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San Diego Stages Take a Comedic Turn

"The Mystery of Irma Vep," a play with eight characters and only two actors, runs at The Old Globe Theatre through September 6.

Above: "The Mystery of Irma Vep," a play with eight characters and only two actors, runs at The Old Globe Theatre through September 6.

“Noises Off” runs through September 6 at Cygnet Theater in Old Town.

“Time Flies” runs through August 16 at New Village Arts in Carlsbad as part of their Summer Comedy Festival.

“The Mystery of Irma Vep” runs through September 6 at the Old Globe Theatre.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. In the heart of summer vacation time, and in the middle of a thoroughly depressing recession, local theatre companies have wisely decided this is not exactly the time to stage "Oedipus Rex." Comedy is the star of the hour, with the Old Globe, the La Jolla Playhouse, Cygnet Theatre and New Village Arts all running comic plays. Light entertainment is aimed at giving the audience a good old time at the theatre, and enticing people to splurge just a little for a pleasant night out. While the object may be the same, the various plays feature different types of comedies, calling for different styles of acting and direction. It may look easy, but as we'll all soon learn it takes skill, and talent to make an audience laugh out loud night after night. Joining us to talk about the subtleties of the comic touch are my guests. Rosina Reynolds, a local actor and director. She's currently performing in Cygnet Theatre's production of "Noises Off." Rosina, welcome.

ROSINA REYNOLDS (Actor/Director): Thank you, Maureen. Good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Joshua Everett Johnson, let me say it again, Joshua Everett Johnson is the associate artistic director of New Village Arts. He's directing and performing in their production of "Time Flies." Joshua, welcome.

JOSHUA EVERETT JOHNSON (Director/Actor): Thank you. Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And Jeffrey Bender is one of two actors in the Old Globe Theatre's production of "The Mystery of Irma Vep." Jeff, hi.

JEFFREY BENDER (Actor): Hi. Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you're all in different kinds of comedies. I wonder if you would perhaps briefly describe the show and the style of comedy that you're in. And, Rosina, why don't we start with you?

REYNOLDS: Well, I'm in "Noises Off" by Michael Frayn. It's a farce, a three act farce. And each act takes place on the same date but at – the same day of the week, so to speak, but at different locations and through a course of twelve weeks. So the first act takes place in a dress rehearsal while they're frantically getting a show up in preparation for an opening the next night. The second act takes place halfway through the run backstage where the whole set is rotated and you see the back stage, and everything is falling apart. The fights and the personality conflicts and the vengeances that possibly could go on within a show are played out backstage while the play itself is being given a true rendering onstage, which is now way up backstage, off stage.

CAVANAUGH: And if I recall, it's absolutely frenetic.

REYNOLDS: It's absolutely crazy because there's nothing said. The only language you hear is the play being performed onstage. So everything is in this exaggerated mime. Everything is performed without sound at the front of the stage. And then finally, the third act is onstage again at the end of this long, arduous run and all the mayhem of backstage is spilling onto stage onstage, so during a performance, things start to fall apart.

CAVANAUGH: And Joshua, "Time Flies." What kind of a comedy is that?

JOHNSON: Well, it's a mix of comedies actually. It's six stories in one night and in the book, it's a collection of plays by David Ives, a collection of 13 plays and we've chosen six. And it goes from there's a British murder mystery, there's two people who play, literally, mayflies who learn that they have 24 hours to live. There's kind of a romantic story about a man who thinks he is – who decides to be Degas for a day. There's another romance called "Soap Opera" literally where a man falls in love with a washing machine. And it's this great mix of six stories by the same cast who rotate characters. And it's a little bit campy and – but still, at the same time, very smart. And in the – at the end of each short time of 20 minute play, there's this wonderful philosophy if you choose to like walk away with it kind of underlying whether it's carpe diem or the idea between perfection versus like humanity or – or getting to know who you are and loving that instead of wishing to be someone else. So in the middle of all these great laughs, there are these really interesting storylines that kind of peek through. It's an interesting evening of mix – a mix of stories.

CAVANAUGH: And Jeffrey, not much philosophy in "Irma Vep."

