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Arts

Joe Ferrell in the Director’s Chair

For many years in the Lexington community the name Joe Ferrell and theatre have been synonymous. Joe has helmed many productions, ranging from Shakespeare to the modern classics, under a myriad of venues. The deep and abiding love Joe has for good theatre and artistic process is rivaled only by his love for family and the friendships he’s developed over a five-decade career. His wife, Sheila Omer Ferrell, is the Executive Director of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation in Lexington. Their daughter, Hannah, has grown up in Lexington after her parents settled down here to start a family in the 80s. Joe speaks candidly with UnderMain contributor Charles Sebastian about family, theatre, and his newest project as director, the Woodford Theatre’s current production, Of Mice and Men.

UM: Let me start by saying I’m sorry the snow affected opening night for Of Mice and Men. The show’s slated to run three weeks, correct?

JF: Yes, the show runs Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at Woodford until February 7.

UM: How did the show take shape?

JF: I had directed the show at Actor’s Guild in the late 90s. I hadn’t directed it up to that point. I had played Lennie doing some scene work for some of my graduate courses. It’s a remarkable piece of work. I like to do so many different kinds of things as a director. That period of time was so difficult for people, especially in the mid-West and West Coast regions. There was a lot of difficulty just in staying alive.

UM: We’re talking 1930s, when Steinbeck was writing.

JF: Yes. Steinbeck talks so strongly in the play about loneliness and the difficulty of living. The loneliness, I feel, is a central theme of the work. The need for individuals to not just relate to one another, but to really be connected. The guys in the play were almost envious of their relationship between George and Lennie.

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UM: Even though it is rocky and unpredictable at times.

JF: The relationship between the two has all of the ins and outs, ups and downs. It deals with, in 1936 terms, what was then called the American Dream. The two characters wanted to follow their own muse and not be under the thumb of a boss. The inherent failure of that for the characters is heart-breaking.

UM: There is something universal about the relationship, isn’t there?

JF: George and Lennie have their dream about where they’re going and what they’re trying to do, but Lennie’s unpredictable and essentially is just interested in petting things. George can’t let Curly just run off and assassinate Lennie, so he decides to put Lennie out of his misery.

UM: A mercy killing.

JF: Yes. There’s just no way George can protect Lennie after a time.

UM: There’s a sense of it being better being put out of your misery by someone you know, someone who cares about you, instead of some random executioner.

JF: And that makes for a very sad and touching situation.

UM: A lesser of two evils situation.

JF: Yes. Hard decisions. Life was a lot harder in Dust Bowl, 1930s America.

UM: It’s interesting that the play focuses so much on male relationships, though there is the one female character.

JF: There’s only one woman in the play, and she’s constantly referred to as the tart.

UM: Courtney Waltermire plays Curly’s wife.

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JF: Yes. Courtney has the kinds of things that all of us who try to do good theatre are born with. Instincts. A lot of this is an openness to trying new things. Courtney could have a career, if that’s what she wanted. Curly’s wife is portrayed as a lot of women were at that time: not particularly smart and longing for somebody to talk to; she has her own version of the American Dream. She feels pretty and someone from Hollywood told her she was pretty, so she’s concocted her own dream of being found.

UM: The old Veronica Lake, discovered in a bar deal.

JF: Right. She’s sorry that she got married to Curly, and Curly isn’t a very nice guy.

UM: She’s looking to escape.

JF: All the men are living hand-to-mouth, living in a bunkhouse. Curly is one of the smallest of the men; one could say he has short man’s syndrome. He’s always uptight.

UM: Is research and dramaturgy a big deal on a play like this, one that has seen so many performances and is so well-known?

JF: Absolutely. I research the play and we have a rehearsal period, just talking about the play, including its historical significance. I’m always encouraging the actors to research and know the period and place on their own. Two people could come up with two different viewpoints on what the play is and how to manage it. 

UM: You’ve worked with many of the actors in this production often over the years. Walter Tunis, Paul Thomas, Jeff Sherr, Kevin Hardesty. Does having a history with actors make the process easier?

JF: Absolutely. Trust is such a big issue with being able to play and explore. If you already have a relationship, it makes things move faster and makes getting to some truth much easier. Knowing a lot of these actors helps so much with trust. You have a good idea of where they can go. It doesn’t have to start from the ground up. You know where you are and how to work. You have a good idea of how they can move through process.

UM: How did you come to Lexington theatre, Joe? You’re originally from out west, right?

