Fort Worth — Here’s the problem: I feel happier when there’s a Tom Stoppard play up and running within 50 miles of where I happen to be—but Stoppard sightings on North Texas stages have been all too rare the past few years (unless you count a National Theatre Live! broadcast, or a Stoppard translation from the French). I’ve been known to fly off to New York or Chicago to catch one of the plays (say “Arcadia” and I run for the airport like a fire horse hearing the bell), but it’s never enough.
Hooray and hallelujah, then, that Amphibian Stage Productions opens a Stoppard play this week—the company’s first—that takes us deep inside the master’s sprawling canon, to the “radio plays” he wrote as a young man.
Life is good.
Stoppard’s Artist Descending a Staircase was first broadcast by BBC Radio in 1972. Productions over the next 40 years mostly tuned out the radio concept and performed it as a straight stage play—part murder mystery, part love story, part Brit-snark about everything from artistic movements to marmalade.
Amphibian’s production returns Artist to its roots, but with a twist. This is a radio play for the stage—with actors at microphones, real-time foley work (sound effects) from the cast of four, and a studio audience (that’s us) to watch the drama and fun.
Artist is co-directed by Jonathan Fielding and Brenda Withers, both familiar faces to Amphibian audiences. On the East Coast, they’re onstage regularly at the theatre company they co-founded with a core team of actors, Harbor Stage in Wellfleet, Mass. Together they wrote Northside Hollow (Amphibian 2017); and Withers (also known for Matt and Ben, written with her friend Mindy Kaling) premiered her play The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight-Errant Don Quixote at Amphibian in 2015. She is also co-author (with Jason O’Connell) of last season’s popular adaptation of Cyrano. American Theatre magazine named her a “Person to Watch” this year.
Fielding, currently appearing on Broadway as (in his words) “a corpse who can’t seem to stay dead” in the hit farce The Play That Goes Wrong, was a co-founder of Amphibian and is a longtime artistic associate there. A native Texan, he has a theater performance degree from Texas Christian University and an MFA from Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, and has been a part of Broadway productions of Pygmalion, The Seagull and Noises Off. He spends most summers performing at Harbor Stage, where he has appeared in The Seagull (Trigorin), Fool for Love (Martin), Detroit (Ben) and many other productions.
TheaterJones sat down at Amphibian among radio gadgets and artifacts to talk with Fielding and Withers about the show—a time-jumping tale of three aging artists, their twenty-something selves, a young blind girl…and more than one mystery.
TheaterJones: You’ve taken a break from your Broadway stint to be here, Jonathan—but you’re flying back to New York in a few hours?
Jonathan Fielding: Yes, going back. My family is still here, so I always try to stay as long as I can.
You have your onstage broadcast studio ready to go, I see. Was it hard to find all this old radio paraphernalia?
Brenda Withers: Some of these things are antiques, but others you can actually buy.
You’ve written a play together, and I know you both act at Harbor Stage Company—but have you directed as a team before?
JF: Yes, we co-directed both Northside Hollow and this play [Artist] at Harbor Stage.
I don’t really understand how co-directing works. It seems it might easily become a very emotional, territorial situation.
BW: It could be! Occasionally we run up against stuff, but I think because we work together so much, there’s an equation of compromise that we’ve worked out. There are things I know he cares about more than me, and he knows what those things are with me—so we’re usually able to give without discussing it in front of everyone. And that’s OK.
Brenda, you told me that you absolutely love this piece. It’s very Stoppard: full of his love of wordplay and absurd events [the three artists stumble into and out of World War I without ever knowing it happened], with detailed intellectual arguments breaking out at random moments.
JF: Actually, Kathleen Culebro [Amphibian’s artistic director] showed me the script years ago and said ‘I love this play, but I don’t know how to do it.’ I read it, loved it, but also didn’t know how to do it—because you’d need a seven-person cast to perform it as a stage play: one woman, three actors to play the older artists and three more to play the younger. It’s just too expensive!
But I held onto the script for years, until we found a way to do it that suddenly made sense.
I listened to the audio recording of the original 1972 BBC broadcast the other day, and it was fascinating. The script was great, but the actors had a very old-school British ‘oratorical’ style that put a damper on the fun. They had rich voices, similarly upper-class diction, and I found myself working hard to keep track of who was speaking. Also, they switch between the artists’ older and younger voices—and use nicknames, which Stoppard threw in just to make us completely crazy and confused. Being able to see the actors onstage will definitely help!
JF: Our actors’ voices are very different—but I agree with you about that recording: it’s a little stuffy.
BW: But that is the benefit of staging this particular radio play as we have. Because they’re together so much, and because their arguments are over such minute things, you don’t get an aural sense that oh, that guy’s the slob, this guy’s the joker, this one’s the girl guy. Seeing does help.
JF: And the artistic arguments are fun, but you’ve hit on the potential trap of the play: they need to stay in the background. I think the play is actually a love story and a murder mystery, and our job is to make those the most important parts of the show.
