BWW Interview: Director Leslie Martinson of THE 39 STEPS at TheatreWorks Finds the Comedic Rhythms in a 'Nutball Farce' and Shares Her Insights as a Casting Director

BWW Interview: Director Leslie Martinson of THE 39 STEPS at TheatreWorks Finds the Comedic Rhythms in a 'Nutball Farce' and Shares Her Insights as a Casting Director
Director Leslie Martinson
Photo by Mark Kitaoka

BroadwayWorld spoke recently with Leslie Martinson, director of TheatreWorks' new production of "The 39 Steps." Martinson has been a TheatreWorks mainstay for decades, starting as an usher while she was still in school, then working as an actor before becoming a director and casting director. She left her staff position 18 months ago to go freelance, but has since directed two shows at TheatreWorks so still maintains a close working relationship with the Tony-winning company. The following conversation has been edited for length.

"The 39 Steps" presents an interesting challenge for a director as takes place all over England & Scotland. How do you pull that off?

First off, I have a fabulous set designer, David Lee Cuthbert. Multiple scenes take place in a music hall or on a train, so we started from there. David created some wrought-iron work and different levels, but the production is more about making things out of trunks and ladders rather than beautifully crafted scenic pieces. [As the show begins] four actors arrive to find out the rest of the cast hasn't yet shown up, and there's no crew. They turn on a light and suddenly there are 500 people watching them, so what can you do? The show has to go on. Plus, they're actors so they're delighted to put on the show. Then they build everything they need out of what they can find backstage - much of which is onstage in our production. I think audiences love to be astonished by the magic of theater, but they also love to see how we did it, and this production does both.

Given that "The 39 Steps" was created around a very specific staging concept, how do you put your own directorial stamp on it?

Oh, I just let my actors loose! [laughs] Sure, I know what you mean. There are certain shows like "Noises Off" and "The Play That Goes Wrong" where it seems to be already embedded in the script. There are certain moments where we "stand on the shoulders of giants" and use bits as recorded in the script, but that's a tiny fraction. I would say that our approach in this play needs a different kind of problem solving. Instead of saying "How can that table come onstage smoothly?" which would be a normal directing question, for this play it's like "Well, what if the table only has 3 legs?" You can start with "What if you DON'T have what you need?" or "What if it arrives late?" or "What if that's not who played that role?" and sort of spin from there. We also have an onstage foley table - human beings making sound effects - like in a radio show. You never see them in movies or radio plays, but you do in this one - train whistles and duck calls and coconut halves. Because they've got to do it all, these four people. They're racing around in half-costume and doing the foley table as well. And also you just use the physical comedy that comes to those 4 people - who's flexible, who can do a cartwheel, who can juggle. We start with their sets of skills and then build the rhythm of it. Sometimes that rhythm is built into the script and other times it's ours. My hope is it's seamless.

BWW Interview: Director Leslie Martinson of THE 39 STEPS at TheatreWorks Finds the Comedic Rhythms in a 'Nutball Farce' and Shares Her Insights as a Casting Director
The cast of TheatreWorks' production of "The 39 Steps"
(l to r: Ron Campbell, Annie Abrams, Lance Gardner, Cassidy Brown)
Photo by Kevin Berne

"The 39 Steps" has aspects of a comedy, a thriller and even a bit of romance. As the director, how do you guide your cast to find a common sensibility in balancing those elements?

You're exactly right. It's got the suspense of a Hitchcock film, it's got backstage shenanigans, and then it's actually got an adventure story to tell, which does have a romance. So I guess I would say the play is about how much fun it is to watch these four actors perform an entire Hitchcock film. Because the Hitchcock film is about going on an adventure and finding your best self. We cycle pretty rapidly among those aspects. It's been interesting in rehearsal, sometimes there's a 2-page what we call "book scene" where it's mostly dialog, and if we're not careful that starts to be in a different play. There's one place where we just realized what we needed was to use tools from improv games. There's a scene between 2 policemen and our hero, and it was getting a little straightforward so we started using rules, like there's an improv game called "sit stand lie" where if one person is sitting down another person has to be standing up and the other person has to be lying down. As one changes, the others have to change so we sort of took inspiration from that and if one moved, the others had to move. So now they've got funny rotations and they triangulate.

