BWW Interviews: David Ellenstein and North Coast Rep are Perfect Together
This weekend, North Coast Repertory Theatre presents Neil Simon's charming autobiographical comedy Chapter Two, with Artistic Director David Ellenstein in a starring role as the protagonist, George, and also co-directing with Christopher Williams. The universal themes of relationships, love and loss are exquisitely captured in this comedic tour-de-force, and Ellenstein is delighted to play dual roles in the production.
EM: I'm so impressed that you're directing and acting. Is it a lot of fun for you or a lot of work or both?
DE: I will say both. This is the third time I've ever done it. And it may be the last. When I'm trying to be an actor it's hard to focus completely on that because I keep getting distracted by things with my director head. When I'm directing it's hard to completely focus on that because I keep thinking about the actor aspect. The actor has to completely immerse himself in the play. The director is someone who's all over the place, paying attention to everything, the overall impact of the play on the audience, whereas the actor doesn't worry about that. The actor only has to worry about the story and the character and making sure you're in the moment. That takes full concentration. So that's the tricky part.
EM: Kind of like trying to be a conductor and a violinist at the same time.
DE: Exactly. You nailed it. I'm lucky I have Christopher Williams codirecting with me. He's kind of my "eyes" out there. I let him give most of the notes and I give him my notes for the other actors. To play a scene with an actor, even though that actor is also the director and the artistic director, then to have the person give you notes on what the two of you just did, is a weird thing.
EM: And Neil Simon, oh my God. What a trip to be able to do any play by this icon, but especially Chapter Two. Is that one of your favorites of his?
DE: It wasn't when I first saw it in 1980. I liked it but it didn't blow me away. Coming back to it I found so much more in it, partly, I think, because the production I saw wasn't so good. But now I find so much more in it, more heartfelt than I remember, and funnier. It's interesting because it's one of the early ones, loosely autobiographical about his relationship with Marsha Mason. It was the first time he really tapped into his own pain and the struggles of his life.
EM: Have you ever met Neil Simon?
DE: I was in the first regional production of Broadway Bound after it was in New York and subsequently did it again but I never met him.
EM: Is it difficult to get the rights to his plays?
DE: At one time it might've been, but less in the last 15 years or so because it got done and done by everybody, and many times became kind of passé and out of fashion. It's just in the last few years that everybody's starting to do it again. So it's kind of being rediscovered. I did not have issues with getting the rights for this play. I think when it was new that might not have been, but because it was written in 1977 it's not a problem. There's not another production that I know of in the works. That's when the rights really get locked up.
EM: What's it like to play your character, George, who's based on such an iconic playwright?
DE: It's great because he really nails what the guys going through. It came from his heart. His first wife had died and he met this woman that he fell in madly love with. They had a very short courtship and got married, which is chronicled in the play. He wrote right from his gut, a really solid roadmap of what was happening. I'm not trying to do any kind of Neil Simon imitation. The character's name is George Schneider, not Neil Simon. I don't think he wanted anybody to be him. He wanted somebody to encapsulate what he went through. That's what I'm trying to do. You have to find, and bring yourself as close as you can, to the character written on the page. Certainly I don't think he would want me to do a Neil Simon impersonation. James Caan didn't do that in the movie. So I'm playing George Schneider, not Neil Simon. It's just neat to know it came right from his personal experience.
EM: I imagine it enhances your own experience.
EM: Do you feel any sense of identification with the character, anything he is going through, or is this just completely a leap for you?
DE: The idea of loss, then having to let go of loss for something new, is universal. I think everyone has experienced it to one degree or another, whether the death of a parent or sibling or child or even of a pet. As an actor you have to go from that essential feeling and then allow it to blossom in your imagination, to create what is written in the play. I have known letting go of one relationship and going on to another in my life. That's basically what I start from, those feelings I remember so well. In a way it's also like survivor guilt - how does one deserve to be happy when the partner is not allowed to be, because the partner is no longer here? Giving yourself permission to move on. Moving on to chapter two.
EM: Are there any other themes or atmosphere about the play that jump out for you?
DE: Certainly the New York Element. I was born in New York, a lot of my family is from New York, and I have the whole rhythm and flavor. That intellectual kind of wisecracking dialogue was prevalent in my family. I bring that naturally. Whenever I've done Neil Simon or plays of other writers of New York Jewish background, I have that cadence very easily at my command because I know it. The world of the arts being important, of literature being important, dealing with humanity and feelings being something that you do, the world this play exists in. In the 70s everyone was in therapy. It was almost hard to find people that weren't going to a therapist. My parents went to therapy. I know this world really well. Picking the music for the show we ended up with a 70s jazz score that kind of matches the time. We didn't want to mock it, or in any way belittle it, but we wanted to mine things that really characterize it. That was my prime, when this play was written, my early 20s, so I was living through all this stuff. I bring all that to it. It feels like my time, that personal context to all the references.
EM: Living through it makes it jump out that much more. Tell me about the other cast members. I assume your leading lady is probably the most significant among them.
DE: Absolutely. It's a four-character play. Though we have the main relationship, the two other roles are very important - George's brother Leo, Jennie, my counterpart, and her best friend Faye. They're not just second banana roles. They get a time to wail, too. They're fully fleshed out. Jacquelyn Ritz plays Jennie. I met Jackie at an audition about two years ago and immediately I went, "Where did you come from? Because I want to work with you." She had moved here from Chicago a couple of years back, had quite a good career in Chicago theatre. This is the third play she's doing at North Coast Rep. She was in Man with a Load of Mischief and Fallen Angels - she played the wisecracking maid. Do you remember that?
EM: Yes, delightful.
DE: She was great, was easy to cast, such a lovely, bighearted person. I said to her the other day, "Not only are you an excellent actor but you have a big, open heart." Louis Lotorto, who's playing my brother Leo, was excellent in our production of Odd Couple. We met at a theater in Portland, Oregon, back in the early 90s. I've always liked him, and he's an excellent actor. That was an easy one to cast, too. Mhari Sandoval from New York was the lead when we did Time Stands Still here a couple of years ago. She was phenomenal. I actually directed her in her first professional production in 1989 here in San Diego, Shayna Maidel at the old Gaslamp Theater. I called her in New York and asked her to play the part. So they were kind of handpicked, an excellent cast. It's really fun to be on stage with all three of them.
EM: And it's so important. Talent is key but you also have to be able to work with people in a pleasurable and joyful way.
DE: At the first rehearsal of every production, I always say to the cast and company, "We want to make the best possible play we can, to artistically fulfill this play. However, just as important, this is our life. I want the time we're spending together to be enjoyable." I really make an effort to make that happen at North Coast. What's the point otherwise? The time we spent putting it on needs to be good, too.
EM: I can tell. The atmosphere At North Coast is always so happy and upbeat, and you have everything to do with that. Two of my favorites you've directed At North Coast Rep are Faded Glory and Mandate Memories. Are there any of yours that you can point out?
DE: There's an old cliché, "My favorite is always the one I'm working on." [Laughs] Some are my favorites because I love the plays, some because of the production and the way it turned out, some because I have such a good time doing it. I loved doing both of the places you mentioned because they were brand-new, and it's always exciting to create a play the first time. If I had to pick one, ever, then Hamlet is probably my favorite play. I've been involved in seven different productions one way or another, and I could do three or four more.
EM: David, I'm so psyched about this weekend's performances. I appreciate being able to witness the wonderful work you're doing. It's always such a pleasure to talk to you.
DE: Great to talk to you, too, Erica. Thanks so much.
Photo Credit: Aaron Rumley