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The Little Things You Do Together

John Doyle, A.R. Gurney, Judith Ivey, and Jim Simpson talk about the art of collaboration. logo
John Doyle
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
The journey from page to stage can be a dangerous one, full of bumps and unexpected detours, but the road is often less rocky when the playwright and director have previously worked together. That's one reason why the current theater scene is full of frequent collaborators; for example, playwright Richard Vetere and director Evan Bergman, whose Machiavelli recently completed its Off-Broadway run, or playwright Paul Rudnick and director Christopher Ashley, whose newest team effort, Regrets Only, is now in previews at Manhattan Theatre Club.

Stephen Sondheim is well known for working with the same directors over and over again, notably Harold Prince and James Lapine. The soon-to-open Broadway revival of Sondheim's 1970 masterwork Company marks his second collaboration with British director John Doyle, who won a Tony Award for his efforts on last season's revival of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd.

"He likes to let you do your work, get it on the floor, and then he is able to relate to that and talk about it," Doyle says of Sondheim, whom he calls a wonderful collaborator. "The working relationship between us is very productive and very constructive. He is never coming from a place that's anything other than wanting to tell the story in the best way you can. He doesn't say, 'Oh well, when we did it here, we did it like this'"

For both Sweeney and Company, Doyle spoke with Sondheim about his ideas for the projects before rehearsals even began. "Stephen would make wonderful suggestions about how he thought the story could be made clearer by a change in the music or a change in a word," says Doyle, who notes that Sondheim only rarely came to rehearsals -- largely because he's aware that it can be daunting for younger actors to have this man whom they have spent their whole lives looking up to in the room. "I have to say," adds Doyle, "Stephen loves process and he loves actors, so he's very sympathetic." The two begin to work more closely during previews: "That's when we'll talk about how that went or if we want to change something. Bear in mind that I am working on revivals with him, so that's got to be a different experience from when you're originating the show."

The recently closed Primary Stages production of Southern Comforts marked the second time that playwright Kathleen Clark had entrusted her work to actor-director Judith Ivey. "We made our decisions together almost by osmosis," says Ivey. "I think it's because we're so much alike, as if we were separated at birth. We're both mothers, and we've both been humbled in our lifetime. It's a big part of what we share."

Their process was quite different from that of Doyle and Sondheim. For one thing, Clark attended every single rehearsal, and the pair would have lengthy discussions afterward about what was working and what wasn't. Nonetheless, Ivey would urge Clark not to touch the script until it was absolutely necessary to do so. "My feeling was that we needed to wait until the actors were where I thought they should be with a scene," she says. "Then I told Kathy that if she still didn't like what she saw, then she could start cutting."

Down at the Flea Theater, Post Mortem is the fourth collaboration between playwright A.R. "Pete" Gurney and director Jim Simpson, the theater's artistic director. "Jim is both an actor and a director, and I'm much more out of the academic world," says Gurney. "He knows the practicality of the theater, and he keeps me honest theatrically. It helps that we're both minimalists; I'm aesthetically a minimalist, and Jim's economically a minimalist. For both of us, it's all about the actors telling a story on stage. "

Tino Benko and Shannon Burkett in Post Mortem
(© Joan Marcus)
However, their professional relationship got off to a bit of a rocky start when Simpson directed Gurney's O, Jerusalem at the Flea. "After I had blocked the play, Pete came to a run-through and said to me, 'That was good, but do you know about my work?'" recalls Simpson. "I said, 'Well I think so,' and he said, 'Well, it's meant to be played quite quickly, like Congreve. This is the key to making my work work.' But, since then, we've developed a sort of shorthand. Pete's there when you work at the table the first week, then he knows enough to leave."

Simpson and Gurney have found a formula for working with the tricky area of rewrites. "I come in with cuts and Jim says that he'll make them work," says Gurney. Yet when Simpson cut one of Gurney's favorite lines in Post Mortem without telling him, the playwright convinced Simpson to put it back in.

"We have a happy collaboration because we both trust ourselves and each other," says Simpson. "We know we will get there and be able to do something about whatever problem may arise." Adds Gurney, "It's a kind of a marriage. We don't even talk about our work that much; we just do it."

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