to Atlanta. All the way to Georgia!

Every day we fill in more of the picture. Each scene now has a real shape. I feel free to fine-tune – focus the actors on maintaining their diagonals, throw out old ideas because they no longer look realistic within the flow of the play and so on.

Our pace of working has tightened up. The actors are increasingly fluent in O’Neill’s language, and we can simply move faster. They’re not quite yet off book – we have enough calls for line that it breaks up the rhythm of the scenes, but that’s fine since it gives me a chance to deliver notes and thoughts one-on-one during pauses.  [Continue reading here]

Week 6 The  runthroughs
[posted March 21, 2012]

We have been running Strange Interlude this week. Our first run was last Wednesday, a week ago. We ran through it again on Thursday and another time this weekend. I am very happy with the progress we have been able to make. As many directors know, this can be a make or break juncture for a show, a time when it’s vital for the ensemble to gather a head of steam going into the final stretch. This week, there have been some long nights and hard days. They will only get longer, but such is life in the theatre.

A runthrough isn’t the same as a finished performance, but it can give you important information about which places still need work. I will hold a notes session after the actors come back from break, and then dismiss some members of the company so I can work on one or two scenes in isolation. The show continues to improve. It’s still unshaped in acts two and three—they will need tightening as well as a new look at them.   [Continue reading here]

Week 7 Lessons from tech week
[posted March 15, 2012]

Anyone who has ever been through a tech process knows that when we enter the theatre, we are forced to face the inevitable realities that are sure to come. Our original ideas may be achieved by the production team, or may need to be transformed entirely. The lights or sound planned in the mind can often have no impact—less is more than imagined. The set changes may need to be simplified so as not to have lengthy waits between scenes—the projections may need to be rethought; the video made longer or abridged …

More than anything, tech week leads to problem-solving and revision. You have to be demanding and flexible, a difficult combination. It can be one of the most fruitful periods of the rehearsal process—when dreams seem to be solidifying from shadows into substance—and it can also be the most frustrating.  [Continue reading here]

Week 8 (final in the series) the play now belongs to the actors and the audience
[posted April 5, 2012]

After a week of previews, we opened the show on Monday night. By the time you’re reading this, the reviews will have come in.  The relationship between a critic and director is quite a unique one.  In this case, I have put 25 years of my life into understanding, planning, editing and creating this work … all to have critics develop an opinion, steering the minds of potential audiences, mostly and typically based on only one evening’s performance.

…  There’s something unbelievably courageous about this play. Our production in its current shape is rich in incident but it also has emotional texture. I think if O’Neill were here today, I would tell him “I did all this with your intentions in mind, and in your style.”  [Continue reading here]

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Strange Interlude is onstage March 27 to April 29, 2012 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC.
Details here 

(l-r) Ted Koch as Sam Evans, Charles Marsden as Robert Stanton, Francesca Faridany as Nina Leeds and Baylen Thomas as Ned Darrell (Photo: Scott Suchman)

Comments

  1. Susan Galbraith says:

    Every time I attend a play by O’Neill I come away — just as you said — “stunned” that each experience is by the same playwright.  I always have to admit, to myself, “And I thought I knew him.”

    I felt the same way this past summer at Glimmerglass when I got to see the debut of a new opera about Eugene O’Neill and his wife Carlotta.  Entitled a Blizzard at Marblehead Neck,  with a libretto by Tony Kushner and score by Jeanine Tesori, it focused on an event that happened in the twilight of his career, when illness and disillusion had brought the marriage crashing down. Washington National Opera’s Francesca Zambello directed the brilliant chamber piece.   I wish it could play alongside your production in the nation’s capital.

    Susan Galbraith 

  2. What a coincidence!  I sat at the same table the other night with Jeanine Tesori and the two artists who created the roles of Carlotta and Gene, and we spoke of it.

    They told me that because of the success at Glimmerglass, Jeanine and Tony have been asked to expand it into a full-length piece, and I am very eager to see it when it is done.

  3. Susan Galbraith says:

    Yes, David Pittsinger and  Patricia Schuman play Eugene and Carolotta.  They were both so achingly good.  Pittsinger seemed to me to absolutely get O’Neill.  Jeffrey Gwaltney who played the cop on the last scene who finds him in the snow and sets up the report did an amazing job also. He is in the Young Artists Program at WNO and is a  terrific singer-actor.  We had him do his scene for  our series First Tuesdays at The Black Fox, where we bring together different styles of music-theatre, and everyone benefits from new forms and sounds.

    I too look forward to the expanded Tesori-Kushner  opera.

    And keep your journal of process coming.

    Susan 

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