A Steampunk Journey Around the World: Interview with Cindy Peak

It takes a lot of effort for a play to run like clockwork on stage – for the staging to evoke multiple locations if necessary, for the actors to run the gamut of emotions convincingly, for the action to resonate with the audience as intended.

All the work needed for all those gears to mesh together take place behind the scenes, and they start with the director and her vision.

Cindy Peak directed Encore! Encore!’s production of Jules Verne’s classic novel, Around the World in 80 Days for its 2018 season entry (Sept 7-16, 2018, to be precise.)

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Encore! Encore!’s set for Around the World in 80 Days at the Magnolia Theatre. Note the screen on which the projections were shown highlighting the steps of the journey around the world, and the circular rotating platform below, embellished with a compass rose.

Mark Brown’s adaption of Around the World in 80 Days has been delighting audiences in theatres large and small since 2007. The cast calls for a minimum of 5 actors to play the 39 characters who alternately dash or stroll around the stage.

You saw this play staged in Los Angeles.

Yes! Nancy Patton [her assistant director and stage manager] and I saw the Actor’s Co-Op production in LA 3 years ago. It was an amazing award-winning production. I loved the clever writing – the characters are immediately interesting and humorous – the quick paced humor is something I have always been drawn to and I feel it translates well onstage and engages the audience – the set and stage-business elements are visually interesting and sometimes surprising.

Jules-Verne-AdHow did you decide on the size of your cast?

The Actor’s Co-Op production used 5 actors…all actors play multiple roles except the one that plays Phileas Fogg. The character breakdown in the script calls for the other actors to play 2, 4, 9, and 16 roles!

Needless to say, those actors must be extremely versatile, able to play multiple quick-change characters and accents. It was amazing to watch but the actors were visibly exhausted by the end of the show!

We chose to have the four main characters do single roles and the rest of the cast plays 2- 3 roles each (for a total of 12 actors) and then we additionally gave small walk-on roles to 5 of our Production Staff (for a grand total of 17 actors to bring the show to life!)

The larger cast allows actors to concentrate on a more manageable repertoire of characters. It also allows more actors to be involved in the production and that has many positive outcomes. More actors involved translates to more creativity and enhancement of characters. And on a practical note, it provides more people to get the word out to draw in audiences!

British magistrates in India debate the fate of Passepartout, but Fogg has a plan

British magistrates in India debate the fate of Passepartout, but Fogg has a plan. Brinn McNally as Passepartout, Maya Jairam as Aouda, Bruce Dunn as Phileas Fogg, Michael Robinson as Judge Obadiah, Keven Nolan as the Court Clerk, and Scott McCoppin as Detective Fix in the guise of an Indian priest. Photo courtesy Gregory Stuart

The projections were designed by Mikeal Macbeth.

The projections were not part of the original script. That is an element that we added to enhance the background of many scenes. Mikeal and I met to plan the overall effect desired and then he offered several options for me to choose from for each projected scene. His animation of the map added so much to the audience’s ability to follow the route as the show progressed.  [Interviewer’s note: the projections helped keep track of where are heroes were at all points of their journey and enhanced the enjoyment of the production!]

You and Ryan Slowiak designed the set, with variously sized gears and clocks everywhere. Very steampunk.

 I thought that the steampunk design would add a bit of whimsy to the Victorian Era. The original LA production had a hint of that but we decided to take it a bit further in our production.

Ryan was primarily responsible for designing the flats that had “window openings”  in Fogg’s house and the Reform Club [for various characters to appear in the various countries in which our heroes found themselves].

The creativity of the cast also came into play here. MIchael Robinson volunteered to complete the wonderful arches with the moving bike wheels and gears. This was an idea that I had but didn’t have the means to make it a reality. Michael volunteered his additional time and talents and made it even more wonderful than I had imagined. The Narrator, Greg Stewart, made his own steampunk glasses and twirling boutonnière for his character.

We have wonderful costumers, Cathy Haldeman and Kelly Trupkiewicz, who added the [steampunk] embellishments to the costumes at our request.  Greg Stuart helped out again with access to a 3D printer so we could make lightweight gears that would be workable for costumes.

Passepartout will use his acrobatic ability to uncouple baggage cars from the train under attack by Indians and save the day!

Passepartout will use his acrobatic ability to uncouple baggage cars from the train under attack by Indians and save the day! Brinn McNally as Passepartout, Scott McCoppin as Detective Fix, Michael Robinson as Colonel “You’re not from around here” Proctor, Maya Jairam as Aouda, and Bruce Dunn as Phileas Fogg.  Photo courtesy Gregory Stuart

You adopted and expanded/improved some of the Actor’s Co-op’s staging.

The Actor’s Co-Op production had several elements that we used as well simply because they were “so cool” and added so much to the visual interest to the production.

They used the rotating platform – although they used it only for walking and we found that we could also use it to enhance movements on the trains and ships. We also incorporated their use of the “window openings” to represent multiple locations around the world.

The elephant, made from steamer trunks was also part of their production but we did change ours up a bit and liked our enhancements.

