The Philadelphia Story, produced by Rebecca Hayes for Actors Co-op, opens April 23; plays Fri. -Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2:30 pm; Sat. matinees May 1 and 8, 2:30 pm; through May 30. Tickets: $20-$30. Crossley Terrace Theatre, 1760 N. Gower St. (on the campus of Hollywood Presbyterian Church), Hollywood; 323.462.8460, ext. 300 or actorsco-op.org.
Douglas Clayton has a thing for confetti cannons. He used six during his wedding to Heather Corwin timed specifically to shoot white streamers over the guests at their exact “you-may-kiss-the-bride” moment. Shows ranging from Reefer Madness to Annie Get Your Gun all featured his once trademark P.T. Barnum effect. Their use reveals not only a certain penchant for theatrical showmanship but what Clayton considers his signature directing style.
“I’m fascinated with theatricality,” admits the critically acclaimed director, former actor and LA Stage Alliance Programs Manager, one morning last week at the LASA offices. “A basic confetti cannon is an inexpensive, low-end tech thing that has a high theatrical payoff. Fire a confetti cannon and the whole audience goes, oh! They smile, they laugh and you have this great moment as long as you use it in a judicious way that supports the action. It also speaks to my interests as a director. Rather than being pigeonholed, for example, as someone who only does musicals or directs experimental plays, as long as a show has some sort of theatricality, I’m interested in pursuing and working on it.”
Clayton is currently helming two completely opposite plays that meet his criteria – Philip Barry’s classic romantic comedy The Philadelphia Story at Actor’s Co-op opening April 23 and a revival of J.T. Rogers’ racism exploration entitled White People for the Road Theatre Company slated to open May 20. Both are the latest projects in a diverse resume that ranges from Stop the World, I Want to Get Off at Musical Theatre Guild to 42nd Street at Azusa Pacific University, the world premiere of A Piece of Tin at the Lyric to The Mystery of Edwin Drood at Sacred Fools, which earned glowing reviews from both Variety and the LA Times for creating a “watershed event.”
He has also directed numerous readings for Antaeus Company, the Academy for New Musical Theatre, East West Players and the Colony Theatre, where he initiated their 2009 play reading series. Upcoming work includes Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and King Lear.
“It’s really fun to play within the diversity of these two shows,” Clayton explains. “In The Philadelphia Story, we’re doing a traditional production. I’m not taking some sort of crazy liberty with it though we certainly made some casting choices that aren’t traditional. Like I didn’t try to cast Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart! I made choices based on what I thought the story was about and what would most support the message of the show.
“With White People, it’s a monologue play with three people. We’re doing a very abstract interpretation as far as the design elements which allow us to be much more theatrically unusual and creatively free in our choices.”
The action in The Philadelphia Story centers around Tracy Lord, a role famously created for Katharine Hepburn who played it both on Broadway for a year and in the subsequent 1940 film, a wealthy socialite recently divorced from Dexter and about to marry George when Mike enters the equation as a magazine writer assigned to cover the wedding. The Actor’s Co-op production features Tara Battani, Marcos Esteves, Daniel J. Roberts and Stephen Van Dorn in the now iconic roles. With its portrayal of divorce, infidelity, alcoholism, tabloid journalism and celebrity weddings, the play feels surprisingly contemporary 71 years after its debut.
“It really isn’t a dated show at all,” says Clayton. “You tweak a couple of references and dynamics and it could just as easily be today.”
He first directed the play at the Richard Fiester Theatre in Mariposa just outside Yosemite National Park the summer following his freshman year at USC. The cast featured Clayton’s high school drama club buddies who had also returned home. “They were all way too young but it was fun! It went over really well. It’s always floated around in the back of my head as being a great show. I just wanted to do it with people who had more life experience because all these characters have been through stuff. I did it then with a cast that hadn’t been through basically anything.”