BENDER: No. "The Mystery of Irma Vep" also has a subtitle to it called, I think it says, it's a costume, quick-change act. Where it – There's two actors, myself and John Cariani. We tell the story of "The Mystery of Irma Vep" in that there actually is – there is a story but the plot literally doesn't make sense. And – But it's a mish-mash of different ideas from different movies such as "Rebecca," "Gaslight," "The Curse of the Mummy," all sorts of stuff. It's – Traditionally, I would consider – it's considered to be more of a campy show. It's on the verge of farce but there's no doors for our production because we're doing it in the round.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

BENDER: And the strange thing about doing it in the round is that we have to do a lot of running around the round. And so there's – it's almost a farce in that – and we're coming in a different – different areas of the stage. But there's a lot of references to the 1944 movies and very heightened – a lot of eyeballs, a lot of staring like important moments that are heightened by sound effects such as dun-dun-duh and things like that. And it, like Joshua showed, there's a different – a grouping of different kinds of comedy styles and a lot of physical comedy.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to get to that because, you know, you go out and see – and have a wonderful experience at the theatre, you're laughing out loud, you're having a great time, and you kind of expect, well, maybe the actors are having a wonderful time, too. And maybe you are but in a very different way than the audience is. You know, the old actor's saying 'dying is easy, comedy is hard.' I wonder if you find that to be true? Do you think that comic acting is harder than tragedy, Rosina?

REYNOLDS: Much, much harder. And, well, I mean, it's a different – it's pulling on different muscles from you, as an actor. The thing I think with this kind of comedy that we're doing, farce, is it's very technical. There's a precision to it, a mathematical precision. It's no small coincidence that Michael Frayn wrote "Noises Off" who also wrote "Copenhagen." He applied himself with that same focus and precision and he set out to write the perfect farce. That's what he chose to do. It – The timing is absolutely important and the physicality involved in that timing. Any mis-action, mis-move, any slow generated moment can cause the audience to pause and hold. They respond visually as well as hearing the joke, they also respond to seeing the joke and seeing the physicality of the joke and you can muddy a joke in an instant.

BENDER: Umm-hmm.

REYNOLDS: So there's a necessity of precision, cleanliness of action, specificity of vocal pitch as well as when to cut in on a laugh, when to stop an audience laughing. Because the thing that you have to be careful with with humor is you can't let the audience run away with the show, interestingly enough. So we have to orchestrate the laughs, especially if we know they're building and we know we need to keep the audience sustained because you can also exhaust your audience. They get to the point where they can't laugh anymore because they get tired. So you have to be really cognizant of their state of being as you work through a comedy and you have to be always listening to your audience. It's a very technical business.

CAVANAUGH: Jeffrey, you sound as if there's a lot of similarity in the type of comedy that you're doing with the "Noises Off." Do you find what Rosina is saying is true for you as well?

BENDER: Absolutely. We've found that in – we're doing – we had a final dress rehearsal and our first preview, second preview. We found that the audiences were laughing so much, which is good, but they were getting tired. And we – instead of the directors – the director and the actors got together and we talked about it and we said, well, we should – we should not wear them out. We need to find the bigger laughs instead of giving them all these funny little laughs to make it build up to the bigger laughter. And it is choreographed. It is timed. It's all about timing. And we've found that the audiences really enjoy it but they can get tired and we had to not necessarily pull back but we had to find our moments, find our funny moments that we wanted to just nail them with.

CAVANAUGH: And, Joshua, it sound like your piece "Time Flies" has – have different levels. It's sort of like one piece is funny in a certain way and another piece is perhaps just ironic. How do you find that rhythm?

JOHNSON: Trial and error really. Actually, you know, you rehearse, you try to find the core and the – they all have this kind of overriding style that's similar but, like you said, they all are different also along the way. And I think that you – you just have to feel it out. You throw yourself out there and then you, through the course of rehearsals, pick – kind of find the style of each particular piece. And it's like, I mean, like Rosina was saying, it's really – it's specificity, cleanliness of jokes. You can muddy a joke – I mean, as by just one second of a gesture, literally. And so being really clean and specific and then I think with this group of actors, too, like as they develop their characters and they get to know their roles, that kind of took care of the difference between the six plays. Like as they kind of matured into their performances, I think that alone kind of shifted the color. One is now red and one is now kind of blue, if you will…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

JOHNSON: …or green and yellow. And that kind of took care of itself as we got to know how to speak to each other onstage, you know.

