In this article series from OnMilwaukee, Milwaukee-based theater director Alexander Coddington will give you an in-depth, insider's look behind the curtain and inside the craft of bringing a show to life. This is Director's Notes.
This fall, Marcella Kearns and Marti Gobel, two of Milwaukee’s finest actresses, tackle some of the most difficult roles of their eclectic careers onstage.
In Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" by Terrence McNally and Renaissance Theaterworks’ "Sex with Strangers" by Laura Eason, respectively, Marcella and Marti sink their teeth into fascinatingly complex scripts about finding love in middle age. We discussed how these plays resonate with audiences in 2017, building intimate relationships onstage with old friends and strangers, and the importance of hygiene.
Alexander Coddington: Trump’s sexism polarized a lot of voters during the 2016 election and the Women’s March garnered 500,000 attendees in Washington, D.C. alone. We’re living in a really boldly feminist time in our history, which is incredible. I think a lot of those women who marched probably have a lot in common with people like Frankie or Olivia. Do you think that’s fair?
Marcella Kearns: I think there’s a much broader swath.
Oh, totally. But I’m curious what you two think about what these plays about bold, sexually frank female stories have to say to a 2017 audience that might be different from when they first appeared in 1987 during the Reagan era ("Frankie & Johnny") and 2009 just after Obama’s first election ("Sex with Strangers")?
Marti Gobel: Well, I don’t think that "Sex with Strangers" is particularly presenting a strong female, emotionally. I think she’s lost her strength and that Ethan offers a way for her to tap into that under the umbrella of ambition and getting what’s yours.
But I think that it’s evidence of what I think a lot of women don’t necessarily admit to right now, which is there is a constant fragility that we have to battle and deal with, and at times it is part of the beauty of being human. And at other times, it is very difficult to overcome and manage that fragility in a society that is male-dominated, and we have historically not been made to feel as though we have value to the larger community.
Kearns: Frankie is a baby boomer, so there’s some evidence that some of the ways she’s behaved could be personal history; I don’t want to reveal that. But there’s also a certain frank level of socialization that is apparent. She apologizes a lot. I don’t know if that speaks to you.
Gobel: Olivia doesn’t apologize, but she protects a lot.
Kearns: OK, and Frankie does the same thing. There’s a certain level of holding a person at arm’s length ...
Kearns: Because, for whatever reason, history or what it may mean in terms of allowing vulnerability, that vulnerability might not be cared for, that’s the fear.
Sure. Yeah, I think that’s really fascinating. And I think that a lot of things that we’re talking about, strength and vulnerability. I’m curious to know what it means to be giving a "brave" performance onstage.
Kearns: A few things. Bringing everything that I have at that moment to offer in total honestly and transparency.
Gobel: I think people forget that we walk out there. And that is a display of our braveness. And I think people assume at the level that Marcy and I work – I’m going to speak for you, correct me if I’m wrong in some ways – but I’m not always comfortable, but it doesn’t stop me from walking out there and telling the story. So the braveness, in large part, is that first step onstage for me. Getting on the ride.
Kearns: I think the second thing for me that I would say is I don’t do it for me. I do it for the people who have come and that’s, to a certain level, actually – and this is going to sound strange – but it’s kind of a spiritual vocation. It’s a healing service to a community, so sometimes bravery means submission to mission. Total submission to the mission.
Marcella Kearns and Todd Denning in "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" (PHOTO: Paul Ruffolo)
Along those lines, I think it’s the only time I’ve ever seen nudity on a Chamber stage.
Kearns: Mhm ...
I think it’s a play that you can do without it, but I think it adds to what the play is saying, and I was wondering what the conversations with Mary MacDonald Kerr, your director, were like in developing that.
Kearns: Mary Kerr is an exceptionally insightful, incisive director from the very start. I asked her if I could have a meeting with her over the summer just so I could wrap my head around some things for homework and in that meeting, I’m sure she also had the conversation with Todd (Denning, who plays Johnny) about the level of comfort that we would have, to what level we would expose ourselves. I also talked with Amy Horst, the costume designer, and one of the first things that Mary ever said that struck me is that people don’t have sex with their clothes on, why would they be getting out of bed with their clothes? You know? (laughs)
Kearns: We just laughed and laughed over that. What it came down to is that we decided on certain things that just, for what we wanted to see and show for the audience and what it means for those characters to be taking clothes off and then be putting clothes on, that’s very specifically driven all the way through the play. It became important to reveal certain things, but then also let certain things be for themselves and that ultimately – I can say this with utter conviction – that once we decided that, here’s what we’re gonna show, or I volunteered, I said, "Yeah, I don’t care, I’ll show my tits, yeah, great," that there was a lot of care. "Up until preview, if you want to change your mind," I never considered changing my mind. It was actually the easiest thing.
That’s really interesting to me.
Kearns: It was the easiest thing. It was the easiest thing to do in this play.
So what are some of the harder things you have to do in that play?