Both Actor’s Co-op and the Road are theatrical companies that require casting to come from within its own rosters. Clayton says he doesn’t mind, noting in his experience at the Co-op, it makes for a really tight knit company. “They have a company meeting every week. Every single person has done shows on stage before. Most have done shows with each other including the last one there or the one before that. So they’re very much invested in the space and invested in each other in a way that’s really lovely.”
He admits it’s totally different casting within a company than choosing from a vast sea of available actors. “It becomes less about when I sit back in my hammock and picture who I think the perfect Dexter or the perfect Tracy would be. It’s really not about that. It’s more about me making my decision based upon the key qualities I have to be able to get in order for the show to come off. Then looking at the company of people who audition and saying where do those qualities exist and how can we mix and match.”
On the surface it would appear The Philadelphia Story and White People offer completely different themes. Not so, says Clayton. The correlation between the two is surprising simpatico.
“In The Philadelphia Story, Tracy Lord gets all wrapped up in the way things should be and as a result is fragmenting her family, pushing herself into a marriage she’s not going to be happy in and hurting people all over the place. Her journey in the show is to get broken down and come back and go, oh no. Wait. Who am I really and whom would I be best with? It’s not about rules and having to conform to some particular thing. It’s about being honest with who you are as a human being and living your life that way.
“White People is very much the same thing but from a totally different perspective. Its point is that as long as we’re being tolerant of one another and pretending that everything is fine, we’re never going to get anywhere. We’re just going to lay seeds for explosions to happen.Â If we can actually be honest with each other and ourselves about who we really are, where we came from, what we really think and how we really feel about things, we can move forward.”
Ironically, White People had its official world premiere at the Philadelphia Theatre Company in 2000. Two years before however, it had a critically acclaimed, award-winning run at the Road, earning two LADCC Awards, five ADA Awards, LA Weekly and John Barrymore Award nominations plus “Critic’s Choice” designations from the LA Times and Drama-Logue and a “Recommended” in LA Weekly. It was remounted in New York in February 2009 at the Atlantic Stage in Chelsea.
The controversial and darkly funny play centers on the lives of three white Americans: Martin, a Brooklyn-born high powered attorney for an elite law firm in St. Louis, MO; Mara Lynn, a housewife and former homecoming queen in Fayetteville, NC; and Alan, a young Manhattan professor. Through interlacing monologues, each in turn wrestle with prejudice, anger and guilt.
Though not known for repeating themselves, the Road’s artistic management decided it was time to tackle the piece again.
“I asked Taylor Gilbert specifically because she was in the 1998 production playing Mara Lynn,” Clayton recalls. “When they ran it before it was very successful but they didn’t feel like they were done with it. They had wanted to extend but couldn’t. So it had always floated around. When the opportunity arose to do Madagascar, another J.T. Rogers show, they thought this a great chance to do two things in rep and give members six great roles.”
Clayton admits it’s an interesting time to present the play again given that with Obama in the White House, we are now supposedly living in a post race America. And yet racial unrest has risen significantly in parts of the country since he took office. The play raises the same issues it did more than 10 years ago except now the context has changed. But not the reactions to its title.
“The thing Sam [Anderson], Taylor and the cast is very clear about is that the stuff in the show is very present and very now. It’s actually been very interesting on two fronts. One is in rehearsal we’re all being very open and honest about admitting we have strong feelings about this stuff. The other thing is telling folks we’re doing a show called White People. It’s not like when I tell people I’m doing Philadelphia Story. That reaction is like, oh that’s nice. I remember that movie. But say White People and they instantly polarize on you. People either go, what’s that about? That’s exciting. Or they say, is that some sort of race show and immediately get on edge a little bit. Which just goes to show, that black, white or orange, race is still something everybody has some sort of feelings about.”
A Director Who Serves Artists
After exiting USC, Clayton knew he wanted to focus on theatre in both acting and directing. But with little hope for directing jobs as a 20-year-old, he decided to get an MFA in acting at Florida State University. His switch to directing came in his mid-20s after being cast in parts 10 years or more beyond his age like Bob Cratchit and working in badly directed or produced shows that wasted talented actors. Something he says was not OK with him.
