Meet the Director and Cast of American University’s ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’: Meet Director Carl Menninger

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In our series of interviews with the director and cast of American University’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown meet Director Carl Menninger.

Director Carl Menninger. Photo courtesy of American University.
Director Carl Menninger. Photo courtesy of American University.

Joel: Carl, tell us about your position and your responsibilities at American University. Introduce yourself and describe your position and your responsibilities?

Carl: I am an Assistant Professor of Theatre and Musical Theatre at American University. I teach theatre courses, advise students and direct productions.

What does the theatre program and Department of performing Arts at AU have to offer students who wish to make theatre his/her career?

I believe we have a strong program that is both academically and artistically rigorous. Students often ask us if we do a showcase and bring the seniors to NYC. I think we do something better. We teach students in how to run their acting career like a business. I co-authored a book, entitled Minding the Edge: Strategies for a Fulfilling Successful Careen as an Actor – with a successful New York actor, Lori Hammel. It is a guide for actors looking for the “secret to success.” There is no secret but there are lots of habits and behaviors that are critical to success. We use the book to help introduce students to the realities of a life in show biz. The knowledge they gain from this course will serve them whether they choose to work in Chicago, LA, New York, DC or anywhere else in the country.

Why pick a musical that did poorly on Broadway and closed after a short run?

Our current theatre season is entitled, Passport to the Arts: Plays from Around the World. While the writer and composer of the musical version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown are American the source material is the film by Spanish Director/Writer Pedro Almodovar.

The book by Jeffrey Lane (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) is fairly faithful to the film. The score is by the talented and accomplished composer David Yazbek (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Full Monty). The original Broadway production starred some of musical theatres most famous names (Sherie Rene Scott, Laura Benanti, Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Danny Burstein) and was directed by Bartlett Sher (Light in the Piazza, South Pacific, and The Bridges of Madison County). The critics were not kind to it and subsequently it ran only 69 performances.

What do you think worked well with the Broadway production, and what do you think did not work well?

In spite of what the critics said about the production, I believe that the script and score are excellent. After reading reviews and looking at clips it seemed apparent that the set design and technical aspects attempted to add to the confusion, misunderstandings, and missed connections that are central to the story. Instead, I believe they overwhelmed the production. While the story takes place in many locations and includes a motorcycle and taxi chase scene through the streets of Madrid, the massive scenic elements seemed more of a distraction than an aid in telling the story.

What is your vision for this new production, and how have your designers brought this vision to life?

With that lesson in mind, I set out to bring the story front and center and find a physical environment that supported the chaos of the story rather than detracted from it. The play is a puzzle that Pepa (the play’s protagonist) must piece together. This puzzle concept brought me to conceive the image of a Rubik’s Cube – a 3-D puzzle. A Rubik’s cube is a conjoined mass of blocks rather than a many piece jigsaw. Every twist of a block possesses the possibility of a solution. So, I thought, why not create a unit set that functions in a similar way?  Meghan Raham, the set designer, transformed that image into a unit set that feels like a Rubik’s Cube.  It is a series of rectangles and squares stacked on three levels.

To achieve this metaphor, parts of the set slide or open up (like a puzzle) and allow us to change locations without moving massive sets. While the props (e.g. telephones and answering machines) are accurate to the period, the use of cubes and benches for furniture carries the puzzle metaphor. To reinforce this theme, my colleague, Robb Hunter, and I staged some of the larger numbers in a way that reinforced this puzzle-like quality of the play. And, we used the movement of characters primarily, rather than set pieces, to communicate the chaotic world of Almodovar’s Madrid.

As a result, I believe we addressed many of the issues in the play by streamlining the physical environment while telling a complicated story without confusing or overwhelming the audience.

What do you admire most about your cast?

The students are smart and talented and work beautifully as an ensemble. They are supportive, positive.

How do you describe the score that David Yazbek wrote for the show? What’s your favorite song) and why?

The songs run the gamut from emotionally powerful and moving to witty and humorous. David Yazbek (The Full Monty,and  Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) wrote an outstanding score. I don’t have a favorite song,but “Model Behavior” might be one of the funniest songs ever written for a musical.

What have been the biggest challenges you have had regarding directing in the Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre space?

It’s a wonderful performance space. I thoroughly enjoy the collaborative process with my colleagues who work at the Greenberg. Like any theatre it has its limitations but every challenge invites us to think outside the box and be more creative.

The women of 'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.' Photo by Murugi Thande.
The women of ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.’ From left to right: Linda Bard, Kendra McNulty, Izzy Smelkinson, Kendall Helblig, and  Nia Calloway.

What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing The Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown? 

At one point in the play someone says to the main character “That’s how God works sometimes. You think you’re praying for one thing but He knows better.” It’s a wonderful reminder that we can’t control everything in our lives and if we try we might find ourselves “on the verge of a nervous breakdown.”

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown plays from October 16- 25, 2014 at American University’s Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre – 4200 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 885-ARTS, or purchase them online.

Performance Dates:
October 16-18, 2014 at 8 PM
October 24-25, 2014 at 8 PM
October 18, 25, 2014 at 2 PM 

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Joel Markowitz
Joel Markowitz is the Publisher and Editor of DCMetroTheaterArts. He founded the site with his brother Bruce to help promote the vast riches of theatre and the arts in the DC Metro area that includes Maryland, Virginia, and DC theater and music venues, universities, schools, Children's theaters, professional, and community theatres. Joel is an advocate for promoting the 'stars of the future' in his popular 'Scene Stealers' articles. He wrote a column for 5 years called ‘Theatre Schmooze’ and recorded podcast interviews for DC Theatre Scene. His work can also be seen and read on BroadwayStars. Joel also wrote a monthly preview of what was about to open in DC area theatres for BroadwayWorld. He is an avid film and theater goer, and a suffering Buffalo Bills and Sabres fan. Joel was a regular guest on 'The Lunch and Judy Show' radio program starring Judy Stadt in NYC. Joel founded The Ushers Theatre Going Group in the DC area in 1990, which had a 25-year run when it took its final curtain call last year. Joel is a proud member of The American Critics Association.