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Interview: Ken Sawyer Talks About Mounting ROPE at Actors Co-op

Interview: Ken Sawyer Talks About Mounting ROPE at Actors Co-op

Ken Sawyer is an award-winning director for his productions of Deathtrap and Hit the Wall a few years ago at the LGBT Center. He is getting ready to open Rope at Actors Co-op this Friday September 21. Sawyer took time from a busy tech week to discuss the play that became one of Alfred Hitchcock's curious films.

How does Rope in play form differ from Hitchcock's movie?

Hitchcock's movie took place in the 40s in New York City. The play originally was set in the late 20s in London. We are returning to that time and location. Interestingly Hume Cronyn and Arthur Laurents worked for months with Hitchcock in adapting the script closer to an American esthetic and in the process made some significant character changes. You will note that though we are returning to the original time and place we have included nods to the Hitchcock version...while also developing a world that is uniquely our own.

What are your challenges as director of the piece?

This is a very rich play with a very old fashioned structure. It is talky. It is three acts. And it only works if it achieves an ever tightening sense of tension. In the playwright's own words "Rope is a thriller. A thriller all the time, and nothing but a thriller." How do you take a play written for a completely different audience sensibility and rhythm and make it tense for a modern day audience? Thrillers operate on precise rhythm after all. What fresh light can we shine on the play so it packs a punch while still honoring and living in the shadow of a classic Hitchcock film? A challenge indeed!

Talk about the bizarre sense of humor in this work.

I have a saying when directing a thriller. "Entertain 'em. Get 'em to laugh. Then stab 'em in the back." The audience will scream. Then laugh at the fact that they got caught off guard. Then later, if the show was good, ponder why they got sucked in. And why they are a little afraid now of turning out the light. That is the cat and mouse game we play with the audience in a thriller. Humor is always a big part of that.

As a psychological thriller, the murderers must contain their feelings so as not to be suspect. What, if anything, is your advice to the actors for their specific behavior onstage?

Hmmmm. The murderers do not have to hide much because nothing is suspect. In this show it's not a "who dunnit?" but "Whose figurin it out?" or "Whose gonna realize that there is something to figure out?" Everyone is blissfully unaware. Until that quiet woman seems to pick up some bad psychic vibes. And the maid seems to know something about about her two male employers that's not quite...acceptable. One of the hosts is getting trashed on booze. The other alternates between Redford charm and something ...almost dead behind the eyes. And wait....did that perky young girl just say something off handed about murder? Wait. is there something to figure out? I thought this was a party!

Tell us about your cast. I understand Burt Grinstead, who has worked with you at LGBT, is part of the ensemble.

I love working with my "people". I have worked with Carl J. Johnson and Liz Herron since the very first shows of my career. Don Smith was a part of my extraordinary cast of Hit the Wall as a tough NYPD cop. And of course now I have had the pleasure of working with some new and exciting talent from the Co-op. The family grows.

And yes, Burt Grinstead was one of the stars of my Deathtrap at the LGBT center. We have taken the "thriller" ride before. Ha! The last one was actually shut down after a very successful run for being too "controversial". I knew he was a daring actor unafraid to take risks with this kind of material and yet give a grounded and thoughtful performance.

You have had tremendous success at LGBT through the years. Tell us a bit about the plays you directed there and the reaction to them from both critics and audiences.

Under the guidance of artistic director Jon Imperato I have been given a gift of being associated with a huge organization who wants to not only provide health services to the LGBT community, but also wants celebrate its artistic and compassionate place in the world today. Jon is a bold and aware individual and we have collaborated on projects that aspire to entertain, heal, educate, and stir up our audience. How lucky am I? I get to explore art in a place whose purpose is to uplift a community long misunderstood. It feels good to work there.

Do you have a favorite play of those you have directed?

Each has ingrained itself as a marker of where I was in life...because your life always seeps into your work in some way. I will always have a special place in my heart for The Woman in Black at The Road and later The Coronet Theatre. It was a little horror play I directed that somehow hit a nerve at the time and ran forever. Just last month someone I really respect in our theatre community gushed with praise of the show I directed almost 20 years ago as though he had seen it yesterday. Also Hit the Wall, an immersive play about the Stonewall Riots, was a magical experience.

Let's conclude with anything you would like to add. For example audience takeaway from Rope.

I prefer the audience to figure out what they take away. I have my thoughts on what I would take away and have directed it with a point of view. But I'm not going to tell you what to experience. Just today I heard an excited impressive explanation of why I chose for the set to be all red. My reaction? If that's how it spoke to you...sure. It's an over 80 year old play that is speaking. Goal achieved.

ROPE will preview Thursday, September 20 at 8:00 pm and will open on Friday, September 21 at 8 pm and run through October 28, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:30 pm. Special Saturday Matinees are September 29 and October 6 at 2:30 pm. To buy tickets or make reservations please visit or call (323) 462-8460. Actors Co-op Crossley Theatre. 1760 N. Gower St. (on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood) in Hollywood.

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  Don Grigware was a writer for BroadwayWorld through December 2019.                            ... (read more about this author)