Hanley Smith plays the role of Audrey in the upcoming production of Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies.
When I heard about Irma’s impending landfall, I said fervent prayers for the residents of Florida and stayed glued to the tube, watching the storm’s approach for days. I was so grateful to hear that my loved ones were safe in the aftermath, but I knew that many people had lost a great deal, and I wanted to DO something. When Associate Artistic Director Jeffrey Binder suggested we abbreviate the rehearsal process in order to add a week of performances of LEADING LADIES, I readily agreed, as did the rest of the cast. If we could give back to Naples in any small way, we were game! As Artistic Director Kristen Coury said to us on our first day of rehearsal, “theater has healing powers,” and I am hopeful that this joyful show offers a warm, shared experience for audiences. It certainly has been a hoot for all of us so far…
Our first read-through together as a cast, with about two-dozen staff members in attendance, had ALL of us in stitches. I always call that first day of rehearsal “the first day of school.” I am very excited (and a little nervous) to meet my new “classmates” and “teachers;” I try to dress nicely to make a good first impression; I hope I have done my homework thoroughly enough to acquit myself well; I can’t wait to see what I will learn. Well, the first day of school for LEADING LADIES taught me that this is a group of really talented, funny, big-hearted people, from staff to designers to crew to cast. Which is the perfect alchemy of attributes for a funny, big-hearted farce like this show.
The rest of our “school days” were spent building relationships and working on the technical aspects of comedy and in that order. As our lovely director, Darren Katz, pointed out early on, Humor is most impactful when combined with Heart. We want audiences to care about these characters, to recognize their humanity. It is when we see true human beings in absurd situations, dealing with them the best they can, that we giggle and ache and hope right along with them. So we spent a good deal of rehearsal exploring who these people are – their points of view and how their hearts grow and their stories change. One of the really fun things that I have learned about my character, Audrey, is that she is utterly without guile, and she sees that which is directly in front of her with perfect clarity, but she can’t see much beyond that. I have enjoyed her worldview that just about everything is miraculous.
Having explored relationships, we began building in what I call “the Math” of the show. (Apparently, everything has a school reference for me?) Timing in comedy is such a persnickety puzzle. Sometimes, for example, if you say a line and turn your head at the same time, it isn’t funny. But if you say a line and THEN turn your head, it is suddenly funny. And sometimes, after you’ve played with that equation, you realize the whole moment doesn’t work because you’ve forgotten to ground your choices in the character’s truth, and you have to go back to square one. So playing around with the physicality and timing of LEADING LADIES has been a real dance, and in some cases, I mean that literally!
Across town, our designers and production staff worked tirelessly to build our world: the costumes, the set, the props, the light cues, and the sound cues, not to mention all of the marketing and outreach. Putting on a play truly takes a Village. Once we have combined what we have been working on in rehearsal with what the production staff has been working on in the shop, it will be time to invite the most important villagers to the party: YOU!
We are grateful for the rare gift of five preview performances because there is SO much to be learned from sharing our story with an audience. The audience’s energy is a palpable thing, and it has as much to teach us about what is funny, what needs time, what we need to make clearer, etc. as any amount of time spent analyzing our scripts or running scenes in rehearsal. I imagine we will continue learning and specifying and deepening right through our final week of performance, as this is a complicated show with a lot to be mined. As performers, we never want to take anything for granted or let moments go stale; we have to always be present, listening, engaged, and ready to have fun. And having worked hard alongside these wonderful, creative people, I can tell that we will continue to have fun for the duration of our time here. And I think we are all united in the belief that this is our way of doing a bit of good in the world, especially in the wake of Irma.
“Always be a part of something greater than yourself,” my dad used to say to me throughout my formative years. I couldn’t agree with him more, and I am so glad to have stumbled into the theater as my Something Greater. It is a magical place, where telling the stories of the human condition nurtures community, connectedness, and compassion. I hope you all enjoy this heartfelt, hilarious romp. We offer it as the best gift we know how to give, and your presence is the gift-in-return without which nothing would be possible. I look forward to seeing you all soon!