BWW Interviews: Josh Seymour on Directing ONE ARM by Tennessee Williams

As One Arm by Tennessee Williams adapted for the stage by Moisés Kaufman opens at Southwark Playhouse this week, BroadwayWorld speaks to the director, Josh Seymour, around the final rehearsals for the play ahead of its UK premiere. The show is now playing at the Southwark Playhouse 10th June - 14th July, click here for more information.

Photo Credit - Sophie Shears

Q: How did you first discover One Arm?

I knew I wanted to direct something by Tennessee Williams, and stumbled across One Arm whilst researching plays by Williams that I didn't know. I had previously directed The Laramie Project, which Moisés Kaufman wrote with his company Tectonic Theater Project, and so I was extremely intrigued by the prospect of a play which saw a collaboration between the minds of these two great writers. When I read the play, the excitement I felt at experiencing quintessential Williams filtered through Moisés' contemporary imagination convinced me I had to direct it.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about what One Arm is about?

One Arm is set in the early 1940s and follows the story of Ollie Olsen, a young boxing champion in the Navy, who tragically loses an arm in an accident on the night of his greatest triumph. With all his ambition destroyed and feeling he has no other options, Ollie ends up working as a male hustler, selling his body to a succession of lonely men across America. The play explores how Ollie gradually realises the emotional impact he has had on his clients, and how this unlocks his own feelings and desires which have been repressed since his accident.

Q: How does it compare to Tennessee Williams' other work?

It is as moving and poetic as you would expect a classic Williams play to be, and the characters are just as vivid and well-defined as in his most famous works. Where it differs from what audiences might expect is in the frankness of its subject matter. Situations which in many of Williams' plays are subtext or suggested are out in the open in One Arm. Williams deals plainly with the painful reality of what it was like to be homosexual in that period of history, and he treats the emotional lives of Ollie and his clients with real sincerity. Characters whom so often were mocked or marginalised are given a compassionate, in-depth opportunity to have their needs and longings expressed to an audience.

Georgia Kerr and Tom Varey, photocredit John Wilson

Q: You met Moisés Kaufman on a recent visit to New York, how did that inform your preparation for your production?

It was brilliant to meet Moisés and gain an insight into how he went about using both Williams' screenplay and short story in creating the adaptation. It was also reassuring to discuss ideas for my production with him and find that he felt they resonated with the play as Moisés had envisioned it, even though they took the piece in a different direction to the production that he had directed in New York. We also discussed certain aspects of the play in detail - for example, the piece's structure, which is quite unusual, and Moisés' thoughts on this have been key in helping me to find the rhythm of the production in rehearsal.

Q: You're in the final week of rehearsals now - how are rehearsals going?

I'm having a great time working with this dynamic, imaginative group of actors - Peter Hannah, Joe Jameson, Georgia Kerr, James Tucker and Tom Varey. Four of them play many roles, and it will be a real treat for the audience to see them showcase their versatility, as they are playing a really wide-ranging bunch of characters - with different accents, too! Tom plays the central role of Ollie, and is an exceptional young actor who, I have no doubt, audiences are going to see a lot more of in the future. You couldn't find a more explosive or demanding role, and discovering Ollie's journey in rehearsals has been an exciting challenge. In our final week of rehearsals, we have been running the play in its entirety for the first time. This helps the actors start to understand their journey throughout the course of the show, and helps me to see what the shape of the production is so far and identify where I need to make changes or clarifications - so it's a really key and exciting moment in the process.

Q: Has it been a challenge to stage the action that jumps backwards and forwards across time and place to tell Ollie's story?

The time-jumping structure of the play offers us some exciting opportunities. The theme of memory is so important in the play, as Ollie's present is directly affected by the presence of ghosts from the past, and we have explored that in our production. We want the audience to feel like they are in Ollie's mind as he is caught between the past and the present. We are working hard to ensure that our production is able to be distinct about that separation when needed, while also finding ways to show the blurring of those boundaries in Ollie's mind, and how we can make his descent into memory beautiful and theatrical.

Q: Are you looking forward to moving into the theatre and adding in all of the production elements now?

As much of the play takes place within Ollie's memories, light and sound are going to be crucial in conveying that to the audience, so I'm really excited about those elements taking shape. While much of the visual style of our production is fairly symbolic and abstracted, our set and costume designer Al Turner has kept the costumes authentic, so the audience feels they are seeing real living, breathing people within the expressive world of Ollie's memories. I'm very much looking forward to seeing our cast in their 40s costumes, as this always lets the actors inhabit their characters even more deeply.

One Arm, Joe Jameson and Tom Varey, photocredit John Wilson

Q: Why should people see One Arm and what do you hope audiences will take away from your production?

I believe that if Williams had written Ollie's story as a play rather pursuing the idea of it as a screenplay, it would have become one of his enduring masterpieces. Ollie is as haunting and fascinating a character as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Chance in Sweet Bird of Youth - his journey is epic and packed with feeling. There is so much in this play that will speak to people - Williams described the story as a "dark poem whose theme is the prevalence of mutilations among us all, and their possible transcendence." Ollie's 'mutilation' is on the exterior, visible to all, but it stands as a symbol for the damage, the loneliness, and the baggage which all of us carry around to some degree. Ollie's story asks us to consider how we go on with our lives after the world damages us. To me, Williams suggests that healing can we found through the meaningful bonds we build with other people - I look forward to hearing what other people think when they come and see the show!

Josh Seymour recently completed a year as Resident Assistant Director at the Donmar Warehouse and was the Associate Director on the West End transfer of My Night With Reg (Apollo Theatre). As a director, his work includes The Laramie Project (Curve Theatre) Sarah & Sarah (Waterloo East Theatre) and Four Dogs and a Bone (London Festival Fringe). At the Donmar, Seymour was Assistant Director on City of Angels,Privacy (both directed by Josie Rourke), Fathers and Sons(directed by Lyndsey Turner), My Night With Reg (directed by Rob Hastie) and Versailles (directed by Peter Gill). Other credits as Assistant Director include Candide (Menier Chocolate Factory), Our House (UK tour), Good Grief (Theatre Royal Bath & UK tour) and Sixty-Six Books (Bush Theatre). He was a finalist for the 2012 JMK Award.

The show is now playing at the Southwark Playhouse 10th June - 14th July', click here for more information.

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