I guess here's the other answer to that question: I've used the "Prell Shampoo" theory of directing which goes like this: lather, rinse, repeat. You lather it up with 17 things, then you rinse it off and pick the 2 that you like, and then you start over again, both to repeat it to drill the physical comedy and to see when it's time to lather it up again. So that's what I mean by cycling pretty rapidly through these things. Or you introduce an outsized prop or a too-small prop and then see what happens.

This is TheatreWorks' Founding Artistic Director Robert Kelley's farewell season after an astonishing 50-year run in that role. You've collaborated with him on a LOT of shows. Any memories of working with him really stand out for you?

Yeah, many! He's been a remarkable influence and supporter for me all along. I was his assistant director on many shows even after I started directing on my own. To work side by side with him, especially on some of the huge musicals that we did, was amazing. He is a very visual director - what it looks like IS what it means onstage for Kelley. I definitely learned that working at his side. I default myself to words and text since I'm an English major by natural inclination, and so my memories of working with Kelley are how to put those two together. I'm in interested in phrases coming back from earlier in the play, how do we make that ring, as well as if those two lovers are standing 6 feet apart, there's no chemistry; if they're standing 4 feet apart, there's tension; if they're standing 2 feet apart, there's possibility. The hallmark of working with Kelley is to have that visual intensity when directing.

You've also maintained quite an extensive career as a casting director, which is a critical role that many theatergoers may not fully understand. In a nutshell, what does a casting director do?

A casting director finds the slate of possibilities and presents those to the director and authors, and makes sure that each of those individual actors is in a position to show their possibilities. The script might say "tall, blonde soprano" and the casting director understands from talking with the director and reading the script that what they really need is a smart-mouthed, physical clown who can sing in a certain range, right? And tall and blonde and soprano are not in fact the descriptors of what's going on. So the people I bring in are a match for the energy, and for the drive and for the style, both of the play and of the director. Some directors are very playful in rehearsal and some are not. Some want technicians and some want improv artists. Actors are much more malleable and flexible than people give them credit for. If I do my job right as a casting director, they know what a director is aiming at in terms of tone when they come in.

So, yeah, it's a matter of seeing the potential in all the actors you meet and then making the right match, because you do a person no favors if you miscast them in a role. But they can do more than might first appear. If you don't know the person, you're just looking at a resume, you're just looking at a headshot, that's not going to tell you what's going on. So that's why I love casting for live theater because I've already been in the room with all the actors before I present them to a director. And I love sort of opening up their minds. If the director says "She was amazing for that - not at all what I pictured." I'm like "Great, now I've expanded what you might do here." And if they go "That's too far. I'm not interested." that's fine, too. I'll give 'em a couple of people that are straight down the middle of what it says on the page, but the goal is to do more.

I'm interested that you say it's a job that most people don't know what it is. That's actually the goal of good casting. Like if audience members come up to me afterwards and say "I just can't imagine anyone else in the role." I'm like "Yeah, we just spent a long time making you think that! We have spent weeks and weeks of effort and costuming and rehearsal that was just to make you think that was exactly who they are." That is the illusion of theater. We want people to have NO idea!

When you direct a show, do you generally also act as your own casting director? If so, do you miss having another critical eye to mull over casting choices? Or - Do you love the autonomy that gives you?

I did when I was on staff, but we have a fabulous casting director now, a man named Jeffrey Lo, and he was my assistant for many years. He's both been my assistant director and then my assistant and associate casting director so I could not be happier than to have him as my successor. "Frost/Nixon" which I directed in January was the first time I'd had a casting director. Up until then I'd been both. There are some efficiencies in being both - I knew who I was already interested in. But these last two shows it's been glorious, and he found a couple of people who I wouldn't have found on both of those shows, or reminded me of people I might not have remembered. He has an excellent sense of the potential in actors, and has a quirky sense of humor that's wonderful, too.

