How can Patrick Barlow’s play, originally produced in 2005, based on a Hitchcock film from 1935, adapted from a novel published in 1915 written by John Buchan, be a love letter to the theatre? I had the wonderful pleasure of speaking with Olney Theatre Center’s Associate Artistic Director and Director of The 39 Steps, Clay Hopper, as well as cast members, Jason Lott and Evan Casey, to find out more about how a piece like this comes together.
Joe: What was your gut reaction after your first read of The 39 Steps?
Clay: Oh my God! How are we going to do this? That was my first impression of it. It was a bit overwhelming.
In what way?
Clay: It’s a farce and farces always come along with a great deal of attention to detail and moment to moment work and props and business. And the nature of this play, the multiple locations, the action sequences, the hundred or so different characters played by four people, I thought, “How is the best way to approach it?” I got together with my designer, Cristina Todesco, and we thought, let’s do it in the small space. This piece has a risk of being over-produced. I wanted to have a different take and avoid the possibility of over-doing it.
Jason and Evan, you play more than multiple characters and are identified as the “Clowns” in the piece, tell us a bit about these “Clowns” and how that fits in with playing so many different characters.
Jason: It’s hard to talk about my character without first explaining the set-up of the play. The play itself is the story of a bored Brit, Richard Hannay (played by Jeffries Thaiss). He becomes entangled in a pre-World War II spy game and is chased across the United Kingdom by a bunch of different people, meeting another bunch of different people along the way. Susan Lynskey, Evan, and I play all of those people…
Evan: Our characters work to “put on” the play the audience is seeing, including moving set pieces, helping costume changes, setting and removing props, and of course playing a multitude of characters within the story. To say exactly which characters we play would give away too much of the craziness that ensues, but let’s just say we wear MANY hats, have MANY accents, and make MANY character switches, sometimes onstage, and sometimes instantaneously!
Clay: They are fantastic actors, the show wouldn’t be nearly as good if it weren’t for them. Their specificity and their ability to stay true to the story. They’re called clowns in the script, but they have honed these very real characters.
Other than the little blurb or synopsis that anyone can find about the play online, what is this play about for you guys?
Clay: It’s two linear stories, really. The actors acting the piece and the story itself. It’s a chase play. There are spies and the authorities get involved, we’re never really sure who these authorities are, but I’m sure they’re German. This is pre-WW II. But then, these two characters have to fall in love and Susan and Jeffries do a marvelous job with it.
Jason: It is a love story: the story of a man who discovers love while trying to save the country. At the same time, it’s a love letter to the theatre. The play both embraces and sends up theatrical conventions, allowing the audience to revel in the way that theatrical magic is made, while revealing the magic in the same moment.
Evan: In addition to being a farcical send-up of Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps,” at its core the play has a very human element. Certainly there are zany, crazy characters he meets along the way, and many adventures and dangers for him to escape from, but all of it is rooted in a truthful place.
What drew you to this role?
Evan: I had heard amazing things about the Broadway production, and after reading the script and seeing the Olympian effort that would be required for an actor playing either of the clown roles (not to mention the abundance of fun to be had), I thought it would be an incredibly rewarding challenge, as it certainly has been.
Jason: The play is really well written and a well-organized mash-up of comedy, romance, and adventure. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of it! Plus, I love multiple character work and this is one of the best multiple character roles that you can find. It’s an absolute treat to throw myself into it every night.
What was your pre-rehearsal process work like for this piece? Any particular research or techniques you used?
Evan: Knowing that I would be playing so many roles, I thought it would be best to work from the outside-in, and try to differentiate the characters in my track physically, vocally, and emotionally first. I set up a nice little spreadsheet on my computer to track character name, accent, vocal quality, and physicality, as well as any other notes I thought of regarding their emotion, objective, or quality of their person. I also worked a great deal with Robert Blumenfeld’s book “Accents: A Manual For Actors“, reading and listening to the British RP, Cockney, and different Scottish sections countless times. Additionally, Jason and I met to discuss our thoughts on who these characters are. Because we spend so much time working with and off of each other in the show, we thought it important to be on the same page with where our initial ideas for the characters were headed.
Jason: One of the toughest things about multiple character work is making sure that each of your characters is well defined. They may be big and wild and ridiculous, but they also must be grounded. So, I started working on defining each of the characters and who they are. Accent work can be difficult, especially when you’re playing characters that come from different levels of British and Scottish society. The thickness of the accent, the sibilance, the pronunciation… it’s not always easy. So, I worked with various Accent books and CDs, plus watching YouTube videos of various Scots and listening to Scottish mystery novels as I drove to and from Olney.
