In Part 1 of a series of interviews with the director and cast of Oliver! at Adventure Theatre MTC, playing at Round House Theatre, meet Director Joseph Ritsch.
Joel: Why did you want to direct Oliver! at ATMTC?
Joseph: When I first was hired as Co-Producing Artistic Director, Michael Bobbitt was extremely supportive and went out of his way to make me feel welcomed into the regional Artistic Director community. I had certainly heard of the work he was doing at Adventure Theatre and knew actors loved working at Adventure. I had expressed interest in guest directing for him, and soon after he offered me Oliver!
What is ‘Steampunk’ and how is this ‘Steampunk’ production different than the standard production of Oliver! that most audiences may be expecting? In what scenes will ‘Steampunk’ be prevalent?
One of the goals of this particular project for Adventure Theatre is growing their audiences who tend to “age out” at around 8 years old. I wanted to find an in for young audience members to be engaged with the production. We all know younger audiences seem to be a very difficult audience to capture, particularly teens. In my initial research I came across a prototype for a Steampunk video game set in London’s underground. I thought it would be a really interesting aesthetic for Oliver!. And in our virtual world of online identities and the gaming phenomenon an Oliver! That looked like a Steampunk video game could be very engaging to a younger audience. It would be a “way in” for them, to relate to an aesthetic world they would easily see and embrace in the gaming world. The Steampunk element is really present in the costumes designed by Julie Potter. Julie and I have worked together on several projects, she really gets me and the collaboration has been fantastic.
Have you ever directed a production of Oliver! before? Was ‘Steampunking’ this production your choice from the beginning?
No I have not directed OLIVER! Before. In regard to “Steampunking” the show, this choice with Oliver! was not random. Yes I was going for a modern “in” for younger audience but the aesthetic of the style really works for Oliver!. The industrialization of the Victorian period actually really tips the hat towards some of the major themes in the Dickens’ novel. It’s a bad dream and a fairy tale all at the same time. The fantasy element that Steampunk layers onto the Victorian era really makes Oliver! live in both the period and outside of it at the same time, Similar to the two worlds of Oliver!, the underground world of the criminals and the idyllic world of the upper class.
How can today’s audiences relate to Oliver!?
As a director I always ask, “Why this play now? Why Oliver!! now?” Of course it’s never a bad thing to revisit an award-winning classic that has been moving audiences for fifty-five years, but what insights does this musical adaptation of Dickens’ Victorian London have for us in our modern times? I was so taken by Oliver’s continual ability to find the joy in life even in the most dire of circumstances. There is a light in this young man that shines bright no matter how dark his world gets. There is something so beautifully hopeful in that, and in today’s complicated world of 2015, such hope is indeed a welcomed necessity.
You have a huge cast. What has impressed you most about them and their performances?
Yes a cast of close to 30! The cast really seems to enjoy each other. And the adults have really embraced the young cast. I have been most impressed with the level of focus and professionalism of the young actors. They are very inspiring, and they take the production and their job very seriously.
How would you describe Rick Hammerly’s Fagin? What advice and suggestion have you given him that has enriched his performance? What has impressed you the most about Rick’s performance?
When Michael Bobbitt and I decided that Fagin and Nancy would be the Equity roles in the production I said I want Rick Hammerly for Fagin and Felicia Curry for Nancy. There was no question. Every actor brings their own to each character they play. I think we can put unfair expectations on actors when they are cast in what may be considered an “iconic” role, such as Fagin made famous by the late Ron Moody. Rick is a consummate comedian, so the humor in Fagin is where Rick shines for sure. But Rick has also been willing to look at the darker side of Fagin as well, which I think is very important to the storytelling. I have been really impressed with the relationship Rick as developed with the young ensemble. They are CRAZY about him. And this will be invaluable in the storytelling of the relationships onstage between Fagin and the thieves. He is has really created a family with the young actors and it’s quite wonderful.
What have been some of the challenges you have encountered in the performing space and how did you resolve them?
Working in a space that is not your own is always challenging. It’s new to everyone involved. It also has been a very short rehearsal process including tech. As a director you have to use the rehearsal period wisely. I had to focus on the big picture and the overall direction and aesthetic of the production. I also had to choose which details were most important. It was about weighing which moments were key to the storytelling at large. And everyone in the cast had to work quickly on their feet to build characters and establish relationships.
How did your designers, and choreographer and musical director bring your vision to the stage and has your vision changed since auditions and performances have begun?
I have been blessed with a stunning creative team. I believe in instincts, and not only with actors and the choices they are driven to make. I feel the same way about the creative team. We all have to be be operating in the same world that we have decided to create based on the initial vision. It’s a gift for a director to have designers, choreographer, musical director, and an assistant director who can be free within the structure you have set up as a director. And as a director you have to be able to let a choice that might be a better one than your own rise to the surface. For me it really is about shaping and sculpting all the elements in a cohesive world. You need to set up the rules, yet be flexible enough to break them.
How would you describe the score from Oliver!and what’s your favorite song and why?
What more can I say? It speaks for itself. It has some of the most iconic works in the history of musical theatre. “As Long As He Needs Me” is my favorite. Not just for the beauty of the song itself, but because it’s complicated. It is a love song sung by a woman in an abusive relationship who doesn’t see her own demise coming. It’s beautiful, and sad, and difficult all at the same time. It’s complicated and layered.
What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing the Steampunk version of OLIVER!?
For me the essence of theatre is about a group of strangers having a shared experience in a very personal way. Hopefully there are many things that audiences will take away. I leave that to them.
Oliver! plays from July 24, 2015 through August 16, 2015 at Adventure Theatre MTC performing at Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, purchase them at the box office, or online.