BWW Interview: Gerald Thomson of UNEXPECTED at Brelby Theatre Company

BWW Interview: Gerald Thomson of UNEXPECTED at Brelby Theatre Company
Gerald Thomson

Originally from the San Francisco area, Gerald Thomson moved to Phoenix in 1991. He has been involved in theater as an actor, director, teacher, board member, critic and writer. His theater writing has been seen in Phoenix New Times and Stage Directions. He and his wife, Julia, also published a theater newsletter, The Valley Callboard, in support of the Phoenix theater community. Gerald holds a Bachelor's degree in Accounting/Management, from Sonoma State University. Look for his first book of comic essays, Word Selfies, coming out in summer, 2017.

My first encounter with Gerald was when I experienced his terrific performance in Theater Works' Sunday in the Park with George. Gerald played Franz in the first act, Dennis in the second. He was part of an excellent, large ensemble and my review didn't specifically mention him. Now that I have the opportunity, I can say that Gerald has a nuanced, warm and confident onstage presence. In person, he's just as warm and equally generous. Though plenty busy, Gerald agreed to answer some questions about his newest project, directing Brelby's upcoming production of John Perovich's new play, unexpected.

BWW Interview: Gerald Thomson of UNEXPECTED at Brelby Theatre Company
Gerald Thomson (L) as Franz
in Theater Works' Sunday in the Park with George

JMS: What is your process, as a director? How do you work?

GT: I like to think of myself as a pretty pragmatic director. I am most concerned with what the audience sees, as they are the viewers/hearers of our story, so what they gather from our performance must be paramount. I come in with a strong image of what I want the show to look like. I then block the show right away to get it on its feet. I call this building the skeleton. The rest of the rehearsal process is about fleshing out that skeleton. I do not have the actors wander the stage looking for what feels right for them. It may end up being more "true to life" by letting two people do what comes naturally, but that does not make for a good presentational performance. I block to keep things visually interesting and I work to use the entire stage.

BWW Interview: Gerald Thomson of UNEXPECTED at Brelby Theatre Company
Gerald Thomson (L) in Brelby's Beyond Musketeers

During this time of blocking I give very little feedback to my actors about their characterizations. Theater is the meeting of minds between artists. For the director and actor, the director has an idea of what a character should be like, but the actor has their own ideas. In fact, by the end of the rehearsal process, the actor should be the expert of their character. However, that characterization must fit in with the rest of the production. You can't have a realistic play with one actor doing an absurdist interpretation of their role. So during the blocking process, up to the first run-thru, I am watching what the actors are bringing to the table. It is then my job to direct their characterization to a point where it makes sense in the entire production.

Do you actually have the staging on paper and give it to the actors at the first rehearsal (after the read-thru that I assume you have)? Or do you have it in your head and give it to them on their feet? I ask, because I always stage the whole thing on paper and actually have them sitting around the table and tell them the staging and have them write it in their scripts. I am extremely linear in that sense, but I haven't known a lot of directors who work that way. It bugs the hell out of me when people don't write down their staging and then don't remember at the next rehearsal where they were or what we did. Another pet peeve of mine is when they decide to get off book before we start and then when we're working on staging, people are calling for line, etc. I'm interested in how you handle those situations. I see from your resume that you've done quite a lot of community theatre, which means you may have worked with some entirely untrained people. How do you approach the work with unskilled actors?

I give my blocking on our feet. I do have all of my blocking written down, as I could never remember it otherwise.

As far as less experienced actors, that is a huge question. At the auditions, you tend to find out what skills people are going to bring to the table. It is also a time to see who is working hard and who is smart. If you give a redirect at the callbacks and it is not taken you probably do not want to cast that actor. When I look at a cast, including this cast for unexpected, I know pretty much where I'll have to put the majority of my efforts. That is fine with me. I have never had the "perfect" cast where everyone fit into their roles exactly where I wanted them to be from day one. Some are always closer than others. But even with those who are less experienced, if they are smart and motivated I have no issues working with them. I, in fact, will take willingness over talent any day. There is nothing more frustrating than a talented performer who doesn't work at their craft.

Amen.

I've worked with directors who kept us around the table analyzing for the first two weeks, and it's excruciating. There's no question that moving around with a script in one's hand isn't optimal, but not moving around is just unbearable to me. I love when we start moving through the space and getting the staging in our tissues - allowing muscle memory to start developing right away. I need to attach every moment to the physical action, even if I'm standing still, even if I'm silent for long periods. Can you relate?

The physical is very important to your performance. How you handle yourself physically can make or break your performance, no matter how well you understand your motivations and relationships.

I referred to myself as a very pragmatic director. One of the ways this reveals itself is that I do very little character work in a group setting. In my last Brelby show, Macbeth, I would pull Macbeth and Lady M aside individually and talk about what they were feeling towards the other character. We would talk about what they wanted and how they could manipulate their spouse to get that thing. By doing this apart from each other, Macbeth had no idea that Lady M was going to try to seduce him into murder in this particular way. Lady M was not aware that Macbeth was going to make statements that tied into parts of the witch's prophecies that he was keeping a secret from her. By doing this, just like in real life, it left mystery and uncertainty for both actors to react to. We never know exactly what motivates another person's behavior. This is part of what makes life so intriguing. I like to use that on stage because no character, and I would say even the director, should never be in a God-like status where they know every detail of what is going on. Now, back to my pragmatism. Even with these unseen parts of a character, the story, the conflict, the relationship, should translate to the audience. This is what I am ultimately striving for and I've been happy with the results I have gotten with this approach. We see two real people dealing with the script in a way that appears human, with all the folly that comes with that.

