While the Winter of 2014 will go into the history books as one of the coldest in recent history, it couldn’t be hotter than at Pit & Balcony Theatre, where their recent landmark production of A Raisin in the Sun raised over $900 in concessions donated to the East Side Soup Kitchen, along with 20 blankets to the City Rescue Mission, and was packed both weekends, despite frigid temperatures and snowy roads.
Moving forward with their 82nd Season, Director Brandon S. Bierlein is now busily preparing for P&B’s next upcoming production of Greater Tuna, which only has a five-week production schedule, as opposed to the 6-8-week rehearsal schedule enjoyed by most productions, which is only one of many challenges involved with a play that features only two actors, yet requires each of them to portray eleven different characters.
According to P&B Board President Martha Humphreys, Bierlein is one director with talents to match the considerable tasks involved with properly rendering this ambitious production. “Brandon is an extremely talented director and Pit & Balcony is thrilled to have him working with us,” she enthuses. “He directed last year’s biggest musical hit, The Drowsy Chaperone, and is very inventive. I think he’ll pull out the satire that’s so pivotal to Greater Tuna’s comedic success. Brandon has an uncanny ability to zero into the heart of a play and he uses fresh, out-of-the-box thinking and talents to create a production that embraces the individuality of every character. He’s really gifted.”
With production dates scheduled for March 14-16 and March 21-23, Greater Tuna will feature Eleni Tsiors and JR Spencer as the two principle actors, Amy Spadafore as stage manager, and Jon Vanston as Bierlein’s assistant director.
Essentially, Greater Tuna is the tag line for the city of Tuna, Texas (the ‘3rd smallest’ town in the state) that is a fictional city where the Lions Club is too liberal and Patsy Cline never dies. It’s a satire on life in rural America and as mentioned earlier, is notable because only two actors perform over 21 eccentric and varied characters of both genders and various ages, which also poses considerable challenges for costume designers Anna Askew, Sarah McFarland and Dot Rogoza.
‘Greater Tuna’ is the first in a series of 4 comedic plays that were written by Jason Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard. Williams and Sears were the actors in the original 1981 production; and Sears & Williams also did a command performance of this work at the White House for President George & Barbara Bush.
“This play has a really ‘80s feel to it,” explains Bierlein, “and all three of the writers are from Texas, where this first script came out of a workshop setting comprised of Improvisational based games. It was a very innovative approach and spawned into these 22 characters that are portrayed by only two actors.”
When asked if it was difficult to find two actors up to the task of summoning the breadth of talent needed to each pull off 11 different characters, Bierlein says he was pleased with the wide range of talent that showed up for auditions. “We had a good turnout of 10 formidable actors and it was actually a very hard choice to cast only two of them; but I think I selected the two that are perfect for this production because they have a very strong chemistry working between them.”
After Greater Tuna first opened in Austin Texas in 1981 it played Off-Broadway in 1982-83 and by 1985 was the top produced play in the country for regional and non-profit theatres.
“Greater Tuna is totally a satirical work, but what’s interesting is that the comedy comes from how ludicrous the script is and how ridiculous the things these characters say sounds to a levelheaded audience,” reflects Bierlein. “The characters on stage believe what they say because this is their lives, so to them their words are very dramatic; but to the audience it’s totally satire. There are moments in this performance where the actors play all variety of animals, plus you have men playing women and 103 different costume changes.”
“I believe Greater Tuna has been done at P&B at least twice in the past decade, so for me it was important to do something different this time around when approaching this work,” he continues. “Given the number of costume and character changes, which are so integral to the show itself; I decided to showcase those changes by having a walkway that is scrimmed and lit from behind, so you have a silhouette effect with voice-overs, so the audience can actually see the actors grabbing a piece of costuming offstage and putting it on. This way they see the actor becoming the character before they even enter their space onstage.”
“This is a new twist I’m putting into this production, so the audience can see how fast-paced this needs to be. Costume changes are written into the script nicely so it runs comfortably, but I made the choice to highlight and let the audience see these changes because it gives the audience something different – plus I feel it enhances the richness and comedy of the script, along with the hard hitting dramatic moments.”
“The script is written in a way that because this is such a small town, all the people know one another,” continues Bierlein, “and there are two radio broadcasters that broadcast throughout the play and come back featuring ads for gun shops and high school competitions and poetry readings. Most of the script takes place from the perspective of Bertha, who has three children played by one of the other actors. Most of the characterizations revolve around the same group of people that go back and forth between one another. But it is also very fast-paced – one character will enter and another exist and within 30 seconds you see a new character on stage.”
“It’s very important for me that none of these characters bleed together,” notes Bierlein, “so my focus is working closely with each of the two actors. My style is working with a smaller cast because I like the intimacy of it; and I am very passionate about coaching actors, which allows me to stretch their boundaries. This is a lot of work for two people, especially considering neither of the have strong theatre backgrounds. Eleni did 1 year at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City; and JR Spencer has had very little acting training, which was a pleasant surprise because he is very natural and both of them have a good working chemistry with one another. One doesn’t overpower the other, which is nice to see.”
“There are lots of different personality traits for these two actors to develop,” continues Brandon, “so we’ve been pulling out different ideas of people that remind the actors of these different character types, to keep them all separate and different – plus we’ve found brackets of dialects online to get the vocal delivery perfected. Basically, we’re playing with each character variation quite a lot.”
Brandon says his approach has been to introduce 15 of the characters to the actors during the first week of rehearsal. “What works best for me is to do 10 pages of the script at a time and go through it slowly at first, and then go back run it over and over and over. Repetition is everything when honing a role.”
When asked what qualities Greater Tuna possesses that he feels will carry the biggest audience appeal, Brandon states: “The biggest drawing card is that this show is so damn funny. It’s the epitome of satire and also provides moments in the play where the audience has to set themselves out of this hysterical acting and laughing and actually look at these people as ‘real’ people going through struggles that are also very real. There are moments where the audience will stop laughing and say to themselves, ‘Oh, these are real people and this the drama involved with their life, as funny and ludicrous as it may sound.”
“To me this is what I find hugely appealing about Greater Tuna,” concludes Bierlein. “The audience gets to laugh hysterically, but also see how the drama affects their daily lives – the quirks they all have. It’s really an amazing play to watch. Right now we’re rehearsing three hours per night five times a week and have five weeks to pull it all off.”
“But I almost prefer opening quickly because that way nobody involved gets tired and the material doesn’t grow stale. We need to stay on such a strict schedule that it keeps things exciting.”
Pit & Balcony Theatre’s Production of Greater Tuna runs from March 14-15, 21-13 and for tickets you may call 989-754-6587 or visit PitandBalconyTheatre.com
16th November, 2023