In this 4-part Inside series, PerformInk Kansas City takes you behind the scenes of Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of THE REALISTIC JONESES through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes. To read past Inside articles click here.
Part Three: A Conversation on Comedy and Balance in The Realistic Joneses with John Rensenhouse
By Matt Sameck
John Rensenhouse, the Director of Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses, is no stranger to any form of theater. Comedy, however, presents an interesting challenge, especially when you need to balance it with a healthy dose of realism and pathos, as is necessary for this show. In bringing Will Eno’s careful balance of realism, quirkiness, and humor to audiences, the cast and crew had to be sure not to stray too far in any one direction and stay true to the many facets of the story.
The work started early on with the script itself. John and the cast, Phil Fiorini, Carla Noack, Ashley Pankow, and Brian Paulette, worked with the script to find the humor in the words and make the most of them. “Sometimes people weren’t aware of what would be funny,” says Rensenhouse. “There are many things in the script that are funny when properly performed, but you need an outside observer to help people stress the right lines and not swallow punchlines.” Scripts, after all, don’t come with a joke guide, and it took the team working together to fit the words with the individual styles of the artists in order to highlight the humor that would offset the emotional heft of the play.
Perhaps the largest problem with rehearsing a comedy is the inherently closed experience of the rehearsal itself. Comedy is exceedingly subjective, and at an audience-based experience like theater, audience reaction is key. “You never know what’s going to really get a response until the audience gets there,” says Rensenhouse. He was very involved even when paid previews started in the week before opening to pay careful attention to where the audience “wanted to laugh” but just needed time, opportunity, or the right delivery.
For example, there’s this exchange early in the show just after the two titular Jones couples meet:
PONY: We’re renting the house at the end of the road with the blue shutters and the –
JOHN: (interrupting) It’s like two-hundred feet from here. It’s right over there.
BOB: Sure, we know that house. Someone else used to live there.
JOHN: Wow. Who knew the place had such an interesting history.
If the actors go too fast through the exchange and read completely naturally, the audience can miss not only the humor, but some of the lines. (Especially since another joke comes right after this exchange.) However, Rensenhouse realized that not only could the actors use pacing to get a laugh after John’s last line in the exchange, but the audience also wanted to laugh after Bob’s line, too. By adjusting pacing and delivery the cast was able to get two laughs from this short exchange, instead of just one.
Early laughter in the show is important as well, not only for the humor of the piece but because the humor in The Realistic Joneses helps the audience coast into the more emotional aspects of the story that start to bleed in around the humor. “Laughter has inertia,” says Rensenhouse. “For comedies to work you need an audience to respond early. Once the laughter gets going it’s a real boost to the play.” Indeed, the unspoken communication between the audience and artists is as important in this show as any.
All this comedy serves as an important counter-weight to the emotional heft of the play, which at its core examines life, mortality, and how we and those we love cope with the realities of living and being sick. Rensenhouse and Sound Designer Jon Robertson even took pains to ground the audience and provide perspective for the individual scenes by fading out of one scene’s soundscape into white sound before transitioning into the soundscape of the next scene.
The cast and crew’s ultimate trust in walking the balance between humor and pathos was put in the play itself, says Rensenhouse. The goal of the production, after all, is not to play for cheap laughs, but to be honest and deliver the truth of the characters. In that spirit, his final advice to the actors was to “put it out there, and trust the play.”
THE REALISTIC JONESES is playing at the H&R Block City Stage in Union Station until June 11. Tickets are available at www.kcactors.org or by calling the Central Ticket Office at 816-235-6222.