A Director’s Wilderness – My Journey Through ‘Threepenny Opera’ – By Mark Hardy

[Mark Hardy is an Associate Professor at Montclair State University and teaches in the Musical Theatre BFA program in the Department of Theatre and Dance. Mark came to teaching after a long career as a professional actor on and off Broadway and in regional theatre. He continues to act and direct professionally. The Creative Research Center asked Mark to take over our “Guest Essay” column this month and recount his creative journey while in the throes of  preparing to direct the production of the Brecht/Weill The Threepenny Opera which ran at Kasser Theatre at Montclair State University to great acclaim from November 13-16, 2014.]

Colleagues have accused me of a proclivity for working on complex pieces with inherent difficulties, known in the field as “problem plays.” And I seem particularly to enjoy working on these with students, a prospect that sensible teacher/directors would avoid. Last year, I chose Take Flight, an unresolved and ambitious musical by Richard Maltby, David Shire, and John Weidman that interweaves the stories of the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh, and Amelia Earhart in non-linear form. In recent years, I’ve also answered the call with the perennially-thorny Taming of the Shrew; the still-controversial and problematic Carousel with a mixed cast of professionals and students; Joe Orton’s stylistically diabolical Loot; the sprawling musical Titanic — on a modest budget; and the Lippa Wild Party with its confounding mixture of schizophrenic score and weak dramatic action. There’s something irresistible in wrestling with tough material in collaboration with student actors, designers, and stage managers. It asks the best of all of us in the rehearsal room every single day. It presents young designers with a host of creative questions.

All of art “is a messy job of work” in the making, as I wrote in an artist’s manifesto in graduate school years ago. I still find beauty in the challenge, in the mess. I like hard work. I like artistic struggles.

The Threepenny Opera is a notoriously challenging piece that I’ve been drawn to for years, although I’d never had the chance to work on it until I suggested we put it on our 2014/2015 season at Montclair State University. It is a polarizing musical. Nearly a year ago, I mentioned I’d be doing it to a Broadway conductor friend who replied, “Good luck with that – I’ve never seen it work.” A very experienced professional actor friend said, “Really? With undergraduates?” Apart from the song “Mack The Knife,” not one moment from Threepenny has been absorbed by popular culture. People seem to want to keep it at arm’s length. Theatre artists tend to admire it – even if some say they’re not sure they like it – and certainly recognize its importance in theatre history as a groundbreaking, game-changing work. But most producers avoid it like a ticket-selling plague.

And most audiences, as with Sondheim’s brilliant A Little Night Music (another favorite of mine), tend to run in the other direction. Threepenny is didactic. It testifies. It aims to startle, engage, challenge, mock, unsettle, even attack. It commingles outrage and farce. This is not at all what Americans have been taught to want or like in musicals. We’ve been coached to want the package pretty and the story resolved. We’ll take irony, but we like it better with puppets. We want our catharsis clear, complete with a lesson that we can walk away from feeling contentment and resolution. Yet Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill set out to rattle such conventions as they persisted nearly 100 years ago. Isn’t it reassuring that their funny, frightening, intentionally misshapen artistic lovechild remains so subversive and uncomfortable? You have to admire its persistence.

It helps to like what you direct — and I like Threepenny’s features, like one of those unforgettably ugly/beautiful faces you see in the films of Almodovar and John Waters. The score is gorgeous and disturbing by turns, the forms are recognizable enough to (almost) allow us some comfort before knocking us off balance, and the characters and action are built to foil any hope of predictability. Words like “pleasant” and “lovely” have no home here. It’s mean and base and odd and true. Its young, brash creators set out to shake us out of complacency, to provoke us to sit forward in our seats. There’s a time to feel comforted and refreshed in the theatre and there’s a time to feel… well, not.

Long before facing the extreme challenges of performance style with an inexperienced cast, my job was to form an overall production concept and refine it with student designers. My private work began well over a year ahead, and my work with the designers began in earnest seven months before rehearsals started. I followed my usual way of beginning. After letting the material wash over me for a time, I focused upon what I wanted to avoid in this production. I identified the show’s traps and what had not worked well in previous productions. I’m tired of an “Aren’t we so edgy?” approach to musicals like Cabaret, both versions of The Wild Party, Rent, Urinetown, Sweeney Todd, Spring Awakening, etc. (none of which might exist without Threepenny’s shoulders to stand upon). The point is the action of the play, not a self-reflective attitude or self-conscious trappings. Therefore, I wanted any choices we made to come from the script and score rather than from any sensational manipulation tactics.

Two key qualities were very clear from the start: the material of Threepenny sounds very fresh, as if it might just have been written; and the piece cannot breathe without humor. Research led me to Nadine Gordimer’s Foreword to a newly-published edition of the play in which she speaks passionately about the show’s universality and timelessness, not least because the social ills it directly addresses have only intensified since its creation. Gordimer convinced me that especially for us, in a university setting, and with an audience almost entirely new to this work, the show needed to be set precisely now. Nothing important in the piece roots it to Edwardian London. Certainly the original Berlin production did not adhere to period details in any way. Nor did the very successful off-Broadway production in 1954, which launched the work to an American audience.

