BLUE HILL — Ever innovative, the New Surry Theatre is trying something new in its mission to stage top-notch theatrical entertainment for the greater Hancock County community and train new directors to continue the company’s legacy of excellence.
In recent weeks at the Town Hall Theater, where the Neil Simon comedy “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” has been in rehearsal and is set to open Jan. 18, three directors-in-training, Erin McCormick, Nina Robinson Poole and Lori Sitzabee, have been putting the four actors in the play through their paces.
“Red Hot Lovers” is the perfect vehicle for this sort of multi-director experiment. It is the story of Barney Cashman, played by Dennis Moran, a happily married restaurateur in the midst of a midlife crisis, who is determined to have an affair. Toward this end, he arranges trysts with three different women whom he hopes will help him earn his Don Juan stripes.
Each director is in charge of one of these scenarios. So, the women, played by Jaimie Page, Vanessa Hawkins and Amy Bramblett, only work with one director while Moran is in all the scenes and is working with all three.
All these directors-in-training are experienced actors, and some even have had some directing experience in other situations, so they exhibit a good deal of confidence as they maneuver their characters about the physical stage and the emotional territory they will be covering in the course of their scenes.
They also show different directorial approaches. McCormick, for instance, seems to take a more traditional approach, largely letting the cast run through most of their scene, taking copious notes from her “director’s chair.” When the pace bogs down or the actors seem to be floundering, she halts the action and shares the notes she has been taking, suggesting different blocking and motivations.
In one scene Barney is attempting to seduce Page’s character Jeanette, who is more interested in discussing the meaning of her miserable life than having sex.
McCormick knows exactly what she wants from the scene, and takes pains to explain it thoroughly, suggesting that Barney isn’t the only seducer in this scene.
“Dennis,” she says. “Jeanette is drawing you into her game, she’s even got you defending your wife, which is not your plan at all! We need to see that transition, your confusion.”
Poole, a veteran NST actor/director, who along with Bill Raiten is acting as an advisor to the three directors also interjects, urging the actors bring more nervous energy to the action. When Page berates herself for missing a line “Ack, what’s wrong with me!” Poole reassures her. “You’re trying something new, bigger, you’re bound to get lost, but it will come, what’s important now is we see the emotion!”
When they run through the scene again, the results are immediately apparent. Lines that fell flat in the first run are emphasized, getting the laugh the playwright intended; awkward movements are given a smoother more plausible course.
After an hour or so of this painstaking polishing, and multiple “line” calls, McCormick interrupts. “You guys are looking tired,” shall we call it a day?” But the actors insist they want to press on, so they do.
The following week, Nina Poole and Sitzabee’s scene are being rehearsed. Sitzabee is traveling in China, so Rebecca Poole is substituting. She attends most of the rehearsals, so with the help of stage manager Ellen Breindel she is able to follow Sitzabee’s lead, making a few tweaks here and there, while maintaining the continuity.
When Nina Poole’s scene is rehearsed, she demonstrates that like McCormick, she has a clear vision of what she wants. Before they begin, she gives her actors a pep talk — this time it’s Bramblett playing Barney’s intended assignation — urging her and Moran to keep the pace and the energy punched up. The director says she hopes to run through the scene without interruption, but before long she’s bounding on stage to demonstrate a movement or gesture. Hers is more of a show — rather than tell — approach although she stops just short of giving the actors line readings, strongly nudging them in the direction she wants.
“Dennis, I want to see the switch,” she tells Moran. “You’ve gone through all the motions to set the scene for this affair, now I want you to move into party mode. Make the transition bigger more pronounced. This is exciting; you’ve been anticipating this, then the doorbell rings and POW!”
Poole is happy with Bramblett’s understanding of her role as Elaine, who is just looking for a little fun, not the romance Barry is trying to infuse into the tryst. “Yes, Yes, that’s good,” Poole comments on Elaine’s seductive teasing but, again, she wants it bigger. When they run it again, the scene, which was funny the first time, is even better.
Moran says he is rather a beginner himself. A few years ago at 60-something he started taking on a few small acting parts with NST, but this is his first major role and it’s a doozy. The women come and go but Barney virtually never leaves the stage.
He speculates that having three directors to work with, plus a couple of high-powered advisors, might be troubling for a more experienced actor, but says he is grateful for all the help he can get to bring his character to life.
“Occasionally there will be conflicting directions,” he says, “but my character grows and evolves during the course of each encounter. So, if his character is a bit different in each scene that’s appropriate.”
Audiences will have a chance to see how all these scenes blend together at 7 p.m. Jan 18-19 and 25-26 and at 3 p.m. Jan 20. To reserve seats, call 200-4720 and visit www.newsurrytheatre.org.