On “Cutting and Running”, OR: Three Brave Cowards

“Sense & Sensibility” closed on June 1st, with nice big responsive crowds the final weekend.  Thanks to all who came out.  I haven’t had time to miss Hedgerow, however.  I’ve been here all weekend directing a three-reading series titled “RECKLESS ENTERTAINMENT: The Humor of Noel Coward”.   (Below is an example of the humor of Noel Coward that we did not include:)

[THE BACKSTORY: Hedgerow is making major improvements and renovations to the 1840 grist mill they perform in.  They’ve already added a glass atrium to eventually become the new lobby and welcome center.  And within hours of the final “Sense & Sensibility”, the theatre was stripped bare so the stone walls can be re-pointed with fresh mortar.  So:]

For the month of June, Hedgerow is throwing a party up the hill!  At the Farmhouse Studio (containing the costume shop, scene shop, offices and housing for the resident Fellows), a large room off the kitchen is the main space for rehearsals and classes.  In 1985 the theatre burned down to the walls, and for years the “Big Room” was the only performance space they had.  Last summer the Big Room hosted some short runs of solo performance and scene showcases, scheduled when the mainstage was dark.  It was successful enough that they’re slowly rolling it out as a regular second performance space.

Last weekend I had the privilege of directing concert readings of Coward’s three best-known plays: “Private Lives” (Friday night), “Blithe Spirit” (Saturday night) and “Hay Fever” (Sunday matinee), featuring the Hedgerow company.  The Farmhouse has a lovely porch on two sides which makes a charming and rustic open-air lobby, and there are obvious advantages to having a kitchen as your “green room” (even if the audience is constantly tiptoeing through to the shared bathroom).  Wine, cheese and dessert served at each show.  Each event was a cozy, casual party with fabulous actors speaking fabulous words.

Prior to rehearsals, I was tasked with bringing all the readings in under two hours, and cutting props and physical business from the dialogue.  I’m rather pleased with the results.  “Hay Fever” didn’t need a single stage direction announced, other than “Curtain” to button each act.  I was the reader for the other two.  I only read a brief description at the top of each act for “Private Lives”, and then contributed some Foley sound effects for the bits of domestic violence required by the plot (just a few slaps and a few shakes of a “crash box”).  “Blithe Spirit” needed table thumping and more crashing, and one or two internal stage directions, but otherwise flowed just fine without much interruption from me.

You might be alarmed at the thought of doing Noel Coward without cigarettes or martinis or gramophone records.  But the props are just the trappings.  The heart of the “style” comes from the attitudes of the characters, and how they respond to their problems (or their brief moments between problems, ha).  You remember the cigarette floating between the actor's fingers, but the real "style" was their hand on their hip, the arch of their eyebrow, and the way they dealt with their scene partner.  And of course, the icing on top of the style: that perfectly poised wit that Coward is famous for (in some lines you can feel Noel accepting the mantle directly from Oscar Wilde).

I’m always a fan of cheeky titles.  Both definitions of “blithe” are equally applicable to “Blithe Spirit”:  “showing a lack of proper thought or care: not caring or worrying” and then also “happy and without worry”.  And as a seasonal allergy sufferer, I see “Hay Fever” as absolutely being a reference to the annoying parts of that otherwise lovely and mood-lifting season, Spring.

It’s been a whirlwind process, with one four-hour rehearsal for each.  Fortunately with such sharp casts I was able to end each rehearsal early.  We basically had time to read through each scene, and choose a few moments to try again, where there was either some physical moment essential to the plot (=figuring out how to make that clear while standing at music stands with scripts), or the speech pattern wasn’t making the argument or the joke clear.  But the maxim “Directing is 90% casting*” is never truer than with a concert reading, and I must say these readings were cast extremely well for the dual purposes of sharing these plays clearly and showcasing the Hedgerow company. 

My “blocking” was basically an Excel spreadsheet, assigning the music stands as logically as I can (based on who talks to whom most), sometimes shuffling characters around based on exits and entrances.  It also has the virtue of being a built-in “French scenes” character plot on the same single page.

...Well it made sense to *me* at least...

...Well it made sense to *me* at least...

In addition to cheap, low-time-commitment programming, there was another purpose to the weekend.  Artistic Director Jared Reed (who also made a lovely Elyot Chase and Charles Condomine, and is one of my favorite brains in Philadelphia theatre: check out his podcast interview about the nature of comedy and Hedgerow's summer season) also wanted to test-drive all three plays for consideration in future seasons.  The Wilma does this sort of thing regularly (especially useful for a theatre that frequently does unfamiliar work).  I’m a fan of theatres involving their audiences in season planning (as long as it’s more useful than someone approaching you at an opening night and saying “You know what play you should do?  [INSERT NAME OF PLAY THAT IS TOO EXPENSIVE OR OBVIOUSLY TOTALLY WRONG FOR THE THEATRE]"). 

I remember seeing a lovely “Hay Fever” at Hedgerow less than ten years ago, with Penelope Reed hitting it out of the park as Judith Bliss (which she effortlessly reprised in Sunday’s reading).  “Private Lives” played so well at the Lantern recently and is also coming soon at the Walnut, so it’s getting a lot of exposure in the area.  But I’ve never read or seen “Blithe Spirit” prior to working on this festival, and it made me laugh a great deal, so I’m hoping that rises to the top of Hedgerow’s pile in the next few years. 

I actually meant to write this days ago, and post it in time to sell you intrepid “early fans” on attending all of them, but I was simply too busy.  So I drafted this post late Saturday night after the “Blithe Spirit” reading, as I sat on the porch while the young company members stayed up arguing about baseball sabermetrics and whether Brick from “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof” is gay.  But Sunday got busy and I didn’t post it until after the whole thing was over. 


Consider this the part of the blog post where I tell you that it went swimmingly and you should feel mildly sad about missing out (unless of course you showed up).

Have you bought tickets for your next play yet?


*Or, if you’re frustrated, “Directing is 90% fixing the mistakes you made in casting”.

P.S.  On a rehearsal break Saturday afternoon, Zoran (a veteran Hedgerow actor, set designer, and parking lot wizard) wondered aloud the origins of the surname “Coward”.  It turns out it originally came from the job title of “cattle guard”, and they actually needed to be quite brave!  BOOM.  FACT-BOMB.

P.P.S.  Even if Noel Coward wasn’t one of the greatest British playwrights and popular composers of his generation, he would still have a special place in my heart for his role in “The Italian Job”: 

If you’ve only seen the remake (what remake?  They stole the title and wrote a completely different movie set in the USA), you need a strong dose of Michael Caine, STAT.

Posted on June 9, 2014 .