“This city is so full of talented artists who are often sunk by bad leadership,” he emphasizes. “Two things that make me happier than anything else when I direct is one, when the audience sees the show and has a reaction like, oh my gosh, wow! And the other is with the artists. When we get to opening or closing and they go wow, it was such a great experience to work on this show! I was able to make my own creative choices. I felt supported and not like a puppet. I really got to do the thing I’ve spent so much of my life’s energy and made so many sacrifices to do. That’s way more fulfilling for me than performing in the show myself.”
Clayton says he’s never been the guy who wanted to start his own “garage theatre company” but considers himself more of an “interpretive artist” who brings others’ visions to life. “I’m not the auteur director who says oh, we’re going to do spaceships with Shakespeare. I don’t see myself as the primary spark artist. That’s the playwright’s job. I take a script or I help someone develop a script that’s coming from their impulse and help find a way to make it theatrical and come alive.”
His mentor is the award-winning director and the Theatre @ Boston Court’s co-artistic director Jessica Kubzansky. He assisted her on several productions and credits his inclusion on her short list of directors to call when she’s not available with helping him secure work at the theatre companies he now collaborates with regularly. While her tastes might be more experimental than his, he believes they fundamentally share a common vision.
“Telling a story and doing things on stage that are really meant for the stage and not for TV or real life, in that we are very much aligned.Â Looking at a scene, the things we see in it, the “oh this needs to change this way” for example. And the way we engage with actors is very much the same. That’s one of the reasons we get along so well. She’s also ridiculously supportive of new talent coming up in both actors and directors.”
Clayton is clear on what the audience won’t witness in any of his shows. “You’re not going to see people be super naturalistic. Mutter a monologue while facing upstage. It’s just not going to happen. Marlon Brando. I’m glad he was in a different generation because he drove me nuts. If I wanted to see someone be super naturalistic, I would just go into one of the coffee shops and watch people there. I don’t need to pay money to see them do it on stage.”
As programs manager for LASA, which includes planning and administrating all LASA programs including the Ovation Awards, LAStageBlog.com, LAStageTIX Â½ price tickets, LAStageTimes advertising in the LA Times, plus hosting all LASA forums and events, Clayton sees his work there as being very similar to his directorial duties.
“My purpose is to enable genius-freaking artists to do their work to the fullest of their capacity and impact people. When I’m directing a show, I’m doing that with my designers and my actors. When I’m at LASA, I’m doing that for producers and directors and the people putting on shows who put so much blood, sweat and tears and so much money into theatre companies. There are so many challenges they have to fight and so many systemic things that need help and support. Things LASA or the community at large working together can do to make it easier.”
What he has learned is that each job requires the same skill set: having the ability to sit down with 10 people and say, what are your concerns or ideas about this project or issue? Gathering opinions, then going away and returning with a proposal that addresses everything each person is concerned about.Â Presenting not just one person’s exact idea but selections from all.
“It’s not about having the best idea and making the best idea happen. Because an idea that everybody has contributed to usually ends up being a better idea than the one you started with. Even if it doesn’t, at least there’s something that’s close and you have buy in from all the people you care about. And that is more valuable.”
To Clayton, consensus anchors his creative life philosophy. “I’m a real big believer in that as a society and as an art form. If we’re really passionate and care about what we do, and we have buy in, then we’ll be in a much better place than if we try to do things right. Which kind of goes back to what the two plays are saying. Be real. Focus on doing what you really care about. Live your life that way. Don’t try to follow the rules.”
Feature image of Gary Clemmer (Sandy Lord), Marcos Esteves (C.K. Dexter Haven), Tara Battani (Tracy Lord), Daniel J. Roberts (George Kittridge) and story images by Lindsay Schnebly
Article by Deborah Behrens