Friday, April 2, 2010

STAGE DOOR - In the Rehearsal Room

Directors Note - Robin Witt on STAGE DOOR

Robin Witt Director of Griffin Theatre's STAGE DOOR talks about the play, late at night after a work through of Act One, scene 1

"A woman can look both moral and exciting -- if she also looks as if it was quite a struggle." - Edna Ferber

Griffin Theatre’s production of Stage Door by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman: 248 costume pieces; 33 characters; 27 actors; 16 set pieces; 13 door slams; 9 door bells; 5 phone rings; 4 bananas; 2 apples; a baseball bat; an upright piano; a two-story staircase; and 1 small dog.

Bill Massolia, Griffin’s artistic director, phoned me up last summer and asked me if he was crazy. He thought the Griffin should produce Stage Door in the upcoming season. I had directed a staged reading of the play as a benefit for Griffin a few months earlier, and it had gone surprisingly well. Yes, I had to rehearse it in shifts, and yes, only 17 actors played the 33 roles. But the evening had been really, really fun (and oddly, on the night of my birthday). Amidst the fast-paced carnival atmosphere of the reading, there had also been moments of deep pathos.

I said “yes” to Bill. Yes that he was crazy and yes, that I would love to direct it.

Set in a boarding house for actresses in Manhattan, Stage Door premiered at the Music Box in NYC on November 1, 1936. It was a time when the United States was struggling to pull itself out of the Great Depression and Hitler had recently presided over the Summer Olympics in Berlin. The world was a dark and uncertain place, and the theatre and film of the era were doing what they could to lift public consciousness away from gloom and despair. Ferber/Kaufman did their bit with some of the greatest comedies of the time, including The Royal Family and You Can’t Take it With You. Inspired by Ferber’s visit to the boarding house in New York where her niece–the actress Janet Fox– lived, Stage Door is an acerbic and loving look at the intoxicating, backstabbing, heart-breaking, and arduous life of show folk.

Below is a roughly outlined list of what I considered some of the most important ideas/actions/themes of the play:

· Hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds

· Sharing of worldly goods—generosity in times of hardship

· Theatre as a higher art form than film—a noble life

· The draw of fame and money

· Artistic life worth living despite of rejection, poverty, and the bad rap being of the world’s 2nd oldest profession, etc

· Struggles of poverty

· Grasping for success

· How is success measured?

· The inequities of gender and class

· Dire acts committed by the desperate

· Insular nature of the boarding house that the women inhabit—a safe place

· Outside world—the theatre: impossible to penetrate and conquer

· Action within the boarding house—ceaseless, fluid, elegant, desperate, tedious, churning

· Stage-stuckedness (I made up this word)

· Music. Dance. Drama. SHOWTIME!

There is not a whole lot written about Stage Door (the play). Ferber/Kaufman’s other plays have garnered more attention and therefore more scholarly research as well. SD isn’t produced very often, except at Colleges and Universities. Why is that you ask? See the above list of elements needed for the production (elements=$$$$$). But there is also a very interesting tone issue in this play. SD is not pure comedy. It is not You Can’t Take it with You. SPOILER ALERT: skip to the next paragraph if you don’t know the play and want to come to the production without knowing key plot points. There is a suicide, and prostitution, and shattered dreams. SD also has elements of screwball comedy. Comedy and tragedy sit side by side and the switch between them can be razor sharp. How does one navigate through such ever-changing currents?

Brooks Atkinson, in his review of the 1936 production, puts it best. After praising the play’s “keen edge” of comedy and its “ebullient” nature, he ends with a lengthy discussion on how badly actors were treated by producers. Atkinson writes: “Stage Door would be funnier if the whole subject of acting were less painful.” He spends 3 paragraphs in the review naming all that is wrong with the current hierarchal system of 1930s Broadway. It’s amazing. He pretty much predicts what is going to happen in the 1960s with the birth of repertory companies in the U. S.

Ok. Now it’s really late at night. More later regarding tone…..xo and goodnight.