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“The weirdest auditions ever”
Four actors play over 150 characters in the Civic’s The 39 Steps
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
When it comes to auditions, most actors know the score — show up with something prepared, maybe read a scene from the piece being cast, or maybe even do a little improv.
But the actors auditioning for The 39 Steps at the Fort Wayne Civic got more than they bargained for. “You ever seen one of those dog shows, where they have the dogs running up the ramps, jumping through the tires, that kinda stuff?” asks Cortney White. “It was something similar to that.”
White isn’t exaggerating. Before any of the hopefuls even picked up a script, director Ranae Butler put them through a round of improv games. There was even an obstacle course. “(Ranae) had set up a bunch of objects, and you would have to, say, improv a conversation while you do all this physical stuff,” says Joyce Lazier, who is making her Fort Wayne Civic debut in The 39 Steps. “She’d say ‘okay, you’re a couple having a fight,’ or she’d say ‘okay, do it again, but this time, you’re two squirrels’…”
Squirrels? Well, there was a method to Butler’s seeming madness. In fact, considering the kind of show the actors were auditioning for, it’s entirely appropriate that they would need to jump through hoops and run obstacle courses.
The 39 Steps is based on the classic Hitchcock film (and the John Buchanan novel). If you’re familiar with the flick, you’ll recognize the story. If you really know the movie, you might even recognize the dialogue.
But the resemblances stop there. The stage version of The 39 Steps is more like a parody. Anyone who has ever watched a classic Hitchcock “chase” movie and thought there was something just a little bit goofy about, say, a character making a desperate escape over rugged terrain while wearing a suit and a perfectly knotted tie will know exactly where this take on The 39 Steps is coming from.
The “frame” for the story is that you’re watching a play within a play — a small theater troupe is trying to perform an earnest version of The 39 Steps. The troupe also serves as stage crew, and takes on the task of portraying a plane crash and a pursuit on a moving train. Things get a little hectic; the 4th wall separating the actors from the audience breaks down and the tone veers into something resembling vaudeville, with slapstick and plenty of costume changes. “I have seen this play classified as a ‘pastiche’ and I think that it is an accurate description,” says Ranae Butler. “It is a good-natured homage to the source material. We don't poke fun with the original, but we have fun with it.”
The 39 Steps has a cast of hundreds, but the real, actual cast — the people you’re going to see on the Civic stage — numbers a whopping four. That’s four actors playing over 150 roles.
Actually, it’s more accurate to say three actors play over a 150 roles. For example, the Civic’s program notes list Joyce Lazier’s role as “WOMEN.” “Basically, I play all the lead women,” she explains. “I play a German spy; I play a young Scottish lass; and I play Pamela. She’s British.”
As you might expect… “There are a lot of accents,” Lazier says. Pretty outrageous ones, too; more Peter Sellers or Mike Myers than Meryl Streep.
Lazier plays a few smaller roles as well, though the bulk of those — and by “bulk” we mean dozens — are tackled by Cortney White and Kevin Torwelle. “In one scene, Cortney and I play about six characters in the space of maybe three minutes,” says Torwelle. Sometimes this will involve changing a hat, or an accent, or running across the stage… and that’s where, Torwelle explains, Butler’s audition process starts to make a lot of sense. “I’m used to easing into a character, but in a show like this, you don’t have time for that,” says Torwelle, who has been in Rent, Working, and a number of other productions around town. “So, maybe you think, ‘If this character was an animal, what would they be? How can you “physicalize” that?’ That might be the key, since you’re going to be playing someone else in half-a-minute, so how do you nail that character and make it funny, too?”
Butler clarifies: “I needed people who could bring original ideas to the rehearsal process. It's important to remember that in most comedies there are lots of funny lines in the script. In this play, the script is basically taken from a movie written as a thriller, which leaves the comedy up to the actors and director to create within that framework.”
Ted Rice plays Richard Hannay, but even though he has only one role, it would be a mistake to say his part is the easy one. “I am running around the whole auditorium, climbing on monkey bars, climbing ladders,” he says. “At one point, I pick a woman up and put her in a box… It’s the most physically demanding role I’ve ever played, and I’m doing all this while wearing a wool suit with a trench coat.”
“It’s really, really physical,” adds Cortney White, who in addition to numerous roles at the Civic and other theaters in town (he’s appearing as Othello at First Presbyterian early next year) also works as a stand up comic. “I sweat like crazy doing this show. There’s a lot of running, costume changes right in front of your eyes. Timing is everything.”
The action in The 39 Steps isn’t limited to the stage — the whole auditorium serves as the venue for the story’s chases and feats of daring. Even the audience gets involved. “The people in the first few roles will get to know us very well,” Rice laughs.
The Fort Wayne Civic Theatre presents The 39 Steps
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Saturdays, September 7 & 14 at 8 PM
Sundays, September 8 & 15 at 2 PM
Friday, September 13 at 8 PM
Tickets: $26/adults; $17/age 23 and under; $22/Sunday senior matinees
Box Office: (260) 424.5220 or online: fwcivic.org