The fact is that Threepenny is a reworking of a 1728 musical phenomenon called The Beggar’s Opera, an outrageous spoof of the genre’s conventions directly satirizing the society and government of its day. The problem with period detail in costume, prop, and set design is that it can have the opposite effect of leading people to identify with the action on stage; rather, it can lead them to think, “How very different things were then!” It can become too easy for an audience to separate from what’s on stage when the coats and cups and curtains they see are exotic. The point of The Threepenny Opera is that the audience recognize what they see as an expression of what is around them in the culture, even when much of it is unpleasant. I have come to question what I call museum productions of period plays – productions that set historical accuracy above action. Young audiences, in particular, are often rightfully bored by these shows, because they instinctively understand the whole point of theatre is to see things happen, not to watch mere behavior or period accuracy. Two important questions to ask when considering moving the period of a theatrical work are: “Will it hurt the work?” and “What will it do for the work?” In our environment, I hoped it would lead to connection. As for the setting in London, I saw no reason to change this. Location is embedded in the text of scenes and songs that I would not be comfortable rewriting (and legally can’t); and there is a particular irony in this most uncivilized story taking place in what many consider the most civilized city in the world. I did choose, however, to dispense with English accents in the service of universality. As with Shakespeare, the setting is an idea with particular, poetic meaning, but is not a determinate of acting choices. German-born Lotte Lenya, the greatest interpreter of this material, certainly never bothered with an English accent. Imagine if we had to suffer through mandatory Greek accents in Oedipus and Russian accents in The Seagull. I’d be the first to run screaming from the theatre.

The challenge I set before us as a design team is what I called “re-Brechting”: a way of pursuing Brecht’s goals within a contemporary theatre dialectic. Brecht – and Weill, as well as Brecht’s grievously-overlooked collaborator, Elizabeth Hauptmann – used specific techniques that sought to rattle and rally the audience. They wanted to undermine the audience’s expectation of going to a musical, replacing received convention with a new kind of theatre that would engage the audience in social change, rather than palliate through mere emotional responses. They wanted the audience to think and take action in the world outside the theatre. Brecht’s techniques and philosophies have hugely influenced modern theatre, even very commercial musical works like A Chorus Line, The Fantasticks, and Les Miserables. With this awareness in mind, the Brechtian hallmarks that I brought to design meetings were: frequent direct address to the audience, often in confrontational ways; the use of signs to announce scenes and songs, creating stops in the action for reflection; the clear separation of songs from the action of scenes, breaking down the pretense that singing is speaking; constant reminders that this is a performance, preventing the audience from losing itself in the emotion of scenes and instead encouraging thought; a recurring subversion of traditional musical and script form as a way of keeping the audience in a state of awareness and surprise (even to the point of uncomfortably inconclusive endings to songs and scenes at times); unabashed delivery of clear moral messages; the complete lack of a hero or heroine — instead, in fact, an entire cast of antagonists; and a stark theatricality directly related to message rather than to a pleasing aesthetic.

Our challenge was complicated by the additional cultural reality that Brecht’s signatures – rudimentary, exposed lighting; simple, unrefined scenic elements and props; matter-of-fact, workaday costumes; a cabaret environment of barest necessities – have become tropes in theatre production. What was startlingly bold and daring in 1928 looks quaint to a contemporary audience. Riffing on the grandeur of opera production, we settled on a large urban ruin with many levels that reminded the audience that they were looking at a set in a theatre. We not only revealed the backstage space surrounding the set, we lit it and removed the usual masking that insulates the audience from backstage workings. As a way of unsettling the space, we contrasted the elegance of the Kasser Theatre with a distressed concrete environment that was an intentionally vague location. It could be an abandoned interior or exterior one might find in any city in the world, save for its London-specific graffiti. We used the same guiding idea to shape the costume design: modern clothing that was at once theatrical and familiar, which told the audience that these were characters constructed to make a point, not personalities to get lost in. We kept the musicians in the pit in a high position, just at the level of the audience seats rather than lowered out of sight, so that spectators would see the action somewhat through the musicians, through the score. We lit the musicians to include them in the picture, another reminder that this was a self-aware performance. I also asked for a bridge between the stage and the theatre house: a wide platform that stepped down gradually from the edge of the stage to the house floor to be used in moments of particular confrontation between actors and audience.

