With more than nine Fort Wayne Civic Theatre productions between them, local actors Kevin Torwelle and Cortney White have transformed into many characters – but not in the same night.
In the theater’s production of “The 39 Steps,” the two actors will each take on nearly 50 characters, from animals to inanimate objects, within minutes.
“It’s very physical. I’m already sweating in the first 30 minutes of the show,” White says. “But I wouldn’t trade the opportunity for anything.”
The Civic Theatre will present the fast-paced, Alfred Hitchcock-inspired mystery Saturday. The script boasts more than 139 characters, but only four actors make up the cast: Ted Rice plays the single role of lead character Richard Hannay; his female counterpart, actress Joyce Lazier, will play five roles; and Torwelle and White will play everything else.
With a minimal set and a countless numbers of characters, the actors play an active role in making “The 39 Steps” a unique creation.
“This is a big job. It was one of the biggest challenges I have taken on,” director Ranae Butler says. “These actors are working really hard, and we’re having a lot of fun. There’s no downtime – once the show starts, they’re off and running.”
The origins of the play are just as zany as the concept. The script, written by Patrick Barlow, was adapted from the 1935 Hitchcock film, which Hitchcock adapted from the 1915 novel by John Buchan. The Tony Award-winning play turns the actual drama into a farce by having the plot be portrayed by a small company theater that is attempting to take on every role within the story.
“The concept is that this is a little theater company of four people; the lead character is actually the head of the company, the female actress is pretty good, and the two other guys have not been holding their part of the bargain for a while,” Butler says.
“It’s so different than something like ‘A Few Good Men,’ where the script carries the show. The lines are almost exactly from the Hitchcock movie, which is not a comedy at all. The challenge is taking a serious plot and making it into a comedy.”
Since the play demands such an extensive amount of creativity, Butler says the auditions consisted mostly of improvisational activities that required the actors to break out of their comfort zones.
“Ranae is very physical, and she wants to see if you could follow instructions and see if you could do something off the cuff,” Torwelle says. “She had us do an obstacle course and she would say, ‘I want you do it as a giraffe or as a mouse or as if you’re leading someone else through it.’ She was looking at how physical you were and if you can play off of somebody else.”
Butler says the four actors she selected for the production have the enthusiasm and open-mindedness needed for the show.
“These four actors have brought so much to the table. For the auditions, we did almost all improv – someone even wrote on Facebook that it was the weirdest auditions they ever had,” Butler laughs.
“Once the people who were on the cast started to come to rehearsals, they began to understand.
“It just can’t be the director’s idea – everybody has to participate. I’m just not that funny, and I need the help of everyone.”
Butler says the creativity doesn’t end on the stage. A limited number of audience members can buy seats in the orchestra pit and may be called to help out with the show. She says the cast made the decision early on to include the audience, which adds another level of difficulty and spontaneity for the actors.
“We want to bring audiences closer since the Civic stage is really big. The play has a minimalist feel to it, and we wanted to bring the audience in to make it more intimate,” Butler says. “It’s just like a playground. People should come just to see the set.”
No matter what or who shows up onstage Saturday, Butler says the production will be no carbon copy. She is happy to sit back and let creativity take center stage.
“The one thing I told the cast is to not look this play up on YouTube,” Butler says. “We don’t want to re-create what somebody else did. That’s no fun; you might as well do a puppet show.”