In an interview, the directors of two different productions — Matt Pfeiffer at Theatre Horizon and Damon Bonetti at Hedgerow Theatre — provide a look at the challenges of directing this fast-paced piece in which, by stripping the cast down to four actors, the melodrama takes a turn for the comic. The play is based on the thriller by Alfred Hitchcock (1935), which was adapted from the novel by John Buchan (1915). Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon originally adapted Hitchcock's version as a four-actor stage production in 1995. Patrick Barlow's rewrite of the Corble-Dimon adaptation, first performed in 2005, served as the basis for the two local productions.
HE: What were your overarching goals for your production of The 39 Steps?
Matt Pfeiffer: I wanted it to be a valentine to live theater and a celebration of movies. I love cinema. I love noir. Film puts us in those exciting places easily, and I loved the idea of capturing that energy using stage language.
Damon Bonetti: I wanted an entertaining, exciting, and funny show, paying attention to detail and clarity with what we were trying to achieve, moment to moment, in both the acting and the technical aspects of this seemingly simple, but deceptively complicated show.
HE: Matt, could you tell us a bit more about your use of “stage language”?
Pfeiffer: Stage language for me would be physical creation in space and invention outside of technology. A log on a chair with an actor warming his hands is the fire, whereas in film, you’d just film a fire.
HE: Damon, what makes this play “deceptively complicated”?
Bonetti: You look at the stage. There’s just a couple of ladders and boxes, but in reality the tech involved in the show can be massive: a whole machinery made up of props, lighting, sound, and the important but invisible theater staff members who work behind the scenes.
Comedy is hard — timing is of the essence, among the actors and among the tech, and between the actors and the tech. Without perfect timing and teamwork, 39 Steps could not exist.
HE: What did you try to avoid under all circumstances?
Bonetti: Unintended sloppiness and heavy-handedness. When rehearsing a show like this, you come up with a hundred comic moments, but you can’t have them all. I select those that work, the ones that are consistently funny and inventive. The cheap joke has its place in a play like this, but only so many times.
A genuine comic moment occurs in the play when Hannay sees Pamela again. The lights change, the "Pamela theme" plays, and then all goes back to normal when she disappears — leaving Hannay speechless for a moment.
When the Psycho knife appears in the Professor-Hannay fight, the audience experiences another comic moment. Even though it’s a cheap joke, it's another Hitchcock reference, and we get it.
Pfeiffer: I tried to resist the urge to answer problems with conventional staging solutions. For example, we could've used a bed, a fireplace, or steering wheel for the car. But instead, I really wanted all of the objects to come from what was available. It was in for a penny, in for a pound. Once you make the train out of boxes, you need to stay true to that aesthetic. For example, Hannay and Pamela get stuck on a stile. We could’ve just built a stile or fence-type set piece. Instead, we kept with the spirit of invention and made it out of two ladders and a stick.
HE: What were your greatest challenges in directing this play, given that it's based on a famous film?
Bonetti: I'm surprised that I'd say over half the audience has never seen this movie. As an actor in the Horizon production, I felt the ghost of Robert Donat looming, but you have to let that go and realize that, although the plot is basically the same, the tone is completely different — still in the spirit of Hitchcock, but more with the flavor of farce. If anything, I tried to find more ways to fit Hitchcock into the show.
We added the Bates Motel to the shadow sequence, a pair of scissors (Dial M for Murder) in another place, and music from Torn Curtain, Saboteur, and North by Northwest.
Pfeiffer: Keeping the momentum going forward. It's a hard pace to maintain when you don't have a camera to cut to someplace else. Creating an environment of controlled chaos and a breakneck speed is a challenge. Music and lights were essential. Getting the timing of all of that just right was difficult.
The choreography came out of trial and error. You figure out the pace of a scene and experiment to see which would be the clearer or funnier version of the physical action. There were three stagehands who were essential to executing the show.
HE: Looking back at the first few plays that you directed in your career, how would you evaluate your work on The 39 Steps?
Pfeiffer: I am an actors’ director. Early on, I was mostly concerned with performances. I worried less about the visual tone of a production or the overall aesthetic choices. 39 Steps requires a sense of visual rhythm and timing. It's only after years of working that my sense of those choices has become intuitive. 39 Steps tested that intuition severely. It was good to discover I could handle it.
Bonetti: 39 Steps is an anomaly for me. Having just acted in it, I was influenced by that previous production. Matt Pfeiffer is a great director. At the Hedgerow Theatre, we rented a lot of the same set pieces, and hired the same costume designer, Janus Stefanowicz.
I think I created a good balance between giving actors what they need to succeed, while I, as a director, stayed aware throughout the process and provided hands-on guidance in the important technical aspects of the show.
HE: Could you give us some examples of the “good balance” which you created?
Bonetti: I made sure to create a space where the actors were allowed to experiment with their own visions of the roles without being too influenced by the great work of Genevieve Perrier, Adam Altman, and Steve Pacek, who played in the recent Theatre Horizon production. Different actors, different production.
But still, the knowledge of where the tricky moments in the script are guided me through harder moments. For example, for the train sequence we wanted to create a sense of movement, excitement, and danger with the tech. I therefore had a lot of input for Jared Reed [lights] and Stefán Arnarson [sound] on what the show needed.
HE: Damon, looking back at your many years of acting and directing, how do you see your development as a director?
Bonetti: What has helped me the most as a director is being a professor — I teach at Drexel, Rutgers-Camden, and occasionally Rowan. Going back to the basics of action-oriented, moment-to-moment work has helped me to understand how to collaborate with actors and how to "put on a play."
I'm also a musician. Sound is important to me, not just the music, but the musicality of a piece of drama — the rhythm that makes a play come alive. I even dabbled in photography, setting up the shot, the picture you want to capture.
HE: Matt, after these many years of acting and directing, how did you develop that extra sense of “intuition” in 39 Steps?
Pfeiffer: Trial and error. As an actor performing comedy over the course of a production, you see how the audience reacts to jokes. You learn timing. As a director, it was about seeing if the internal process I discovered as an actor was translatable. It was my outside eye which allowed me to develop an even sharper understanding of how physical choices, the use of space, and the timing of technical aspects all contributed to the storytelling.
HE: Thank you both for having taken many more than 39 steps in directing two memorable shows. If only Mr. Hitchcock could have seen your creative interpretations.
For Steve Cohen's review of the Theatre Horizon production, click here.
What, When, Where
Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, Adapted by Patrick Barlow from the movie by Alfred Hitchcock and from the novel by John Buchan.
Hedgerow Theatre production, directed by Damon Bonetti, through August 17, 2014. 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, PA. 610-565-4211 or http://www.hedgerowtheatre.org/.
Theatre Horizon production, directed by Matt Pfeiffer, closed June 8, 2014. 401 DeKalb St., Norristown, PA. 610-283-2230 or http://www.theatrehorizon.org/.