Kearns: Oh, that script is so complex. Sussing out the balance of ... OK, so the play, really to me, is like the Goldberg Variations (Bach’s work of an aria and 30 variations on it, which is featured in the play). It’s a little thesis statement at the top and then the play goes through variation upon variation upon variation upon variation of that. So trying to find the balance all the way along and the variety all the way along is a real challenge that I still, on a day-to-day basis, have to check myself about and remind myself about and think about, because it’s easy to not drive the play where it needs to go. The script is one of the toughest scripts for me.
And then on "Sex with Strangers," Renaissance is using Christopher Elst as an intimacy designer. Is that something you’ve worked with before?
Gobel: It’s an entirely new thing.
Yeah, it’s a really new field.
Gobel: It came out of some political things that were happening in Chicago in the professional theatre world, and he’s an intimacy choreographer. So he’s approaching it a great deal like fight choreography.
Which he also does.
Gobel: Which he also does, yeah. I’m finding the process to be incredibly helpful. Intimacy is really sharing. I think people translate intimacy as a physical thing, and it’s not just that, so it’s giving us the room and the time to be comfortable being intimate. And a great deal of that has to do with eye contact and being open with that eye contact. And it may seem like a small thing, but we actually, in life, don’t hold eye contact as long as is necessary for the telling of this story, and not only that, but being able to be open enough to give my partner what he needs from me with that eye contact. And breathing: I think so many times we overlook the beauty of breath onstage and watching people breathe and how it changes and how they mirror each other. So the intimacy coaching is really just encouraging a hyper empathy, which many actors do have, and it certainly makes for a better actor. This is just a little heightened in a realistic way.
And you’re talking about the give-and-take with Nick Narcisi, who’s playing opposite you, and this is really the first time you’ve worked closely together. What’s it like to be doing a play like this with someone who you really don’t know very well? And doing all of that sort of intimacy work…
Nick Narcisi and Marti Gobel at first rehearsal for "Sex with Strangers" (PHOTO: Izetta Rees)
Gobel: Of course, the intimacy coaching is helping; that’s what that’s for. It’s just really helpful to draw our boundaries, to make our personal boundaries specific. Because it is ...
Kearns: Yeah …
Gobel: … so raw and tender. A huge thing is permission versus consent, and they’re really looking for consent between the two of us. Neither one of us can be uncomfortable with what we’re doing, or the story won’t be being told, which is the goal.
You know, the challenge for me is that I am actually one of those actors that I find components onstage where you’re actually just dealing with Marti with this person’s words. And it’s not necessarily that Nick needs to know which parts are mine and which parts are Olivia, or the same for the audience, but it has to be seamless between those two.
And then sort of the opposite end of that relationship spectrum with you and Todd, you two have known each other for a really long time. How long have you known each other?
Kearns: We worked on "The Merry Wives of Windsor" when I was in grad school, and he came down as a guest artist from Utah Shakespeare Festival back in 2001, right around September 11 – that’s how we met.
So what’s it like building that onstage relationship with someone whom you do have a really long history with?
Kearns: You know, we do not have an intimacy choreographer, but I think that earlier familiarity, having worked on projects together and known one another over many years, with Mary we were able to be very open in the rehearsal room about asking questions and saying, "What’s OK here? Can we take this bit and actually, step by step, plan what we’re going to do?" That conversation was very open, always.
Gobel: And the intimacy coach is also because I have to be able to do this, we have to be able to do this eight times a week, whether we are feeling good or not, whether the audience is responding or not. I’m a firm believer in, if my mother’s in the audience, they get the same show that a random stranger gets, and I am hardcore about that for myself. But with something like this, when it’s so sensual and so physical, you know, it still has to be in place, even if we don’t feel like it that day.
Kearns: It’s a dance.
Gobel: It is a dance, yes!
The physical action of it.
Gobel: That’s right.
Kearns: And communication, both emotionally and physically, is really key.
Gobel: And I do keep hearing, "Well, we just want to make sure it’s Olivia and Ethan in the room." It’s impossible for me as a person to not become emotionally involved with who I’m performing with. It doesn’t even have to be positive, you know? There’s going to be some level of emotional involvement, and that also makes this dangerous, because it is so sexual. And I am a person, as is he. To let that live and breathe, but then walk off the stage and go, "I’m going home and you’re going home." Again, it comes down to boundaries, and the boundaries go on so, so, so, so, so many levels. You know? That word applies to a lot of things. But yeah, just being clear: This is not OK, this is OK, this is how I’m feeling, this is not how I’m feeling.
Kearns: This is what the character might be feeling, so maybe we do this, or maybe we do that ...
Kearns: … under director or coach’s hand. Or even communication between the actors.
Gobel: But in a way that we can do this eight times a week come hell or high water.
Yeah. And at the end of the day, that’s what’s most important, yeah.
Kearns: It’s the story. Story’s the most important.
Gobel: That’s what I signed up to be: a storyteller.
Kearns: Yeah! I’m an Air Force brat. Submission to mission! (laughs)
Gobel: I have to go brush my teeth before rehearsal.
Kearns: Yeah, teeth brushing … tooth brushing? Teeth brushing? What? Brushing one’s teeth.
The brushing of the teeth!
Kearns: The brushing of the teeth has been a necessary component for every rehearsal and performance.
Gobel: Mouthwash, brush … you know, all the things.
Kearns: Take care of that scene partner, right?