BWW Interviews: Rachel Landon and Chris Patton Talk ASSASSINS
Stephen Sondheim's ASSASSINS opens in Houston, TX on July 10, 2015. The show is produced by SRO Productions and will be performed at Obsidian Theatre.
It's perhaps one of the most controversial musicals ever written, has been described as a dark comedy, and is oddly patriotic. The musical tells the stories of nine assassins and would-be assassins of the President of the United States. They float through a dream-like limbo and are trying to claim an American dream of their own.
I got the opportunity to meet with Rachel Landon (Director) and Chris Patton (Actor) to talk about the upcoming production of ASSASSINS.
Is ASSASSINS your stage directorial debut?
Rachel: It is, in a way. I did a lot of directing in college, and I've mostly directed children's theatre, workshops, and classes. But, for the past ten years I've primarily focused on my acting career.
What are some of the challenges you've overcome during this production of ASSASSINS?
Rachel: The emotional aspect of the show is a challenge. You need a cast of 14 people who can act and sing. There are difficult types of props you need like guns, breaking bottles, and food that needs to get eaten. The lighting needs to also tell a story, even with a limited lighting plot. We're balancing the sound of 14 microphones and a 4-piece band. You also have costumes that range from 1865 through the mid-1980s. Sondheim is rhythmically very difficult. You look at the sheet music and wonder what madman thought this up? [laughs] But then you sit down, learn it, and sing it with people, and it's just magic. He's lyrical. You have melodies that the audience will leave, humming.
How has being an actress affected your directing?
Rachel: There's a lot of directors out there who are puppet masters. I've had directors show me exactly how they want my arms to be at this exact second. It's very intense. So, instead, I like to see what the actors do organically and see how that mixes with my vision of the scene. I block how I think would feel natural but in a way that will also look good and tell a story.
In Obsidian, you can rearrange the seating to fit your show. We're doing ours in a semi-thrust. It's easy to watch the actors utilize the stage well and for me to block them in this space. I thought I was going to have to really push people to make interesting choices. Just like our High School Theatre Director Ms. Miller would say, "Do something! Don't just stand there and talk. Do something!" [laughs] Luckily, I don't have to worry about that with this group. They're all phenomenal actors.
Chris, tell me about the character you are portraying in ASSASSINS?
Chris: I play Leon Czolgosz. To him, he felt income inequality and this class warfare that's still talked about today. At one point in his life he met Emma Goldman and she inspired him to anarchism and extreme socialism. Leon worked in menial jobs. In the show, he works at a bottle making factory where his insides are always in danger of being cooked by the oven and where his hands are burned constantly. He led a pretty miserable life, was socially awkward, and was quiet. He was so awkward that other anarchists groups would send around messages warning eachother about him. They thought he was an infiltrator because he was socially awkward and asked so many questions.
Have you played a character like this before?
Chris: Not exactly. The further my career has gone on, the more I've started to play more imbalanced and dark characters. I dont know if it's age. When I was younger I tended to play happy-go-lucky guys, and as I've started to get older, I've been cast as a little off-center and unbalanced. I dont know why, but I enjoy it. It's more fun to play that on stage.
How are you approaching this character differently than others you've played?
Chris: I try to approach every character with a fresh mindset. The first thing I like to do with a character is figure out where he fits inside of me vocally and how he fits in my body. Then I go to a deeper analysis. I'm very text based. I think this is maybe because during the day I make my living as a voice-over artist, so I think my mind just works that way. Then all of a sudden it really informs the internal aspect of the character. Then usually by tech week there's a nice marriage of the external and the internal, and it brings the character to three dimensional life.
One of the themes in the show is the evergrowing elusive American dream. Is this part of what drew you to the show?
Rachel: Yes. It's been an interesting emotional journey for me over the past few years to get in that mindset of not approving the violence and bloodshed, but understanding the anger, characters' frustrations, and why they did what they did. On the flip side of that, this show is very patriotic. Each one of these people struggled, because their country failed them some how in their eyes.
You look at John Wilkes Booth (played by Ben Granger) and you see a man who committed a murder, and in my mind, murder is wrong and an unforgivable sin, but you understand his anger. People died on battlefields, politics were a mess, and it was brother fighting against brother. He saw his country failing, and he only saw only one option. We don't condone the actions of the people in this show, but we understand their anger because they all saw something wrong with their country and they wanted to fix it.
That's how you know you have a masterpiece, when it has that staying power and it's relevant even decades later.
Rachel: Absolutely. We still have these angry people within our country. I was telling the cast last night, about the frustrations from this past week and the violence against our own people in Charleston. There is this cacophony in this country about what is right and what is wrong. There's a character in the show, Sam Byck, who is going through the newspaper, and he says "Who can understand this crap? Oil embargoes and holes in the ozone." It's almost overwhelming for an individual to watch the news everyday.
It's unfathomable that something this horrible could happen and yet every other month it seems to happen and every time we say it's unfathomable, and that's the case with the people in this show. Every time a president has been shot at- are we surprised? This has been going on now for 160 years. And yet we're surprised every time that somebody reaches that point where they just get so frustrated with the world around them. They feel so helpless that the only way they see how to change things is by killing the president. Every one of the people in the show all reach that same conclusion.
So what can the audience expect at the show?
Rachel: Oddly, a lot of laughs. I would describe it as a dark comedy in a lot of ways. The way the show is designed by John Weidman, all of these characters weave in and out of time and interact with each other. These characters don't seem to be surprised that they're in this limbo together and just accept it. I compared it to Waiting for Godot the other day. We're setting it in Ford's Theatre, but 200 years in the future, and the characters are stuck in this playback loop where they relive their murders every night.
The audience will feel close to each moment when the assassinations occur. There's this very stirring song called "Something Just Broke", sung by the American people, and it asks "Where were you when-?" For me it was 9/11. I'm always going to remember where I was when I heard that the towers fell. You're going to relate to those moments in the show, because you'll remember who you were as an American.
Chris: They can expect to be challenged and they can expect dark comedy. What's challenging is that it forces you to not just see the characters as people you can sweep under the rug as miscreants and crazies. You actually have to take a look at them and who they were and try to figure out why they did what they did. I think it's always surprised audiences. They think they're going in for a dark gloomy night of theater, but then there's comedy. It's the kind of comedy where you almost feel a little guilty for laughing. It's dark comedy.
ASSASSINS by SRO Productions is playing at Obsidian Theater (Formerly Obsidian Art Space), 522 White Oak, Dr. Houston, Texas 77007. July 10 - August 1, 2015. July 10, 11, 16, 17, 18, 23, 24, 25, 26, 30, 31 and August 1 at 8:00pm and July 11 and 26 @ 2:00pm.
Tickets are available at www.sro-productions.com or by calling 713-300-2358.
The cast includes Danny Dyer as the Proprietor, Chris Patton as Leon Czolgosz, Brock Hatton as John, Hinkley, Jr., Zack Varela as Charles J. Guiteau, Chris Gibson as Sam Byck, Connor Lyon as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, Tamara Robertson as Sara Jane Moore, Ben Granger as John Wilkes Booth, Justin White as The Balladeer, and Taylor Siebeneicher, Chaney Moore, Angela Mayans Lee and John Carmona as The Ensemble.
Correction: The original article called this production the regional premiere. However, the original regional premiere was produced in 1995 by Theatre LaB Houston. The article has been updated to reflect this correction. Some external link summaries may still reflect the error.