Interview: Director, Actor, and Writer Mark Shanahan On Directing AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS At the Alley

By: Mar. 04, 2016
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Mark Shanahan directs AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS
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A gambling man turns rambling man in AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. The Alley Theatre takes on Mark Brown's stage adaptation of the inventive Jules Verne novel wherein millionaire--if you adjust for inflation--Phileas Fogg bets wealth and health he can travel around the world in a mere 80 days. After managing THE 39 STEPS for the Alley Theatre, Director Mark Shanahan bets he can he can take on the globe and AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS' 42 characters with five actors for the theater company as well.

BroadwayWorld: Where in the process are you now? How far do you have to go before the finish line?

Mark Shanahan: The play is about a man trying to accomplish the impossible, and that's what it often feels like we're trying to do as we make this play! But we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We are in tech now, and our first preview is in a couple of days. The play was really starting to click in rehearsal hall and now we are getting to flesh it out with the aid of costumes, lighting and props. We've assembled wonderful group of actors and designers and I think all of the wild ideas they've come up with will give audiences a great night at the theater.

What is your process for THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS?

I'm lucky that I've been able to work on THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS a few times. When revisiting a play, you should never think you know exactly how to do it. In fact, it's usually better to reinvent the play each time out. At the Alley, I have a brilliant design team and a great cast, and we're all putting our own mark on the piece. It's always fun to see what the actors' first impulses are and work from there. In the rehearsal hall, we begin by defining the physical language of the comedy as I work with the actors to create the play world. We're trying to tell the story with a minimum of scenery and props. For this production, we have added two musicians who also provide sound effects to help create the environment. Two chairs and some sandpaper rubbed together can make an awfully good train! As we stage each scene, I am looking for ways to keep the story always moving forward with no time to spare, just as Phileas Fogg must do on his journey around the world.

Can you talk about the pluses and minuses i.e.. the joys and challenges of working on AROUND THE WORLD?

Mark Brown, who adapted the play, is a good friend. He's had incredible success with his script, which has been produced around the world! But on the page, he doesn't offer any stage directions or "helpful hints" as to what to do. He simply writes, "an elephant appears," and leaves you to figure it out. On the one hand, it's very freeing. On the other hand, you want to say, "an elephant, huh? How do we do that?" The fun is in solving the problem. There is nothing better than being given free reign to come up with whatever you wish. You lie awake at night and think about it, and all of a sudden, you know exactly how to make an elephant appear onstage.

Have you ever done anything similar that helps you or hinders you on this production? (Feel free to talk about your experience working with the Alley.)

I really enjoy these kinds of plays, with small casts playing multiple roles, telling epic stories. I was lucky enough to perform in THE 39 STEPS on Broadway and I've directed it around the country several times, including a truly wonderful production here at the Alley. Whenever I've worked on shows like AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS--HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, or PETER AND THE STARCATCHER--I'm always excited to see adults laughing like children at something as simple as an actor making quick character change using only the flip of a hat. People love to be surprised by the magical things that actors do.

Also, it's a joy to return to the Alley and work with the Resident Company. Since this play is about a troupe of actors working together to tell the tale, we definitely draw on the camaraderie the Alley actors bring to the table. They have a shorthand with each other, they feed off of each other's energy and creativity and bring their history as the Resident Company with them into the process. Alley audiences will get a kick out of seeing their favorite actors in a variety of roles.

I see in my research that you're also a writer and actor, which means you tell stories in a variety of ways and mediums. Does this help?

I'm always trying to tell a good story, no matter which hat I wear. This month, the day after we open here at the Alley, I'll join rehearsals in New York at The Pearl Theatre, where they're about to open my play, THE DINGDONG, an adaptation of Georges Feydeau's LE DINDON. A few weeks later, the play gets its regional premiere at Florida Rep, and I'll join them for that opening , too. I'm looking forward to seeing the play come to life. I adapted the script for five actors to play multiple roles, so you can see how a love of plays like [AROUND THE WORLD IN] 80 DAYS has rubbed off on me. I've always admired Feydeau's plots and characters. So, I took one of his sprawling farces and turned it into a play where a small cast could take on a large story! I hope it will make audiences laugh till it hurts.

And finally: What is most compelling about the production? What draws you to it, not as an artist, but as an theatergoer or audience member?

I remember reading the Jules Verne book when I was a kid. It had an Indiana Jones kind of charm to it, with exotic locations and wild characters. It's fun to see all of it come to life onstage.

I seem to gravitate towards plays that celebrate actors and the theater. And what a thrill to offer our play in this inaugural year at the newly renovated Alley Theatre. The play looks beautiful on their new stage. And with all of the amazing bells and whistles the new Alley offers, I think it is wonderful to offer a play which reminds audiences that there is nothing better than simply placing great actors onstage and letting their imaginations run wild.

Sometimes, I think I like to direct plays which I'd want to go see myself. And then, on Opening Night, I love to finally put my note pad down, sit in the dark and go on this incredible ride with the rest of the audience. We're almost there and I can't wait to see it all come together.

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS previews March 4. Performances are March 9 through April 3. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. $27+. Student and group discount tickets available. 713-220-5700.