In this 3-part feature, PerformInk takes you inside Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of MY OLD LADY through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes. To see past “Inside” collaborations click here.
By Darren Sextro, Director
As much as I’d like to think the process for directing a play can be taught, my suspicion is that the skills needed to be a successful theater director are more like the skills needed to negotiate life: a mix of common sense, some measure of an askew upbringing, the ability to multi-task, an analytical and literary bent, a huge degree of empathy for the actor, partnership ability, and some facility to write in the dark.
I found out that I would be directing MY OLD LADY by Israel Horovitz in April 2016. Directing jobs come in various ways. This one came through what is probably a preferred route: I serve on the Artistic Board for Kansas City Actors Theatre. So, while I didn’t solely point to Horovitz and his 1996 “love letter to Paris” about a down-on-his-luck American novelist who travels to France to collect his inheritance (a worn-down but impressively sized apartment across from the Luxembourg Gardens), I was one of a collective that chose this work. Play selection for any theater company is both a privilege and far more complicated than you’d wish it to be, owing to both artistic and commercial influences.
MY OLD LADY charmed us, and it fulfilled a recurring desire to pull Horovitz into Kansas City Actors Theatre’s canon. It also happily allowed us to continue one of our desires: to tell the story of how it feels to just keep getting older while still feeling young.
I began my work by familiarizing myself with Horovitz, who is, yes, still very much alive, still writing, directing, producing, and riding his bicycle to theater rehearsals. (Check out his website at www.israelhorovitz.com to get a speedy flavor of this playwright.) A couple of months later, I met him briefly in New York’s West Village at the first preview of one of his newer plays. His MY OLD LADY advice, in summary, was to “hire Estelle Parsons…she loves doing this play.”
As great as Estelle Parsons would be (and has been) in the role of nonagenarian Mathilde Girard, the “old lady” who is legally attached to the apartment that writer Mathias Gold has inherited, not only do we have similarly fine actresses in Kansas City…we also have a theatrical responsibility to regional artists. And thus, the next challenge of any directing project needed to be solved: finding the three actors who could embody Horovitz’s story.
The casting process for nearly any project is fraught, in part because it’s never as democratic as everyone wants it to be, and it rarely ends with everyone feeling happy. Any director who assesses a different situation is overlooking the emotional implications of the four or five other scenarios in which any production could be successfully cast and, thus, the artists who weren’t used. Actors aren’t a commodity. They aren’t interchangeable, and while finally selecting a cast is indeed a satisfying experience, even the chosen cast members know that there were other ways for the story to be told, including by a different director.
In the case of this production, I landed upon three amazing actors – Kathleen Warfel, Jan Rogge and David Fritts – who have all become recognizable artists of the regional theater scene over the past several decades. In fact, they’ve worked with each other in varying combinations in nearly 25 productions over those years. That reality alone, married with their solids skills and appropriateness to their roles, set me on the journey of beginning to visualize this story.
From a functional standpoint, it also pointed to next steps in preparing for the physical production. I identified my design team, including scenic (Bret Engle), technical (Kyle Dyck), sound (Jonathan Robertson), lighting (Kylor Greene), properties (Rhonda Wickham) and costume (Sarah Oliver). We began to meet last summer both individually and collectively to create a world influenced both by Horovitz’s text and our own creative approaches.
Some stories, possibly less tethered to the demands of a literal world, lend themselves to directorial concepts, flights of fancy, grand theatrical gestures. “My Old Lady” is basically harnessed to the reality of that Paris apartment…it is what powers the story. Thus, our conversations tumbled around the options of that truth. How literal did we need to be? How many doors? Windows? How spare could we be with furnishings? What did this mean for lights? Should the sound design stay true to Horovitz’s stage directions? Did we really need the turntable…and the taxidermied boar’s head? What are our choices in making a middle-aged and vibrant actress look ninetysomething? And how do some of our “magical” ideas fit into all of this?
Honestly, much of the pre-production directorial process begins to feel like variations on killing time. If I’ve done the right amount of research – and begun far enough in advance – there’s not only time to keep exploring, there’s also time to start having doubts…long before rehearsals begin. I’ve been directing long enough to know that those types of doubts are a likely signal to back off. It’s not my job to make all of the decisions, as theater is a collective process. While my job as director is, in one approach, to be the chief editor, the production is written by all of the artists, including the actors and designers.
I’ve explored these ideas in the days leading up to our first rehearsal, when those actors will finally join the work, becoming part of the flow of ideas already set in motion by the pre-production process. It’s time for the best ideas to move forward, regardless of their origin.
Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of MY OLD LADY by Israel Horovitz will begin previews on January 11 and continue its run through January 29 at the H&R Block City Stage at Union Station. Performance and ticket info at www.kcactors.org or 816-235-6222.