I also need to work and work the scenes to build the chemistry between the actors in the various scenes. This tends to be about nuance. This is where we talk about motivation and relationships and the through line of a performance.

That is the most delicious actor work, and the most satisfying from the director's perspective, in my experience. Do you ever find that the chemistry doesn't happen? That the alchemy doesn't engage? If so, how do you manage it?

Creating a theater piece is full of uncertainty. As a director I have the ideal in my mind but it never works out the way I have planned. The good side of this is that often it works out better than I could ever imagine. Other times, as you have said, the chemistry doesn't happen. There are many things that can be tried to bring that chemistry. I remember a recent monologue I worked on with an actress who was lamenting a decision her husband had made. The actress made a lot of good choices, but the feelings towards her husband were not expressed. We went through the monologue, line by line, to find movements and phrases to emphasis that would help her get to a place of both love and despair. The final result worked, but that is not always the case. Sometimes you end up doing damage control, just making sure the lack of connection doesn't destroy the scene. You can use blocking and other tricks to help fill some of the gaps, but this is the reality of acting.

This then leads into working with actors a second time. You will often see directors using the same actors time and again. I get this. When you find someone that has performed for you well in the past, you know you can work with them and trust them again. If you have an actor who can't find the connection with another actor in your current show, you will hesitate working with them again. Sometimes I realize that this problem goes back to my making a bad casting choice, which I will hopefully learn from in the future, but it might just be that the actor does not have the chops do work outside a particular range of emotions. I often see this with actors who are very funny on stage. They can mug and lift an eyebrow perfectly, but then you cast them in a dramatic role and you realize all they have is the wink and the nudge. If there is a lesson from this for myself, as an actor, and for other actors, it is this: You are always auditioning.

What a great point. I've never thought of it that way. It certainly would cut down on the hissy fits if we all approached the work that way.

I haven't even touched on working with the technical side of the show, but my approach is similar. I provide firm direction where it is needed for the concept, but then give the designers the chance to bring their own interpretation into a consistent whole. It is all such a rewarding process.

Full disclosure to the readers - I'm designing your lights for unexpected, and appreciate that you are giving me until I've seen a run-thru before asking for any meaningful design. I come from the "light the actors, not the set" school, even with something as magical as this show. So knowing where the actors are is key. I mean - Duh.

BWW Interview: Gerald Thomson of UNEXPECTED at Brelby Theatre Company

Meanwhile, how did you come to know about John Perovich's unexpected, and what about it compelled you to direct it?

Brelby Theatre Company is committed to bringing new works to the stage. I started with them performing as General Treville in Beyond Musketeers: Utopia Lost. The very next show was John Perovich's Poseidon's Regret. The show was very well written and very creative. But at that time I had not met John. The next show in the season was The Tempest, and John and I both performed in the show as Gonzalo and Sebastian respectively. We hit it off right away. He was smart, kind, and had great theatrical instincts. I knew right there that I wanted to direct one of his plays. The way the process works at Brelby is that a director commits to a play without seeing the final script. In fact, for unexpected, John only had a concept when I applied to direct it. So, I would say I was drawn to John more than the show.

HOW exciting! Isn't that wonderful? I am so impressed with Brelby's emphasis on new work and nurturing their artists.

When I got the script, John did not disappoint. unexpected is funny, heart wrenching, thought provoking. It is not your typical theater piece. John tends to think out of the box when it comes to his work, and unexpected is no exception.

The play exists, as does so much of Perovich's work, in a world of magical realism. How do you translate that to the stage, and how does that inform the way your work with your actors?

There are gods, interaction with the dead, the breaking of the fourth wall, and straight out silliness. John keeps using the word "magical" to describe the setting, and that is probably the best descriptor. How this informs my approach is really dictated by the script. Things happen in this show that do not happen in real life. So this has to be incorporated into the concept. However, at the same time, these highly exaggerated characters in unrealistic circumstances are still human. We still must deal with lost love, death, and family relationships. These real, human factors are what we can relate to and learn from. Though our situations may not be exactly like the ones in the show, they are close enough to real life that the audience will be able to identify with them.

How this affects my direction with the actors is not as great as one would think. We certainly have the freedom, and almost the necessity, to be exaggerated in our acting styles. But at the end of the day the actors need to express the human emotions that come with rejection, longing and pain. So what you see on stage won't be as realistic as an O'Neil play, but the communication with the audience will be just as intense.

That's a relief to hear. It's jarring and, ultimately, dissatisfying when characters are distanced by affectation. I think that's why we love Morgan Freeman as God and why Marlon Brando had such success with Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. You know what I mean?

Affectation should only be done for a particular purpose. Comedy, or some sort of obvious stereotype, comes to mind right now. I think also of directing The Elephant Man and how Merrick needs to be played in a very unnatural way. However, people have enough quirks without artificially adding to them. I usually want people to be themselves on stage and then play the script. How should a teenage girl in love act? What does a serial killer look like? What temperament should we expect from a teacher? The truth is, these answers are as varied as the number of teenage girls, serial killers and teachers that exist. Why shouldn't we represent all people on stage as the complex characters they are? The script will rein them in, but outside of that I want to let my actors be who they are. This should give the most honest performance possible.

I'm looking forward to the show. Thanks so much, Gerald!

The world premiere of John Perovich's unexpected opens May 19th and runs through June 4th. Learn more, and get your tickets at Brelby.com.


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