January 2005

Nathan Thomas
Scene4 Theatre and Politics

The theatre artists confronts regular challenges everything from finding and focusing energy in performance to learning a complicated dance move while juggling for that number in Cabaret.  Two on-going challenges for theatre folk are comedy and Shakespeare.   

Some people seem to have more facility with comedy.  And some people don't.  There's the famous apocryphal story about the dying actor (fill in the blank I heard it with Edmund Kean the first time I heard the story) on his death bed and says, "Dying is easy.  Comedy is hard."  (And there are variations on the precise quote as well.)   

Theatre people have to confront Shakespeare.  Shakespeare sits in every actor and director's closet. Whether it's Hamlet or Lady Macbeth or Othello or Cleopatra every actor has a Shakespeare role that is their particular mountain to climb.

So as we start a new year, it made sense to look not at just one of these challenges, but to look at them both. So I took the opportunity to talk with a director and playwright who has worked extensively in directing both comedy and Shakespeare.  

On December 20, 2004, I spoke with Ian Gallanar, a Baltimore-based director.  An award-winning playwright, Gallanar has written plays for both children and adult audiences as well as a number of murder-mystery comedies.  As a director, he has mounted more than 100 professional productions of plays ranging from Plaza Suite to Twelfth Night.  He has served as Artistic Director for several companies.  He was Founding Artistic Director of Minnesota Shakespeare in the Park, and now serves as Artistic Director of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company [www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com]. The CSC workshop  production of Troilus and Cressida was recently chosen as one of the "10 Best Productions of 2004" by Baltimore's "City Paper."  [Note:  The author serves as Text Consultant for the CSC.]

Thomas: Thank you, Ian, for taking the time to talk with me.  First, I'd like to talk about writing plays. You've written plays for adults and children.  Beyond the obvious differences (or are they obvious?), how do you approach the work differently?  Or do you?

Ian Gallanar: Well I suppose I do, particularly the dialogue. Kids are much easier to write exposition for. You just have a character say the way things are, and kids usually accept it.  Then you quickly move on. A character can say, "I'm a monkey from outer space," and the kids say, "Okay, he's a monkey from outer space, what now?" Meanwhile adults want you to be tricky. If I want the audience to know that a character's from Ohio, it can take a while before you can get to that. They can't just say "Hi, I'm from Ohio" because adults would think, "Why is he saying he's from Ohio? He must not be from Ohio."

Thomas: I wonder if that's because of adults being more "sophisticated?"  For example, you have Shaw and Ibsen basically having someone sit down and say, "Oh, you've been away for ten years, let me fill you in on what's going on."  Or are children more able to deal with the mechanics of story telling?

Ian Gallanar: Adults these days often expect a certain naturalism to their actors. I think that adults are much less willing to dive into another style quickly. Maybe film has trained adult audiences to view performances a certain way. Perhaps children haven't yet made up their mind how a "story" ought to be told.

Thomas: Before we move on, as a professional and a parent, how do you feel about the quality of stories and story-telling that you see today?

Ian Gallanar: Mmm. Is there any story-telling for children these days? I mean, aside from TV? My daughter is five.  She loves the ballet and loved the Triplets of Bellville, which are hardly avant-garde, but certainly tell stories differently from the Disney Channel.  She's just young though. I think it will take a lot of effort as a parent to keep her interested. Aside from being a parent -- I don't know.  I think there is some interesting children's theater or other performances for children, but it tends to be in the cities. I think that children from educated or wealthy families are really the only ones that get exposed to it, which is a shame -- my experience in Children's Theater showed me kids are really all about the same.  

Thomas: Hmmm. . . . that's a very good point, and leads to another conversation.  But one I think that's worth having.  I read in the "New York Times" yesterday about a study about the current generation of 20-somethings as the first "gaming" generation and what that means to business.  But I also wonder what that'll mean for story-telling over time.  But I would like to move on to directing, if that's all right. 

You've been involved with a variety of theatre companies.  Currently you serve as Artistic Director of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.  It's relatively young -- only a couple of years old.  You've also been associated with companies with much longer histories. On paper, anyway, one might assume that the older company might be the more successful.  But the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has taken off amazingly. Can you reflect on why you think this company has been so successful?

Ian Gallanar: Luck.  Just dumb luck.

Thomas: Do you think a company's success depends primarily on luck/timing/what-have-you?