CAVANAUGH: That is Joshua Everett Johnson. He's associate artistic director of New Village Arts and he's directing and performing in the production "Times Flies." Also, my guests are Rosina Reynolds. She is in Cygnet Theatre's production of "Noises Off." And Jeffrey Bender, one of two actors in the Old Globe Theatre's production of "The Mystery of Irma Vep." You know, I know that, in doing some reading, that the Marx brothers used to go out before they did their films and they used to do their acts in front of audiences to find out where the laughs were. And I'm wondering, when you read – when you see it on the page, do you know where the laughs are or do you have to find them in performance? Let me ask you first.

REYNOLDS: I'd say both. I think that when you first read a script as a company, you laugh hysterically at the ones that pop out at you right away. But then as you progress into rehearsal you start to discover moments. And then the director will bring up a suggestion of a moment and you'll explore it and work it out. And sometimes you actually drop things that you feel don't work or are indulgent. There's a very fine line. You have to be very careful with comedy not to be indulgent, to satisfy yourself. It's a very dangerous game because you can become – you can fall in love with a bit and we all know that, as people that perform comedy, you can get very involved with your bits and one of the most important things is keep those bits clean and keep them tight and not become this moment of indulgence, which is very easy to fall into if you're not careful. And the other thing you have to allow yourself to do as a actor is laugh hysterically in the first few rehearsals.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

REYNOLDS: Because you've got to get it out because if you don't, you don't want to be laughing onstage because if you laugh, surprising enough, the audience may not. It's kind of like crying. If you cry onstage, then the audience is going to sit back and let you do it because it's like it makes it comfortable for them. They can pull back and say, okay, you do it. But it's the same with laughing, if you start, I mean, and I don't know about the camp because I'm curious to know about that because I think the danger is if you wink at an audience, especially like in farce, they'll realize that you're kind of working them in some way and they'll pull back. It's very interesting. So for farce, you have to play the truth of the moment completely and the audience will find it funny.

CAVANAUGH: That's a…

REYNOLDS: Because if you, as an actor, find it funny, they're not as inclined to find it funny.

CAVANAUGH: So in other words, the people onstage can't find anything funny in what's going on.

REYNOLDS: No.

CAVANAUGH: It's got to be dead serious so that…

REYNOLDS: It's got to be dead serious.

CAVANAUGH: I see.

REYNOLDS: I mean, you think about the Marx brothers.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

REYNOLDS: They were dead serious. Think about Lucille Ball, dead serious. I mean, there was that "Three – "Three's Company" was just perfect farce on TV.

BENDER: Umm-hmm.

REYNOLDS: Dead serious.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

REYNOLDS: As soon as there's sort of a knowing moment, it sort of fractures and it becomes messy, I think, in farce. I'd be curious to know in camp because there's a lot of winking at the audience isn't there?

BENDER: Oh, absolutely. We actually found that with "Irma Vep" it's actually written into the script that there are moments where you take it to the audience and such-and-such. But we found that the audience doesn't laugh as much when those things happen.

REYNOLDS: No.

BENDER: Actually one night we had – John came out as his maid character, his female character, Jane, and he didn't get a chance to take off his mustache from his previous character of Lord Edgar. And I didn't see it right away, and the audience started laughing then I had to point out that he still had his mustache on, and we – we both lost it but that was a genuine moment.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

BENDER: And – But if the audience thinks that that was staged, it's not as funny because the – they're – it – I don’t…

REYNOLDS: They feel manipulated in that moment.

BENDER: Yeah, they feel – Exactly. They feel manipulated.

REYNOLDS: Yeah.

BENDER: And it's not as funny unless it's – unless you can tell it's genuine and I don't know how to describe how it can be genuine.

REYNOLDS: No, you're right because we had one moment with the pants dropping that was genuine. One of the actors got his robe caught up in his pants when he came on so he came on pantless. I mean, he's supposed to have his pants around his ankles but his robe was supposed to be over it. But somehow in his quick change, it got caught up, his robe got caught up in his underpants so he came on with his pants around his ankles and all of the cast, all of us dropped jaw. Gobsmacked, I think is the English phrase. We all stood there for a moment frozen and then we had to struggle to get the lines out. So you're right, that was a genuine moment. You could never stage that.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

REYNOLDS: And you – God forbid it happened again. But you – anything that appears to be, especially in the third act of "Noises Off," it appears to be mayhem but it's all very rehearsed, it's all very not calculated but it's all very worked out.

