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Jessica Stone on Staging Comedy: Directing Ripcord

JESSICA STONE BUILT HER CAREER AS AN ACTOR, APPEARING AT THE HUNTINGTON IN BETTY’S SUMMER VACATION, SPRINGTIME FOR HENRY, AND SHE LOVES ME AND ON BROADWAY IN REVIVALS OF THE ODD COUPLE, ANYTHING GOES, AND BUTLEY, AMONG OTHERS.

IN RECENT YEARS, SHE HAS BEEN FOCUSED AS WELL ON DIRECTING, WITH CREDITS INCLUDING A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM AND THE LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS FOR WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL. BEFORE REHEARSALS BEGAN ON RIPCORD, SHE SPOKE TO DRAMATURG CHARLES HAUGLAND ABOUT THE PROCESS OF ASSEMBLING THIS UPCOMING PRODUCTION.

Charles Haugland (Artistic Programs and Dramaturgy): Can we start with what attracted you to working on Ripcord?

Jessica Stone (Director): I’ve always been a fan of David Lindsay- Abaire’s plays, and this particular play is really interesting because it harkens back to his earlier work. There’s an absurdist comedic sensibility that cloaks themes of real pain and loss and need. That’s actually my favorite kind of storytelling. Humor is often misunderstood as just a lark or diversion when, in fact, it’s a tool to explore and reveal stories of very real stakes and deep emotion.

CH: Both as an actress and a director, you’ve primarily worked in comedy, but you’ve worked in a thousand different kinds of it. Has your relationship to the art of comedy evolved or changed over your career?

JS: I don’t know that my relationship to it has evolved as much as deepened. We use humor in many different ways for many different reasons. It can be escapist; it can be political; it can be satirical. The work that I tend to be attracted to, the comedy is used like a gateway drug. It is used to explore our darker impulses safely.

CH: We’re speaking almost six months before rehearsals will begin. Where are you in the process right now?

JS: I am actually prepping for three plays right now — one before and one after Ripcord — so it is both very early, and I am incredibly behind. I’m just beginning to wrap my brain around casting, and I’m meeting Tobin Ost (our set designer) in a few days to tackle our set. It is challenging because, while the setting is fairly realistic (a retirement home), there are great, absurd twists in the story. I want reality to feel absurd and I want the absurdity to feel real so... Good luck, Tobin.

CH: What guides you most at this early stage in making your choices?

JS: Set design and music are the cornerstones for me in the early days (and I have yet to brainstorm with our genius composer Mark Bennett). This stage is for creating the physical world from which our play can emerge. These are the days that help me clarify the tone of the piece, and it is difficult because it is not necessarily tangible in this phase. Once we’re in a rehearsal room and tackling tone with the actors, you have immediate results. When you are working on something with actors, we all feel it when we hit the sweet spot. It is inarguable. Working on our physical world in the early days feels a little more theoretical.

CH: Obviously you were here recently with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, but a lot of your history with the Huntington has been as an actor. Can you talk about how your work as an actor influences you as a director?

JS: As an actor, I was always drawn to larger elements of the story that were not my business. So, the answer might be: I should have been pursuing this career as a director much earlier. I may have been a director all along. I do find that thanks to the 20 plus years as an actor, for the most part I understand the bio-rhythm of a rehearsal and of a rehearsal process. I can also find different ways in to communicate with an actor, because I have been on that side of it.

The fun for me now, as someone who has been an actor for so many years, is collaborating with all of the designers which is something you never get to do as an actor — thinking about character through clothing, and emotion through music and sound. The world of lighting still mystifies me, and I am filled with awe at how lighting designers capture narrative and mood through light. That is super fun for me.

CH: Former Huntington artistic director Nicholas Martin helmed all three shows for which you appeared at the theatre as an actor [She Loves Me, Springtime for Henry, and Betty’s Summer Vacation]. Do you still feel his influence on your work?

JS: One hundred percent. I was in plays that he directed, I also assisted him on a few things as a director, but first and foremost, he was a dear, dear friend. In some respects he was a mentor — but he was really a friend. We travelled all over Europe together and spent many a night in our jammies watching television and gossiping and eating ice cream. On almost a daily basis, I think about him and how he would have handled something, how he would have hated something, how he would have loved something, how he would completely agree on my take on this particular topic — or not. I check in with him more often than one would think. He is a big, big part of who I am as an artist right now in my life.


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