Ian Gallanar: I don't know.  Of course you have to do some things right as well. But the odds are so much against you; you have to be lucky too. It's like playing poker. You have to be good, but that's not enough.

Thomas: So a combination of getting the right cards and then knowing what to do with them once they come to you.. . .?

Ian Gallanar: Yes. Also, I think running a theatre is kind of like having a relationship. The first one you have is full of passion and drama and ends in a fiery disaster, and each time you get into a relationship it gets a bit better, and then finally you feel really lucky if you have one that doesn't end in a fiery disaster. 

I guess most things are like that.

Like going to the grocery store.

Or going to the DMV.

Thomas: OK.  Now, you've been in situations where you've been called on to direct multiple groups of actors in the same play.  Sometimes this has been due to the work of the company and sometimes by artistic choice. As a director, do you have a clear idea in your mind about how you want the production to come out?  Or how do you work on the same show with different groups of actors?

Ian Gallanar: I do go into a show with certain expectations, but I'm fascinated by dramatic rhythm, and I like to work with my actors to create a unique dramatic rhythm for each production. I have to rely on the unique rhythm of the individual actors to determine that. Also, most of my work is somehow related to comedy. Comic rhythm can vary a lot depending upon your performers. I think it's the same as when you direct a show for the second or third time. I recently directed Much Ado About Nothing for the second time. Thematically the productions weren't much different -- the way the audience experienced the plot was very similar, but the rhythm of the play was very different. Especially with the extreme comic characters. You have to work with your actors to optimize those kids of things. It can even change if you replace just one actor.

Thomas: So, again, you look to how the structure of the story is built and then work on variations on that structure depending on the individuality of the performers?  Or is that too abstract?

Ian Gallanar: No, truly -- that's what I try to do

Thomas: You mentioned directing comedy.  You've directed a fair number of comedies.  How do you do it?  Is there some key to finding the funny in a scene?  In a play?   

Ian Gallanar: Some key? You've got to be kidding?

I take comedy very, very seriously. I am fascinated by it. It feels like music to me. I know that sounds crazy, but it does.  Actually, though, a lot of it has to do with rhythm. When I was a young man I directed comedy by throwing in every single gag I possibly could, and, of course, it wasn't funny at all.

Thomas: That's what I mean.  I'm thinking that I've seen work done by people who are themselves funny, but the resulting performance isn't funny.  Is there a means by which you help 'draw out' funny?

Ian Gallanar: Draw out? Well, I think you have to consider how the play is moving -- where the comedy falls in the piece -- and at what level can you play the comedy? Shakespeare's great for that. In his plays you will often find comedy all over the spectrum.

And, like singers -- some can sing well, some can't sing at all. Some are good enough to be back ground singers but probably not [sing] solo.

Comic rhythm almost always involves a foil or straight man too. That's the "work horse" in comedy. That's the actor you want to have a great sense of comic rhythm.  The most unfunny things on stage for me are when a couple of really funny actors are doing their own things. It's like two saxophone players playing bebop solos at the same time -- not so good.

Thomas: There again, do you think there's a difference in approaching comedy, say, in Shakespeare as opposed to comedy in a children's play or in Neil Simon?  Is funny always funny?

Ian Gallanar: Funny is always funny.  

Thomas: You said something that I want to pursue for another moment or two.  You've worked with a variety of actors with a variety of skills.  How do you handle an actor who may not have as natural a sense of timing as their acting partner?  Or even as much as you would like them to be?  Have you had to direct an unfunny actor in comedy?  What did you do?

Ian Gallanar: Oh yeah. Unfunny actors -- it's okay, some of my best friends are unfunny actors, but they can be trying. I try and count out everything for them so they can feel what the timing is like. It must seem odd to them. The unfunny actors that this method works for are the ones that can learn by rote and then feel it on their own again, like music. Where it's a disaster is when they just don't get what you're doing. Then it becomes physically painful to me. In those cases, the best solution is beer -- not for them, for me.

Thomas: Fair enough.  I worked with an actress who had done comedy with one of the guys who'd used to work on Your Show of Shows.  This old guy was able to be very specific in terms of saying, "If you hold your hand here - funny.  Here -- not funny."  Does that kind of specificity make for more funny in your experience?  I guess I mean -- how much room for improvisation is there in doing comedy in the context of a play?

Ian Gallanar: I am going to try and answer every question with "It depends." 

