by Darin Anthony
I have long been a fan of playwright Richard Greenberg’s work and had heard ofÂ The Violet Hour from its roots at South Coast Repertory. I had yet to read or see the play when approached by Hollywood Food Chain this summer to direct it.
I was immediately struck by its wit, intelligence and joie de vivre. I felt it was a perfect fit for me artistically. The play is full of passionate characters who are looking for the best life has to offer but, like all of us, they are unsure just how their actions will affect their hopes and desires.
The challenge was that I had already committed to another show within the same time frame, and I would be editing my first feature film at the same time. If that were not enough, I was also expecting the birth of my second child. I felt very much like the torn hero of The Violet Hour. “What should I do?”
My exceptional wife helped me make part of the decision by assuring me that our baby, who is due Feb 9, would be late and I wouldn’t miss any tech week rehearsals. Still the other show and the editing would prove truly challenging by adding a third gig. However, the opportunity to do this show really pulled at me. So with my wife’s blessing and a head full of pride and gusto I accepted the offer.
I see The Violet Hour as a fever dream of youth and potential. The main character is modeled on Maxwell Perkins, one of the greatest publishers of the 20th Century. HeÂ struggles between his professional and personal life, loyalty to his college friend (based on a F. Scott Fitzgerald type) and his new lover (loosely based on Josephine Baker). At a pivotal moment in the show, our hero John Seavering says he feels like the world is spinning and he’s standing still.
I really responded to that imagery and used that as a jumping off point for the design of the show. With Joel Daavid as my scenic designer, we asked ourselves “What could move?” We loved the idea of the set actually moving under the actors’ feet. The economic reality of 99-seat theater made us back off that idea, but I was still fighting for movement and surprise in the set. Joel responded with the image of book pages as wallpaper.
We added the idea of popping light behind them and having a few placed so it looked as if they were being blown away. Then we came up with paper that rises slowly over the course of Act 2 from the floor to the ceiling until it creates a column. This column then comes crashing down at a pivotal moment. This was the kind of movement we needed to help reveal the struggle at the heart of the play.
The other element I wanted to incorporate in the design was the shifting of time. For this I turned to our costume designer Shon Le Blanc. We decided when time starts to go off and the world is swirling about John, the clothing should reflect that change. So for John and his sidekick Gidger, we added accents of violet to the costumes for Act 2. For the other three characters Shon made doubles of their costumes that are predominately violet so when time shifts back the clothing also switches back. Shon added another little twist which I found lovely: each character would retain a single piece of violet on their clothing after the world gets set right, because they were all slightly changed for having gone through the process.
Sound designer Doug Newell’s original compositions and keen design along with lighting designer Luke Moyer’s visual sense elevate the mundane to magnificent. Together they created the final important effect, which is the tearing of the fabric of time. These designers really outdid themselves.
With my design team in place, I set out to find a cast that could help fill out my vision. Travis Schuldt had performed in the first production I directed in Los Angeles and had most recently played a supporting role in the film I directed last summer. I knew he had the strength, charm and intelligence I needed for my hero. Gidger required an extremely facile and articulate actor and I was thrilled to get John Billingsley. Karole Foreman came in as the sexy, strong and emotionally available actress that I needed to play Jessie. I had never met Karole, and she has been a revelation. Peter Larney and Lisa Valerie Morgan round out our wonderful cast.
With these game actors to help me reveal this play, we started rehearsal in early December.Â The play proved very dense and mysterious in some ways. There are many clues inÂ Greenberg’s script, but we questioned whether there was more than one way to look at some of the ideas. I was lucky enough to haveÂ the author as somewhat of a resource, to help us here and there, though our first exchange ended with, “Good luck, it’s a real hard play.”
The process proved enlightening and challenging for me. Every actor you work with is different, and you have to adjust your style to a certain degree for each situation; however, in this situation I found I didn’t always have the right vocabulary to work with a few of the actors. I root my work in Stanislavski and use his language but one actor doesn’t work like that. So I am continually trying to come up with ideas and images that will continue to activate his process. Another actor is a dogged perfectionist (and God love him for it) who has me addressing scenes in a way I hadn’t explored. But as with all casts, my task was to unite them as a cohesive unit, and I think we have done that.
It is now tech week, and we are bringing all of the technical elements into the world we created in the rehearsal room. This is always a delicate time. I am trying to maintain the joy and intimacy we created in rehearsal with the rigors and timing of the design elements. The results after a day and half have been beyond my expectations. We have created a beautiful amber, brown and gold world in which the rich and lively characters can exist. There are a few special effects we are struggling to create, but I have all assurances that we will.
Looking back on the decision to do this show, I am struck by the similarity of myÂ path to our hero’s.Â He boldly decides at the end to publish both books, because in his gut he feels like that’s the right thing to do, much like I decided to direct both plays. In the play, John Pace Seavering goes on to become “the beau ideal of American publishing.” As for me”¦only the future will tell.
The Violet Hour, presented by Hollywood Food Chain Productions in association with Elephant Stageworks, opens Feb. 12; plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 3 pm; through March 13. Tickets: $30. Lillian Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; 323.960.1054 or plays411.com/violethour.