The problem with simple scenes, counting cards, and other lessons learned from the Director of the Academy’s 500th production.
For Chris Wunder, the Director of The Seafarer, Old Academy’s 500th production, no role is too small and no detail is unimportant in staging a good play. For him, it’s the little parts that make the whole thing move.
And he’s lived it in his 30+ years in the theater, taking his turn at every level of a production, including stagehand, lighting, sound, set design, acting, and directing. EFL caught up with him recently to chat about what he’s learned on (and behind) the stage.
How did you get into directing? I got my start when I joined Old Academy a little over a decade ago, but I guess you could say it was thrust upon me. I agreed to be an assistant director on a production called “Here on the Flight Path” it was to be directed by William Peterson, the Old Academy president at the time. However, Bill needed to have surgery and couldn’t continue with the show, so I was forced into the directing slot. It was a great play and a lot of fun.
You didn’t feel intimidated at all by taking over as director? For my first time directing, it was an enjoyable experience. I was very fortunate to work with some talented actors who helped in making it a very memorable production for me. It was just so much fun.
How have your experiences as an actor influenced your work as a director? I think it’s very important to start out as an actor before jumping into directing. Actually, I think directors should have experience in all aspects of the theater before taking on the directing responsibility — stage managing, set construction, producing, lights and sound. By getting to know how the whole process works, it makes you a more well-rounded director.
Any of those jobs a favorite? To tell the truth, I love set design. I enjoy being able to read a play and set up the space in which the actors have to perform.
How would you describe your directing style? I would say I’m a collaborative director. I like to have the input of all involved. I start with some ground work but I then open it up to suggestions from everyone involved. If my actors want to try something, we’ll give it a try. If it works, it works but we’ll figure out something else together if it doesn’t.
What’s involved with the ground work? How do you prepare? I start by reading the script multiple times to come up with how I think the show should flow. Then I start initial blocking (that is, stage movements). By coordinating these movements, the actors and I can set up scenes for the best dramatic effect, ensure sight lines for the audience, and work with the lighting design of particular scenes.
Do you emulate any particular directors? Hard to name just one. I’ve had the pleasure of working with many talented directors starting as a young child at North Light Community Center right up to my time here at Old Academy. Each one of them had their own style of directing and I got to learn a lot from them by watching them and being directed by them in some cases.
What was the most important lesson you learned from those directors? There is no such thing as a small role in a production. A production is only successful when all moving parts big or small come together to form one cohesive unit.
What about The Seafarer speaks to you? Being an Irish Catholic, as well as the youngest in a family of three boys, it spoke to me in many ways, particularly the character Sharky. Like him, I sometimes struggle with my family, friends and my faith but in the end I always come back to the love I have for all three to keep me grounded.
Any surprises with the production? It wasn’t an easy production by any means. Even seemingly simple scenes were a challenge, like the card games for example. In Act II, three poker games take place, each with disruptions during them. Trying to keep the details in order, such as who the dealer had called for antes and the card distribution, was a little crazy. Looking back, I wish I had spent more time on those details.
Lessons learned so far? Your casting choices are 98% of your production and I have been fortunate enough to have a cast that could pull off this difficult work. Cast well and you’ll succeed, cast poorly and you could have a disaster.
How have audiences responded? The show received a great review in The Chestnut Hill Local by Hugh Hunter and audiences seemed quite happy with it. I did have one odd exchange with a theatergoer who asked me why all plays depict the Irish as nothing but alcoholics. I informed them that not all Irish plays are the same – I’m directing “Outside Mullingar” by John Patrick Shanley this September and it has nothing to do with alcoholism.
Conor McPherson’s language seems at first very naturalistic. But it also has a lot of magical realism, it riffs and shifts, it’s poetic. What has it been like for your cast to make it their own? Well I can tell you that a couple of my actors have stated that this show has been one of the most difficult for them to get off book (that is, rehearse without the script). And when you really start thinking deeply about the show there are some very interesting points to it and you have to hope the audience can pick them up by what the actors deliver.
Has the working-class Dublin idiom presented any challenges for you or the cast? I don’t think so, it was fairly easy for most of the characters to capture the vocabulary and terminology behind the words that are spoken. The good part about this show is that some of the characters are from different areas, so the spoken word could actually be delivered differently.
Having directed comedy, how does it compare to a dramatic work like The Seafarer? I prefer dramas because of the shear edginess of the writing and I feel as though you can get a lot more out of your actors.
Any pressure involved with directing a milestone production? Anything especially gratifying? I was feeling a tremendous amount of pressure directing the Old Academy’s 500th production there was the strong sense of wanting to give the audience a show worthy of such an honor.
What makes Old Academy special? Old Academy has become my new home. There are times throughout the year that I am with my Old Academy family more than I am with my immediate family, but the love and support I get from both families is immeasurable. It is great to know that, no matter what, you have that backing.
You’ve directed and acted — ever thought about writing your own plays? I don’t think I would ever write a play. If I ever wrote anything, it’d be a book about my theater experiences. Trust me, when you have been doing theater as long as I have, you get a lot of really great stories.
Don’t Miss Out!
Catch the final performances of The Seafarer this weekend (Friday and Saturday 8PM. Sunday 2PM). More info here.