I think students of comedy can use some of the old comedy rules; most actors it is probably lost on.  I think there can be a great deal of room for improvisation. A director I know talked about Shakespeare's comic roles comparing them to George Kaufman and Harpo Marx.  You know, George figured Harpo would do something funny in some place -- he didn't have to write it all down in the screen play. So, what did Shakespeare know about Will Kemp? A lot -- I'm sure there was a huge amount of comic shorthand.

Neil Simon maybe less so.  But there's still room [for improvisation].

Thomas: We've been talking about directing comedy.  But I'd like to move onto directing Shakespeare generally. Shakespeare is always the gorilla in the room for theatre people.  We know we ought to do Shakespeare.  But everyone and their uncles and their aunts have ideas about what's going on in Shakespeare and how it ought to be done.  So, I'm going to ask you the question -- how do you think we should approach producing Shakespeare's plays?

Ian Gallanar: It depends.

Ian Gallanar: Just joking.  Fight to communicate what is universal -- don't pay as much attention to that which is historically specific.   We do the plays because they have meaning not because they were once considered great. Otherwise we would be the Chesapeake Racine Company.  And it just doesn't have the same assonance.

You know what they say about assonance?

Thomas: No, what do they say?

Ian Gallanar: It makes an ass out of... oh never mind . . .

Thomas: But isn't communicating the universal a bit tricky? I mean Shakespeare wrote for a particular audience at a particular time.  To take an obvious example or two -- I'm thinking about the place of women in something like Shrew or even Much Ado or the place of Jews in Merchant of Venice.  How do you communicate the universal?  Can you give me an example?

Ian Gallanar: Yes. What is universal about Taming of the Shrew is not that women are bitches and need to be subservient.  The universality is that people in love overcome obstacles and can come to an understanding and greater love. One can make the argument that Taming of the Shrew is nothing of the sort. In that case, it's an ugly piece that should rarely be produced.

Thomas: Yet, people seem to love Shrew regardless of the approach. . . .

Ian Gallanar: Well, 'cause it's funny. There's always that.  The Merchant of Venice is the hardest one. The universal truth is that there are angry people who desire revenge -- and then of course there's the lovely "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech. The historically specific bit is that the group that was demonized was Jewish.

Thomas: Given what you say, does that make the history plays that much more difficult to do?

Ian Gallanar: Well, sure. The history plays are more difficult but they are definitely worthy. The plays were often created to demonstrate virtues.  Of course whether virtues are universal is a whole 'nother thing . . .

Thomas: True.  And along with Shakespeare, there's always the question of the language.  American actors, a little less than I think than used to be the case, feel a little nervous about the language.  How do you work with actors on the language?

Ian Gallanar: Truthfully? Mostly I try and farm it out. What I care about -- above all -- is that there is clarity to what is being said. I spend almost all my time trying to have the action be clear and the rhythms seem fitting. I usually try and work with text coaches and the like for the language.  It's not that I don't think it's important. Far from it.  

Thomas: Fair enough.  Finally, you've worked with a wide group of actors from a wide variety of backgrounds, but you've also worked with a number of actors recently out of training -- usually academic training.  Looking at those actors over time, is there anything you wish they'd have been trained for in school that they don't seem to know?  I mean, is there something or several things that tend to crop up, and you say, "Why don't they teach x?"

Ian Gallanar: I wish we trained our actor to be artists. I am much happier to work with someone who knows something about great paintings or great music or food or literature or that has spent some time abroad, than someone who can read the phonetic alphabet or tap dance.   (Ideally I would like to work with someone who was trained as an artist AND could tap dance or read the phonetic alphabet.).  

Thomas: So, the cross influence helps the actor generally?

Ian Gallanar: Absolutely. The more you have an understanding of the human experience (or at least the desire to learn), the better actor you are.

Thomas: All right. Now we come to my "James Lipton" question. Kirk or Picard?

Ian Gallanar: Kirk -- 'cause he fights the lizard guy.

Thomas: Fair enough.  Well, is there something else you'd like to add?

Ian Gallanar: I wish I had a funny anecdote to wrap things up, but I don't.

Thomas: No, that's fine.  Thank you very much for your time.

©2004 Nathan Thomas

Nathan Thomas has earned his
living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director
stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist
He has a Ph.D. in Theatre and is a member of
the theatre faculty of Alvernia College.

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