BWW Interview: Director Kevin Chesley Discusses THE 39 STEPS at Actors Co-op
KEVIN CHESLEY has directed, written and performed sketch comedy for stages like Upright Citizens Brigade (LA and NYC), The iO (Chicago and West), and the Vancouver Comedy Festival. He is a co-founder of TROOP! and The Riot Act, troupes that have performed in venues like The Comedy Central Stage, The HBO Workspace, and The Chicago Improv Festival. For ten years he has directed The Apple Sisters, a staged 1943 radio show that very much helped prepare him to dive into the 1935 world of The 39 Steps. He was also a director for The Hampstead Players Theater Company. A screenwriter, Kevin has written for The Onion, National Lampoon, and MTV's "The Hard Times of RJ Berger," as well as screenplays for Warner Brothers, Paramount, Bad Robot, Happy Madison, and 20th Century Fox. He has Executive Produced pilots for both NBC and Cartoon Network. Training: Act One - Hollywood, BFA - Emerson College. He is currently directing The 39 Steps for Actors Co-op about to open Friday September 22.
Written by Steve Peterson
When did you start directing and what was the play? What did you learn from that first experience as a director that still holds true today?
I started in Children's Theatre, directing an Intro to Shakespeare show and A Christmas Carol for The Hampstead Players, a touring company based out of Center Barnstead, New Hampshire. You learn fast when entertaining kids that you can't be boring for a split second or they'll be just as happy to do snow angels on the cafeteria floor during Hamlet's blah blah blah... the same is (and should be) true for adults. Don't be boring. That's any storyteller's Job Number One.
Did you have a mentor or mentors along the way, and if so who and how did they encourage you?
I direct for three amazing actors called The Apple Sisters (shout out to Kimmy Gatewood, Sarah Lowe, and Rebekka Johnson!). Their shows are crazy locomotives - staged 40s era radio plays that always change on a dime in the name of keeping moments fresh and giving a show a madcap sense of play. The 39 Steps pulses with that same energy. Those three have taught me so much about how to fearlessly make the show a ride for both the audience and the performers. I'm honored and encouraged that they place such faith in me to direct their vibrant whirlwind. (Don't tell them I call them "mentors," though. They'll make fun of me without mercy.)
You have quite a background in improvisational theatre. What are you able to draw from that experience that enhances your process of directing?
My particular background is sketch comedy. I'm a writer - so I work best with a script - but what great improv and strong sketches have in common are clear games at the center of every scene. Find that game. Make it clear. Milk it for all that it's worth. It's the engine under every moment, whether made up on the fly or tapped out on a laptop.
Tell us a bit about the play.
This play is bonkers. I loved it on first read. It's such a send up of the thriller genre while still popping with comedy of every stripe: classic physical routines, blunt parody, sharp satire, and some downright bad jokes so no one takes anything too seriously. BUT, it also carries a man's soul in the center - the stakes are huge for the world, as well as his heart. Walking that edge while still staying hilarious is a wonder to read, watch, and direct.
What is up next for you in regards to writing and directing?
I'm currently working on two feature scripts: one a Vegas romp for Paramount Pictures, and the other an action comedy for Lorne Michael's Broadway Video. Check theapplesisters.com for info on their Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas shows - 'round the holidays it gets nice and busy (holy cats, it's almost the holidays...).
Is there anything you wish to add?
What was it that made this show possible? I directed the thing, sure, but not without four ultra heroic actors, my brilliant designers, producers beyond parallel, awesome PR, Tintin working magic in the shadows, and Derek the Stage Manager bringing the whole shebang together. THANK YOU to the Actors Co-op for the opportunity. Directors dream of such a team... but I actually got to work with one.
The Actors Co-op Theatre Company opens its 26 Season with The 39 Steps. The play previews September 21 at 8:00 pm. Runs September 22 - October 29. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:30 pm. Saturday Matinees: September 30 and October 7 at 2:30 pm. Tickets: $30.00. Seniors (60+): $25.00. Students: $20.00. Group rates available for parties of 6 or more. To buy tickets or make reservations please visit www.ActorsCo-op.org or call (323) 462-8460. Actors Co-op Crossley Theatre. 1760 N. Gower St. 90028 (on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood) in Hollywood.