is the grass any bluer...

is the grass any bluer...
on the other side?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

"The Impersonation of Being Ernest" Is Ready to Rumble

“What we talked about was showing new students and past students that if you just simply collaborate and listen to your fellow artist, you can put together an amazing product … but more importantly, you can put together an amazing PROCESS. Hence, that’s when you put yourself in a position to grow.” --  Henry Layton, about The Impersonation of Being Ernest, which opens June 2 at the Downtown Arts Center.

This Wednesday, Kentucky Conservatory Theatre opens a brand new show at the Downtown Arts Center, with Lexington's favorite stage combat guru in the lead.  However, when I asked Henry Layton to explain to me how The Impersonation of Being Ernest came to be, he took an unexpectedly long time to reply.  After an impatient bit of pestering on my part, he did finally answer, and it's easy now to see why it took him a while to do see, turns out it's wonderfully complicated.  It turns out this delightful production grew out of one of Layton's lesson plans last summer at KCT, the idea began to grow as he shared it with his colleagues at KCT, that enthusiasm quickly spilled over, and caused somewhat of an artistic phenomenon to blossom. The story of that year-long process ought not be told by just one person, because a collaborative spirit is the backbone of the play and therefore what brought it to fruition.  

The show itself is a good hour (83 minutes to be exact, but who's counting when it's so much fun?) of witty satire punctuated with physical action.  The comedic chaos is much akin to the opening of a musical Pandora's box replete with a beautiful dancing ballerina assassin, smarmy yet handsome men ready to fight for the one they love, clever videos, sound effects and plot twists that keep the interaction and silliness fresh.  While watching a rehearsal today, I was treated to superb choreography and campy comments that kept my ears on their toes so I could catch all the pop culture references with which the script, written by Spencer Christiansen, is peppered.  (Christiansen, who is also the Director, tells me he began the adaptation of the Oscar Wilde classic The Importance of Being Earnest after a discussion with Henry at Keeneland last October...but I'll write more about that, and his thoughts in blogs to come.)  

One of the most intriguing aspects of this production is the free exchange of ideas that the rehearsal process showcased today.  Everyone was having fun making their character as entertaining as possible -- for example Evan Bergman and Sharonda Piersall are hilarious as a daffy duo with a passion for each other reminiscent of Gomez and Morticia Addams.  At any rate, it was obvious that each cast member felt free to voice their opinions about what their character should or ought not do or say, a testament to the nurturing environment that KCT provides.

Nick Vannoy cuts a striking figure
KCT, which is the organization that brings us SummerFest, and which plants the educational and experiential seeds for the actors of tomorrow seems proud to plunge outside artistic parameters, and thus it's always refreshing to see what ideas or approaches they undertake each year.  I had heard about the show a few months ago and have watched the interest take hold as people wondered out loud about it. 

Layton, who teaches stage combat the Conservatory, explains that the idea for the spoof on Wilde's tale developed with one of his lesson plans from last year.  
However, he has a certain amount of uncharacteristic hesitancy in trying to define exactly how it all came about. "I know that might sound hard to believe, since I am actually in this show, but we created this show from scratch…and I mean that literally."

"Spencer wrote this script from the ground up. Now, understand we all collaborated to create the script/storyline but tried to stay with the original through line of "the importance of being Ernest". So, as I answer these questions I might step away from the ‘typing commentary’ to explain a few things.”
Stunt man Layton also is in demand for video game
motion capture ("mo cap") work

