In Part I of a series of interviews with the director and cast of Laurel Mill Playhouse’s Sweeney Todd meet Director TJ Lukacsina.
Joel: Please introduce yourself and tell our readers where they may have seen you on local stages before and what shows you have directed and roles you have appeared in and played.
TJ Lukacsina: My name is TJ Lukacsina and I’ve only been a performer on stage in high school. I started music directing in 2007 at Hammond High School in Columbia, MD and directed my first show (White Christmas) at Laurel Mill Playhouse, December 2014. I’ve also been a member of the Washington Redskins Marching Band (playing tuba) the past 4 years.
Why did you want to direct Sweeney Todd? Have you directed or appeared in other productions?
Sweeney Todd has been a bucket list show for some time. I enjoy doing a show themed with the time of year and with Halloween and Friday the 13th falling during the run I found this extremely appealing. The music is beautiful, the story is intriguing and the production has so much potential to become a wonderful work of art.
How is this production similar or different from other productions you have directed, appeared in, or seen?
I’ve seen Sweeney Todd a few times and the productions have always been true to the story and been great but I’ve felt it has always lacked the “thriller” aspect listed in the subtitle. Knowing the intimate 65 seat theatre at Laurel Mill Playhouse, I’m hoping to use the space to really pull the audience out of their comfort zone and bring the thriller from the subtitle to the stage. I want to scare people and give them the unexpected.
What have been some of the challenges directing this production in the Laurel Mill Playhouse space?
The stage is very small (20’ X 17’) and doesn’t lend the space to build a set with a second story. Creating the illusion of a chute to send the bodies down has been the topic of much discussion. Also finding the path to travel to establish each location so that it’s consistent across the show.
How would you describe Stephen Sondheim’s score?
Sondheim’s score is beautiful and horribly difficult as well. Sondheim gives you what you need to hear and not what you want to hear. Throughout the process, if ever we had a question about stage directions or character motivation we would look to the score for what Sondheim was telling us to do.
What is your favorite song in the show and why?
I thinking my favorite song in the show is “Epiphany” because of how intense it is. We have Sweeney who has been brooding, obsessing and planning rather calmly so far. He is a pot that has been simmering and when his obsession of the judge doesn’t go as planned we see the pot boil over and Sweeney blow his lid. We need to Sweeney reach his revenge and to be robbed of it we understand his frustration but then he turns on the audience. This point we realize even more the depths of his madness and obsession that not even the audience can stand in his way to get what he wants.
What have been the most challenging scenes/songs to stage and direct?
Funny enough we spent about 15 minutes on two words. “A customer!” We’ve established back stories with all of our characters, their relationships over the past 20 years and their interactions with each other, including characters who no longer exist (Lovett’s dear late Albert). Once we established the history then we had to decide whether or not they would recognize each other, if so would they acknowledge each other based on their goals. How would Mrs. Lovett deliver those lines within the vision of the show? There were other moments in the show where we spent time but this moment was very crucial.
Introduce us to your cast and tell us what you admire most about their performances?
The cast has been extremely enthusiastic when it comes to learning about these characters. They have taken the initiative to collaborate with each other to create a cohesive back story to weaves these characters into a sordid past. I admire their spirit and commitment to this production. They all come to rehearsals ready to work and eager to learn how to be better. The question I get the most is, “Is there anything I can do better?” Their drive and determination to make this show great helps keep my focus as we build the set and the world of Sweeney Todd.
My Assistant Director, Christopher Kabara, is also a member of the Neglected (ensemble) and has been there throughout the entire process in developing the look and feel of our production. He’s usually the key to describing something from an actor’s point of view of how or why I have told them to do something on stage. A true asset and key in making this production successful.
What does Sweeney Todd have to say to modern theatregoers? Why do you think it is still so popular?
Sweeney Todd is still quite relevant to modern theatre goers; it was groundbreaking when it was first staged on Broadway and yet there is still nothing like it among the repertoire. It still speaks to us about our obsessions with celebrities, technology and specifically our phones. Sweeney’s connection with his razors are similar to some of our connection with our phones, Facebook, Instagram, etc. It’s still popular because it’s a massive work of art. The writing, music, tone and humor represent some of the best writing in theatre.
What is your favorite kind of pie?
Strawberry Rhubarb, bitter and sweet with a bright red color.
Tell us about your musical director and how many musicians will be playing the score?
Because of the size of the theatre, our music director has reduced the size of our pit to seven members, comprised of piano, percussion/synth, French horn, violin, cello, bass and a reed player. Our greatest challenge was working out the best instrumentation to create an eerie quality that strings and reeds can provide while having a beautiful horn shine through with sweeping musical lines.
How have the designers brought your vision to life? Introduce them for us.
Our Scenic Artist, Andrea Bush, has drilled me with many questions about my vision and as we’re currently in set construction she stops and asks my opinion often. She is dedicated to the show and also very much to the final product; that it lives up to the book and score.
My Stage Manager, Lili Evans, has been great to search out the right props and keep everyone involved in helping. She’s been a true gem at keeping things in the right direction.
Lynn Kellner, my head costumer, approached me with millions of amazing ideas for costumes after doing much research. Not only are her ideas practical and beautiful, they all are justified by the characters’ arcs in the show and have a hidden theme to each piece (hint: think Star Trek red shirts).
My photographer, John Cholod, has such enthusiasm and a sense of eagerness to capture the entire process. He’s doing a fantastic job showing us the actors and the characters. He really has an eye for watching this process.
If you could write a ‘happier’ ending what would it be?
If I wanted a happy ending, I’d have Sweeney not recognize the Beggar Woman and they continue to burn the bodies of the Judge, Beadle, and eventually Toby and Lovett convinces Sweeney to run away together and live out her fantasy.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays October 23, 2015 through November 15, 2015 at Laurel Mill Playhouse – 508 Main Street, in Laurel, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 617-9906, or purchase them online.
Meet the Cast of Laurel Mill Playhouse’s ‘Sweeney Todd’: Part 1: Director TJ Lukacsina.
Meet the Cast of Laurel Mill Playhouse’s ‘Sweeney Todd’: Part 2: Chad Wheeler.
Meet the Cast of Laurel Mill Playhouse’s ‘Sweeney Todd’: Part 3: Kay-Megan Washington.
Meet the Cast of Laurel Mill Playhouse’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ Part 4: Carolyn Freel.