HELD HOSTAGE: MARK A. RHEA ON DIRECTING THE HOSTAGE AGAIN
By Joel Markowitz
I was held hostage by a dream ensemble last Saturday night, as I inhaled the genius of Keegan Theatre’s revival of it’s 2003 production of The Hostage Producing Artistic Director Mark A. Rhea talks about his feckin’ great beer and song-filled remounted production.
Joel: What is The Hostage about?
Mark: The play was originally written in 1956 in Gaelic as An Giall for a society formed to promote the Irish language. It was revised in 1958 by Behan and by Joan Littlewood of the experimental Theatre Workshop. The evolution of An Giall to The Hostage can be simply characterized as that of a naturalistic Irish tragedy to tragic-comedy musical extravaganza meant to entertain British audiences. The plot of An Giall is relatively uncomplicated. A hostage is held by the IRA to be exchanged for an Irish prisoner. In the end he is smothered. At the time, there was such a hostage held by the IRA, but they eventually released him. The story is also said to be based on an incident during the Suez crisis in 1956 – a British soldier was captured by the Egyptians and found smothered to death. The ending of The Hostage has the captive shot.
Joel: Why did Keegan remount The Hostage?
Mark: We decided to mount four productions at Church Street Theater that we had produced over our 10 years. It really was just a matter of looking back at all our productions and trying to find audience favorites as well as Keegan family favorites mixed with have a diverse season (IE. Mojo Mickybo, The Hostage, Translations and Man of La Mancha, plus our new island project productions of Alone it Stands, The Last Days of the Killone Players (World Premiere), Closing Time (US Premiere) and Happy Prince (Original Adaptation). Seems quite an exciting and diverse season to me. If I were an audience member, I would be excited for this line up and that is what I try and gauge each of our seasons by, “Would I want to see the majority of the shows?”
Mark: Outside of 6 returning actors, the rest are new to the show. The venue also adds another texture to the piece and with every new element added, you find new ways to approach a piece. Also, I treat every actor in their own unique way, and so with a cast of 19 and only 6 returning, that is enough to change the play in some respects. It’s not so much for the better, but just different. If you asked me now, I’d say I like this show better, but if reversed, I’d probably say that show is better. I live in the now, so I put all my energy in this moment. I do think I have assembled one heck of an ensemble this time around. Actually, we consider everyone in this show as an ensemble. I love their energy and the connection they have with each other on stage.
Joel: Any similarities to the 2003 production?
Mark: Sure, the music and the 6 remaining actors. The music, however, has also been enhanced by using two mandolins in the show at various times and we made some songs more group numbers instead of solo numbers to give a more group atmosphere. The set is similar, but not exactly the same.
Joel: Brendan Behan wrote The Hostage in 1958. What was happening in Ireland at that time?
Mark: This was a period of relative calm in Ireland. But what remains relevant in shaping Irish culture and society from the 1920s to the time of Behan (and beyond), is the Treaty of 1921, which separated the six counties of Northern Ireland from the rest of Ireland to remain part of Britain. It was felt that negotiation among all the factions which had developed by that time was impossible and that the Protestant minority would have been badly represented as part of Ireland as a whole. Protestants were the majority in these six counties and most of them were against home rule. Much of Ireland viewed this compromise as a betrayal and the action caused rancor and incalculable division within the country, its various armies and political groups.
The character of Pat in The Hostage was part of Ireland’s mythic historical events, particularly the uprising of 1916, and considers himself a patriot. But he has become disillusioned with fanatics and with the IRA, particularly. He is against political forces which divide Ireland.
In terms of hostile activities, the IRA had carried out a series of low-key campaigns from mid 1950s to early 1960s. The Irish government tried to control raids on British army posts along the border and elsewhere. The violence escalated after 1968 (Catholic civil rights movement), and the IRA actually split into two wings, one of which decided to return permanently to “active duty” as long as remained partitioned. Violence and tragedy continues to this day.
It is always difficult to describe the events in a specific decade of Irish history because it almost seems as if variations of the same things are going on all the time – the loyalties change, new leaders appear and reappear, attempts at peace are made and broken. One distinctive feature of the late 50s was a five year economic plan created in 1958, which was inspired the work of the Secretary to the Finance Ministry called T.K. Whitaker.
