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Behind The Scenes: ‘His Girl Friday’

La Jolla Playhouse Production Mixes Farce And Commentary

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando speaks with set designer Robert Brill.

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando goes behind the scenes of the La Jolla Playhouse's "His Girl Friday" to find out what role the set design plays in a comedy.

When the La Jolla Playhouse decided to stage “His Girl Friday,” they had to ask how could they make a play about reporters in 1939 Chicago connect with an audience in San Diego today? The solution involves a clever set design and plenty of doors.

When you see the newsroom set for “His Girl Friday,” you feel as though you could walk onto the stage and open any drawer and find a pencil and reporter’s notepad or a bottle of whiskey inside.

"I think that’s one of the fascinating things about sitting and looking at a space, even in advance of the actors getting onstage it feels like there’s something that has happened prior to you walking in the door," says Robert Brill, set designer for the production and the Playhouse's first Artist in Residence.

For Brill a set must support and give life to the story: "So we’ve created a very beautiful room yet at the same time a very kind of dingy room where these reporters have created their nest."

He layers this nest with an incredible amount of detail. Stacks of newspapers fill the office, shelves burst with clutter, and police barricades poke out from a back storage room. It’ a set that feels lived in and inspires actors like Jenn Lyon and Douglas Sills.

"I sleep here. I sleep on the table. I have my head on the keys of the typewriter," jokes Sills. But more seriously he notes, "You behave differently, everything changes. The way you sit in a chair, a wooden chair from this period, the way you hold the phone, the way you talk, all that stuff is informed by the reality, the tangible reality that they create for us."

Lyon agrees, "The Playhouse has done a fantastic job I mean down to the last detail, I mean everything, props, set, sound, really makes you feel like you are in this criminal court press room."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: La Jolla Playhouse

Jenn Lyon (center) plays Hildy Johnson in the La Jolla Playhouse's production of "His Girl Friday."

Lyon plays Hildy Johnson to Sills’ Walter Burns. John Guare's "His Girl Friday" is inspired by both the 1928 play “The Front Page” (written by former newspapermen Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur) and the 1940 screwball comedy “His Girl Friday.” The latter is a film that director Christopher Ashley grew up with.

"The chemistry between Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant was incredibly hot and the velocity that they could talk, it was the fastest talking movie I had ever seen."

Here's a scene from the Howard Hawks' film.

Trailer: "His Girl Friday"

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Trailer for the 1940 Howard Hawks' screwball comedy, "His Girl Friday."

Ashley wanted Hawks' sense of pace and movement in his production of “His Girl Friday,” and Brill’s set is helping him do that.

"He’s created a great set for a farce. He’s created a set with an incredible sense of place and time, and it’s also just a really juicy space to block in. It’s got incredible nooks and crannies."

And doors says Robert Brill.

"Usually farce has, there are a lot of doors. And so this set does have a lot of doors and a lot of entrances and exits and when somebody makes an entrance how long does it take for them to get from one side of the stage to the other before another line is delivered."

Doors serve as punctuation and as a means of redirecting the audience’s attention says Christopher Ashley.

"Making sure that the audience’s eye is at the right place on stage is really crucial to it being funny… I have to look behind me at the set to see exactly how many doors there are on the set, probably 11, and yeah the timing of everything is incredibly complicated in this play. The question of when is the door open when is the door closed when does it slam. The ballet of the screwball comedy is incredibly complicated and very fun to work work out… there’s a real science to that as well as an art."

The art of Brill’s set is that it captures both the comic and the serious elements of the play, which is exactly what Ashley wants.

"There’s this kind of dark underbelly and this very fun screwball comedy surface so I love about this play that it’s real mix of the light romantic and real substance, it’s a play with teeth."

The bite comes from the fact that although the technology of delivering the news has changed, the notion that truth often gets sacrificed for spin remains the same.

"I think part of the reason I decided to program it now was all the way through the last election and in the last year what’s happening on the cable news, what’s happening with how many Americans want to see their news from a biased point of view is I think a really interesting thing and it was true when this play was written too. These reporters aren’t truth tellers, they are storytellers."

Ashley is a storyteller too and he hopes “His Girl Friday” will spin a story that’s relevant to San Diego theatergoers.

The La Jolla Playhouse production of “His Girl Friday” runs through June 30.

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