Annie Abrams, who's playing Pamela our leading lady, had worked for TheatreWorks many years ago when she was still a student at Stanford, and I'd seen her a year or so ago in a staged reading down in Los Angeles, and then Jeffrey saw her at the Pacific Playwrights Festival and he said she got 3 laughs in 2 words, or something like that. I noticed she was a facebook friend of mine and so he was like "Do you remember Annie Abrams? Should we see her for the show?" and I was like "Yes, we should!" and she's going to be spectacular in the role. He's got that networking skill, which is the other attribute of a casting director. You've got to keep your ear to the ground. Who's in town? Who's graduated from grad school and coming back? Who's in New York - and we work with casting directors in New York and LA - you know, who's around? That networking was a joy for all the years I did it and I'm also delighted that someone else is doing it now.

As a casting director, you've had a hand in giving critical exposure to actors early on in their careers, such as Alex Brightman, who is currently starring on Broadway in "Beetlejuice" or James Monroe Iglehart, Tony winner for "Aladdin." When an actor like that comes to your attention, can you spot something special about them right away, or are you often surprised as to which actors go on to have higher profile careers?

Oh, it's pretty clear, I think. That won't make most actors very happy, especially when it comes to kids. Some of these kids walk in at age 8 or 10 or 12, and they already get it, like they already understand how this form of communication works. I'm not saying that you don't still need years of training to do this as a profession, but there is a certain "juice" to it that sometimes just shows up, and it's most clear in kids who can't possibly have had the training yet. My thing is that you need 3 [attributes]: There is natural talent (that juice), then there are skills, and then there's hustle. It is possible to make a career with only 2 of the 3, but not with only 1. And by "hustle," I might mean grit, or I might mean networking, or I might mean determination, but there's something about shaping the career, being interested and curious and making it happen.

James has always been remarkable, and is also someone who has always been himself. His individual, particular take on the world comes through, even if he plays dramatically different roles, which he is perfectly capable of doing. When we did "Memphis," which was a big break for him, it was a co-production, and someone else had played the role in the first production. I went out and saw it - it was a theater that's now closed in Boston - but I went out because I knew we were going to recast some of the roles. I took one look at that role and thought, "Well, that's gonna be James. There's no question." And you can't really say that on the phone to a director, but yeah, it was immediate when he came in the door. And, you know, he was years younger than he was by the time he won a Tony. He crafted that - I'm not saying he just did that by magic. He worked long and hard and crafted what that became. He really brings his own soul to the work, and it makes a huge difference. That why people respond to James the way they do.

Also, Zeljko Ivanek, who won an Emmy for "Damages" and is on "Madam Secretary" now. He's had a long TV, film and theater career and was just a couple years ahead of me at school in Palo Alto, and he was in some early TheatreWorks productions. He's been that good since he was 14. He really was. Not just my 12-year-old self thought that. [laughs] I just think some people can use a pen and words and they just get that, and some people use a brush and paint and communicate that way, and some people can use theater. It's just your métier. Now whether that turns into a career like it does for Zeljko and James [comes down to] that and many other factors - like "Does standing in front of 600 people pretending to be someone else make sense to you? Is that the way you communicate how the world works?"

I spoke recently with Francis Jue, whose career is currently flourishing after decades in the business. He mentioned how grateful he was to TheatreWorks for casting him in some roles early on that other companies might not have considered an Asian American for, such as a Kentucky reporter in "Floyd Collins." You were the casting director on that show. Did it occur to you at the time that he might not be the most obvious choice for that role?

Oh, sure! We talk about it all the time. I mean, our commitment that Kelley and I made is that we would never assume a white cast. Or we would never assume it would be cast as written. We would talk about it. In practice, we would not, at this stage in the culture for instance, do an August Wilson play and not cast African-Americans. But plays that have historically white, or it's been assumed they are white, characters, we're like "Explain to us why that's most important on this list of 10 things that role needs? Why is race, and sometimes gender, the most important thing?"

