The Real Thing
by Tom Stoppard
Paragon Theatre Company
Kim Robards Dance Theatre, Denver
The Real Thing is a play about love and its imposters: lust, infatuation, familiar comfort, need. It is the story of one man’s evolution as a human being and as an artist. Through Henry’s journey from very smug, upper-crust British playwright with a wife and a mistress and a quick, witty jab always at the ready to humbled, passionate partner, husband and human, we get to witness a brilliant struggle to reconcile passion and intellect. Along the way the play also questions the cyclical relationship of art and life, the sticky coexistence of marriage and fidelity, strife between the upper and lower classes and above all, the question of what is real, what is authentic, what is worth making a fool of ourselves for and what is just semblance, façade, or a performance designed to look like loyalty or friendship or love?
“There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;”
– T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Ultimately, I would like for the audience to leave this production contemplating the idea that at some point in every romantic relationship there comes a time when the infatuation has run its course, the thrill is not new and one must from that point on deliberately choose to be with their partner. From that moment of truth comes a world of possibilities in which we can choose to be needy, choose to slip into a familiar, complacent cohabitation, choose to be annoyed by every tick or quirk or dirty sock on the floor, choose to resent, or choose to be passionately in awe of and choose to continue to grow with our partner.
We will set this play in the time period in which it was written and first produced: the early 1980s. As a decade is often distinctly split down the middle, with the first half and the second having very different characters, I want us to focus on the very early ‘80s, which are VERY different in style and tone from the later ‘80s. I also want to make our references very specifically British and European in the early ‘80s (1980-1983) and not at all American. This play has a very British sensibility and I think being true to that will help keep us from falling into 1980s clichés like neon colors, acid washed denim, cheap looking makeup and pop-art—just say no to these clichés! Instead we want to focus on clean lines, elegant, timeless styles from the period and use color very judiciously, leaning more toward classic neutrals and colors bleeding from the late 1970s into the 1980s rather than the bright turquoise and such that we typically associate with the ‘80s.
While being true to the time in which the play is set, I want to emphasize the play’s relevance today by choosing silhouettes and style references from the early ‘80s that still look stylish today. We can take advantage of the fact that the ‘80s have come back around in fashion and cherry-pick certain aspects of the period that will help subtly place the play in the time period while still appealing to our aesthetics today.
This production should feel sexy and stylish.
I really want to utilize the set to play with the idea of “what is real and what is a show?” To that end, I also want to utilize the fact that our theatre is a big ol’ warehouse and have our set resemble or suggest a big soundstage with multiple sets that are “ready to film” the various scenes in the play. It would be great to play with the artifice of TV show sets and the spatial relationship of studio audiences on TV shows and the sets for their shows. It would be great to somehow incorporate some of the trappings and equipment of a TV show set to somehow frame the different playing areas—probably not cameras, but lights and perhaps a boom mic or two, which could be practically utilized for the actual TV movie taping scene with Annie and Billy. Perhaps there are some clothing racks here and there, just off to the side of an area, “outside of the shot”? I would love for some of the “backstage” of the sets to be visible to the audience—reminding us to question what is real?
From the moment the audience walks in I want all of the areas where the different scenes will take place to be there, set up and waiting for the actors to arrive and the action to begin. I want the audience to constantly be questioning, “so is this the real play? Or is this another play-within-the-play?”
It is imperative that we have virtually no traditional theatre scene changes—no lights going to blackout and people moving furniture around in the dark. The actors will need to literally walk out of one scene and cross directly into the different area for the next scene. They can adjust a few things as needed, but I want to block these as motivated gestures that are part of the flow and plot of the play from the very beginning of rehearsals. An example of this could be Henry and Annie borrowing some pieces of furniture from the more permanent set areas for scene Three, when they are setting up their temporary “love nest.” The playing areas need to all be set and visible the entire time.