CAVANAUGH: Joshua, I'm wondering, you know, Rosina's saying that you have to have a time when the whole cast gets the laughter out. You know, gets it out so even though it's hysterically funny what you're doing, that it's all serious onstage. Do you have any other techniques that you take your cast through in order to prepare them for the kind of comedy they're going to be delivering?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. I think we – For "Time Flies" we did a lot of improv in the beginning. We did all kinds of different games where we were screaming and yelling and playing. We played different kinds of animals and we played guessing games and running games and for – for the sake of especially in "Time Flies" when you're playing, literally, you've got people playing washing machines and dead artists and mayflies and frogs and stuff like that, where you – I just would say to my cast, nothing is impossible in this room. Nothing is too big or nothing and nothing is – You can't be afraid of anything. You really just have to jump right in and have a bunch of fun with no reservations at all. So we do all kinds of warm-up exercises and things like that to just kind of take the cobwebs out, like loosen up, shake things up a bit. So you can just – because you have to really – I mean, you have to jump in and do the jokes or the bits or whatever with such conviction and then as soon as it's done, you look at your cast and go, well? And sometimes they're laughing and sometimes they're like, hmm… You know? And then you have to shake it off and try all over again without – and you can't – you can't hold anything back the second time or the third time or the fourth time to make a joke work. So you really have to shake it off and be fearless and go out there and just – and throw it all against the wall and see what sticks, you know.

REYNOLDS: You know, that hmm can sometimes happen with your audience, too.

JOHNSON: Yeah, right.

CAVANAUGH: That's not good.

REYNOLDS: Hmm, you know, we've had quiet nights and, you know, the thing you learn though, the thing you discover is that, one, you can't – you can't work them too hard, you can't over – you can't over compensate for that. You still give the truest performance. And you'd be amazed sometimes at the response you get at the end of the show.

JOHNSON: Yeah, absolutely.

REYNOLDS: And they absolutely loved it. So audiences react differently. Some are smilers. I've tended to notice that men in the audience tend to prefer to smile, not laugh out loud. Women will much more spontaneously. Men will hide their smile sometimes, they'll put their hand up against their mouth and – and so it's interesting that you can never second guess how an audience is responding. And just because in comedy they're not necessarily laughing out loud, doesn't mean that they're not finding it funny.

BENDER: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: That's interesting.

REYNOLDS: And you find that out at the end, so you have to stay true to your show…

JOHNSON: It's so true.

REYNOLDS: …and true to your characters and true to your fellow actors…

BENDER: Umm-hmm.

REYNOLDS: …and not try to work the audience. The danger is to fall into that and then it just…

JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, because when you overcompensate, too, then you're…

REYNOLDS: Indicating…

JOHNSON: …you're indicating and your trying…

REYNOLDS: Underlining.

JOHNSON: …you know, and they can sense that you're trying almost.

REYNOLDS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: And it's like that cleanliness that you've heard all three of us talk about.

REYNOLDS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: That specificity goes down the drain when you push it another two seconds. Literally, you push a bit two seconds longer than it needs to be because you're not hearing the laughs, you'll start going down a road that you just don't…

REYNOLDS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: …want to go down.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you all because I think this is a big question that audience members have and I know also, Joshua, that you've been involved in one of these frenetic comedies where physical – the Abridged Shakespeare Company, you just do quick changes and running around and the whole thing. How do you physically maintain that without – I mean, are there injuries involved in it?

REYNOLDS: Yes.

BENDER: Yes, absolutely. Bruises galore.

REYNOLDS: We have a list at the theatre of injuries and it's long. Bruises, torn fingernails, falling. Somebody in our show fell on stage.

CAVANAUGH: And how about you gentlemen?

JOHNSON: Oh, absolutely. I don't know if – Jeff and I were talking in the Green Room and he actually did a Complete Works last summer as well. And there's a lot of sweat involved in the costume changes. We actually played the same character, so we did all of the female – we both played Juliet and…

BENDER: Cleopatra.

JOHNSON: …Cleopatra.

BENDER: Ophelia.

JOHNSON: Yeah, Ophelia. There is, there's a lot of running and a lot of quick changes stuff like that. And it's a blast but there is some – you do sustain a couple of injuries and just – and just keep on going. There's a lot of water in the face involved. I don't know if you guys that. Gets wet.

BENDER: Yes, we did. Yeah.

JOHNSON: Yeah, so you get wet, you sweat a lot, you have a lot of fun. You lose weight, which is…

CAVANAUGH: I can imagine.

JOHNSON: …just great.

REYNOLDS: And you know the other thing actually you – your breathing increases.

BENDER: Oh, God, yeah. Yeah, yeah.

