An Interview with Olney Theatre’s Jason King Jones and actor Michael Russotto
Take four middle-managers from a Manchester business firm – think the UK version of “The Office.” Now hurl them into a rough and tumble setting where these members of the British middle class are literally fish out of water, being trapped on a tiny island in England’s Lake District. Now, it sounds more like “Survivor.”
The result is one of Britain’s most popular comic plays, Neville’s Island by Tim Firth, where a small band of co-workers are thrust into an outdoor team-building adventure that goes horribly awry.
The play premiered twenty-one years ago and was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Comedy. It has remained popular in Great Britain with professional theatres and is a staple of community playhouses. Playwright Tim Firth is perhaps best known for his screenplay and more recent stage adaptation of Calendar Girls.
Olney Theatre Center’s production of Neville’s Island, which opens this weekend, is directed by Jason King Jones and features Michael Glenn (Gordon), Bolton Marsh (Roy), Michael Russotto (Neville) and Todd Scofield (Angus).
DC Theatre Scene got the chance to talk with Jones and Russotto just as Neville’s Island began previews.
Jeff Walker: Describe this play in 10 words or less.
Jason King Jones: Oh, wow, really – ten words or less?
OK, I’ll give you 15 words, if you need them. [Laughing heartily] Here’s one stab at it: Four middle managers thrust into extraordinary circumstances stumble and fail and we get to laugh at their failures.
Here is another one: It is Tim Firth’s lovingly scathing examination of modern man’s failure to handle crisis.
That works for me. Now – how would you describe the style of the play.
JKJ: Tim Firth subtitles it as a ‘comedy in a thick fog’ which I think is really interesting. Not only is there a thick fog, like the physical space like these guys are on a very foggy island in the the lake district, also I think the kind of fog that surrounds these guys that prevents them from actually seeing clearly their circumstances in life. There is definitely comedy to it.
Stylistically, it is a contemporary comedy, but it has a surprising amount of heart and insight and certainly a substantial amount of conflict. As the play unfolds, the conflict becomes clearer, especially when you take four people and stick them on an island.
Yes, and they are not even supposed to be on the island, that wasn’t even in the plan, for them to be shipwrecked on this island. They are so inept at reading the clues, they wind up there.
Tell us about the group of men who are forced into this outdoor odyssey.
They are all based out of a town called Salford, just outside of Manchester, England. They all work for the Pennine Spring Water, Ltd. They are all middle-aged, middle managers, Anglo-guys. There’s Neville, of course. There’s Gordon, who came up from working class; he knows the shop floor more than anybody else and worked his way into management.
They also have Angus who comes from a little more posh area; he is the newest of the managers. Angus is a stickler for detail so he has purchased a lot of equipment to make himself ready for this journey. And then there is Roy, who is the finance manager with the company. He is recently dealt with some personal tragedy in his life and he is still dealing with that. The struggles on the island bring out some of his troubles. But he is also the most comfortable outdoors; he’s a birdwatcher and is certainly pretty comfortable outside.
Does this play speak to those people who are tethered to desks and don’t get out much?
There certainly is a part of this play that looks at how we don’t get out much. But it is really a metaphor about our human nature. Not only do we not understand how we function in the natural world but we really don’t understand ourselves that much because we spend too much time focused on relatively inconsequential daily tasks. For these characters, the situation thrust upon them forces them to face their human nature in a pretty profound way.
How did you approach the play as a director?
There is a hyper-realism that is called for in the script which is always a challenge when you have to represent that on the theatrical stage. And there was that exciting tension – and I use that word from a positive point of view. That tension about how we bring that theatrical world and the realistic world together. The metaphor of human nature was one way to look at it.
The tagline describes the play as “The Office” meets “Survivor,” but I also look at it like “The Lord of the Flies” meets “Waiting for Godot.” That’s actually more where this production is aimed and that’s what the play is really doing. What they end up going through is actually more of an existential crisis than a naturalistic crisis.
