Dallas — Opening the second weekend of shows at the Festival of Independent Theatres is Audacity Theatre Lab with Jaymes Gregory’s adaptation of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Gregory transformed the two-hour film into 50 minutes with only four cast members. TheaterJones sat down with Gregory and two performers, Steph Garrett and Leslie Patrick.
TheaterJones: Why adapt one of Chaplin’s most famous films for FIT?
Jaymes Gregory: It’s an adaptation I’ve wanted to do or a long time, since undergrad. I was talking to Brad and Ruth McEntire in December and they asked “Do you want to do our FIT show this year? I said, “Yeah, I haven’t done one in a while.” And on the spot they said, “Great, what do you want to do?”
And the thing with Audacity their mission is is they only do original works so I can’t pull something from my library. So, I thought of something off the top of my head in that conversation. “I’ll do The Great Dictator.” And so I did it.
How did you go about adapting this for the stage?
JG: I watched the film again a lot. The hard thing with the film is that there are so many subplots. There’s so much going on, and so much business to it. Doing a straight up adaptation wasn’t going to fly.
Steph Garrett: It’s also like two-plus hours.
JG: It’s one of his longer films and it’s gorgeous. The whole thing is beautiful. So what I had to do was figure out what meat and bones are. What’s the main spine of it? And then I started hacking everything off of that. I cut characters. Like, there’s a character that’s a part of a large subplot, but he’s useless without that subplot. Some of this character’s gags had to go.
It’s basically stripping down to the main story and what is iconic about this film. In doing that, it kept everything in there that keeps Chaplin’s vision intact, the flavor and feel of the piece intact. The adaptation also stripped out a lot of historical stuff, which I think makes it more relevant.
Chaplin is known for his tramp character and silent film performance, does this film follow that form?
JG: Chaplin resisted talking in films for forever, because that was his form. He did City Lights which was his first big film because it had one sound effect in it.
If I were to kind of rate Chaplin films it would be The Kid, City Lights and The Great Dictator. And Modern Times has some talking to, which is right before The Great Dictator. But Chaplin doesn't do the talking. The Great Dictator is the first one with full talking and he did it purposefully to kill the tramp character.
Leslie Patrick: Throughout most of the movie, Chaplin talks but he doesn’t talk a lot. It’s a lot of little short lines. But at the end, he unloads.
JG: Yeah, the tramp in the film doesn’t talk much, one-liners here and there. And in the end, it builds up and explodes.
Steph, you’re playing the Chaplin character in this adaptation. How has that been stepping into such an iconic actor’s work?
SG: It’s so good. I love it when it’s like let’s give a female a chance to do something bold and epic and legendary. Something we’ve all discussed about it, I’m playing the Hinkel Jewish Barber, which Chaplin did and everyone else was singular whatever. We’re bringing the essence of Chaplin to the role, but not trying to dodge the fact that I’m not Charlie Chaplin, and neither are you. No one is. And I’m a female so I’m not going to do it exactly the way he did. I’m sort of infusing his essence in my interpretation.
How are you breaking down the other roles?
JG: We’re doing the two-and-a-half hour film with four people in 50 minutes.
LP: I’m playing about five people. So it’s an interesting thing. Chad [Cline] and I were talking about it today. You gave all the meaty stuff to the girls, and the guys are more bit players that jump in and out. I have giant pages of talking and monologues and Steph talks for three pages straight. I think you gave us the heavy lifting in this play and I think it’s great.
JG: The main character Leslie is playing, it’s like that in the film. I would say it’s the driving character in the film.
LP: Yes, Chaplin wrote a very strong woman which is amazing, especially for that time period.
JG: And the type of man he was.
LP: But he loved women.
JG: One of the things we did to make it more theatrical is to use the point of the film, that Chaplin’s tramp character looks like Hitler. So Chaplin does this doppelganger thing the whole time between the Jewish Barber and Hitler. In the end they swap places.
When I was boiling it down to four actors I thought, “Why is it just stuck with Chaplin’s characters?” So in my adaptation, everyone has a doppelganger or another side of the coin to themselves. They play polar opposites. Leslie plays so many people, and one of her characters stages a mass massacre and kills 3000 people. And she comes back and plays a survivor of the massacre. Everybody has some double character that they have a relationship with.
Why do you believe this play is relevant for a 2017 audience?
SG: I don’t think we’re very blatant about it in the script, because I think this is a very faithful adaptation. There are quite a few times where I had to go back to the movie because I was wondering if all this stuff was really in there. Like “fake news” and stuff, but it’s all there.
One of the themes we’ve been talking about is listening, and also humanity. When we have these two sides that are so charged up, have we gone too far?
In the film’s final speech it’s as though Chaplin drops any sort of character and he’s just talking to the human race. So often we’re told that humanity is doomed and that we’re awful people. But he’s saying no, men have love in their hearts. We don’t hate we love.
JG: Yeah, the last word of the play is “Listen.” And to me, when that moment hits it’s so completely different from the rest of the play. It’s almost like Everyman talking now. I guess it is a modern Everyman play.
You’ve all done FIT before, what makes you come back to this festival?
LP: It’s kind of like guerrilla theatre. It’s like going back to your college theatre and throwing something together. There’s something exhilarating about it. The rules are different. An established theatre has a specific audience and you can’t stray too far when you’re choosing shows. You have to think, “Will my audience watch this?” But with FIT it’s different. There’s something freeing about that. All of these theatre companies are working together to do this. It’s very scrappy. There’s more of a camaraderie and it’s more fun.
JG: I had a show in fit in 2004 with Audacity that I wrote and directed as well. It was an awesome opportunity. And then I was the lighting designer for FIT for about five years, I think . Now I’m back in with Audacity doing this.
To me, it’s like a certain kind of theatre you got through your college years. They tell you to enjoy it because you’ll never be able to do this kind of work again for the rest of your days. FIT is saying, “No that’s not true, we can keep doing that.” There’s an audience and place for you to do what you want to do. It’s a more relaxed place where you can see talented people make art.
» The Great Dictator opens Friday, July 21, to be followed in the same performance block by Jeff Swearingen's The Caveman Play from The Basement.
The Great Dictator is performed in the following blocks:
- 8 p.m. Friday, July 21
- 5 p.m. Saturday, July 22
- 8 p.m. Thursday, July 27
- 2 p.m. Saturday, July 29
- 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 4
- 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 5
See more info about the 2017 Festival of Independent Theatres schedule here.