Thea Sharrock sits in the Rendezvous Court of the Biltmore Hotel in downtown LA, looking both breezy and serious. She is directing Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys at the Ahmanson Theatre, with Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch. “I have nearly died two or three times, in rehearsal, of laughter… wiping tears away,” she reports.
It’s a remount of sorts, of a production she first directed last year in London, also with DeVito, opposite the late Richard Griffiths, whom Sharrock knew “like the back of my hand.” Griffiths was in the second play that she ever directed, and they had worked together nearly every year since then. “I adored him,” she says, “and I can very proudly say that he adored me.”
On March 13, CTG announced an Ahmanson run of the production, with Griffiths as well as DeVito. But Griffiths died on March 28. On June 24, CTG announced that Hirsch would join his former Taxi colleague DeVito in the Ahmanson version.
In London, only three of the Sunshine Boys actors were American. The British actors had not only their lines but also the accent to learn. Sometimes in rehearsal, an accent would slip when an actor was focused on the character’s words or thoughts, and it was “like hitting a dull note in music,” Sharrock says. Of course, here in LA, this is not an issue. As of this interview, The Sunshine Boys has not been seen by an audience, but Sharrock looks forward to learning “what an American audience needs.” Just being on the stage for technical rehearsals feels different than the stage in London — it’s bigger and requires a broader but no less detailed sort of performance.
The first play Sharrock directed was Top Girls by Caryl Churchill, a playwright deeply interested in gender issues and sexual politics. Sharrock didn’t know the play before she chose it. To find it, she explains, “I did that thing you do — I went to a bookshop and took down, maybe, 10 that looked interesting for whatever reason, and that was on the top.” She read Top Girls through to the end in the store. The next day, she read the entire play aloud to her mother on a long car trip. “I couldn’t believe that it was all women… how real it all felt… [the play] was 20 years old but felt so modern,” Sharrock says.
Throughout her career, journalists have asked Sharrock first about being a “young female on the scene” and later about how being a mother impacts her directing. Without discounting the importance of being a parent, she finds herself “bored and annoyed” with the question. “After 10 years they’re still asking me the same thing.”
“It’s more interesting to think about why people are the way they are for a whole number of reasons and a whole number of factors, and of course gender is important. Gender defines so much of what happens in the world, and I don’t think that will ever, ever, ever change.” Sharrock is emphatic. “But I hope that even if it’s a slow thing, we are moving on, and that it is getting closer and closer to being a level playing field.”
She continues, “I am always puzzled by the, ‘Do you think these things have (or haven’t) happened because you’re a female?’ How are we ever supposed to know?” Nevertheless, Sharrock is aware of how being female impacts her work, although she has never felt that she did or did not have a particular opportunity because of her gender. She acknowledges that people — actors, for example, men and women — respond to her in a certain way, in part because she is a woman, and she uses that. “But that’s the same as everywhere else, right?” she asks.
In fact, her directorial style, as she describes it, sounds distinctly feminine. In The Observer (May 29, 2010), she explained the importance of trust and honesty and said, “I wear my heart on my sleeve because that is what I am asking the actors to do.” She still agrees with the statement, which seems to be an approach of her own invention. Coming up, she worked with and had opportunities to observe mostly male directors. She recalls two in whom she saw that sort of vulnerability. One, she later realized, was actually being cleverly manipulative, and not honest at all. The other did wear his heart on the outside. No, she won’t name names, but she is fairly certain we wouldn’t know who they were, even if she did.
Sharrock attributes her personal sense of equality to having a “working mum.” She has realized over time that her mother, a journalist, had a much harder time in the workplace that she has ever had and overcame barriers she has never had to face. She credits her working mother with showing her how to interact with the world. “I wonder, but of course I’ll never know, to what degree it’s because of her that I have had a different approach [to the world].”
Sharrock was also shaped by several school experiences. After two years on the waiting list, at age nine she received a letter from the Anna Scher Theatre inviting her to attend class on Thursday afternoons at 4. On her first day, she stood at the end of a line of children, each saying their name and school. Young Sharrock was so shy, that by the time it was her turn, nervousness had closed her throat completely and when she spoke, no sound came out. Grown Sharrock mimes Scher’s response, gently tapping her own ear.
Through the improvisation exercises she did there, Sharrock learned the importance of good listening and believability. And she lost her shyness, becoming one of those pupils anxious to stand up and share in front of the class — here she mimes an eager student, hand waving wildly in the air.
Because of a social pact with four close friends, Sharrock switched schools for the last two years before university. The five girls all left and each went to a different school. She surprised herself by choosing an all-girls academy. It was very different from her previous school — which she had loved — and had an amazing library. Sharrock gestures around the grand, two-story lounge of the Biltmore; the library seemed this big. “I walked in, and I was like [huge intake of breath]. And it felt like heaven,” she breathes. “And they had an amazing way of saying, ‘These are all yours; these are all for you.’” At a time when school is “all about exams and really trying to find out what you’re interested in,” a single-sex school was the perfect place for her. She learned to be comfortable with who she is, so that when she went to college, “there was an underlying foundation of confidence about who you are and that it’s okay to be you.”
Sharrock honed her comedy chops on Noel Coward plays. In 2004, she was working with the Peter Hall Company at Theatre Royal Bath. They sat down to plan the season. She knew Hall wanted to do Blithe Spirit, but was shocked when he said he wanted her to direct it. She felt wholly unprepared — “I’m about 100 years too young, and this is so not my thing,” she told him. Hall told her to read the play, and then she met with Penelope Keith, who was slated to play Madame Arcati and whom Sharrock describes as a “comic genius and an amazing human being.” She realized she couldn’t turn it down.
Keith taught Sharrock that comedy is all about listening. “It’s all in the rhythm, rhythm and the delivery … If you mess about with it, you miss it.” Neil Simon, she finds, is the American equivalent of Coward, “on a technical basis.” They are both “deceptively simple,” she explains. “It looks so obvious — one person says this, and of course, the next person is going to say that. But it’s layered… and if you start playing the wrong layer, you’re in trouble.”
Listen, listen, listen. Anna Scher would be proud.
The Sunshine Boys, Center Theatre Group at Ahmanson Theatre, 135 North Grand Ave., LA 90012. Opens Wednesday. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 pm and 6:30 pm, through Nov 3. Tickets: $30-95. www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets. 213-628-2772.
**All Sunshine Boys Production photos by Craig Schwartz.