You’d seen the script before, but whose idea was it to reverse-engineer the play—to bring it back to radio?
JF: Definitely Brenda’s idea.
BW: Oh, I was going to say I don’t know, but OK! We were out on Cape Cod for the summer [at Harbor Stage], trying to make the final pick for our third or fourth season. We were looking at a couple of plays that didn’t seem quite right, and I remembered, ‘Oh, there’s this play I did a monologue from for grad school auditions.’ I barely understood it in college—but I loved Sophie’s monologue, and after a quick look at the script we picked it.
And because it needed to stand out from the other works in the season, doing it as a radio play seemed perfect. For one thing, we didn’t have a two-story stage to work with—so it would have been physically impossible for us to stage it!
No room at all for an artist to ‘descend’ down the stairs. But in this version, you still need to create the noise of that fall—and the actors are handling many of the sound effects, right?
BW: Yes, either in real time during the scenes they’re in—or if they’re ‘backstage’ for a minute, they help out their team mates onstage.
JF: It comes off as much more theatrical than an actual radio play, at least the ones I’ve seen.
And you’re directing three actors who are playing both the old and young versions of themselves.
JF: Yes—so essentially, this is voice acting.
Bob Hess and Greg Holt are returning to Amphibian; they’ve played a fantastic variety of roles on area stages over the years. The other two players are less known to us, though Paul Taylor has done quite a bit of work in theater, film and television around the country.
BW: Paul was a surprise; he turned up at the end of auditions, just as we were locking the door. He’d heard about the show, and though we’d seen some pretty good people we let him in, and immediately knew—he was so great! We really lucked out.
And Sophie is played by Christine Sanders, who was seen at Second Thought Theatre as one of the mysterious “persons in charge” of the onstage characters in Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men.
BW: Yes, Christine’s just come out of SMU’s graduate school, in fact. She’s terrific! All our actors are driving from Dallas, and that’s a commitment. In New York, of course, it’s nothing to take the train for an hour or more to a theater—but you can sleep or run your life on the train! It seems there’s a lot of back and forth in the acting community here, with Fort Worth actors in Dallas and Dallas actors in Fort Worth, and all of us reaping the benefits.
Yes, much more cross-pollination than there used to be even 10 or 15 years ago, and co-productions by Fort Worth and Dallas theaters that play in both cities. Particular companies can be a draw too: Amphibian has become something of an incubator for new plays and adaptations—and standup comedy, too.
BW: I’m amazed by how ambitious and successful Kathleen is in so many directions. Theater companies often let their vision get scattered, and she is able to continually bring things back to that sense of an incubator. She was sitting with me the other day, and said ‘I just love seeing the look on people’s faces when their work gets done, when they feel supported.’ And I’d never heard an artistic director say that before.
She’s also really supportive of second and third productions, which are hard to pitch to companies because everyone wants to do the world premiere, or the classic plays that bring in the money. Kathleen is great about saying a play deserves a longer life, a different journey—and we’ve certainly benefited from that.
What’s happened with your world premiere Cyrano from last season, speaking of second and third productions?
BW: It got a production this summer, very well received, at Gloucester Stage, and there are other possibilities for it.
You would think Stoppard would have given up writing radio plays once he was terribly famous, but he never did. The last one I know of was broadcast five years ago. Why did they continue being something he wanted to do, do you think?
BW: We saw his play Travesties in New York last year—very epic two acts, lots more actors and things happening onstage. But we heard a lot of text that was borrowed from Artist Descending and started to wonder if our play was a kind of precursor.
JF: Maybe he felt the ideas he’d touched on in Artist weren’t getting enough exploration, and Travesties came out of that.
There’s a great speech in Artist that turns up as a shorter zinger in Travesties, about why the artist is the one “lucky dog” in a hard-working world.
JF: I got to meet Tom Stoppard very briefly a few years ago. I was driving back from Harbor Stage to New York by myself one day, in the summer when did our Artist Descending a Staircase. I was listening to the various NPR stations along the route, and there’s Tom Stoppard being interviewed. I thought it was a bit strange and ironic to be hearing him just after doing the play—and then realized he was nearby in New Haven, talking about a production of Arcadia at Yale Rep.
Maybe I’ll just drive by, I thought—be a stalker. And once I get there, I’m running down the street, trying to find the place….
Searching for a guy who looks like Doctor Who….
JF: And then I find the right building but think I’ve missed him, because there are guys wrapping up cable. But I go in, and there he is, right in front of me. I look like a crazy man who’s been sweating in a car, but I have a poster from our show in my hand. I walked right up and said ‘We did your play this summer!’
And he looks at the poster and says, ‘Oh….[Long pause] How did you make the fly sound?’ So I guess that was something they’d struggled with in production when they did it. It was really sweet and fortuitous to get to talk with him for a few minutes.