Jeffrey Binder is the Associate Artistic Director at Gulfshore Playhouse.
Well, here we are. One canceled production of Paradise and an evacuated New Works Festival later than we’d hoped, but here we are. We have a director, we have actors, we have a stage manager, we have sets and costumes being built, wigs being fluffed, and I have it on very good authority that we’ll have a theatre to perform in by early November. We have sunshine and no swirling radar images of doom for thousands of miles around us! We have a show, people! The ’17-‘18 season kicks off with our first preview on Thursday, November 2nd! And wouldn’t you know it, it’s a farce! By the inestimable Ken Ludwig, no less.
What a way to kick off the season and welcome back our Gulfshore Playhouse family than with a knock-down, drag-out (pun intended) comedy about two Shakespearean actors pretending to be women in the hopes of inheriting a fortune from a wealthy Pennsylvanian widow who is dying… and dying to be reunited with her estranged nieces who were whisked off to England when they were but wee little girls.
Oh, I love farce. I love to laugh at the ridiculous extremes we humans squeeze and stretch ourselves into for romance, fame, or fortune. I love the excesses that farce forces characters onstage into. I love the meticulousness that farcical moments need in order to be realized on stage that move the story along at the speed of fun. I love to be delighted by watching a genre of theatre like farce that requires acute comic sensibility and craft. And I love the ensemble of farce – everyone entering and exiting the stage is spinning an imaginary comic plate-on-a-stick and passing that stick from one actor to the other. Do it right and the story whirls and the laughs burst and flow. We have the perfect comic plate-spinning cast, the perfect director in Darren Katz to inspire and guide them, and the perfect team to support them. Alright, enough about plates.
Now that I’m Associate Artistic Director and not just bouncing around from show to show acting, there are many instances where I’m gifted with watching the magic of rehearsal unfold in front of me, as opposed to around me, giving me the perspective of an avid observer to drink in and enjoy the amazing process of putting a show together. These days I get to immerse myself in the running of the theatre, the adapting of plays to come, or directing the teen youth in a show like Into the Woods, all of which are activities that expand my understanding and love of what an investment it is to make theatre. But wearing all of these hats also gives me the opportunity to engage in the play-making process from the perspective of a theatre producer and theatre-maker. I get a chance in these instances to sit back and watch the process of the actor unfold in a way that doesn’t demand my immersive investment in a production the way that performers invest in a show for the weeks leading up to that glorious opening night. I love acting mind you, but there are times, like this one, when I have been given the gift to be on the other side of the table and know that I won’t have to answer the perennial question, “How did you manage to learn all of those lines?” It’s so fascinating to be an actor in a rehearsal room watching other fantastic actors in a farce come together. I’m so used to the thrills of performance that it makes a part of me antsy to watch. I’m used to approaching these plays like a puzzle. I listen to the first read through and start imagining how I would unbox the puzzle of a farcical script like Ken Ludwig’s, dump all the pieces onto the floor, then start to connect together something fun and wonderful with an amazing cast like this one, piece-by-piece and day-by-day. I watch these rehearsals and my leg starts bouncing while I think about all of the directions the cast and director could go, all the surprising paths the script could lead us to. Which one will this cast take? There are so many ways to puzzle a farce together, with each moment and laugh unique to the mind and talent of the actor onstage along with the craft of the designers shaping the world of the play and the eye of the director putting it all together.
The process of all of it coming together over the rehearsal period is truly exceptional. It’s so much fun to sit in a room and watch a group of artists comfortable with their own ability and loving to perform – even in front of each other when no one else is present. Imagine a rehearsal room with the stairs, doors, floors, and walls nothing more than colored tape on the floor so that the actors will know where they can walk and where the imaginary doors are placed for them to ‘enter’ and ‘exit’. Bits of furniture and makeshift props, wigs, and costume pieces are scattered in various places throughout the room for actors to use in rehearsal until they’re on the ‘real’ built set using the actual props and costumes. And sitting in folding chairs around at the periphery of this taped-out world, when they’re not in the scene currently being worked on, are the actors themselves. They’re in various states of mumbled whispering as they try to remember and silently run the lines they’re learning for the play or the upcoming scene. But even though their mouths are moving, their eyes are on the stage. As glassy as their gaze may be in various states of concentration (or, occasionally, exhaustion), a honed bit of their attention is always on what’s unfolding on stage. An unconscious mental sliver of the actor is always watching the rehearsal, and the story, unfold, no matter what their mind is currently tasked with. And actors are always willing to break from what they’re concentrating on to laugh out loud at a new moment they notice in the midst of working through a scene. Their laughter adds to the rehearsal space and provides buoying encouragement and support to their compatriots in farce. They’re having fun with one another even as they put the puzzle of this farce together.
Fortunately for Gulfshore Playhouse and our wonderful audience, the actors who have come down to bring Leading Ladies to life are nothing less than spectacular. Talented, funny, intelligent, warm, quick on their feet, and they look fantastic in heels. To a man. Because of Irma, we’ve had to cut a week from our rehearsal process to get the show up by early November, but you’d never know it to watch them. What a joy it is to have the opportunity to take a break from my other tasks as Associate Artistic Director and have an hour or so from day to day to sit in a room while a play is being brought to life in a little impromptu rehearsal space in Naples while the Norris Center gets prepped for its post-Irma relaunch. What a gift it is to witness such a talented and multifaceted group of folks spin, toss, and whirl those comic plates back and forth to the glee of their fellow castmates and those of us in the audience. I hope you get as much enjoyment watching the fruits of these folks’ labors as I have. And I hope you’re ready for a good, good laugh.