We’ll need 4 areas total:
- The House of Cards set, which will be used for Act I, scenes 1, and 3, Act II scenes 1, 5, 7 and 8
- Henry and Charlotte’s flat, which will be used for Act I scene 2 and Act II, scene 3
- The Train Compartment, which will be used for Act II, scenes 2 and 6
- An empty space with a “behind-the-scenes” look to it. This will be used for Act I, scene 3, in which Henry and Annie could “borrow” some pieces from some of the other sets and then Act II, scene 4, with Billy and Annie
Two practical things:
- It would be great to have lots of places to stow/store props in the furniture pieces that are on stage
- We have to design the set keeping in mind that the dance floor will have to be cleared between rehearsals and shows. Ease of clearing for the cast and crew is essential.
Lighting will be essential in helping us isolate the different playing areas, in establishing the convention of this whole space being a big filming set and in helping us transition between the different playing areas in a motivated way. The light design should take some tone cues from the music cited in the script—think splashy 1960s pop music. Don’t be afraid to use some color for a heightened sense of reality and mood. Let’s play with how lighting, like music, can be used to manipulate how people feel when watching a particular scene unfold.
“I don’t like artists. I like singles.” – Henry
I will, of course, be faithful to the playwright’s citations of particular songs in the script. We will have a 1960s and early ‘70s pop music singles extravaganza. In addition to the specific songs cited, I will use singles by other artists that Henry mentions and round it out with other popular artists with a buoyant, groovy feel similar to Herman’s Hermits, Brenda Lee, etc. Some slightly “heavier” songs will be utilized when appropriate, the most obvious example of this being “Whiter Shade of Pale” in that key moment between scenes 7 and 8.
For the Desert Island Discs radio show playing under the Max/Annie breakup scene, Taylor is researching some archives of that famous show on BBC radio and will either provide a transcript or write a script for Jay and Sam to record our version of Desert Island Discs. We’ll plan on doing this recording during the first or second week of rehearsal so that we can work with it early for the Max and Annie scene.
The key words are elegant, stylish, British/Euro, classic, sexy. Everyone, especially the ladies, should look GOOD. Want to honor the playwright’s hint that Annie looks like the woman that “Charlotte has ceased to be,” i.e. when we first meet Annie, she should look younger, sexier and more open and approachable than Charlotte—think Annie in dresses and skirts, soft and touchable fabrics whereas Charlotte will be in pants and blouses and jackets, still sexy and stylish, but a bit more refined and protected. Also along these lines, I’m seeing Charlotte with hair up throughout the play and Annie starting out with her hair down, then putting it up as she matures in the latter part of the play.
For the men we should play with simple styles that set us firmly in Britain. Max can be a bit flashier since he is an actor. Henry should have an inherent style, but be perhaps a little stylishly rumpled, being a writer.
For all of the characters, I am much more concerned about fit and cut and silhouette than I am colors. If you are willing, I’d prefer we keep an open mind about color schemes so that if we find the perfect fitting skirt or pair of trousers we can run with it rather than reject it because it doesn’t fit our color scheme.
The House of Cards scene and Brodie’s TV movie scene should have a heightened sense of being “designed”—a little showier than the “real life” scenes.
Props should of course be consistent with the period and should take style cues from the set design. The list is fairly long so we’ll want to get an early start on sourcing props.
Items of concern (to get a special jump-start on):
1970s record player with working turn table
1980s digital wristwatch
Paragon’s staging is an increasingly rare example of how a “concept” production can enhance the themes of a piece, rather than convolute them. By the end, our journey from confusion to certainty over what is real is complete. Which only serves to reinforce how utterly unimportant that distinction is in the cathedral of theater…Well-delivered, that’s as real as it gets.
It was almost awe-inspiring how perfect this production is in every element of its creation. Design, direction, and acting were all executed with a creativity and brilliant simplicity that teamed together for a common goal – to tell…Stoppard’s story completely and honestly…
Best Actor, Dramatic Role, Denver Post Ovation Awards: Sam Gregory
Best Season by an Actor, Westword‘s Best of 2010: Sam Gregory
Best Supporting Actress, Drama, OutFront Magazine‘s Marlowe Awards: Emily Paton Davies
Top 10 Productions of 2010, He Said/She Said Critiques