The most successful works of art appear simple upon completion. The seams and rivets don’t show. The hours of struggle behind a piece are the artist’s own secret.
An audience might well suspect the work of art fell trippingly, full-blown from a creator’s mind.
By that standard — along with many others — the Guild’s production of Guys and Dolls this spring was a triumph.
It is only later, more than a week after the curtain dropped on the show for the final time, that one can really begin to appreciate the huge challenge of staging the event.
“I think it’s interesting to look at the difficulties we had,” says director Eric Epstein. “I mean we arrive and it ends up being all glowing, but there are always lots of little pitfalls and trials.”
Epstein is not complaining. In fact, he is very, very pleased with the accomplishments of everyone involved, and with the turnout — almost 3,000 for the 11 shows, including previews, that ran from March 29 to April 9.
But like all true artists, he learns from the mistakes and misjudgments, no matter how minuscule, and is eager to apply that knowledge to his next undertaking.
For instance, as the territory becomes ever more popular with filmmakers, experts on set design and construction are in much greater demand.
“Northern Town, shooting when it did, made it really hard to find carpenters and painters because they were all being employed for money,” says Epstein, who would have only been able to pay them in gratuity.
“And I’m just starting to know how far in advance you have to book great designers.”
Of course, there are the other usual headaches all productions everywhere always encounter: “little mini crises that had to be dealt with.”
Six weeks before the show was to open, the Guild had to go “Big Jule hunting” when the actor slated for the crucial gangster’s spot couldn’t continue.
The Big Jule they finally found, Al Macleod, “was from a totally different world,” says Epstein. “He had never done anything like that before.”
The climax of the story came to rest on Macleod’s broad shoulders. He rose to the occasion, handily.
“He had a very good sense of stillness, which is very hard for someone who had not actually been on stage, to enter into the simplicity of being still and how powerful it is….” says a grateful Epstein.
And who will ever forget Graeme McElheran’s Nathan Detroit?
“For a long time I didn’t have an actor to play Nathan Detroit,” recalls Epstein. “I had asked so many people around town who I thought would have a crack at doing that role, which is so central to the play and so much a role for a comedian.
“You have to have somebody who can play the comedy, the tension, the stress, so finding Graeme was a great coup.”
In fact, it’s impossible to imagine Guys and Dolls without McElheran.
Perhaps his biggest challenge was that Bronwyn Jones is such an experienced actor and was so perfectly cast as Miss Adelaide.
Detroit’s fiancé “is a force of nature,” says Epstein. An actor less talented, less dedicated and less kindled than McElheran could easily have been overwhelmed by Jones’ brilliance and power.
“They got some real chemistry going. They were able to check and block each other really nicely. There was a really brilliant interaction that did take place. Sue Me was certainly one of the highlights of the show.
“It was a shame Graeme did not have more to sing. He is a wonderful singer.”
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that the casting was a huge success, but at the beginning there were no certainties. Anything was possible.
“There is always a sense of doubt, worry and wondering,” says Epstein. “There are so many elements that are not in your control.”
A week before opening, the cast began playing with real sets, “and we’ve never had such a huge amount of scene changes” — from the New York streets to a Havana café, to a Salvation Army chapel — and all had to be accomplished “quietly, invisibly.”
The first preview night worked well. That’s traditionally a good night for a performance, when everyone is psyched up.
The second preview night, though, did what second nights often do, says Epstein. It slumped.
“It had a lot more air in it, gaps, pauses, people not picking up cues.”
Epstein, choreographer Lisa Stevens and producer Moira Sauer sat together in the balcony that evening. “I think on some level all of us were thinking, ‘Oh, my God, do we have a turkey here?’ We could see the good things, but the question was, would it all hang together?” he says.
“One of the qualities I try to nurture as a director and leader in this situation, is the ability to panic with dignity — the ability not to transfer the worry or whatever it is onto someone else — say, ‘OK, there’s a problem and we know we will solve it,’ try to get rid of that angst moment.
“There are times I get impatient. Sarcasm may be one of the ways I express that, trying to keep things funny — sometimes at somebody’s expense, but not in a traumatic way, in a teasing way.
“The thing is, they come back, they know what kind of show they’ve done. There’s not a lot to be said.”
In fact, the cast usually has a far greater sense of the flaws than the audience. Even on that second night, Epstein heard plenty of praise, plenty of appreciation for how all the elements came together.
“The difference between a good night and a bad night might be two per cent, but to the cast it feels huge.”
At any rate, it is obvious that everyone involved soon rallied.
For this Epstein hands out plenty of credit. “I look at the play I was directing and Dewi (Minden) had every bit as big a world that she was taking on with those musicians and adapting the score as needed….”
He praises Stevens’ strong work ethic, and her ability to bring dancers “into the zone” where they are all “on the spot in the moment” and “giving 100 per cent.
“Moira as producer had a whole bunch of details I didn’t necessarily know.”
Eventually, he has so much praise to hand out that there isn’t enough room in one article to name all the reasons and recipients.
But perhaps the greatest marvel is that the cast was made up of amateurs and a few professionals working as volunteers. They donated much of themselves in an age when everything and everyone else appears to have a marked-up price.
“I can think of every person in the cast and think of moments that stood out for me and what they did in the show that I really enjoyed — it accumulates,” says Epstein.
“They are getting something incredible out of experiencing working so closely with people in a group setting. It is quite wonderful that sense of project togetherness.
“You do end up understanding where you fit in and how important every little piece is. There’s nobody who is dispensable.”
And this is obviously the director’s most essential task: convincing each member of the cast and crew of that.
“The set, the lights, the stage, the theatre … don’t let it make you feel small; let it make you feel big; it’s there to support you,” Epstein tells the cast.
“You can just come in this place that is big and frightening and can find the confidence to say, ‘It is all there for me.’”
And it was all there for the rest of us too, a huge audience now champing at the bit for the Guild’s next season.