Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009

Director Patrick Holland on Around the World in 80 Days

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Chris Klopatek as Passepartout

The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre opens its season this week with a production of the recent stage adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World In 80 Days by American playwright Mark Brown. The play, which debuted with the Utah Shakespearian Feestival in 2001, has some 36 characters being portrayed by five actors. The adaptation has been hailed as a clever modern comedy directly adapted from a late 19th century adventure novel.

Verne’s novel found protagonist Phileas Fogg and his French valet Passepartout rushing around the world on a very expensive bet that they couldn’t do it in only 80 days. Bringing a globe-spanning adventure into the stately confines of the main stage at the Broadway Theater Center is no small task. The show’s director Patrick Holland took some time out to answer a few questions I had about the process.

The Mark Brown stage adaptation of the novel is said to focus on the comedic potential of the story. A multitude of characters are played by a small group of actors, the very idea of a tour around the world being seen from a theatre seat in less than two hours seems a bit absurd. How much is the Milwaukee Chamber production focusing on the comedy of the story?

Patrick Holland: This adaptation definitely has a great deal of humor about it. The humor is derived from actors playing multiple roles and switching characters quickly. This device mimics the adventurous energy Jules Verne wrote into the book.

The play is at times completely ridiculousness at other times adventurous and at other times quite touching. Balancing these elements is essential to the success of the story. But perhaps one of the most important things Mark Brown has done with his script is to leave plenty of room for stagecraft. This has allowed us to add our own brand of depth and spectacle to adventurous elements of the story.

 

The steampunk angle on the production design is being featured quite prominently in the show's promotion. While Jules Verne's work was undeniably influential as an inspiration for the genre, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS was not one of Verne's more fantastic stories. Without any advanced technology directly mentioned in the book, it reads much more like a straight-ahead adventure. How is the steampunk aesthetic being brought into the production?

Patrick Holland: Steampunk is a broad term. And there are other works written by Jules Verne that would be more inline with the aesthetic. The actual book AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS is more of a tale of adventure than of a fantasy.

I did not set out to create a steampunk atmosphere for this show. My designers and I arrived there after many discussions and idea sessions. The book is about a man, Phileas Fogg going around the world in eighty days on a wager. He never sees the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China or the Grand Canyon. What’s compelling about the book for the reader is how Fogg is able to travel from one place to another. He has to overcome every obstacle thrown his way. I think the audience watching our play is witnessing something similar. How will Patrick Holland and Milwaukee Chamber Theatre stage this play? How are they going to have trains, and elephants and ships?

The approach to our design environment is parallel to the approach Jules Verne takes with Fogg’s journey. As I worked with my designers, I wanted to create a design that captured the imagination and fantasy of a journey around the world. There needed to be a sense of adventure and grandeur to the world of the play. This approach added depth and weight to the show. To accomplish this, I wanted to use old theater technology coupled with contemporary stage technology to create the adventurous effects in the play. For example, for a scene that takes place on a boat, I wanted wind. So I have a stagehand pedaling a bike-powered fan that blows wind on the actors. For scenes on a train, I wanted to create a sense of movement. So I have a painting of a landscape on a scroller (think of a treadmill on its side) that a stagehand cranks to give the illusion of the train moving. This is where the steampunk style comes into our show. The style of these effects came from mixing the elements of the 1870’s with elements of our world today to create these great effects. It is this blending of periods that could be labeled steampunk.

 

While there is a definite interpersonal drama going on in the book, the main thrust of Verne's novel is that of adventure. From India to Hong Kong to Salt Lake City, the novel has a very sweeping feel to it. (Elephant is one of the more exotic modes of transit.) How are you tackling the challenges of bringing that sense of adventure to the stage?

Patrick Holland: Besides all of the stage effects we’ve developed for the show, I use music to help create an adventurous atmosphere. Also, I have choreographed some of the actors’ movements from scene-to-scene to give a sense of nonstop movement. And then there is the elephant! I use all theater elements to create the elephant: actors’ movement, lighting, music, stagehands and some very inventive stagecraft. This is why you have to see this show. Just to witness how we did it all! At the end of the day it’s the humor, the adventure and the excitement of the stagecraft that makes it all work.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS opens this Friday, August 14th. It runs through August 30th. 

TOMORROW: A few words with the show's Set Designer Keith Pitts

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