Dallas — Actor, director and playwright Lee Trull is a longtime company member at Kitchen Dog Theater, and the first Director of New Play Development at the Dallas Theater Center, to which he was promoted in 2013. Trull talks about the “theatrical shorthand” that develops when actors, directors and company members work together frequently, as happens in his directing Barry Nash and Jenny Ledel in the regional premiere of Halley Feiffer’s two-hander, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard opening this weekend at Kitchen Dog Theater. The playwright, daughter of famed cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer, dramatizes the relationship between a nervous young actress and her doting dad, a successful playwright.
TheaterJones: When you’ve worked with seasoned actors like Barry Nash and Jenny Ledel many times over the years, how do you go about running the show—or do you run the show?
Lee Trull: I do run the show. Actors need to be brave with me, and speak up when they have a concern, and be willing to stretch themselves. These two do that. All three of us have learned to vocalize our ideas from working at Kitchen Dog. We’ve developed a theatrical shorthand based on the same practice and discipline. I worked with Barry over three years in developing Bob Birdnow (Eric Steele’s one-man play Bob Birdnow’s Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self). We did it as Second Thought Theatre’s entry for the Festival of Independent Theaters, and later as a main season production at Second Thought. I’ve also known Jenny a long, long time. I just started directing her last spring; this will be my third show in a row working with her. This play is a very different kind of comedy than Wilde/Ernest [Trull’s clever, frothy deconstruction of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest]. This is a darker play and very funny—but also complicated. These actors can do a Halley Feiffer play; they will come up with bigger and weirder things than they did before, than they even thought they could come up with.
How do you go about kicking off your vision?
First, I meet with designers and start thinking about the shape of the show. Where are things? What environmental world are we creating? In the case of I’m Gonna Pray for You, I went out for a social night before rehearsals started. I talked and rambled with Barry and Jenny about the show. We got off the subject and talked about our experiences and ourselves. I also talked with the playwright before this show.
When did you start actual rehearsals?
We have four to five weeks to rehearse for a Kitchen Dog production. The first day is a read-through—no instruction. Then I begin to show them what I think a scene looks like and sounds like. At Kitchen Dog, we spend an entire week going slowly through the script in this way, learning the music of the writer. I tell actors we can’t play jazz until we’re all on the same beat. When we’re all on the same page, then we start getting up and moving. It’s a very methodical process.
Do you ever just look at one of your terrific actors and say, “Go for it!”—and hope a single vision eventually comes together?
No, no, no. I give the actors tons of notes; I give them copious notes. They might say too copious.
Do the actors read those notes and incorporate them?
Yes. We work a lot on that part. I wouldn’t work with an actor who doesn't act on directing notes.
Which comes first—the play you choose or the company you have to work with? Do you feel limited when you cast from a repertory company?
I read this play, and went to Kitchen Dog because I thought it would fit. They read the play and agreed. For this project, I could not imagine better actors. Casting outside the regular company—or the pool of actors in a community—is often good. Fresh blood invigorates everybody.
You say you encourage “brave” input from your actors. Do you ever change your initial vision based on their riffing?
Yes, I do. These actors fight back; they challenge me. If I am giving them the same notes three times and they keep resisting, I change it. These are actors I trust, and they trust me, after working together so often.
Kitchen Dog’s stage has 70 seats. How does doing a show in a small theater affect your directing approach?
Directing a play in a smaller theater doesn’t necessarily change my approach. You are very aware of the effect you have on people, and the audience’s relationship to the actors. The Wyly [Dallas Theater Center’s main performance space at the AT&T Performing Arts Center] is a big space, but actors are very close to the audience in many scenes. The size of the space is less a concern than whether you are getting hairs to stand up on necks. Is the audience holding their collective breaths? That’s the real question.
What if you decide there’s not enough prickling of the hairs on the neck? Do you change scenes after a preview?
At Kitchen Dog we have a dress rehearsal and only one preview, but yes, I do take notes and do a note session on a single scene, perhaps on blocking, and change that before opening. In fact, I take notes of everything so intensely that I often don’t go to opening night because I get so nervous.
Do you ever make changes after opening night?
No. I don’t change the show after opening; the critics have written about it and the audience should see the show as reported.
How do you keep dark comedy funny?
My first barometer is my own reaction. If it makes me laugh, I’m there. Of course, if I’m the only one laughing, then we may need a tweak. Reading Halley’s work is like reading an early Edward Albee script. It’s just wildly, inappropriately, wickedly brutal. I love it. You go to theater to see something else, something besides the everyday. We’re going to open a lot of doors with I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard.
Does this play make people laugh or cringe?
Would you laugh or cringe at Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I think this play will get both responses from audiences.