Jessica Stone Directs Neil Simon at the Clark

Actor Director Discusses Williamstown Theatre Festival

By: - Feb 15, 2011

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It was around noon when Jessica Stone registered at the Williams Inn. She and several actors- Brooks Ashmanskas, Susan Blackwell, Andrea Martin, and Debra Monk – drove up from New York for a reading last night.

There was a full house at the Clark Art Institute for the hilarious Neil Simon play Last of the Red Hot Lovers. It was billed as a mid winter Valentine event by the Williamstown Theatre Festival under its new artistic director, Jenny Gersten who introduced the actors.

For Stone it was truly a band on the run event. As we settled on the couch she commented on being sleep deprived. It impacted her ability to dredge up details that would normally flow easily. She had been up at four and left a four AM wakeup request with the front desk. It was vivid testament to her energy as well as commitment to the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

She met her husband, Christopher Fitzgerald, at WTF. Together they have spent many summers performing in Williamstown. Last summer, for the first time, she directed. Her debut proved to be the smash hit of the Berkshire season, Stephen Sondheim’s Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The cast starred the hilarious and gifted Fitzgerald as well as a number of her actor friends. Theatre is often described as a family and Stone conveyed warmth for former WTF artistic director, Nicholas Martin, as well as close ties with Gersten.

Jessica curled up at the other end of a sofa in the cozy lobby of the Inn. She is a petite, almost fragile, vulnerable looking woman, with what she described as a “sharp left hook.” As I found out when trying to ask a couple of tough questions. Her hair was pulled back from her face in a pony tail. There were big, black rimmed glasses accenting delicate, particularly youthful features. Casual winter attire was bundled about her and the working garb included sneakers. The look conveyed  that she was here to work as well as play.

Girls just want to have fun. But now and then there was a cell phone beeping. She didn’t take the calls but informed me that they were messages about her kids and daycare. Like most working moms she was multi tasking.

Charles Giuliano How on earth did you convince Nicholas Martin to let you direct Forum. We know that he loves musicals and why would he surrender the opportunity?

Jessica Stone He didn’t want to do a musical last year. He wanted to do Our Town, to get his hands dirty with that. He also wanted to do Forum and he was considering how to do it. Initially he asked me to be in it. We were doing She Stoops to Conquer at the McCarty.  (Which Martin will direct at WTF this summer.) Forum is such a beautifully constructed book. It is also true to the old Plautus comedies.  They were written by a man for men playing women. I began to wonder how those stereotypes would have been passed down had women had been allowed to act back then. Would we still have the same shrewish wife characters or archetypes?

CG If this was Greco Roman theatre they would have worn masks as well.

JS  Not in Roman theatre. That was Greek. In Roman theatre there were some masks but not in comedies.

CG Did you go back and read Plautus?

JS I did. Forum is cobbled together from a couple of different plays. There’s Pseudolus, but my details are going to be fuzzy, I got up at 4:30 this morning, there are characters from different plays.

CG This was your first directing job.

JS Right.

CG It’s nice to start with a hit

JS I know but I wasn’t even thinking of that. I was just thinking can I get through with this.

CG Considering that it was your first time directing, and it was such a hit, there are many layers of irony.

JS Uh Huh.

CG Well first time directing comes with a lot of ifs.

JS Definitely risky.

CG The decision to do a cross gendered performance. WTF is not Off Broadway. It’s high profile and in this case on the main stage. That’s a huge responsibility.

JS Keep in mind I have been acting for a long time and assistant directing for a long time. There was some risk but there are many parts of story telling that I had a lot of experience with. The collaborating with designers was new to me. It was real fun and Nicky and I are very old and dear friends. We trust each other quite a bit so I went to him and said I am questioning this and what do you think?

CG Had you been in shows with him?

JS Many. Up here Where’s Charlie, Midsummer Night's Dream at the Huntington Betty’s Summer Vacation we have worked on many shows, She Loves Me.

CG How do I translate Uh Huh what does that mean?

JS What is ironic?

CG What was it like directing your husband?

JS It was great. I do it every day.

CG One would assume you have an amusing relationship.

JS It is.

CG Is he (Christopher Fitzgerald) fun to live with?

JS He is. He’s a human being. He’s hilarious and he’s also very rich in his emotional life.