“We are doing a spoof on The Importance of Being Ernest. It all started a year ago when I was teaching stage combat and fighting for film class at the KCT conservatory last summer. I presented the students with an assignment -- that assignment was to bring in a scene that had conflict … any kind of conflict. Mind you, this class was already 2 weeks in, but I believe stage combat is the best acting tool out there, and I explained this to the students every day, every class, every minute, i.e., ‘the stakes never get higher than life or death.’  Hence, stage combat.  They all had already learned a pretty strenuous, aggressive, and highly physical fight, like I said, 2 weeks.  Once they had the choreography in their muscle memory, I had them bring in their scenes that had ‘conflict,’ (any conflict). Well, I had these two young women who were hungry as actors and were simply ‘on point’ and in the ‘zone.’  They weren’t the most athletic fighters in my class, but you could obviously see they wanted to achieve the reward of acting in a high stakes scenario.  So, they brought in a scene from The Importance of Being Earnest. THEY DID THEIR HOMEWORK.... and it was very inspiring. However, at the time I had no idea how inspiring it was going to be. So I started choreographing their fight. Now, here is how it gets interesting.  I didn’t choreograph their scene, I started choreographing their acting choices and their intentions.  Keep in mind, these are young women in high school.  It was actually one of the best collaborations I've had as a teacher.  We turned their daggers and swords into a compact mirror so they could fix their hair and/or make up, check to see if they had spinach in their teeth. That choice spawned other creative choices outside of the box.  That’s when I started to ask myself, ‘Am I the only person on this faculty/creative staff that should be directing these hungry/motivated artists?’ So I immediately went to Trish Clark, Sully White, Ellie Clark, just to name a few…and for the next 72 hours, I had these other talented instructors help these hard working young artists make their scene as amazing as it could possibly be (and they helped me... I needed a woman’s perspective with this scene). Having them help me and these two young women was probably one of the best decisions I've made in my 15 year teaching career.”
Director Spencer Christiansen walks the cast through
a scene during Friday's rehearsal. Christiansen also wrote
the script, which is peppered with pop culture references.

“So, that was more than amazing, and completely fulfilling.  Then, a few months go by, and Trish Clark has the brilliant vision to put on a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, and use only the talented people who have either instructed at the conservatory, or have graduated from the conservatory.  (You know Trish, she is kind of a visionary.)  So, I was automatically on board!”

Henry Layton, Sharonda Lynn Piersall and
Evan Bergman
Layton tells me that in the beginning, he wasn’t going to be in the show.  "I was only going to choreograph the fights…but then we kicked around the idea of Nick Vannoy and Jesse Hungerford being in the show…then kicked around the idea of adding a HIGH level of physicality to the show, ala ... me fighting Nick Vannoy and Jesse Hungerford. Well, let me tell ya now, I’m the only professional fighter/stuntman in Lexington…and if you’re a theatre and can’t get me, these are the two young men you need. So, I let that thought roll around in my head and jumped at the chance to get back on the ‘theatre’ stage.  I have already been performing in Los Angeles and New York since last summer, but I couldn’t pass this up.
It was at that point that Layton and his LCT fellows agreed they would have to add all of the aspects/curriculums from the conservatory to the show. "In other words, bring on the dancing! So we knew we had to get the most versatile/ talented dance choreographer in Lexington, Jenny Fitzpatrick. She and I have worked together before and we have all seen her work, so that decision was a no brainer.”  
After watching just a few moments of Fitzpatrick's work this afternoon, I wholeheartedly agree. She's a fine and fierce dancer and plays the wry Cecily role well, especially in tandem with Ellie Clark's Gwen.  She has boundless energy and agility and is simply a joy to see perform.  That is due to the fact that every remark is meant to either deliver a punchline or set one up.   The whole cast mingles nicely with one another and constantly crack each other up as they perform.

Layton adds, “and I can’t express this enough, we have all collaborated on the dances, fights, acting, costumes and scripts. And yes, I mean scripts -- we have put so much of our lives into this show, it has caused us to go through more than 5 different scripts…but it’s been a good thing. lol.

