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John Rando: Without him "Everything is Awful!"
Profile by Elyse Sommer
The rehearsal process for a summer stock production is usually just a week or so longer than the run itself. While the current production is on the boards, the next-in-line team prepares for its turn away from the actual stage where it will put on its show. It was during the last lap of rehearsals for the Berkshire Theatre Festival's world premiere of Lives of the Saints that I caught up with director John Rando at the Lavan Arts Center on Route 7. The former hotel's white clapboard buildings are reminiscent of the kind of pre-bed-and-breakfast rustic resorts where so many young actors and writers and musicians had a wonderful time putting on shows and forging long-term associations.
John Rando, playwright David Ives, the five actors and crafts team have come to the Berkshire with much of that same spirit. They've all worked together before and a nice relaxed feeling and lots of laughter fill the makeshift stage where they began to assemble for the day's rehearsal as Rando and I settled down in a little room used for a coffee pot and quick energy snacks.
Rando himself is a serious looking young man (he's 38), but it takes just a minute to see the twinkle lurking behind his steel-rimmed glasses. He laughs easily ad often, and his easy humor is infectious. I can't tell you anything specifically funny that either of us said during the forty minutes we spent together, but we laughed a lot. I imagine that humor persuaded his wife, a clinical psychologist, give him her phone number after they met when they sat next to each other on a New York bound plane. ("She told me to wait two weeks because she was doing her dissertation during that time-- and I called her in exactly two weeks" -- clearly this is a director who kows how to take as well as give directions!).
Laughter, making people laugh, is of course what much of his work is about. That's not to say he isn't serious about his work. The director's job like that of an orchestra leader, is not always easy to define. Yet its siren song is powerful.
How did the directing bug bite you?
No one in my family was ever in the theater or even remotely interested in it. In fact the reason I grew up in Houston (he was born in Islip, Long Island) was because my dad is an aerospace engineer and we moved there when he worked on the Apollo mission. But when I was in junior high school I was in speech class in which we did bunch of improvs, sort of clowning around, and that was the start of it. I did a lot of comedy through high school where I had some exceptional drama teachers. I never did standup, but always sort of comic performing. When I was given an opportunity to direct a play in my senior year, I was completely excited by the whole process -- not just the performance but all of it coming together, the collaboration, that's what really charged me and it's stuck. I was lucky enough to be a full time director since getting out of graduate school eleven years ago, though there were years when I didn't make very much money (laughingly, "I still don't make much money!").
What remains your major challenge of being an up-and-coming young director?
To work at this full time you often do too many plays. I like the traveling. I've been away from New York (usually six weeks per show) with All In the Timing. I was recently in Los Angeles to do Merton of theMovies and will go back for the upcoming new Neill Simon comedy The Dinner Party. But when you do nine plays, as I did last year,there's a danger in that of spreading yourself too thin.
Your best known plays are the collaborations with David Ives -- are you old friends?
Ives and I have had a great time collaborating. Our relationship, which is the sort you dream about, actually happened through our mutual agent, Bill Craver of Writers & Artists (Note: Getting an agent to come down and see my work and take me on is as much a career turning point for a director as it is for artists and writers!). After we did a rewrite of something called Ancient History and a short play called English Made Simple and saw that we really connected we just kept on so this show we're rehearsing now is our fifth collaboration -- All In the Timing, Mere Mortals and also two musical revivals for the Encores series at City Center (Strike Up the Band and Do Re Mi. )
Weren't the musicals something of a departure for both you and the playwright?
Those old musical comedies were a very natural experience and a good transition. And putting together an evening of one-acts is very much the same challenge as putting together a musical
Speaking of challenges -- what do you see as your special challenge in directing a sextet of short plays instead of a single full-length story?
The challenge comes in terms of variety. We're talking about six plays, each with its own design, costumes and identity and having to have it all add up to a whole evening. In these new plays one of the characters talks about Millennium Fever and this question of where human beings stand at the end of one century and the beginning of another, is what pulls everything together. That's the fun -- the fun figuring out how evening fits together, what goes where and how do we surprise audience by showing the actors in a different way each time? The trick is to have these five actors doing many different things right before your eyes, seemingly on a dime.
Critics have talked about Ivesian humor and the fast-paced Rando style-- how would you define these Ivesian and Rando tags? Ivesian first of all means a great sense of playfulness with language. It means a biting, poignant, intellectual wit that can be both very dark and very funny. It's also a challenge to actors in terms of characterization and it takes certain style to perform. With the wrong actors it cold loose its buoyancy. Buoyancy -- that's a good word for everything Ivesian.
(Editor's Note: Ives who was supposed to sit in on this interview wasn't available so I couldn't help wondering about the tiny chipmunk that scurried around the room while we were talking. Could the playwright, who has displayed an occasional penchant for anthropomorphic humor as with the daffily funny mayflies in the "Nature" segment of Mere Mortals, have sent this little furry creature to give me a foretaste of the state of some of his characters at the cusp of the Millennium -- scurrying around searching for crumbs of happiness as that chipmunk was searching for crumbs from the open cracker box?)
What about the actors and designers for whom you and Ives have been the Pied Pipers?
Four of these five actors have been in Ives plays since the beginning and Stephen DeRosa was in the Buffalo production of All I the Timing. They've become like a band, a real comic troupe, that David can write for, and that know each other so they can talk in a special shorthand to each other. They know each other so well that they can now talk in a shorthand to each other.
Sound like a band that could play all by itself? As if on cue, to tell me the director is very much needed at the helm, one member of the troupe, Arnie Burton, came busting in, yelling "Everything is awful!" I decided it was time to let John Rando make everything right. Next week we'll see if he did.
Shows John Rando has directed that we've reviewed:
An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf (to be reprised next season at one of New York's premier Off-Broadway houses, Primary Stages
Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight
Merton of the Movies (Los Angeles)
Lives of the Saints (after August 18th)