Debut of the Month: A Man of Many Roles! Christian Borle Makes His Directing Debut with POPCORN FALLS
Christian Borle, best known for his multitude of performing credits on Broadway including Mary Poppins, Something Rotten!, Falsettos, and most recently Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is stepping into a brand new role, this time behind the scenes. Borle will make his New York directorial debut next month with the new Off-Broadway play Popcorn Falls. Popcorn Falls tells the story of a small American town, whose only claim to fame - their namesake waterfall - has dried up. Now bankrupt, their last chance is a large grant that can only be used if the town produces a play in a week. One big problem: ain't no playhouse. Another problem? Ain't no play.
Borle spoke with BroadwayWorld about the challenges of the new position and bringing to life a show where two actors play over twenty roles in under ninety minutes.
[NOTE: BroadwayWorld's fabulous photographer Walter McBride captures images of the Broadway stars profiled in our monthly column in a special photo shoot. Check out the pics of Christian Borle throughout the feature!]
How did you get involved with the show and what was your role during the out of town tryout?
I met James Hindman, our esteemed playwright, doing Mary Poppins on Broadway. We became fast friends and in our get-to-know-you conversations he told me he was a writer as well as an actor. The more we got to know each other, the more we saw that we had similar sensibilities and similar senses of humor. He asked me if I would take a look at something he was dipping his toe into, this new play called Popcorn Falls. It started very casually with me just reading it and giving him my thoughts, and we both started to get energized by the play and he eventually asked me to be the dramaturg. I thought I don't know what that means really, I know what a dramaturg does but I don't know how to do it, but I will continue to read it and continue to give my very blunt thoughts!
Over the course of years we were just developing the play and I would say things like 'you mention this character, what if we saw that character?' and he would go off and write in a scene with Tom Souhrada turning into a five year old little girl. It kept going that way and then eventually when we wanted to kind of put it in front of people somewhere like Pearl Studios to try to drum up some interest, he and Tom had gently staged it in Tom's living room and they said we just need you to take a look at it from an outside perspective, maybe clean it up.
So then we started working in that way, with me for the first time sitting in a chair watching people act. I again just put one foot in front of the other and moment by moment thought things like 'well what if you just cross behind while you transform into that character' and we started to develop this physical vocabulary for turning two actors into 24 different people. How do you stage a group scene with six characters, all of them talking to each other? We had a blast figuring out how to do it and we had some success.
Jim's family lives near Marine City and when we really wanted to put the show in front of people on an actual stage, there's this beautiful little black box called The Snug up there and we went. It was like our little out of town tryout, it was really sweet.
Eventually Jim took the next crazy step and asked if I would want to direct it. I had that same moment of abject fear and doubt but over the course of my happy career I've gotten to work with some amazing directors who have become friends and I've witnessed things like Casey Nicholaw's transformation over the years into directing. For myself, I've always been fascinated by the mindset of creating a warm and open room where everyone is respectful and kind to each other. That to me is step one, learned watching the best of the best. Then the rest is just answering each question as it comes, knowing that you won't always have the right answer. You just keep moving forward and eventually you'll find something better.
Who are directors you draw from or consult as you face new decisions and challenges?
The two that hover on each of my shoulders- and it's not the angel/devil situation, it's the angel/angel situation- are Mike Nichols and Roger Rees. Not to exclude anyone else I've worked with because there's been such a panoply, an amazing list of brilliant people, but their sensibilities and their humanity and their taste loom large in what I'm trying to do. Both of them were very much of the school of first thing you try to capture is truth and recognizable human behavior, and then the laughs come second.
Was directing always a goal for you?
I'd thought about, but I'd never taken any strides toward it. With each successive show in which I got to originate a role, happily more and more people started trusting my outside eye on the material even when it came to my own role in it or other moments. I would drive Jack O'Brien nuts- he would very generously say that I didn't- but we'd be in tech for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and I'd have a thought while we were adjusting a light and I would run down to his table and say 'this might be a terrible idea but what if...' He would listen very patiently, and I would say about 22% of the ideas that I had he listened to and incorporated and the rest were a learning experience for me.
Do you think being an actor has made you a better director? Does it help you understand the mindset of both sides?
