Approaching the alley entrance to the Hypocrites’ Ravenswood rehearsal room, I hear the faint sounds of “Three Little Maids” from W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s The Mikado seeping through the doorway. The Hypocrites are preparing for their Gilbert & Sullivan Rep: a third annual mounting of their acclaimed production of The Pirates of Penzance performed in repertory with a new adaptation of The Mikado by Kevin O’Donnell and director Sean Graney. Both pieces are performed promenade style, with audience members free to roam among the actors.
Filled with discarded televisions, wood planks and a mannequin wearing a Roman centurion’s helmet, the garage is strikingly different from the company’s performing space in the Chopin Theatre basement. It’s also a far cry from the expansive beach locale created by Pirates scenic designer Tom Burch (Michael Smallwood designs The Mikado’s circus-inspired setting). “We get a vocabulary of movement and patterns” during rehearsal, cast member Christine Stulik says, “and those will be applied. But a lot of work will be done [in the Chopin].”
The cast of ten actor-musicians sings and plays instruments while sharing the stage with audience members, so the performers have to be prepared for anything, from patrons unwilling to move when directed to children more interested in throwing beach balls than watching a show. It’s a daunting task, but the rehearsal’s relaxed mood and general sense of fun make the complicated proceedings appear effortless.
Graney’s productions aim to emphasize community within the theater, which has been amplified in past Hypocrites shows by promenade staging. “Promenade is actually a lot easier to rehearse than a lot of people think,” Graney says. “Everybody has the tools for being in a room with a large amount of people. But as a performer in a promenade show, you just have a certain degree of responsibility for them.”
With two shows, the actors take on even more responsibility. Four cast members met with O’Donnell to arrange music during a two-week summer “band camp,” and Andra Velis Simon, musical director of Columbia College’s theater department, serves as vocal director. “Andra just has a way of making things make sense,” says Doug Pawlik, who plays Frederic in Pirates. “It’s a very big group effort, so having someone there who’s really able to thread the needle through and not let anything get lost is just great.”
“[Promenade] is tons of fun, but it provides all sorts of new challenges that no actor who’s only been onstage in a traditional setting would ever encounter,” says Erik Schroeder, who joins the cast after understudying the first two runs of Pirates. “I equate it to having a dozen or so cast members who have never seen or done the show onstage with you.”
Creating an inviting atmosphere is the key to success, the performers say. Last summer, Pirates traveled to Boston as part of American Repertory Theater’s Emerging America Festival. The production proved such a hit it’s been asked back to close the theater’s mainstage season in May.
“The first year we did [Pirates] everyone was in such a panic,” says Rob McLean, the only Hypocrites company member in Pirates’ 2010 cast. (Stulik, Ryan Bourque and Matt Kahler have since joined the company.) “Everyone went through a phase of thinking this show would be better if someone else were playing their part. So to get that kind of reception [at A.R.T.] was such a validation of what we all went through.”
The Gilbert & Sullivan Rep begins previews Wednesday 21. See the-hypocrites.com.