JF: I was born and raised in Montana and went to the University of Montana. I went on a football/academic scholarship and I came out of a town where all you did was play sports. The University of Montana was not all that big, but it had so many courses and areas for a kid like myself. No one in my family had been to college. I had an advisor in the English Department named Walter King, who was a Shakespeare scholar. I became an English major and Shakespeare was my focus then, with a minor in speech. We were on a quarter system, and the last quarter I had a speech teacher ask me to be in a play he was doing for the Theatre Department. I absolutely loved the experience and I felt like doors had been closed all my life and now they were somehow opened. I intuitively knew this was what I wanted to do with my life. I was sent to Korea during Viet Nam and made arrangements when I got back to go to do Masters work in Theatre; I saw the opportunity to plunge in and get involved as much as I wanted to. I hadn’t had that kind of experience or drive for anything up to that point. I had been in a class play in high school, but it was nothing compared to the experience that came later. I feel overall I’ve been very lucky with the course my life has taken.

UM: What prompted the move to this area?

JF: I came to Kentucky when I was in the first year of my doctoral program at the University of Iowa. I finished the doctorate at Indiana, as I wasn’t that happy with the program in Iowa. Georgetown College hired me. This was around 1971. They had an old theatre where the administration building is now. The Falling Springs Recreation Center. They had what were called “resistance dimmers” in the old theatre then. Sparks would fly out when you used them. Dangerous.

UM: Was the program progressive at the time?

JF: They had a small theatre curriculum at the time and wanted to expand. We developed a lot of great productions over those years. The kids who came were smart and ambitious. Some went on to do film, television, Broadway. J.C. Montgomery, who’s done a lot of Broadway and film work at this point, came out of that time.

UM: When did you make the transition to teaching at UK?

JF: I came to work at UK around 1979-80 from Georgetown, which gave me the opportunity to focus on acting and directing. I was doing a lot of other stuff at Georgetown. I was the only full time theatre guy at UK. It was my time to learn and develop ways of doing things that were essential. I didn’t have people looking over my shoulder and telling me I was doing everything wrong. It was good to be able to spend time at UK. 

UM: You were at UK for awhile.

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Sheila, Joe and Hannah Ferrell

JF: Yes. Then, around 1985, Sheila and I married and we went to New York for 5 or so years and I did a lot of off and off-off Broadway. I loved New York and going to the shows. I finally looked at where we were and what we were doing, and we thought the thing to do was come back here, as we wanted to have a baby.

UM: Your daughter, Hannah.

JF: Yes. We thought this would be a better location for family.

UM: That was around the time I met you.

JF: I got a call from the people in Lexington. They were asking me to come and do Shakespeare in the Park.

UM: 1989. You directed King Lear. My first show with you. Shakespeare in the Park at Woodland. Fred Foster as Lear. Joe Gatton. Roger Leasor.

JF: That was the first show I did after we moved back.

UM: Were you able to plug back into UK when you returned?

JF: Actually, Fort Knox had just built a huge program. Not many people know this, but there are some posts around the country that have Department of Defense Education Activities, and Fort Knox was one of them. Sheila and I were doing theatre in Louisville around this time, and she was also offered a job in the Fort Knox area.  Later, somewhere in the 90s, I started the Phoenix Group Theatre with Kevin Hardesty, Sheila, Joe Gatton, Walter Tunis, and others at the downtown library. Sheila was pregnant with Hannah. 

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UM: You continued at Fort Knox for quite some time?

JF: Yes. I retired from Fort Knox around 2008 and essentially have been doing what I want to do – Woodford Theatre and other projects.

UM: Do you try to stay current with newer theatre trends?  

JF: If you’re going to do this stuff, you have to be looking at what’s out there. Examine what’s going on in different theatre scenes.

UM: But do things change a great deal overall?

JF: As a director, I’m one who wants to explore, instead of coming in and just blocking it out. I believe just line interpretation winds up not coming across well. Creating a safe space to explore allows actors to build and be fearless when they see a new way of doing it.

UM: Do you find that shows that keep coming around, like Of Mice and Men, for instance, have a universality absent in many pieces?

JF: One of the things I’ve always liked about a good play and the people who write the good ones, is that the speeches are all words we recognize, but written in a very special way: the language in the play is created by dialogues and speeches that are designed to take you in a certain direction. We can have a random conversation any given day, but in a good play, the world is being built by these conversations.

UM: Are you pretty much keeping the same schedule you always have?

JF: I did three plays last years and Mice has been the only one this year. I would like to see something spring to life in Lexington again. Athens West could be the answer. It’s challenging being an Equity theatre, so it’s going to be great to see where they go. I loved teaching in college and loved teaching all of the stuff that I had learned. We have lots of serious theatre-goers who see what’s up on stage. I sometimes worry about where our audiences are going.