With the cast, the primary challenge was performance style. While the aesthetic demanded a fresh take to power the intent of the piece, the demands upon actors in The Threepenny Opera have remained constant for over 100 years. The universal ideal is that all actors serve the plays they’re in rather than themselves. But here’s a play that utterly falls apart if the cast is not entirely unified in a specific style of performance, a style foreign to young actors and, indeed, even a struggle for professionals who approach this material. The actors must use muscular vocal production in speech and song that sacrifices the voice to the word at all times; erase the standard modern musical theatre pretense that the shift from speech to song is natural and subtle; step in and out of the action by breaking the fourth wall (the imaginary boundary between actor and audience) often and in different ways, including completely stepping out of character at times; employ a large, archetypal size in performance that remains human rather than caricature (harder than it sounds for a group that has grown up with filmic naturalism); maintain the identity of actor while portraying character as a way to remain somewhat removed from character (what Brecht called the “distancing effect”). This last demand flies in the face of mainstream modern acting – which insists on immersion into character, into fooling the audience that we actually are who we say we are – and proved the most difficult of all because it contradicts what students learn in most acting classes. The identity of artist as activist in the moment of performance is not a role most of our students have ever considered, let alone experienced.

We were all duly humbled before these demands, and I must admit that the actors were utterly lost for the first weeks of rehearsal. So many wanted a way a way to “get it right” immediately, as if I could offer quick answers to problems that any actor would struggle with mightily. It is sometimes a trait of this wonderful young generation that they want a speedy road to approval or success, a magic bullet. But there are no shortcuts in art. I took great pains to remind them of this. We talked often about struggle and the power of experimentation. I admitted that all of us in the room were struggling, and that this might in fact be very helpful in a piece that is largely about struggle. We made connections between issues and characters in the play and what was going on around us in the world. I urged patience, another trait many young people today have not been encouraged to develop. I tried to help them understand that what we were after was their interpretation of this play, their message, as well as Brecht and Weill’s — or mine. We talked about the power of a personal stake in their work vs. generic actor “energy.” We discussed the importance of risk and of performance costing the actor something. There were many uncomfortable nights and a lot of frustration, even among the advanced actors, many of whom said things like, “I’ve never worked on something this hard before” and “I understand it intellectually, but not how to do it.” Yet slowly, rather late in the rehearsal process, moments began to land. Actors began to breathe into their roles and truly play the action. They began to have fun inside the material. And something like an authentic point of view emerged.

Getting into the theatre for technical rehearsals – where everything comes together (or not!) – is a fragile and monumental event in every production, large or small. Goodhearted colleagues like to say to panicking directors, “Oh, it will come together – it always does!” No sane director will ever believe this. A massive, multi-level set, scores of costumes and props, a lot of tricky lighting cues, twenty-six young and green actors, a pit full of student musicians playing a Weill score, a student crew running the whole works, and a show that has never been on the list of “perfect” musicals (those that seem bulletproof no matter what) do not feel by any stretch of the imagination like “it’s going to be okay.” But tech time is magical for the actors and crew, because at last they see what everyone has been describing for months, and, in a rush, things make sense. The students heroically process all kinds of new information, making myriad adjustments. I can help them, of course, but they have to galvanize this monster through an act of will and trust.

This is what we theatre people mean when we talk about the “high” of our world. It’s not the applause, the rush at the end of the night when the audience says, “I love you!” That’s too easy, but that’s what it seems to be from the outside. We just let civilians think that, because this other thing – like a drug — is too hard to describe. Sondheim said it best through a lyric he gave Georges Seurat in the masterful Sunday in the Park with George: “Look I made hat. Where there never was a hat.” In the theatre it’s “hat-by-mob.” This takes guts and a healthy dose of essential idealism. It’s nerve-wracking at times and it feels like danger. It can also be unspeakably fun as discoveries are made. And fun is central to art. I often remind my students in classes and rehearsals that for hundreds of years until the mid-20th century, the word “play” was used instead of “act” much more than it is today. We still use it a bit: “I’m playing a role” or “I want to play Hamlet.” But we never hear “What are you playing tonight?” or “What’s playing in the Kasser next season?” any more. We have a lot of definitions for “acting” but we don’t talk of “playing” as the same thing. We should. I recall hearing an NPR interview a few years ago in which a sociologist stated that pornography had become so widespread because most people in first and second world cultures never encounter wilderness; he saw the hunger for wilderness as the need many were trying to satisfy so unsuccessfully in pornography. If only we could get them to engage with the wilderness of art. Of course, to do this, we’d have to make sure we had wild art to offer.

People ask me what my next project is. I can honestly say that now I want to do The Music Man or Gypsy or You Can’t Take It With You, or some such bulletproof work that will not keep me up into the wee hours or find me re-staging what I did in yesterday’s rehearsal. I will do them somewhere, probably not at MSU, and I will play and delve and love it. But since we have not announced our Theatre and Dance season for the coming academic year, I’m not going to be the mole who gives you the title I’m already wrestling with. It’s a small show that enjoyed a modest Broadway run some time ago. It’s imperfect and beautiful, with a rather high style that will confound students at first. It will be a design puzzle and will frustrate the actors. The singing is hard.

I can’t wait to see what we do with it.

Mark Hardy – December 11, 2014.


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