So it’s not so much about how you take dirty water from the river and use your socks to turn it into drinking water, it’s much more about existing and being on this earth with other people.
Yes, and being yourself. Who are you really when you take away all the trappings of society.
There is certainly conflict, but it’s an amazingly written comedy, I don’t want to take away from that. It’s a very funny play. That’s what’s fresh about it: the comedy allows that investigation to take place, and makes it palatable and enjoyable. It’s a really great ride for the audience members too.
Talk about your design and technical team and how they helped realize your vision for Neville’s Island.
What you are going to see is a cross section of an island, with realistic looking rocks and trees mixed in with some real rocks and trees. It looks like we’ve chopped off this little island and put it on the stage, and help that sense of claustrophobia in the middle of wilderness for the characters to have this rigidly defined space. Russell Parkman is the set designer and he has done an incredible job creating the space.
Martha Hally, our costume designer, has a lot of experience hiking and camping so she was able to bring that knowledge to what these guys would need and what they would wear.
Joel Moritz has done lighting designs a few shows for us at Olney, most recently Cinderella. He has helped not only define the space but helped with the mixture of the natural and the abstract. Will Pickens is our sound designer; he did the sound for Spring Awakening most recently, so now for something completely different, he’s creating the textures and sounds of the island and the things that happen that are just out of reach for these characters.
— Michael Russotto also took some time to talk with us. Russotto’s role as the title character in Neville’s Island marks his first return to Olney Theatre since 1998 when he appeared in another British comedy, Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. The actor has extensive Washington-area credits, including The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety, A Bright New Boise at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, and Art at Signature Theatre, along with Arena Stage and Folger Theatre and many others. Russotto has also done audio-book narration for more than 20 years. —
Tell us about Neville.
Michael Russotto: He is a mid-level marketing manager in a British company that produces spring water. He is from the Manchester area and he has a wife and twin daughters. He’s pretty cheerful, normally, and tries to be a problem solver. Unfortunately, his skills are not really a great match for the challenges he faces in the play.
How do Neville and his co-workers end up stranded?
They are participating in a weekend, outward bound-type experience that is designed to increase their team-building skills so that they work together better at the office. They get stranded on the island because they are searching for the next set of clues for this little adventure they’ve been sent on by the organizers of the weekend. Their boat sinks while they are looking for clues in the lake.
It appears that these gentlemen are ill-equipped for what they end up facing.
Yes, I would say that’s true. They do have some supplies with them but I would say they are more mentally ill-equipped.
They learn from the experience but not exactly the intended team-building and office camaraderie, correct?
They learn far more than they want to know about each other, really.
They have to face their own shortcomings. They learn things about each other and about themselves that are not necessarily flattering or things they want to dwell on, but they sort of have to because of the circumstances.
And some of that comes from the different characters ways of coping. For instance, there is Gordon who happens to be pretty sharp-tongued and sarcastic. Such a response doesn’t help the situation and he says some pretty hurtful things but they also happen to be pretty true.
From what I gather, this is also quite a funny play.
It is a funny play. The situation and character conflicts create the humor in the play. You have some comic incongruities just in the fact that you have four businessmen who are unaccustomed to surviving in the wild and they have to figure out how to do it. There is a lot of potential for funny mishaps within that scenario.
Closes April 28, 2013
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd.
Tickets: $32 – $65
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Oh, definitely. You will see a little bit of yourself in all these characters, or you will see people you know – friends or maybe enemies in some of these characters. You will recognize character types and personal traits, as well; they are pretty universal, everyday guys.
How have the rehearsals and previews gone?
It’s been a really lovely experience.
The director, Jason King Jones, is terrific; he’s a real actor’s director and let’s us fail or succeed on our own. That’s half the fun for an actor, I think.
The rest of the cast are super nice guys. They are smart and funny and hard-working; there are no divas involved. It’s been lots of fun to play, that’s what rehearsals were like. You go in and play, figure out what works best, what honors the script the best, try to stay true to the playwright’s vision. I think the director and the cast have done that in this case.