Teaching and Learning: Inside “‘Master Harold'” with Director Gary Heisserer Teaching and Learning: Inside “‘Master Harold'” with Director Gary Heisserer
Director Gary Heisserer takes us inside his directing process for "'Master Harold'...and the boys." Teaching and Learning: Inside “‘Master Harold'” with Director Gary Heisserer

Pictured: Gary Heisserer in rehearsal for “‘Master Harold.'” Photo courtesy of Kansas City Actors Theatre.

Our “Inside” series takes you behind the scenes of productions through blog posts written by the artists in the trenches. To read past “Inside” pieces, clickhere.

By Jack Kneessy

Gary Heisserer is in the midst of preparations to direct Kansas City Actors Theatre’s upcoming production of Athol Fugard’s “‘Master Harold’ …and the Boys,” a semi-autobiographical play that addresses the effects of generational and institutionalized racism in Apartheid-era South Africa. The story is told through the complicated relationship between Hally, a white teenage boy, and Sam and Willie, two black men who work for his mother.

Heisserer set down with Jack Kneessy to discuss his own connection to the play, its relevancy today, and a director’s process.

When was the first time you read “Master Harold” …and the Boys

Around the time I was in grad school. I was taken by how a writer can write such an overtly political play but do so in a way that is completely embodied in the characters and the story. I don’t care for “preachy theatre,” theatre that seems more like a sermon than a story.

Gary Heisserer in rehearsal for “‘Master Harold.'” Photo courtesy of Kansas City Actors Theatre.

What about this play resonates with you now, as a director preparing to work on this project as opposed to reading it as a piece of dramatic literature?

The text becomes very practical; everything needs to become three-dimensional. You have to get into the specifics; how much shame Hally feels and the way he deals with that shame, the shame of who he is; how destructive cruelty is for both the person affected by cruelty as well as the person being cruel. In our contemporary political age, there is lots of cruelty and that makes this play seem more timely. How do we get from 1948 Apartheid-era through Nelson Mandela to the present day? Rather than a pendulum that swings back and forth, when will there be constant forward movement and progression?

Is there a moment in the play you like or are eager to work?

The play is a relatively short one; it’s light and it’s dark. It’s funny and it’s sad. There are moments that are noble and others that are horrible. A crucial aspect of the play is how we teach and how we learn and the idea of who is the teacher and who is the student. I also really like the way ballroom dancing serves as a metaphor for life.

What part of the directing process do you most enjoy?

The time I can spend alone reading the play for specifics; reading with a goal in mind. Most recently I read and focused on movement, for example. What is interesting and helps to tell the story? Of course I also like rehearsals with the actors. It goes back to the theme in “‘Master Harold’ …and the Boys” of this process of teaching and learning with each other.

Gary Heisserer. Photo courtesy of Kansas City Actors Theatre

Gary Heisserer currently serves as Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Graceland University. He earned his Ph.D. in Theatre and Drama at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a member of the Kansas City Actors Theatre artistic committee and makes his KCAT directorial debut with “‘Master Harold’ …and the Boys.” Previous directorial credits include the world premiere of William Missouri Downs’ “How to Steal a Picasso” at the Unicorn Theatre in 2016.

“‘Master Harold’ …and the Boys.” runs from September 11 through 29 at the City Stage Theatre in Union Station. For more information, visit kcactors.org

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