Clay: I start assembling a team. And, I have a great team of dedicated artists. I always want to allow everyone the freedom to create and to not stifle them. We are constantly tweaking and adjusting. Not just the actors, but the lighting, sound, some scenic elements. We take notes at the first preview, and we come back the next day for a five hour rehearsal, you know, and we do it again all through out previews. We’re all making adjustments up until the last moment, because once it opens, everyone goes away. The director goes away, the design team dissipates. The run is all for the actors and they’re working up until the show closes.
I’m glad you mention preview week. Most productions have a preview week or a series of preview performances. How is this valuable for a production like this?
Jason: We know what we think is funny and what works in the rehearsal room. So, preview audiences are invaluable for helping us determine which moments actually click and also when we need to hold for laughs. Reactions change every night, of course, based on the energy of the audience, but previews help you make sure the structure of moments is what it needs to be.
Evan: Previews are so valuable because they tell us what is working and what is not in the telling of the story. Where is the audience locked in and listening? Where do they check out? What moments do they get ahead of us? What moments could afford to be longer? These are the kinds of questions we find the answers to in previews, because it is only when the show gets in front of audience that we can really determine and fine-tune what story we want to be telling, and how we should be telling it.
When you joined the rest of the cast for rehearsals how did your process change?
Jason: One of the great parts about rehearsal is that everything changes when you come into the room. In your mind beforehand, you see your character interact with another actor’s character and take a guess what the reactions might be. Most of that is thrown out the window (for the better) when you start rehearsing and have live and surprising stimuli to which you can respond. You still have the groundwork you’ve done on that character, but the moment-to-moment work changes. And that’s always exciting.
Evan: Those first few rehearsals are always the most fun because you see what everyone else is bringing to the process, not simply your fellow cast mates, but the director and designers as well. You begin to see things from new perspectives, not simply your personal perspective of your character’s journey. When that happens, it’s very much like starting fresh on the process. We have all built our solid foundations for our characters, but a foundation is only a starting point, we have much further to go, and that only comes from the give and take, and exchange of ideas that flows from an exciting rehearsal room.
Clay: Once we get into the rehearsal room, it’s where we really find the show. I like to let it unfold naturally and find it’s own way.
What is your biggest challenge with show? What is your biggest opportunity?
Really the show itself is the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity. This show requires such heavy-lifting from every member of its fearless ensemble, including the stage crew running the show. There is not a moment of downtime for anyone, because any time spent backstage is usually spent changing costume or preparing for your next entrance right around the corner. This show is a marathon of many sprints, if such a thing is possible, and we all get our obligatory exercise for the day by the time we finish!
Jason: The biggest challenge is precision. The show has so many moving parts and if one of those parts misfires or is too slow or too fast, the moments and the jokes fall flat. You have to be extremely focused and never allow your mind to wander. The biggest opportunity is kick-starting the audience’s imagination. Our playing space is a stripped down set, with places and characters only being suggested by the artistry of lights, sound, costume, set, props, and projections. Clay, has put together a purposefully blank slate, in which fun and fear and new found love can flourish in it’s most necessary form. The details, then, are left to the wild imaginings of the individual audience members.
Why should audiences be excited about The 39 Steps?
Evan: This show is a true theatrical tour-de-force for all involved. You will see a cast and crew working at their maximum, and yet hopefully, if we’ve done our jobs right, it will appear seamless and effortless as you join us for this madcap, zany, roller coaster ride of a show.
Clay: Audiences should be excited because it is an event. It really is a love letter to the theatre. It’s a celebration of theatricality. For people who like theatre, I believe they make a habit of going, and this show really celebrates all the things we love about live performance. Rarely do you get a play where it tells you to take the most mundane, everyday actions and totally theatricalize it. It is a director’s dream.
Jason: It’s been an absolute joy to work on. Clay has assembled a fabulous cast and an amazing set of designers and crew. It’s been an incredibly collaborative process and one in which anyone could suggest any number of ideas and we’d try them to see what works. It underscores the trust that each of us had in each other and the desire to keep pushing to make the show the best it could be.
It’s fast, it’s fun, it’s a spy thriller, and it’s a love story. There’s something for everyone!