CG In terms of directing it seemed you gave him a lot of latitude. He was totally over the top.

JS That’s the show and the style. The point was it’s a troupe of Roman actors in Plautus’s Rome. Typically, in a Forum playbill it will say there is  a setting on or about three houses. For us the setting was a Roman amphitheatre. The direction was you’re an actor in Platutus’s Rome playing to the masses. There’s virtuosity there and there’s nothing small about virtuosity. That being said, saying broad, or over the top, is easy but every single moment of that performance was crafted meticulously. There’s tremendous rehearsal and tremendous attention to detail. So it was a collaboration and I wouldn’t say latitude. It’s not like I said just go do your thing. The entire cast of actors, with the exception of three, were dear old friends of mine. Occasionally, because of the double casting many of the guys were playing many different parts. So there were times I would say to Kevin or Josh I need time for a quick change so come up with a lotsie. Because someone has to change from a Protean to a Gemini right now. So occasionally it would be I’m handling  ten things so do something funny. But it was a very detailed process.

CG In addition to Roman theater there was a lot of farce with all the slamming doors and frantic running around. How did you create a confluence of Roman theatre, Sondheim, and farce, then make them all meld?

JS Once you get into the rehearsal room you stop with the headiness. I had the concept. Now we just have to play it for real. You don’t worry about the rules of Roman theatre, or Sondheim, or farce you just tell the story. The story is everyone is running around at breakneck speed.

CG As a director you started with Sondheim and is there anything more challenging? Also, last summer, you were running head to head with Sweeney Todd at Barrington Stage Company. Which is a darker and more complex work.

JS A much later work.

CG Compared to Sweeney Todd, Forum almost seemed like Sondheim light.

JS I wouldn’t say Sondheim light but I would say Sondheim early.

CG Then what about Forum? Sondheim lyrics are known to be difficult. What was Sondheim about Forum? What were the challenges?

JS I think it depends on the show and the goal was not to present some sense of what Sondheim is. When a character is about to sing you have to earn that. The stakes in the scene have to be high enough that they are driven to sing the song. With Forum many people dismiss the book as being just a wacka wacka and a vaudeville thing. It is an incredibly smart, witty, elegant play. There’s no fat. It’s a beautifully constructed book. Just when, as an audience member, you think you are going to just sit back and enjoy the play, there is a song that completely elevates the experience. It’s about a slave who has doubts about his position. He’s yearning to be free and it is suddenly erudite and elegant. It reminds you that you are not just watching what was basically a precursor to sitcoms. You’re watching something that is smarter than that and more elegant. In that particular show that’s Sondheim’s contribution. To that evening of entertainment.

CG How steeped in Sondheim are you? Have you seen a lot of his work?

JS I have.

CG Is it important to you?

JS Very.

CG People seem to enshrine Sondheim and yet it’s tough for audiences. Sweeney Todd was not a runaway hit at Barrington. It was a hard sell. Forum seemed to connect with audiences and Sweeney was tougher.

JS Forum is also great family fare. In the summer a light musical comedy is very compelling. Sweeney Todd is one of his great shows. Honestly I don’t know that much about every production and what were hits or not.

CG People told me that they didn’t want to go see a show about cannibalism and eating flesh pies. Also there were the comparisons to the Johnny Depp movie. But it was interesting that here in the Berkshires there were two Sondheim’s going head to head. There also did a student production so actually there were three Sondheim’s. Now what? More directing?

JS I would like to do more directing. I really enjoy it.

CG Anything happening?

JS Yes and no.

CG Is that a show biz answer?

JS No, it’s a truthful answer. There are things in the fire for here, and things in the fire for other places. Nothing confirmed. As far as WTF this summer I’m in a show right now in NY. Anything Goes. We are in rehearsal right now. At the Roundabout on Broadway.

Nicky is doing She Stoops to Conquer and I was in that. So I would like to do that but with scheduling I’m not sure it is going to work out. It’s a matter of finding the right fit for the season. I’m hoping that next summer, not this summer, but next summer, I’ll be here directing.

CG Has there been dialogue about that?

JS Yes.

CG You had how long for Forum?

JS Three weeks of rehearsal.

CG That’s insane.

