Comedy takes center stage at TIP this summer | AspenTimes.com
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Comedy takes center stage at TIP this summer

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

When, toward the end of last summer, the powers at Aspen Theatre in the Park began assembling this year’s program, the decision was made to spread laughter. In the face of approaching war, continuing economic gloom and potential drought, Theatre in the Park’s stage would be filled with fun.

Theatre in the Park is staging an all-comedy program this summer, a change from its customary balance of comedy, drama and musical. The TIP season begins this week with the opening of “Lend Me a Tenor,” a farce by American playwright Ken Ludwig, on Saturday, June 14. The children’s theater piece “The Princess and the Pea,” a new version of Hans Christian Andersen’s humorous tale of trolls and royalty, opens June 22. “Twelfth Night or What You Will,” one of the great Shakespeare comedies, begins its run on June 29.

“One of the difficulties in picking a season is trying to foretell the psyche of the audience nine months in advance, where their heads are going to be,” said TIP artistic director Alan Osburn. “Last August, we didn’t know if we’d be in a war, a drought, if the economy would be in the toilet. We said, no matter what is happening in the world, let’s do fun stuff.”

Do such outside forces really affect cultural choices? Do people turn to lighthearted material in times of turbulence, and to denser work in times of calm? Osburn believes that a national mood does have its influence.

“If people are watching CNN and seeing tanks rolling, they don’t want to see Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams,” he said. “They want to get away from that. They’ll go see a movie instead.

“If all that stuff is not going on, they don’t mind reflecting on the human condition and seeing ` ‘night, Mother.'”

Osburn himself isn’t about to have a lightweight season. Unlike seasons past, when he directed one play a summer, Osburn will be directing both of the feature productions, “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Twelfth Night.” The decision, he said, was primarily a financial one: By not hiring an outside director or two, money could be spent instead on performers who are members of Actors Equity. TIP’s company this season features three equity actors: Denver Center Theatre Company member Marcus Waterman, and Neil David Seibel and David Ledingham, both local actors and TIP veterans. Osburn believes the money is well-spent.

“This is what equity actors do. This is their life,” said Osburn, a Colorado native who spent 13 years in New York and three at the Denver Center Theatre Company before joining TIP three years ago. “So as a result, they come prepared, ready to work. They adapt quickly to changes.”

The reduction in the number of productions – from the usual four to three – has its advantages, too. There is less time spent breaking down and resurrecting sets, a significant concern in the past. But Osburn is more focused on the benefit to the actors. The smaller schedule (though similar number of total performances) allows for a greater concentration of actors; 70 percent of the actors are in two shows.

“This year, actorwise, is the closest to having a real acting company since I’ve been here,” said Osburn. “I love that, and the audience gets a charge out of it. They get to see them do totally different things: David [Ledingham] is totally different in `Twelfth Night’ than he is in `Lend Me a Tenor,’ completely different. The audience loves to see that.”

And having just two main shows means less downtime between productions. In years past, actors could go 10 days between appearances. This year’s schedule has most of the actors doing six shows a week once the season gets into full swing. “That makes the whole show tighter, because they’re doing them more,” said Osburn.

In a busy season, Osburn figures to be the busiest of all. Since rehearsals began for “Lend Me a Tenor,” in mid-May, and for “Twelfth Night” a week later, Osburn has frequently been clocking 18-hour days, between rehearsals, preparation and office work. For now, it’s a frenzied existence as Osburn labors to get two shows up and running. Once they’ve opened, he says, his work is mostly finished. Besides, Osburn admits to a love of the rehearsal process, when a director gets to practice his craft most.

“Once I get into rehearsals, that’s my haven,” he said. “I love getting into the room. I always tell my co-workers, when I’m in rehearsal, don’t call.”

The final reward is in the plays that Osburn has selected. Though Osburn has seen productions of “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Twelfth Night,” he has never been involved with either play. In fact, “Twelfth Night” represents his first time directing a full Shakespeare play.

“They’re both great plays. Both of them, I feel really strongly about how well they’re constructed,” he said.

About “Lend Me a Tenor” – set in 1934, and centered around the mishaps of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company’s opening night production of “Otello” – Osburn says it is the rare example of a great American farce. “The Brits, French have done farces really well; the Americans haven’t done it very well very often,” he said. “This is one of the few.”

“Twelfth Night,” said Osburn, lends itself well to having a good time. The title is taken from the Christian feast traditionally celebrated January 6 – 12 days after Christmas. The play features bits from other Shakespeare comedies: mistaken identities, girls disguised as men, stuffy men countered by wits and clowns. TIP’s production will include a festival atmosphere, with fencers and troubadours, outside the tent.

Osburn expects “Twelfth Night” to fully challenge his skills. “To do Shakespeare, it’s like classical music,” he said. “Directing Shakespeare is like conducting Mozart, Beethoven. When you’re working with genius, you start with an obligation to not screw it up.”

Osburn appreciates the diversity in his summer’s task. “Lend Me a Tenor” is scripted down to the costumes; with “Twelfth Night,” he said, “There’s the words, and that’s it.”

New to TIP this year is the Summer Play Reading Series, with three Monday evenings devoted to unstaged readings of plays being considered for future performance. The plays – including “The Guys,” and two more to be determined – will be read by a combination of TIP actors and others, and will conclude with a discussion between the audience and Osburn.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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