‘See How They Run’ so fast at Hale Center Theater Orem
What makes a comedy funny? The question is dangerous territory according to E.B. White (“Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog -- you understand it better but the frog dies in the process”).
But for director Barta Lee Heiner, one important answer is simple: pacing. Comedies, she said, should be played faster than dramas.
“A lot of it has to do with pacing,” Heiner said in a phone interview. “You can take a Shaw piece that’s a comedy, and if you play it really slow, it will seem like Eugene O’Neil.”
She said that directing a comedy -- like “See How They Run,” opening this week at the Hale Center Theater Orem -- often involves turning up the speed dial on the actors.
“Getting comedy timing is sometimes harder than drama,” she said. “Comedy has a faster rhythm than drama, and so you have to get (the actors) up to that speed. And sometimes they’ll go, ‘Wow, that seems really fast,’ but you go, ‘Hey you need to go that fast, and then if the audience laughs you need to hold for the laugh and then you need to keep going.’ ”
Carolyn Hartvigsen, who plays Miss Skillon in the show, said that Heiner’s need for speed made her performance -- and the show -- better.
“Some great directors who I’ve worked with, including Barta, have had this mantra that comedy needs to be ‘louder, faster, funnier.’ Those three words together,” Hartvigsen said. “But especially when you’re doing a British comedy, it really just clips along.”
“See How They Run” marks Heiner’s first directorial job outside of BYU since her semi-retirement from teaching acting at the university. (She’s teaching one class in the summer term now, and will fully retire Sept. 1.)
It didn’t take long before the Hale Center Theater Orem came knocking on her door.
“They’ve been interested in me directing shows before, but I haven’t had the time,” Heiner said. “And so finally I had an opening, and so they asked me to direct. It was fun to work with them.”
I was curious how directing a play at a university might be different than directing a play at an independent company like HCTO.
“I’ve got four of my former students in the show, so that’s kind of fun, but I’m also working with other actors that I haven’t worked with before,” Heiner said. “When you’re working with a university group, you’ve got students that usually are playing the older roles. But in this one, I’m able to work with people who are the right age.”
Heiner directed “See How They Run” at BYU once before, so this is her second go with the material, but her particular directorial style means she still wants to discover this version with these actors.
“You try to leave yourself open for what the new actors can bring to the show,” Heiner said. “So you might have some preconceived ideas, but I try to hold off on them as much as possible to see what the other actors come up with. And then if I feel certain things are not totally working then I’ll say, ‘Hey, you need to think about this, you need to think about that.’ But I do like to try to see what the other people can come up with so it’s not just me inflicting, you know, something previous onto somebody.”
Revisiting the material does have certain benefits, though.
“In directing it one more time I think I’ve been able to clarify a couple of things a little bit better,” Heiner said.
“See How They Run” is a British play that plays with social differences between different English-speaking countries.
“It’s just a fun comedy about circumstances and events that are happening and relationships,” Heiner said. “It’s an American woman who’s married to a British vicar after (World War II), and because she’s American, she’s not got the same social inhibitions that some of the British might have, if you want to call it that. The British are more proper and she’s more relaxed, and so there’s conflict that way.”
Jessica Pearce plays the American actress who married the religious figure in the British village and who causes a stir about town.
“She married a very conservative vicar and now she’s in a little tiny British village expected to act the part of the vicar’s wife, and she’s quite controversial in the community,” Pearce said. “She’s very loud, she goes about wearing pants where everyone else is wearing skirts, she swears and nobody else does, she’s creating quite a bit of tension in the village.”
Hartvigsen said that playing a British character provided unique acting challenges, especially at the comedic speed.
“I always get a little bit nervous playing British characters just to make sure that my accent is right,” she said. “We’ve been working really hard on making sure we’ve got really clear diction while saying the words quickly, to keep up the tempo.”
She said that putting on the show, despite the hard work, has been a fun experience.
“I absolutely adore working with Barta Heiner and everybody at the Hale,” Hartvigsen said. “It’s going to be quite the funny show.”