Directing an Epic

Kristen Coury is the Founder and Producing Artistic Director of Gulfshore Playhouse. She is also the director of An Iliad.

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Jeffrey Binder during tech rehearsal for An Iliad.

When Jeff Binder first walked into my office and pitched the idea of doing An Iliad, I was immediately torn. I said, “I LOVE directing one-man shows, and I would certainly love to direct one starring you, but when I saw a production of this play once, it just seemed like a lot of names-”  Jeff quickly jumped in with a retort, “That’s why YOU need to direct it…you will make sure we’re keeping track of everything and that the story is super duper clear.”

Well, how could I argue with that?  

An Iliad marks the third one-person show I have directed here at the Playhouse, and I am loving every minute of it, especially working with Jeffrey Binder. We know that he’s a great talent; he spent a well-deserved decade and a half on Broadway. I also knew he was a history buff and one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. I expected that delving into this contemporary tale, based on an epic poem, would be a joyful journey. What I did NOT expect?  He showed up completely memorized and gave 120% each day of rehearsal – throwing himself body and soul into each character’s voice, posture, and facial expression. The result is that Emily Hauger, our exquisite Stage Manager, and I had a front row seat for what is at once a mesmerizing, compelling, tearful, heart-wrenching, funny, and fascinating masterclass in the art and craft of acting. We often use the term “tour-de-force” when we describe one-man shows because the sheer act of carrying a show on one’s shoulders, “acting with themselves”, bringing several different characters to life, and hopping lithely from place to place is a feat in itself. But this is different. This is beyond. The first run-through in the rehearsal hall was already worth the price of admission. After the second run, I reported that I felt as though Jeff as “the Poet” carried me with him as he jumped into a deep ocean of story from which I could not escape until the light went up at the end. Except there was no light shift at the end. The curtain didn’t fall. We were still in the rehearsal room. I had been transported as surely and as deftly as I had been for any of the great performances I’ve seen in my lifetime.

Directing a one-man show requires a whole different set of rules. We have to figure out how it is acceptable to “talk to oneself.”  If one character is looking out at a 45-degree angle, then the actor has to shift position and respond (as the other person) looking at the opposite 45-degree angle. If one character is looking up at the other character, the person looking back must look down to the same degree, etc. It is wild!  Eventually, you start to track the imprint of where all the characters are on the stage and you find yourself saying things like, “You just walked through Achilles,” or “You can’t put that there because that’s where you just laid the dead body.” I call it “psychic geography”, a completely made up term for a very real thing. Sometimes I’ll look at Emily and say “Is he too close to Hector?”  (I remind you Jeff is playing all the roles, so if he’s playing Achilles he isn’t playing Hector at the same time.) Emily will say something like “Yes, it feels like he’s trampling over him.” It is a FASCINATING process.

We are in tech now and the play is so much richer by virtue of the gorgeous set (in this case a Greek Amphitheatre) designed by David Arsenault, the ethereal lighting designed by Jimmy Lawlor, the fantastic timeless costume designed by Jenny Clare Bronsted, and the lush sound designed by Beth Lake. It’s nice to get so many creative heads in the room to help me figure out things like whether we’re painting the picture of what Jeff is describing with light and sound or letting the story Jeff’s telling stand on its own.

All of this has added up to the most joyful rehearsal process of my life.

If you think you know what The Iliad is and imagine this is a 24-hour play; or if you’re afraid you’ll be bored or won’t be able to follow; or think this ancient story can’t possibly be relevant – THINK AGAIN.  This 95-minute contemporary retelling is filled with topical themes, relevant content, and fascinating stories told by ONE INCREDIBLE ACTOR. Jeff’s performance rivals any performance you have seen on any stage anywhere and I’m not overstating. You know I would not mislead you and I don’t just say this for every show I direct.  This one is unique. If you miss it, you might not realize it, but you will be missing something special. So I encourage you to get a ticket while you still can. I’ll be there to greet you when you do.

 

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