We added a round suitcase head – theirs was a rectangular suitcase, and steampunked him up a bit with the addition of goggles! We really enjoyed bringing him out again at curtain call!

You used a rotating circular platform as part of the staging

We were prepared to make the rotating platform from scratch for this production. However, one of our production team was acting in the production of Equus at Bas Bleu Theater. They were making a 12 foot square rotating platform for that production.

So we chatted with Bas Bleu and they agreed to loan us the square platform and our guy (Bob Illick) added the arcs to turn it into a 17 foot round rotator!

You decide to put on a play that was based on a book. Do you review the source material, or stick with the play script?

In this case, I did not go back to Jules Verne’s book. I did, however, watch three of the movies that were made to see if any of those had fun production ideas that might be incorporated into ours [as homages].

I did not end up using any of the information from the movies, however. They were so different from Mark Brown’s adaptation that they did not offer any additional ideas. Again a testament to the strength of Brown’s adaptation.

I have gone back to the original sources in other productions, such as Seven Keys to Baldpate which had several sources including the original book and several movie adaptations. Sometimes that is helpful to get ideas of how others have looked at the settings and costumes.

When you decide on a play to produce/direct, do you have an idea of what you’d like to do from the get-go, or do they come to you as you work with the actors and production crew?

Both answers are correct! I always have a fairly strong idea of what I want to see in the end. But I also like a solid spirit of collaboration with the production team as well as cast and crew. I am always open to the new/alternative ideas of others that allow us to enhance and embellish the production even more.

Encore! Encore! program for Around the World in 80 Days

Encore! Encore! program for Around the World in 80 Days

Did you have actors in mind from the Encore! Encore! troop, or did you hold auditions?

 I always have actors in mind because of past experiences working with them. I am careful not to pre-cast, however, because you never know what kind of new talent will come to the auditions and the result may be even better than your original ideas about casting. I think it is necessary to keep an open mind. In this production, we were fortunate to have several actors come to auditions that had never worked with our company before. About half of the 80 Days cast is new to Encore!Encore!

How did the production come together?

Eight weeks of rehearsals (3 evenings per week) and then 4 nights of tech/dress rehearsals at the Lincoln Center.

I divided this script into 5 sections – each about 20 pages long.

The first rehearsal for each section is used to block the movements of the characters.

We always do that first because the required movements can help memorization of lines. (For example, when I say this, I move here.)

For this production, we had 3 rehearsals (one week) for each section and the actors were off book for that section at the last of those 3 rehearsals. So basically, they memorized 20 pages per week. At the end of 5 weeks, they were completely off book for the entire script.

The last 3 weeks were used to work the more complicated scenes, to work on polishing their characterizations, and to add all the prop movements to memory (for making the train and the sledge and the elephant, etc. )

Our last rehearsal put it all together and then we had the opportunity to have 4 nights of rehearsals at the Lincoln Center – our first time on a full set – to put on the final touches before opening night. That includes all the lighting, sound effects, and video projections.

Did any actors suggest any “business” for their character or another’s, that you incorporated?

Yes several!

I always look forward to and encourage the actors to come up with stage business that is appropriate to their character. It is a way for them to put their own signature on their performances.

Examples would include the Narrator’s use of his cane,  boutonnière, and steampunk glasses to enhance certain lines. Or the vocal inflections and hand movements of Judge Obadiah.

Tabitha, who played the young Parsi, suggested the low bow at Fogg’s feet when he is given the elephant. Her knowledge of her own family heritage prompted that movement.

Did anything “unexpected” happen during rehearsals that you decided to incorporate into the production?

That does happen frequently in a production, and I know we had small moments where that happened and I’d say, “That was great! Let’s keep that.”

The only real big example that I can think of was once we got to the Lincoln Center and finally had the rotating platform to rehearse with. I did not expect the big movements that the rotator crew used on the typhoon scene.

We had practiced what we call “Star Trek movements” where the cast moves in unison to suggest movement of the ship. But the big movements of the rotator took that to a whole different level and made the typhoon scene much more convincing. I was so happy that they did that because it looked great!

The whimsical text and photos in the program add to the theatre-going experience.

We [Encore! Encore!] do like to do amusing things like the production team’s bio paragraph.

We have a writer on our production team who is very good at that sort of thing. (Veronica Brush has published a couple books 🙂 We often take our own headshots of the cast to keep them more uniform in appearance. I’m not certain who suggested we do it with steampunk accessories but we all liked the idea.

Playbill-binder

Any final comments?

I’d just like to add that when translating a production you saw at a professional theater in LA to a community theater venue in northern Colorado, you expect that you will need to make some compromises.

You may not have as great a set or as much talent in the acting base.

But in this case, I don’t think I had to compromise a bit. Our entire team contributed to the fullest and made this production exceed my expectations. That doesn’t happen all the time. It makes Around the World in 80 Days a very special accomplishment.

I owe a lot to the entire cast and crew for making that happen.

THANK YOU, CINDY PEAK!

Read our review of the Encore! Encore! production of Around the World in 80 Days!

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