BWW Interviews: Philip Olson and Aaron Glover Discuss ASSASSINS
This past weekend, Soubrette Productions opened its 2nd production ever, Stephen Sondheim's musical, Assassins. With an all-start cast of local actors including Nathan Brockett, Andrew Cannata, and Julia Lorenz-Olson, Soubrette is a community theatre run by Philip Olson and Aaron Glover. Directed by Philip Olson who also serves as Artistic Director for Soubrette, Assassins is under the musical direction of Adam Roberts, costumed by Stephanie Dunbar, with set design by Ia Ensterä.
As Americans, we've been told we've got the right to be happy, that we have the right to our dreams. What happens, though, when that doesn't happen? Who is to blame? Who can be held responsible? How do we reconcile the limitless possibility of the American Dream with the absolutely limited realities of America? Assassins imagines a group of men and women who answered these questions the same way: by trying to shoot the President of the United States.
BroadwayWorld recently spoke with Co-Producer/Director Philip Olson and Co-Producer/Star Aaron Glover regarding their production of Assassins...
BWW: For those who aren't die hard Sondheim fans, Assassins is a little on the obscure side. Do you mind explaining what the show's about?
AG: Assassins is a show about 9 men and women who attempted to or were successful in assassinating American presidents- from Lincoln to Reagan. In a darkly comic set of songs and sketches, it imagines these assassins in both their own time and also in a sort of limbo where they interact with each other, often hilariously. On a more thematic level, it asks us to consider their lives and potentially the motivations behind their acts. As Americans, we've been told over and over we have the right to be happy, or more specifically to "pursue happiness." It's one of the phrases all Americans collectively rally around. Assassins reminds us that not everybody achieves that happiness, and when that disappointment is coupled with the other big privilege of being an American-our freedom to act as we choose-the results can sometimes be violent.
BWW: What drew you to Assassins?
AG: I actually taught Assassins to my theatre history classes last spring, and in a conversation with Philip shortly after, he said "Oh, I'd love to do that show." He called me a couple days later and said he'd booked the theatre for this run. The material is so relevant. In a very basic way, this is a show about Americans being shot at or killed on our own soil, and how we, as a nation, react to that. Unfortunately, Americans are still being shot at. The dialogue is ongoing about how we handle these horrific events, but as we discuss it, shootings continue. The script and score are so good. I've known the songs for years now, and of course Sondheim's work is brilliant, but as we've rehearsed the show, I've been so impressed with [bookwriter] John Weidman's work. The dialogue is blisteringly funny, and the construction of the scenes is so tight. There's nothing extraneous, but nothing's missing. These are complex characters-funny, sometimes scary, but very human. As a producer, I think good characters and well written material are important in the creation of good theatre; and of course, as an actor, well-written characters are an absolute thrill to play.
PO: Although Sondheim's shows vary widely in subject matter, Assassins truly stands out as especially unique. It is his only show that draws heavily on popular American standards and "Americana." Hence, I find the music more accessible, catchy, and easy to sink into for the average theater-goer. I love that. He uses the sounds of our country to slowly hook you, then once you're hooked, he makes you take a hard look at some difficult realities about what it is to be an American. Also, the show is hilarious and heartbreaking. The relevance stings as strongly as ever. Aaron and I decided to tackle this show briefly after the mass shootings in Aurora CO and Sandyhook. We need to ask these questions now more than ever before.
BWW: Assassins is Soubrette's 2nd production ever. What has it been like to do such a bold and daring show so early in the company's history?
PO: My wife (Julia Lorenz Olson, who plays Sara Jane Moore) and I produced The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in 2011. The experience was so challenging and stressful that she vowed to never be involved as a producer again. And she was invaluable and critical to the success of Spelling Bee. I knew I couldn't do it on my own. So for two years after Spelling Bee, Aaron and I discussed the idea of tackling another project. And when we decided on Assassins, we knew it would be bigger than Spelling Bee. But we had no idea HOW MUCH bigger. We totally underestimated the challenges of having 9 capable principal actors, live firing guns, 18 microphones, and a rock-solid 9 person ensemble. Then, add in a 15 foot high multi-level set that lights up (we primarily built it ourselves), around 50 costumes from a 150 year span, and only 3 days of tech rehearsal... Let's just say, this show completely took over our lives for months. If I'm honest, I didn't realize how bold of an undertaking it was until it was too late! But I'm so glad and proud of what we've created.
AG: When we decided to produce together (I was in Soubrette's first show, Spelling Bee, but not involved as a producer), we agreed that we would choose shows we wanted to produce; we wouldn't just pick shows to be producing shows. When we decided to do Assassins, we know we couldn't do it half-way. We knew the show would be bigger than Spelling Bee. We knew it would cost more, and it's more challenging material for both the performers and the audience; but I don't think we thought of it as "bold" or "daring;" we chose it because it's a strong, exciting show that we both liked.
BWW: Assassins sometimes gets criticized, often by people who haven't seen it, for its subject matter. Have you run into any obstacles regarding that?
AG: We haven't run into too many obstacles or criticisms about the subject matter of the show. In fact, most people who've heard we're doing the show are really excited that it's being performed.
