“I was recently fortunate to attended a presentation by Mark Cuddy (Artistic Director of Geva), Sean Daniels (Artist at Large), and three of the four cast members (Aaron Munoz was out of town) of The 39 Steps, where they spoke not just about this particular show, but also about Geva in general. Before turning things over to Sean, Mark explained that one goal of the presentation was to enable the audience to get to know, and therefore root for the actors, as well as the show, just as one would root for specific players, in addition to a sports team (I love a good performing arts / sports analogy!). He introduced the three actors: John Gregorio (who plays Richard Hannay), who is from Camden, NJ (this elicited no response from the audience, but having lived for 10+ years in northern Jersey, I am familiar with that city as being among, if not the poorest and most dangerous in the country – so hurrah, John, for making it out!); Monica West (who plays most of the female characters), who received thunderous applause for growing up in Honeoye Falls, of all places; and Joel van Liew (Clown #2), who hails from Buffalo (close enough!). So it’s sort of like having two local players on the team to cheer for.
Sean and the actors spoke extemporaneously and interacted quite a bit with the audience. He called the play not just a spoof, but a tribute to Hitchcock, and referred to it as “a vehicle for celebrating all things theatrical,” with “the excitement and danger of having four performers do the entire show.” He and the cast are busily watching Hitchcock’s films, so they can insert little “Easter eggs” – references to those films throughout the play, for the audience to hunt for. As he and Mark both explained, Geva shows aren’t traveling shows, they are actually built and rehearsed in Rochester, just for Rochester, and they begin and end here. This means that we get to see these particular artists’ interpretation of the plays, not someone else’s conception of the show, and not Mark’s or Sean’s ‘copy’ of what they may have seen elsewhere. In the case of The 39 Steps, we should see many more Hitchcock references than were in either the London or New York productions. Sean is also playing with shadows, since they are such a central role in Hitchcock’s films. Usually a theatre set is lit specifically to avoid shadows, so the actors and set can be seen from all angles. I never thought of that, but will certainly pay attention from now on, and to the different effect the shadows will create in this show.
Sean also addressed how the actors plan for or react to audience laughter (or lack thereof), and explained the special role the preview audience plays as a sort of “focus group.” Since it’s difficult to predict exactly what an audience will find funny (or what they will not, that in rehearsal seemed hilarious), the director pays particular attention to the preview audience’s reaction. The actors adjust as necessary, giving the audience a bit more space for laughter, or setting up a joke better so it doesn’t fall flat. One of the biggest traps in comedy, apparently, is “playing to last night’s audience” so the actors take care not to assume that every audience will respond exactly the same.
When asked about the challenges the actors faced in preparing for this show, John said something that seems obvious in hindsight – that, as the only actor with a constant character, he is basically the “passenger” of the play. Hannay is the person things are happening to, and John’s challenge is not just to react to the other characters, but to react differently to different characters being played by the same actor (e.g., the three different “beautiful women” portrayed by Monica). Monica’s answer complemented John’s, in that she has to differentiate those three different women (plus run around the stage in very high heels!). Joel cited the physical and vocal challenge of portraying multiple characters, especially when he needs seemingly to be more than one person at the same time.
We could have listened to Sean, Mark, and the actors all afternoon, but unfortunately, it was time for lunch to be served, and we had to let them eat. I know the audience’s interest was piqued, and that they, like I, am eager to attend a performance, to see how it all comes together, and to be entertained, and yes, to root for John, Monica, Joel, and Aaron!” – Maggie Symington