Yes. I can certainly empathize with the actor's process, sitting inside of it and the frustration you can feel and the lack of patience for your own process, that's so clear to see from the outside. I've felt it, I know what it feels like, and I've never had a clearer sense of how it is a process, you do have time, you can't just flick a switch and know the play like the back of your hand. For example, Adam Heller, brilliant, sweet Adam Heller, stepped into James Hindman's role. He's had two weeks to learn an entire two person play and all of the choreography and mechanics that go along with it. It was very clear the first week that you can't just say 'know it', so you sit back and let time pass, and now as we finish our time in the rehearsal room he is just flying through the material with ease and glee and all it took was a little time and good old fashioned play practice.
James Hindman is both the playwright and the former star of the production, what's it like working with someone so close to the material in so many ways?
The sweet thing is even when Jim was acting in it he had a great sense of being able to step out of it, to see the play from the outside and understand the play from the inside. But I really wanted him, as my collaborator and as my friend, to be able to sit behind the table with me and focus on just his play. But for him, having been on the inside, he certainly has a great understanding of where some of the laughs are for example. It's a giddy room, a small room of people and we laugh a lot throughout the day, and one of the aspects of the dynamic is the 'Mommy and Daddy are fighting' joke.
It's hard when you write, having written a little myself, there are little gems that you create that become your babies, and as Mike Nichols so famously said, sometimes you've got to kill your babies for the sake of the bigger picture. Jim and I agree on almost everything and our sensibilities are similar and they compliment each other in different ways, so we always find a way around the problem. I'm the more blunt, straightforward voice that says we should cut it whereas he says but what if we kept these two words and we find ourselves in the middle with something that represents both of our voices.
Have there been a lot of changes as the show moves to New York?
Yes. I wouldn't say mammoth changes, it's more like microsurgery. A line here or rethinking a transition there. We just cut a character recently that a lot of us liked for many different reasons but we got feedback from a number of smart people with a fresh perspective seeing it and they said think about cutting the character and everything will just flow a little faster. And they were right.
How to you go about directing a show of this unique style where only two actors play dozens of characters?
One of the craziest challenges is all of our stamina. When we're in a rehearsal room and I'm sitting in my chair and they're on stage, there's no moment during the rehearsal day when one of them can take a break and sit down while we work on the other person's song. There's no let's watch Bernadette do her big act two opening number as we sit and have a banana and relax for a second. One of the biggest challenges is the focus that's required, and we get to a point around the end of the rehearsal day, usually about 5:27, where all of us realize that now it's just diminishing returns and we walk away and start fresh the next day.
In terms of physically staging the show, the delight in it has been when one person has to play two characters I never really wanted them to turn in One Direction and pretend to be that person and then they turn in the other direction and pretend to be the other person. So we found this choreography where we use sort of cinematic wipes. Whenever someone becomes one person, I try to have the other actor cross in front of them and as soon as the cross is done the first actor can suddenly be another character. They become like two little ballerinas in a music box circling each other and it's really sweet and I think it's working really well. But the audience will let us know whether it is or not!
Are you worried at all about the piece making sense?
No, I think it's pretty clear. The characterizations these guys have found are so strong. It is true that sometimes when you're this close to it you can't see the forest for the trees, but as we move into the Davenport, as this whole rehearsal process starts, we have a whole new team of people: designers, general managers, production managers, stage managers, all these new eyeballs who seem to find it pretty clear.
What makes Popcorn Falls the perfect project in which to make your directing debut?
I think the obvious piece of it is that it's small. Start small, dip your toe in. Two actors. One act. Mommy and Daddy argue about whether it should be 78 minutes or 81 minutes. But still, short. And the fact that I was able to surround myself with friends. Work doesn't seem like work. I've gotten to know Tom over the years and he's just a delight, every single day brings in a new choice, and off-stage is one of the funniest people I've ever met. And then I turn and there's Adam Heller who I've known for about 15 years who is the sweetest soul on the face of the earth. So that makes the job easier.
Are you starting now to make a wishlist of shows to direct?
No, to be honest. I've put my mind to what type of show it might be, which right now I'd just like to see what it's like to wrangle a bigger cast and collaborate on something bigger. Of course, you know I love a musical, so maybe I'll move into that territory. But it seems like every musical in this day and age takes years to develop. Right now I'm just patiently waiting for something to present itself that I can grab onto.
BWW congratulates Christian Borle on his directorial debut!
Photo Credit: Walter McBride / WM Photos