I saw The 39 Steps last week and laughed so hard my jaw was hurting. Most of these guffaws came from watching Jason Lott and Evan Casey wear so many ‘hats’ and watching them running around the stage, and changing from one character into another. I asked Evan and Jason about playing those dozens of roles in the show and their The 39 Steps experience at Olney Theatre Center.
Joel: Who is/are your favorite character(s) that you ‘became’ in The 39 Steps?
Evan: If I had to pick only one it would have to be ‘Professor Jordan.’ Rarely do you get to play an eccentric, diabolical arch-enemy, plotting and scheming for world domination. The final scene at the end of Act One was always one of my favorite to play. All that plus an over-the-top death scene any actor would…well…die for.
Jason: I loved them all. I feared some, but loved them all… If I had to choose, though, I’d have to say that ‘Mr. Memory’ was near the top of the list. He had such a wide-eyed innocence and didn’t really understand what a gift his photographic memory/capacity for storing information was. I love that we saw Mr. Memory come out of his shell as the play progressed, only to see him become a memory in the end… It’s the best of comedy and tragedy.
Close behind was ‘Mrs. MacGarrigle,’ the hotelier who sees love in every thing and, I’m sure, spends her few free minutes reading Scottish Highlands romance novels… And, even though he’s never named anything other than Constable, I had a blast playing the policeman who does the train chase. I loved doing that sequence…
Since you played so many characters and ran around so much on the stage, what did you do during the ‘run’ that helped you keep up your energy?
Evan: I am always trying to eat well and exercise, regardless of the show I am doing, but for this show it was particularly important. I needed to make sure I had the energy and stamina to make it through such a physical show on a daily basis, so there was rarely a day when I missed out on some sort of physical exercise, whether at the gym, or running outside. Additionally, I made sure that my pre-show meals gave me quality fuel to get me through the show. The last thing you want is to be weighed down by a giant burger or four slices of pizza midway through a train chase!
Jason: I don’t get a chance to sleep much, so I have to rely on things other than being “well-rested” to keep up my energy. Hitting the gym before or between shows helped, as it woke me up and got the blood pumping. If the weather was nice, I would go for a run on the trails near Olney. I could put in a 5K (or more if my legs wanted to) and that gave me a nice endorphin rush. If that didn’t work, a small shot of espresso did the trick…
What also helped was, literally, the audience. There’s a rush of excitement and energy that comes off the crowd and it helps you get lost in the world of the play. It feeds you and fuels you, until you go off-stage and want to collapse in a sweaty mess on the floor…
What were some of the craziest and unforeseen and unexpected moments you had on the stage during the run?
Evan: Every night my death would take new and unexpected turns. The basic physical framework for what the death would be was in place, but the specifics of it would change and shift based on what particular audience members would be giving me to work with. There was one evening, when I chose an audience member to have a particularly spastic death moment with, she shouted to the other actors still on-stage “Shoot him again!” The audience roared in response, and just as that laughter was abating, I responded with “How DARE you upstage me!” Which prompted an even bigger response. Needless to say, it was the perfect meeting of actor and character in that moment.
Jason: For as crazy and rambunctious as the show was, the on-stage antics were all either scripted or directed. So, the unexpected moments usually came from the audience. My favorite was an audience reaction during the final Mr. Memory/Compere scene. Mr. Memory had just been shot and in that quiet moment, an audience member said, shocked, “Oh no! Not Mr. Memory!”
What did you learn about yourselves as performers during this run?
Evan: I learned how much prep work I have to put in pre-rehearsal on a show as technically challenging as this one. With so many character switches, accent shifts, and physicality involved, it was immensely important to come into rehearsal with a solid foundation for where Jason and I were taking these characters. You always want to come into rehearsal with a sense of your character, but in this case we needed to have a sense of more than a dozen characters, each with their own posture, dialect, vocal style, not to mention objectives and actions.
Jason: Drill, baby, drill… Because of the precise nature of the comedy, each moment and look had to be choreographed and perfected. If someone was looking the wrong direction or blocking a light, a joke would fall flat. The best way to make sure each look and movement is precise: drill, drill, drill… You need to have those exact movements engrained in your muscle memory, just in case a cell phone goes off or a falling water bottle distracts you, but you also need to be open to new stimuli that’s coming in from the audience and your fellow actors. You need to be able to adjust the timing in the moment. Drilling the sequences so they are second nature allows you to do that.
What fond memories will you take with you performing at Olney Theatre with your co-stars Jeffries Thaiss and Susan Lynskey, and what did you like the most about their performances?
Evan: Any show that provides this much joy to an audience is a fun one to do, but it’s also wonderful because of the sense of fun you have on stage with your fellow actors. We call them “plays” for a reason, and it is rare that you get to play in a show as much as we do every night. Susan, Jeffries, and Jason each brought their own unique fun and joy into the process and it shown through in every performance. What I will miss most about working with my fellow actors is that sense of play, and in turn joy, we would get every performance from working with each other, relishing every hilarious moment.
Jason: We were incredibly fortunate to have an incredibly talented ensemble, crew, and design and directorial team. Everyone worked together so well and I really felt like we were a family coming together each night to put on the show. It was a wonderful feeling of support and friendship.
Jeffries nailed the bored Brit whose stiff upper lip was finally drawn into a smile. It was great to see that character come alive each night, especially when his political rally speech really got the audience whipped up. And, as a bonus, he let me smack him over the head with a fish! How great is that? He was the perfect straight man to the rest of us silly fools…
I loved Susan’s deep transformations into all three of her characters. It was fantastic to see each one so fully inhabited. One of my favorite moments was during the final Mr. Memory/Compere scene. I had just been shot and was lying on the floor, slowly dying. Susan was kneeling above me and I had a great view of her face as she discovered that Hannay loved her. The surprise and truth on her face each night was an absolute delight.
I can’t help but mention what a privilege it was to work with Evan as a fellow Clown. I couldn’t have asked for a better scene partner. From pre-rehearsal meetings to the final performance, I knew I could count on him to be fully invested, dedicated, and always working to tweak our moments so they were even better and sharper than they had been the night before. And watching him die a new and glorious death as the Professor each performance is the closest I’ve coming to cracking on stage in awhile… Fantastic…
The 39 Steps plays through May 20, 2012 at The Olney Theatre Center – 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.