The second half of my interview with Leslie Gehring. We talk more about her process, the validity of big names to draw audiences to regional theaters, and ways to keep the audience immersed in the world of the play before and after they take their seats.
[Ed. Note: Missed Part One? Check it out HERE.]
Z: Let’s talk about program notes. How do you decide where to go with your notes? How do you decide what needs to be said knowing that each and every word is counted?
L: You know, I think learning what should be a program note is something that you learn by doing over and over again. You start to see what is really helpful, but it is also something that changes on a case-by-case basis. For example, with this show, our program note both in the program and in the season guide focused a lot more on the actual history behind things because it was a play so based in history and based on a time in history where we had such great detail that we knew that most of our audiences wouldn’t be familiar with every single reference in the show. Even in rehearsal we had annotated scripts that we gave out to the actors because we had trouble keeping track. The way program notes at this theatre and I’d say at most theatres get made the way the content is selected is through the marketing department and the artistic or literary office. Working together to determine what kind of content would be most useful and also sell the most tickets. One of the aspects of our guide in particular is that the articles we write for that really need to not only be interesting but also entice people to come see the show. Luckily that-
Z: [laughs] It certainly worked out well!
L: [laughs] It ended up being a problem for us with this one in particular, but that is definitely a function of it, in some ways you’re talking the show up, whereas in the program that you actually hand out to the audience, a lot of times a bit of quick reference is useful to them, especially in a show with an intermission if they’re confused by something in the first act they can quickly look, “Oh, okay.” Look it up and understand it, but obviously for other shows those needs change. For example, in a show like Robin Hood, which we’re doing this winter, you don’t need as much historical fact on what happened, so I’ll be curious to see what they use for the program in that show. Interviews are usually good to read, audiences tend to like them, especially ones that we print in Q&A format. That’s shorter and blurbier and looks less intimidating on the page than a 1500 word article. It’s really a mixture of trying to educate and trying to entice people to come see it, and also write something that people will enjoy reading. We don’t want it to feel like a chore, that’s not “Oh gosh, I should read this I guess.”
Z: You mention that history was important to this program. The play represents very historical figures, LBJ and MLK, men who are so iconic and almost transcend their personal human lives into their political and public perception. When you approach such iconic historical figures, and taking them from icons into characters, is there a sense of anxiety, a sense of “we have to do this right because everyone knows who these people are”? Or is it more a sense of excitement that “we get to play with these characters and shine new light on them?”
L: I think definitely the excitement is the overwhelming feeling there, but of course there is always some anxiety, especially for characters that were written in, but also lived in a time that several of our audience members remember. That’s another level of anxiety over portraying, say, Abraham Lincoln, who clearly was a real historical figure, but no one is alive to remember him and how he actually was. That said, our playwright Robert said from day one that he’s not a historian, he’s not writing a documentary, he’s writing a play, he’s a dramatist, so that was really a little bit freeing for the cast. Similarly, the director Bill said from day one “I don’t want you to try and mimic who these people were.” This is a time period where there is a lot of TV footage and audio recording and a lot of photographs, and that can be a blessing and a curse. One of the things that as a dramaturg you have to negotiate is how much research do I want to give in areas like that where perhaps in some cases less knowledge is better, because at least in our case our director and our playwright didn’t want mimicry. In our program we didn’t want to use historical images, because we’re obviously aware of the fact that we don’t have LBJ himself onstage, and we certainly understand that our audience understands that, but we didn’t want to give the audience this image of who they were historically right before they went in to see the play and the bring that disconnect to the forefront. There is some level of being inspired by who these men were and how they talked and moved and what they were like, and you don’t want to go so far from who the were historically that the audience is confused or distracted. You have to pay enough attention to make sure that you’re not straying so far that it’s distracting while not going so far to mimicry that the audience is like “Wow, he’s really good at pretending to talk like MLK.” It’s a balance, but for the most part it’s kind of exciting because you have some material that you kind of springboard off of.
Z: Why is this play relevant and important now? Why did it need to be made?
L: One of the big reasons was that this year is the 50th anniversary of both the March on Washington and LBJ becoming president. Both of those events fall from August to November of this year, which is exciting because we knew there would be a lot of memorial events taking place. We saw those for the March on Washington while we were in rehearsal, and obviously in just over a month and a half now we will have the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, which really changed America. It was the first big news event that the whole country knew so quickly because of how fast it spread on television. That’s one reason we decided to do it – because of the significant historical anniversaries. Beyond that the other big reason we chose to do it now is because this is the moment in history where the political landscape in the United States changed. This is when the South started to ‘turn’ Republican, and it started to set up our current political climate. Looking at where we are now, and in fact the similarities to the time period have only grown. We couldn’t possibly have predicted that we did not see “that”[the Shutdown] coming when we chose to do the play, [but] even if you look 6-8 months ago we were at a time when tensions politically were very high. The country has become more polarized in the past 5 or 10 years than it had been in quite some time. The fact that Congress had been slow and dragging their feet on things 6 months ago, to say nothing of where they are today, was really intriguing to bring in the story of this man who through nothing other than pure personal force and threats decide to push his agenda forward despite some very strong objections from the other. The political relevance of it was one of the biggest reasons, and somehow that ended up becoming more obvious the closer we got.
Z: In the playwright note in the guide, Robert Shenkenn talks about his changing feelings toward LBJ through the years. How have your feelings changed about him, and where have they settled?