REYNOLDS: Your ability to breathe deeply, your diaphragm breathing really increases. Like at the theatre in Old Town there's a hill where we all park and it used to be at the beginning of rehearsal it'd be (gasps) up the hill. Now we all walk up it, we're like di-di-di-di-di-di.

JOHNSON: You have to work at it.

REYNOLDS: We can hold a conversation and not even be breathless because it really increases your breathing capacity.

JOHNSON: Yeah.

BENDER: Well, we're doing "Irma Vep" in the round and normally it's not meant to – it wasn't written to be in the round. It was meant to be in a proscenium arch, so we – a proscenium theatre. And we, John and I, are running, racing, behind the audience to get – there's two voms in the Copley Center Theatre and we have to go out one vom, change our costume, come back in as a different character. At one point, I say one line, I exit, I come on with the next line in a different character. So we're running constantly around this entire theatre so we are – we are sweating, we are slipping and sliding. Throughout rehearsals, we were slipping and sliding and bruises and – but we have lost a lot of weight.

CAVANAUGH: You know, in closing, I want to ask you all about another kind of sweat: flop sweat. When you talked a little bit about the idea that, you know, when you're not hearing anything coming from the audience, how do you maintain your level of, you know, really putting on a show when you really sort of think – and, as you say, comedy is so delicate. You can do a whole drama without hearing a peep from the audience and it may be a little bit discouraging but it's not tragic. But when you're doing your comedy and nobody's responding…

REYNOLDS: Well, you know, like "Noises Off" where everything happens backstage in the second act, well, in our show it's backstage. You look at each other and go wh… You look at each other and try to gesture but you stay true to the show.

BENDER: Umm-hmm.

REYNOLDS: You absolutely – You never take it personally and you never blame an audience, which is a bad mistake. Any actor should never blame an audience and most don't. It's simply a matter of circumstance. So what you do is you stay true to the show, you still give – In fact, I'd say you endeavor to give 100% on that show. You endeavor to…

BENDER: Sure.

REYNOLDS: …make it the best possible show you could do. So you never admit defeat and you never…

BENDER: That's right.

REYNOLDS: …you never…

CAVANAUGH: And you all feel very strongly about that.

JOHNSON: Oh, yes.

CAVANAUGH: Not that you've ever had that experience.

BENDER: No, heavens not, no.

REYNOLDS: No.

JOHNSON: We get laughs every night, are you kidding? No, and it's true, you can't push it, you know, and you just – And at that point, too, I always tell my cast, just trust the writing.

REYNOLDS: Yeah, yeah.

JOHNSON: They're not – they're having a great time…

BENDER: Umm-hmm.

JOHNSON: …and just trust the writing because chances are actually, they actually really are.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

JOHNSON: And you just – they're just not as vocal as the night before and so you just kind of get used to it and trust the writing and know that you're delivering – as well as laughs, you're delivering a story that they're enjoying, for sure. They're just not as vocal so…

CAVANAUGH: It all sounds like such hard work but are you having a good time?

REYNOLDS: Oh, yes.

JOHNSON: Absolutely.

BENDER: I can't imagine it being better. It's so much fun. I love doing comedy in more ways than one.

REYNOLDS: Comedy is amazing. I mean, the intoxication it gives you when you have an audience laughing at something you're doing.

BENDER: Umm-hmm. Yeah.

REYNOLDS: I don't know that anything – almost anything…

BENDER: It doesn't get much better than that.

REYNOLDS: …that compares to that.

JOHNSON: Yeah, I know, it's true, yeah.

REYNOLDS: It is amazing. It is amazing, and you come together with an audience and to see the abandonment of an audience, to see them in that state of laughter is just so exhilarating and so satisfying. I mean, it really is a wonderful experience.

BENDER: Absolutely. I absolutely agree.

CAVANAUGH: I want to take plenty of time to tell everybody where they can go see your shows, okay? I want to thank you so much for talking with us today. Rosina Reynolds, she's currently performing in Cygnet Theatre's production of "Noises Off." It runs through September 6th at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town. Joshua Everett Johnson, thanks so much for talking with us. "Times Flies" runs through August 16th at New Village Arts in Carlsbad as part of their Summer Comedy Festival. And "The Mystery of Irma Vep" runs through September 6th at the Old Globe Theatre. Thank you so much, Jeffrey for speaking with us, Jeffrey Bender.

BENDER: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you all, and thank you all for listening. You have been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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