This plan was made in response to a serious economic crisis which was overly dependent on agriculture and was poorly organized. The new approach included an increase in domestic investment, involving both the private sector and the government and efforts to attract foreign capital. There were significant improvements in various aspects of the Irish economy.
Joel: Why is The Hostage relevant to what is happening in the world and Ireland today in 2008?
Mark: Each person who experiences the play can draw his or her own conclusions about that – there are universal themes inherent in any presentation of conflict, or a situation in which a human life is measured against some principle or cause. The polarization of Catholic/Gael vs. Protestant/English is ever-present in Ireland, just as racial or religious tensions are imbedded in most cultures of the world. The music, the comedy and other “unreal” elements serve to heighten the universal, almost metaphorical aspect of the drama.
It is also the case that Irish identity, to this day, is rooted in the memory of martyrdom, oppression and violence, and the cultural glorification of sacrifice. It is linked to an eye for eye mentality. There is the potential for the conflict to go on indefinitely as the people can always draw on past events. They carry their history along with them into the present; it is not compartmentalized. And is thus always relevant.
Joel: How was the music chosen?
Mark: Most of the music was chosen by Dave Jourdan through a discussion with the two of us back in 2003. About half the songs are in the script and the other half we added. Dave wrote music to the numbers in the script and he brought in many Irish ballads, Irish Rebel songs that he had learned growing up in Detroit by an Irish band. “Boys of the Old Brigade”, “Belfast Brigade, “Ashtown Road,” “Carrickfergus,, “John Mitchell,” along with others, were added into the show. We also added a Brendan Behan song from another play of his. I’ll save that one for the audience to experience!
Joel: Tell us about the choreography
Mark: Melissa Leigh Douglass is the choreographer and I just love her. She worked to make the numbers as organic as possible, especially the big group numbers. She never let the dancing seem thought out and rehearsed, but they are. She knew the feel for what the show needed and what I felt and she gave that to me. She is also just fun as shit to work with.
Joel: What is Dave Jourdan’s contribution?
Mark: UH – EVERYTHING. He is as important to this show as Guinness is to Ireland. He also IS Pat. Not that he doesn’t have to work at it, but he has carved out such a defined character in this show. I can’t say enough about him. Okay, so he is also one of my best friends in the world, but that aside, he is feckin awesome.
Joel: What does Dam Martin’s lighting contribute?
Mark: UH – EVERYTHING. He is as important to this show as Smithwicks is to Ireland (this is Dan’s Irish beer of choice). Dan does so much with so little. He can create with 16 lights what others seem to need 40 lights to do. He also understands what is in my feckin head which isn’t easy mind you. I absolutely LOVE the last scene song in the show with his lighting leading the way. He also was able to reverse the norm and have the lights subtly shift back to a scene without you even knowing it. He is my boy!!!!!
Joel: You are known for using every inch of the stage. What were the challenges at Church Street Theatre?
Mark: First of all – thank you for that. I don’t see the reason to leave space open if you have it there to use. I know there are exceptions to that rule, but I want my shows to feel real – lived in. These people live in these spaces. Make each set unique to the cast you have and find ways to integrate them into the space. I think Church Street is such a great space for this show. It’s a perfect fit.
Joel: What was the most difficult scene to direct?
Mark: I think directing the ensemble through the subtleties of what happens upstairs as well as just the balance of everyone’s personal energy throughout the play. It’s a fine line.
Joel: What is your favorite scene?
Mark: Oh feckin hell! Can I say that it starts at the beginning and ends around about 2 and half hours later? I love this production and this play. I have missed one show since it opened. It so much fun and so different, I can’t get enough of it. But if I have to pick one – it’s the last number of the show.
Joel: What do you want the audience to take with them when they leave?
Mark: Again, this is a personal thing, and the play will resonate with people in vastly different ways. Any actor or director wants the audience to be moved, entertained, even transformed, in some way. An important “lesson” from The Hostage might be a strong sense of the Irish spirit which was certainly important to Behan – no matter what the country has experienced over the centuries, the arts and culture are rich and vital.
- Running Time: 2:40 including two intermissions totaling twenty minutes.
- When: Thursdays through Sundays until March 29. Sunday shows are at 2 p.m.; all other shows are at 8.
- Where: Church Street Theater, 1742 Church Street NW, Washington, DC
- Tickets: $30. Call 703.892.0202 x 2 or email