L: Well, I have to be honest with you, I didn’t know a lot about LBJ before working on this project. I don’t know about you, but in my history classes, they mostly stopped at WWII; no one thought it was important to go beyond that. I knew the basics, but mostly Johnson was linked in my mind to Vietnam, because that is where the general consciousness about history picks back up. In listening to Johnson, and in reading and watching videos of him, it struck me how much good he did in his first year or so. The fact that most of the social programs that we take for granted, or took for granted, started in this very short time period in American history. It’s like a year, year and a half that he gets the bulk of it done. Certainly, he gets things done during the later years of his presidency but not as much, by a long shot, because things became overwhelmed by Vietnam. I also didn’t realize that the Vietnam had been started by Kennedy, that he had begun the involvement, you know, and thinking about it, it makes sense based on where the country was with the Cold War and all of that, but I do think Johnson certainly escalated Vietnam in a way that was really terrible, and his pride and fear of failure motivated a lot of the decisions about Vietnam. It’s hard to see him as a terrible guy when you look at all the good he accomplished and how strongly he did push for a lot of his legislation, specifically civil rights, that had been talked about a lot by people like Kennedy, but they didn’t want to push for it, for whatever reasons. Maybe it’s that Kennedy couldn’t have because he didn’t have the same legislation experience, it’s certainly possible. But the fact that Johnson did actually stick his neck out and get this pushed through and get this Great Society legislation through leaves me with a mixed impression on him, but certainly more positive than I had originally.
Z: Another element of this play, is of course Brian Cranston, and some people on our blog have shown animosity toward using big names to draw crowds as a sort of commercialism. What do you see it as? Is it something that is useful for marketing and commercial demands? Do you think it’s foolish to say just because you’re already famous you shouldn’t be allowed to be on a stage?
L: Certainly the idea of commercial productions in what were formerly resident, and for a while called regional, theatres has been a major talking point for the past several years now, and this theatre is certainly one who has done that more than a lot in recent years. I think it can be a double-edged sword: on the one hand, you have to acknowledge now that the old resident model of regional theatres is really not functioning anymore. It was a great idea, and it was fantastic and definitely needed, but the fact is that many regional theatres aren’t making money anymore and aren’t getting enough money to stay open, and that’s really unfortunate. A lot of these theatres going for a bigger name actor or director or writer, what have you – I see it as a twist on the old Christmas show model. Where regional theatres would make their White Christmas or Christmas pageant, and that would pay for the rest of the shows for the year. I feel like it’s kind of a twist on that and it’s not necessarily a bad thing provided that the guest artist in question is capable of and wiling to o the work. You hear all the time about film stars going to Broadway and being horrible; they get enough people in the door to see the show, but they can’t act on stage because it is a very different thing film acting from stage acting. But I have to say, that was luckily not the case at all on this show. Brian showed up ready to work on day one, and he was very aware that he had not been in the stage business as recently as pretty much the rest of the cast. He would spend time frequently with our director, [who] would speak to him for 15 or 30 minutes at the start of rehearsal, because he had the lead part. [He would] just to talk with Brian and give him notes on things that didn’t affect other scenes, like his monologues, for example, which are such a big part of the play, as well as his overall character arc, his mannerisms, and things like that, and Brian was always really, really excited to come in and do the work. If he had questions he asked them. He was never shy about saying I don’t know what you’re talking about, so I think everyone in the cast felt really lucky to be able to work with someone who not only brings their success up in a way, it highlights a production that they’re in and they get noticed more because they’re in a show with this famous actor, but also that he was very willing and very happy to come in and be a strong member of the ensemble with everyone else, and didn’t demand any special treatment. He was an actor just like the rest of them. I see the trend of using bigger name directors or actors as more of a symptom of the fact that the nonprofit theatre is struggling to find its new identity right now. There’s been a lot of change, a lot of upheaval, as all the companies have dissolved across the country with very few exception, there are very few resident acting companies left, and I think this is part of trying to find a new way to do business, a new business model. And so we’ll see how much more it changes, but right now I think that theatre in this country is in a state of flux, and this is one way that theatres are working to keep themselves afloat, because at the end of the day, if you’re making a show but nobody sees it
Z: You have to keep the lights on
L: Well, you can go and make theatre in your basement for yourself, and that’s fine, but if it’s not impacting anybody else, then what’s the value?
Z: During the show, audiences could fill out and submit ballots on various questions about modern politics. It was interesting way for the audience to get involved and interact with the show. How did the idea for the surveys arise, and have any of the results surprised you?
L: That idea was developed mostly by Brendan Shea ,who is our education community programs director. He does a lot of work on what we call our lobby displays because the idea is to keep the audience engaged for a longer period of time. The moment they come into the theatre and see the poster-sized pictures that we have along the brick wall, all leading into the west lobby to the takeaways, which are the newspaper like things we had hanging up, to the photographs we had in the filing cabinet to the video, the documentary playing, and then also as you mentioned the little ballots. It’s all a way to give the audience a little more and keep them in the world of the play a little bit long, keep them talking about it. I do think it’s an interesting way to get people thinking about how does what they’re seeing in the theatre impact today, and it’s interesting. We definitely came in with this idea that it’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, I mean really? How much variation are we going to get here? And we got more than expected which was really interesting and great because it means we’re reaching a wider audience than we anticipated. Of course we got the ballots that people decided to be snarkier on, or just downright childish. We had someone draw a penis on one, and then we got one I thought was actually quite brilliant although it was obviously someone who was poking a bit of fun. The third question which was I believe along the lines of “should voting rights be a priority for President Obama and Congress,”; this person filled in the bubble “yes,” and then wrote “there should also be a law against theatre being so didactic.” Which was a bit of criticism there, but you know what, I like seeing that. This is clearly someone who is thinking about it and is way more engaged than we thought they would be, and that’s actually kind of awesome.