JS It is. The thing that’s hard about it is the time for tech here is very short. For a musical that’s tough. There was one set so that made it a little easier. I had plenty of time for pre production. I had done so many shows here that I know the drill. There is a schedule set in stone that my stage manager helped me with.

By the end of week one we had act one, by week two, act two. Theatre is a mysterious animal. Beautiful, beautiful things come from many different paths. It happened to work thank God. It was a pleasure to work on and I’m so glad many people enjoyed it. But there are many different ways to get something good. Mostly by the seat of my pants. It was a good time for people. It could have really not gone over. There’s a lot of hard work, and pace, and good casting but there’s a little bit of alchemy and magic thrown in there and good luck.

CG When you are working on such a tight schedule what do you have to give up and let go? Let's say compared to if you have six weeks. Are there short cuts or things you abandon?

JS  There’s compromise no matter how much time you have because it’s a collaborative art form. I would love to have a chance to do Forum again because there are things I would refine.

CG Do you think that might happen?

JS I don’t know were working on it but it's out of my hands. It’s kind of in my hands and kind of not.

CG Can we talk about Stoops to Conquer. It’s Restoration right?

JS It’s not. It’s mistaken for Restoration but it's not. It’s called something else but it's close to Restoration.

CG When Cromwell closed the theatres and then they were restored there is a sense of the shocking and outrageous in the theatre.

JS There is that, right. There’s a little bit of it. Christine Nielsen plays an outrageous woman with insane bustles. They go out three feet from the sides of each hip. We are all in white with pink cheeks. It’s more a comedy of manners. Less Restoration but you’ll have to ask Nicky about that.

CG Do you like the show.

JS I love it. It’s a beautiful production. I love the cast and I love the play. I don’t know if I’m going to be doing it.

CG More about availability than desirability.

JS Totally availability. If possible I would do it in a heart beat.

CG How do I say this. You’re a petite woman. How do you project yourself into the large space of the stage?

JS Big mouth. And a big ass.

CG If I were shooting a movie I could zoom in for a close-up.

JS I’m more comfortable on stage. I’m not very comfortable on camera. I’m self conscious when something is up my nose like that.

CG In terms of technique how do you command the space?

JS There’s vocal training which I’ve never had. It’s so pompous when actors talk about technique. Nobody knows. It’s all a mystery you can do it or you can’t. I think theatre is more about language. Film is more about pictures. If you’re comfortable with the gift of gab you’re going to be comfortable on stage. I don’t know much in terms of my own technique or how to inhabit a stage. I don’t think in terms of that. I think in terms of the story and character. My hamminess is a better fit it’s a little less grotesque.

CG Are there certain characters or types you gravitate to? How would you do Ibsen for example?

JS I have no idea. I wouldn’t. I did the Cherry Orchard. I did Midsummer as a spit fire. I tend to be drawn to material that makes people look at themselves and each other and laugh.  It feels like more of a fit.

CG If someone is casting you what are they looking for?

JS Usually funny stuff.

CG How many seasons have you done here?

JS Eight. My husband has done 10 or 11. We’ve kind of  lost track. We got married up here so the theatre means a lot to me and the Festival means a lot to me. My husband started during the Peter Hunt years. I climbed on board during Richie’s tenure and then we went away during the time of Roger Reese. We were having babies. It just happens when new people come in and they want to bring in different people. I’m very excited to see Jenny here. She’s really smart and has great taste. She has a lot of energy to put into the place.

CG How did you get roped into this one-nighter?

JS I’m the one who came to her with this idea because I love this play and it would be great here although I don’t think it is fit for this season. But I would love to do this play. So she said let's give it a shot and hear it. We’ve been coming here to do these mid season things for years. It used to be a Christmas show. It’s a pleasure to get out of town for a night and laugh.

CG How much rehearsal is involved?

JS Two hours they’re just going to read it. As actors we are very used to doing readings. I’m not acting in it. I’m directing although there is not much to direct.

CG What can you do in two hours?

JS You talk about points that have to be made. Relationships to take a look at. There’s some work to be done but basically you get your friends and have a good time. It’s early Neil Simon and I think it’s screamingly funny. It’s not just an hour and half of one liners. It’s people who really collide with each other. The think they’re lost but they’re not. They think they’re great but they’re not. It’s just a great play.