UM: Are you referring to the “dumbing down” that’s been happening gradually in the arts in general?

JF: Yes. Things are just different today. So many of the plays remain relevant, but it seems like audiences respond differently today to some things.

UM: Are there certain works you look to as seminal or influential on your life and career, Joe?

JF: The Empty Space by Peter Brook comes to mind. Uta Hagen’s work and a lot of the stuff that came out of the Group Theatre. Clurman. The Stanislavski stuff that eventually paved the way for the Actor’s Studio. Many books have been written on that, of course. A lot of those people wound up turning theatre on its edge.

UM: Roughly a hundred years ago. The “Russian Invasion.”

JF: Right. The end of the 1800s was so overblown in terms of acting.

UM: You’re speaking of the Declamatory style?

JF: Primarily.

UM: Nowadays you just see it done for laughs, just for the sake of being stodgy.

JF: Getting past that and to a deeper truth makes for much better work.

UM: Are you excited by certain playwrights? Are there plays you would like to do that you haven’t yet?

JF: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was astonishing for its language at the time. Of course, that’s been awhile ago now. A Winter’s Tale would be interesting, and doesn’t get played often. Neil Simon hasn’t been done as much here as I would like to see. Williams is important. I’ve done Glass Menagerie three times, but that material can always be revisited. O’Neill. Long Day’s Journey into Night. The trend for heavier and longer plays doesn’t seem to be too much on the scene of late, though. It was wonderful we were able to do Venus and Fur at the Farish Theatre, through Balagula. That was one I had wanted to do for awhile.

UM: The theatre for you and the people you work with: it all seems to have a very family feel to it.

JF: You come out of these projects making close friends. Ultimately, good plays are about the relationships that drive us in life. Any of the good plays show how people interact, betray one another, love each other. There’s always the standard conflict stuff, that should be in any good play. I’m as fascinated today by what we can create onstage as I was all those years ago when I started. It’s just amazing what comes out of the rehearsals and what you wind up with as a final product. It affects people in so many ways and I’m affected by it.

UM: Sounds like it’s really about people for you.

JF: The important thing for me is always the people. Designers, actors, all of the making-of process, with so many wonderful talents: that’s what really drives me.

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(Photo by Alberta Lanceta Labrillazo) Joe with Kevin Hardesty and Walter Tunis

Please visit either of the following sites for tickets or more info on Of Mice and Men:

Woodford Theatre

Woodford County Theatrical Arts Association

Arts

Kevin Hardesty In the Open

If you’ve been a practitioner or spectator of Lexington theatre in the last 34 years, the name Kevin Hardesty has most likely not escaped you. Kevin has built a reputation as an actor of film, television, and stage during that time and has come to be known as a lead actor for a wide range of roles and abilities. He currently is starring in the Chautauqua series in dual roles: Jefferson Davis and Daniel Boone. In addition, the Woodford Theatre production of Of Mice and Men goes up January 22, in which Kevin reprises his role as George. Kevin was kind enough to take a few minutes with Under Main contributor and actor Charles Sebastian.

UM: I’d like to start with what you’re doing presently. Tell us about Chautauqua and your roles in the shows.

KH: The Chautauqua Program’s been around a long time, about 25 years. A few years ago, Trish Clark, who runs the Woodford Theatre, started doing Mary Todd Lincoln for them. She asked Bo List to write the script for her and he did. She told me it was a unique experience as an actor. I put in my application two years ago and worked with Bo to do Jefferson Davis as a character. They had an early audition in January and they take five new characters every two years.

Bo and I worked for about a year rehearsing, researching. The process goes through several reviews with the Humanities Council. We worked with Jim Rodgers as my drama consultant. Jim and I have a long history going back to my UK days.

UM: Yes, you were at UK Theatre. How has that developed you and your career?

KH: I actually still use that training and material to this day, preparing for roles. Jim Rodgers was there, Russell Henderson, and a lot of other great teachers.

UM: So, Chautauqua sounds very involved, preparation-wise.

KH: It’s a long, involved process and took roughly a year. I’ve learned a lot about the two characters by being in their skin.

UM: How did the Daniel Boone role come to you?

KH: The gentleman who was doing Daniel Boone moved out of state. They had an open audition, and I got the part. I wound up launching both Daniel Boone and Jefferson Davis late last August.

UM: It seems there have always been misconceptions about Boone, but did you find that to be true of Jefferson Davis?

KH: What is amazing is how many people have heard the name, but really don’t know what he did or the impact he had on the time. Most people in Lexington remember the old Jefferson Davis Inn, named after Davis, more readily  than knowing the man. Davis was born in Kentucky and had a big impact on the state, and he also had a great passion for his home state of Mississippi, where his family moved when he was young.