Francis also played Mozart in "Amadeus." Mozart needs to be extraordinarily charismatic, he needs to be mercurial, he needs to be a genius, he needs to be very light and have access to depth in ways that other, normal humans don't. The actor needs to have the skills to command the stage and win over everybody even as he's behaving poorly. And - he was Austrian and was white, right? But, boy, is that important compared to the rest? No, it is not. So we cast Francis in that role because he had the amazing and important and difficult-to-find qualities. And Austrian and white were just not on the list - in that production, in that theater, in that time. Everybody can make their own choices, but for us we strive to put on theater that reflects where we live in the Bay Area, and that's just not going to be all white.

I actually coach actors to figure out their list of 10 or 15 qualities they have, and lead from that. I'm not saying that race doesn't matter; race matters like hell in this country and everywhere else. It's a huge part of who someone is, and we will never use the phrase "color-blind casting." That's really denying people's culture and heritage, and the way they move they move through the world. But non-traditional casting or innovative casting? For sure!

You've conducted thousands of auditions, which can be such a high-stress environment. Do you have any do's and don'ts to give all the actors out there? What are you generally looking for? What do you really NOT want to see?

[Hesitates] I don't start from do's and don'ts. I find that just gives the actors a list of 10 more things to get anxious about. What am I looking for? Talent! And joy! And energy! Auditioning is a separate but related craft to acting. It behooves actors to learn how to audition, and that reduces the stress and anxiety. I run, and Jeffrey runs, a very friendly room. We work hard to make sure they have the information they need to prepare. It's no use to anybody if they come in too upset or too scared. I counsel people to avoid second guessing what we're looking for and trying to squeeze themselves into some box. It's much more a matter of making the connections between what does this play ask of the actors, what does the director and production here in the world ask of you, and what do you have to bring to that? The goal of an audition is to show what it would be like if we cast YOU. So, yeah, show up with some energy and some joy and some thinking about how you would approach this role.

Some people are great at it. I think it's a little bit of a myth that it's always nerve-wracking, it's always horrible. You know, if you're not in a show, that's 3 minutes of theater you got to do today which you wouldn't have otherwise. And if you don't love theater, what are you doing in this business? I realize it takes some work to get to that frame of mind. Also, going to auditions, you see other people, you hang out in the green room, it's a chance to let people know you're still working at it. So their job in an audition isn't actually to get the role. Their job in an audition is to show us what could happen, the possibilities of that person. And now we know they're interested in us, we're interested in them, and so that's a happy interview. If we audition 10 people to every 1 role, that doesn't mean 9 people failed. You've got to have other goals about what you're doing there. You know - road test your new monolog, show off that you do in fact have a Scottish dialect, whatever it may be. If you've recently done Shakespeare, then show that you can do contemporary work. There are lots and lots of other goals you can achieve in an audition that ARE within your control.

Do you have a wish list of shows you're still dying to direct?

Well, I've gotten to do a few of them. "Proof" which I did for TheatreWorks a couple of years ago was on my "anytime, anywhere list" so that was delightful to do. I am interested in new works. I directed the workshops and world premiere of "The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga," a San Francisco-set piece by Bay Area author Min Kahng. We're also working on developing some other stuff now so my wish list includes whatever Min writes next, that's for sure. And I'm interested in rotating between different styles. I mean if you take "Four Immigrants" which is like an old-fashioned musical about current issues, then "Frost/Nixon" which was very historical/cerebral and yet also driving and suspenseful, and then THIS nutball farce [laughs] ... those are about as different as three plays can be, and that's fine by me. And so my wish list is something new, something next.

TheatreWorks' production of "The 39 Steps" continues through Sunday, September 15th at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA. For information or to order tickets visit theatreworks.org or call (650) 463-1960.



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From This Author Jim Munson