BWW: Anyone who's seen Assassins knows that while the show never glorifies the characters or their actions, there are some moments in which you sympathize with the characters. Has that been interesting for you and the cast to explore?
PO: My goal as director is never to glorify these people, but rather to humanize them. History tends to simplify facts. For example, my 84 year old grandmother saw the show and didn't remember the attempt on FDR's life, and she was alive at the time! To remind the audience that people on both sides of these terrible acts are just that... People. Not monsters, not heroes. Complicated people that grew up on the same America we did.
AG: As an actor (I play Charles Guiteau), I love the challenges the show presents. How do you make a character that does such a despicable action into someone human? Guiteau, as he's written for this show, is actually kind of likeable. Is it terrible to say that? But the material gives the actor so much room to play and create, it's a fantastic experience.
BWW: Let's talk about your cast for a bit. What was the audition and rehearsal process like?
PO: I was drawn to Assassins because I could early on see what Austin actors would be perfect for many of the roles. I agreed to produce this with Aaron Because I knew Andrew Cannata could carry the Balladeer, because Robert Deike had the look and the chops to carry two 10 minute monologues in a musical. This show can break down if the actors aren't the right fit for the historical persons, and I'm very sensitive to that. This show has only ever been produced on Austin in an educational setting (St Ed's and UT), which I think allows for lots of grace for strained casting choices. With professional adults, every actor has to be perfectly tuned to their part. You take one look at Nathan Brocket, and you know this guy was born to play John Wilkes Booth. After that, we had to select an ensemble (9 actors ranging from 12 years old to their 40's) that are as skilled and experienced as the principals. We had over 50 actors read for these parts, and we had a very long audition process to cast talented folks that seemed to have a good attitude (and no drama). I am incredibly impressed with every single member of this cast, and it wasn't easy to assemble such a team. I'll add that I don't read music and I'm not really a singer. So having the incredible Adam Roberts screen actors for vocal ability (and really test them) was paramount to our success. I said early on that if he couldn't be the musical director for this show, then I wouldn't do it. The ease and power of the singers (and crispness with the band) are almost completely owed to him.
BWW: Did the cast find it difficult to connect with characters who are typically vilified by history?
AG: As I've watched my fellow actors throughout this process, I've been impressed by how everyone has embraced their roles. Personally, I think you have to block out what others have said about the character you're playing. My job as an actor is to bring this character to life, not to meet people's expectations.
BWW: There's one number in the show, "Something Just Broke," which was added in during the London production, in which various people from different time periods mourn the death of their President. The song is the only time in Assassins in which we get a serious look at how the American people respond to tragedy, but sometimes the song is cut. Are you keeping it in?
AG: Hopefully the audience finds moments where they can, if not agree, at least understand where the assassins are coming from, but in "Something Just Broke" the audience gets a chance to hear and see themselves in this story, and not played for laughs (like in "How I Saved Roosevelt"). It's a powerful moment, and one that, in some ways, is the emotional lynch pin of the show. We had to include it, and the added bonus is that the audience gets to see more of our incredibly talented ensemble.
BWW: One of your goals with this show is to ensure that people of all backgrounds, especially students who may not be able to afford a night of theater, get a chance to see the show. Care to elaborate on that?
AG: We're offering discounts for students and seniors, and for some students at Austin Community College, it'll be completely free. We've reached out theatre and history classes at ACC, and students in these classes will be able to attend the show at no cost. Additionally, these classes will have the opportunity to discuss the material being performed with actors from the show. We think providing students with engaging experiences not only help develop better theatre practitioners, but better and more involved audiences as well.
BWW: Do you have a favorite moment of the show?
PO: Wow, so many. Zangara strapped to the electric chair, belting a high A, surrounded by cheerful bystanders celebrating his failure. Charles Guiteau joyfully dancing and singing to "Look on the bright side" on his way to the gallows. And the scene between Lee Harvey Oswald and the ghost of Booth is so powerful and unsettling.
AG: I think the scene between Leon Czolgosz and Emma Goldman is charming, and Joseph Garlock and Paige McGhee are so good in it. I also just love any time Sara Jane Moore is onstage. And then, the ensemble is also hilarious. There are just too many great moments to pick one!
BWW: Any last thoughts you'd like to share with BroadwayWorld readers?
PO: YES! If Austinites want to support more work like this, they NEED to come out, and bring friends. The costs involved in bringing first-class production values to our community theater is great. If houses are light through this run, the simple financial reality will prevent another production like this for a long long time. Help us (with your presence and dollars) tell Austin that you want more bold, high value productions like this that don't cost $60-100 per ticket.
AG: Everything Philip said, doubled. Don't miss this show!
ASSASSINS, produced by Soubrette Productions, plays the Boyd Vance Theatre inside the George Washington Carver Center's Boyd Vance Theatre at 1165 Angelina, Austin 78702. Performances are Thursday - Sunday at 8pm, now thru Sunday April 20th. Tickets are $25 with discounts for students. For tickets and information, please visit www.soubretteproductions.com