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UM: Do you feel a lot of responsibility for getting things historically accurate, especially with such a pivotal figure in US history?

KH: Well, aside from the historical aspect, Davis was an interesting man. If the Civil War hadn’t happened, he probably would’ve been president. He built the aqueduct systems in Washington and developed the war machinery that drove the fight between north and south. I thought, ‘let’s do our best to paint this guy as a man of passion and a product of his time.’ Regarding the accuracy, I considered writing the pieces myself, but I’m not a writer. That’s why I approached Bo List.

UM: Did you feel people like or dislike this character, people who still see a Mason-Dixon line, or even political sympathizers that may not like to see JD portrayed?

KH: I thought there was a chance no one would want to see Davis embodied, as he was on the wrong side of history. It was part of the 200-year anniversary of the end of the Civil War. There was also another issue: the shootings in South Carolina last year. We had been working on the project close to a year, and all of a sudden there was all this horrible stuff in the news and we certainly didn’t want to fan the flames.

The Charleston Church Massacre, as it has come to be called, became the largest church shooting in American history. Attempting to incite race riots, 21-year old Dylann Roof opened fire on the congregation at Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015, killing 9 people.

UM: So there was a strong question-mark hanging in the air about it being an appropriate time to go showcasing well-known Southern figures, the images of whom many people may see when thinking of the American South during slave times.

KH: Right. I talked to Ben Chandler, who is the Director of the Humanities Council, and asked him about the Davis material and if he thought it needed to be shelved. He said it was a piece of history and Chautauqua was a great venue to show it. 99 percent of the people who have come have loved it.

UM: That’s great. It’s developed a long run, too, yes?

KH: To date I’ve done 65 performances and about 75-80 percent are Boone. I have another 35 shows booked for spring. I’ll end up doing over 100 shows.

UM: How exactly do the shows get booked?

KH: The Humanities Council puts out a catalogue every year and bookings are done based on this. We may get K-12 teachers who want the performances for their students, or people who are involved in some kind of historical society. So Humanities offers the program, but the individuals who go through the catalogues choose what they want. These are the most challenging roles I’ve ever done as an actor.

UM: You mean the historical issue, or the solo issue?

KH: Both, but especially the solo thing. You’re the only one out there. You know how it is: there’s no one to throw the ball to.

UM: All up to you.

KH: Right!

UM: And, a different audience every time.

KH: Yes! One day you might be changing in a broom closet somewhere and playing to a group of kids, the next time a different venue with a whole different set-up.

UM: I would imagine the audiences would be vastly different than even when people do the highly-detailed Civil War reenactments.

KH: Yes. Varied.

UM: I’m sure it’s challenging, but I’m sure you love the challenge. The plays I did with you years ago, you were always professional, prepared and we had a good time.

KH: Thanks.

UM: I actually learned quite a bit from you in those days. One thing that really stands out in my mind, though, was finally understanding that process is what theatre’s all about.

KH: Yes.

UM: I’d heard that from acting teachers, I’d heard it at UK many times, read it in the usual acting texts, but you and I were doing Inherit the Wind 20 plus years ago. Shakespeare in the Park when it used to be at Woodland Park. We were rehearsing in some basement somewhere and you said to me: process is always what it’s about. I had thought of theatre up to that point as more of oil painting or tableaux, instead of living, breathing, constantly changing. That it was expected to, encouraged to, change in each moment. Probably one of the best lessons I ever learned.

KH: Oh, man, thanks for telling me that.

UM: I’m glad I have a chance to in a very public way.

For anyone interested in booking the Chautauqua performances, please visit kyhumanties.org for a list of the characters with descriptions. You can also check out Kevin’s FB Chautauqua page.

UM: Let’s turn our focus to Of Mice and Men. The show goes up at the Woodford Theatre on January 22.

KH: Yes, three weekends. Jan. 22-Feb. 7. Friday, Saturday and Sunday of each week.

UM: What drew you to the material?

KH: Well, I did Of Mice and Men when I was at Actor’s Guild around 1999, with Joe Ferrell directing. You probably know Beth Kirchner built Woodford Theatre up and when she retired in 2011, Trish Clark took it over. Trish had been talking to Joe Farrell and Woodford had been doing a lot of lighter fare. They were thinking about something a bit more serious. Joe called me and asked if I would like to revisit it and I said ‘hell yeah.’

UM: Was it a vastly different experience than it was years ago?

KH: Oh, yes. There is always the issue with the word on the page being so important. Respect for the work and the playwright is crucial. Good writers take a lot of time and care making sure every piece is where it should be.

UM: Steinbeck’s no lightweight, and Mice is probably his best-known story.

KH: Right. And my job is always to tell the story, no matter how well-known it is. But, of course, I’m older, it’s a different venue, different time, and it’s all great.

UM: Looking at the cast, you’re sharing the stage with some wonderful people: Walter Tunis as Lennie, Paul Thomas, Demetrius Conley-Williams, some very seasoned actors in the community. Courtney Waltermire is an amazing talent. She was a student of mine at Asbury and I felt she really had a presence in a lot of the scene work she did.

KH: It’s a great cast all around. They’re all magnificent.

UM: Do you like the Woodford Theatre experience?

KH: I have to say I don’t believe I’ve ever worked on a show where I’ve felt more supported. The theatre itself is a terrific facility, and everything is carefully planned and you have a network of people that makes everything work well. Woodford has their own space, great technical elements, designers and technicians. It’s a fully-functioning theatre.

UM: Support and freedom to create is so important, isn’t it?

KH: It’s a huge part of process. It’s one of the marvelous things about working with Joe Ferrell. We’ve done so many shows together now and as a director he is superb at creating a space, an environment where you feel safe and you can really do your best work.

UM: You mean he lets it be what it is?

KH: There’s guidance and direction, of course, but he let’s you experiment and find the character and voice that will bring a truthful and watchable character to the audience. Many directors are not like that. So, yes, I’ve grown as an actor since I played George before, Woodford is doing some amazing work, and it’s great to work with Joe. The foundation is there and a highly-supportive environment. It’s interesting, Joe has always managed to draw people together in an group of trust and creativity. You feel safe taking risks and you don’t feel like you’re being judged. The magic happens. He allows it to be a natural growth of the people and the words. It’s rare in directors, actually.

UM: I suppose there have to be a number of elements to make sure the show works and the house stays packed.

KH: That’s always the balance. Trish has built a huge and loyal audience and the productions stay full. The practical element of feeling safe must play to ticket sales. It’s a hard thing to do, to produce theatre. It’s expensive, even in those cases when shows are not paying everyone their full value.

UM: What do you value a lot in the craft? For yourself, or from other actors.

KH: Being prepared, ready to go. I use the same warmups Russell Henderson  and others at UK taught me 30 years ago. Getting on with the work. Being real and truthful.

UM: Living truthfully under imaginary circumstances, the old Meisner adage. More good theatre for everyone.

KH: More good theatre for everyone.

 

UM: Going deeper, Kevin: what is it that has kept you in the theatre so long?

KH: That’s hard to say. I know my passion for the theatre came first as an audience member at the Diner’s Playhouse, which is now defunct. My mother would take me to all the shows. I remember being 10-12 years old and being mesmerized. Mr. Roberts was at the Diner’s, and I remember that show really affecting me. In high school I was cast in a play and I found self-worth and much-needed involvement in something I wanted to do. When I moved on to UK Theatre, I played Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. I was 17. I had found this thing that was central to my life. Maybe I would’ve felt the same way if I went to law school.

UM: Perhaps, but do you subscribe to the notion that performance is something you’re born to and can’t escape?

KH: Definitely. There’s no escape.

UM: It wasn’t long after UK that you went out west, right?

KH: Yes, I had the privilege to work as a professional for a number of years out in LA. Actually, I was in a touring production of Biloxi Blues and I found an agent in LA and went where the work was.

UM: Film work. Heathers; Happy Together.

KH: I was fortunate to work.

UM: Film, stage, video, it doesn’t really matter, does it?

KH: Not really. The work is what always draws me. Chautauqua is a three-year contract. One of the real values in taking the show all over and sometimes taking it to this little nook or cranny is that some of these people have never seen a live theatre performance. That sounds unbelievable, but there are many parts of this state where people have not seen live theatre.

UM: That’s amazing. It makes you wonder the impact you’re having on people through the arts. I mean, we all set values differently. If you had never experienced live theatre and then someone came along and gave you a good show, you just wonder how you’re shaping that person in their thinking and what they choose in life.

KH: Absolutely. I was doing a Daniel Boone performance, and afterward a little girl came up to me. Her head was shaved and she was clinging to me after the show. 

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UM: She was living with cancer, you mean?

KH: Not sure. She was sick.

UM: And something spoke to her in your performance?

KH: Right. It was a powerful moment for me. I remember wondering how what I was doing must be helping her in some way.

UM: Perhaps she was having a similar transformative experience to what you had back at the Diner’s Theatre. That’s the job, isn’t it? Being present in a truthful way, and transporting people to another place.

For more info on tickets, times and the show, please visit: woodfordtheatre.com. And visit the show’s Facebook page.