If asked to describe the show, Henry would say, “its a hilariously funny, highly physical spoof on the contemporary pop culture/007/James Bond /Bourne Supremacy/Naked Gun/ Mission Impossible/Brad Pitt/Tom Cruise/Bodyguard ala Kevin Costner-Whitney Houston/Ke$ha/Beyonce/the Geico commercial guy /Lady Gaga. We are using stage combat, stunts ,dancing (tango, hip hop, rock and roll), special effects, videography - and so much more."
Jenny Fitzpatrick's entrance into
the play as Cecily is much like
watching the ballerina inside
a music box...Pandora's music box,
that is, for it is utter and completely entertaining
chaos from the moment she steps into the scene as
as a sexy assassin.  Fitzpatrick will be
choreographing and coaching the cast of
 SummerFest's Frankenstein this July.

The same collaborative spirit led to the choices of accompaniment. “We have all provided the ideas behind the music -- instructors and students alike. One example is when I was in Los Angeles doing stunts for a video game and I heard a guy sing the song Girl, You Be Killin' 'Em.  What’s funny is, he was simply looking at a good looking girl…but I had just gotten of a conference call with the cast and we knew we had to find a way to introduce Jenny Fitzpatricks' character (she is a sexy assassin).  We had added a spy/secret agent aspect to the show and I knew right then and there that Jenny's character had to be introduced as a sexy/spy assassin with this song…and if you add in her dance ability, I knew it was gonna be pretty funny …or fitting," he laughs.
KCT’s press release regarding the show describes the production as also being used as recruitment tool.  Henry confirms, "We have already gone out to several high schools presenting scenes/fights/dances from the show, but what we talked about was showing new students and past students that if you just simply collaborate and listen to your fellow artist, you can put together an amazing product…but more importantly, you can put together an amazing PROCESS. Hence, that’s when you put yourself in a position to grow.”

Layton tells me although he hopes to, he’s not sure if he’s teaching at KCT this summer.  “I know I will be working in Los Angeles performing stunts I have already been contracted for. If I can work it out, though, of course I will teach at the conservatory. It’s the best job I've ever had.

Does Henry Layton
have another secret talent?
"I cant think of any secret talents right now.
Guess I'm a one trick pony," he laughs.


..........aka MUFFINS ROYALE
.............aka GWINNYFINGER

Kentucky Conservatory Theatre is taking The Importance of Being Earnest; A Trivial Comedy for Serious People by Oscar Wilde, first produced in 1895, and turning it RIGHT SIDE UP for a contemporary audience of 2011. Intended as a recruitment tool for Kentucky Conservatory Theatre’s summer intensive, the play showcases teaching artists, alumni and students of the Conservatory. Adapted by Spencer Christensen, The IMPERSONATION of BEING ERNEST is a hilariously funny, highly physical, ultra-modern spoof on contemporary pop culture, 007 and the trivial aspects of living in today’s modern society. 

Visit Facebook page - Who is Jack Worthing - or follow on twitter @GLAMFairfax.

Wednesday June 1st through Saturday June 4th @ 7:30
& Sunday June 5th @ 2:00

The Downtown Arts Center
141 East Main Street, Lexington

(859) 225-0370
$15 Adults & $10 Students & Seniors
Discounts apply for groups of 15 or more

On Stage:
Jack Worthing– Henry Layton
Algy Moncrieff– Jesse Hungerford
Lane – Wilson Shirley
Lt. Fairfax – Nick Vannoy (in drag)
Gwen Fairfax – Ellie Clark
Cecily Cardew – Jenny Fitzpatrick
Dr. Chausable – Evan Bergman
Ms. Prism – Sharonda Lynn Piersall
Dancers – Paige Mason, McKenzie Claypoole

Behind the Scenes:
Producer - Trish Clark
Director - Spencer Christensen
Fight Director - Henry Layton
Choreographer - Jenny Fitzpatrick
Rehearsal Consultant - Sully White
Videographer - Natalie Baxter
Costume Design - Wes Nelson
Lighting Design - Todd Pickett
Stage Manager - Lisa Blevins
Asst. Stage Manager - Emma Ireland


It was interesting to me to see how, during the rehearsal today, everyone took their role seriously and yet there was an air of liberation about their interpretation of same. As for leadership, Spencer would work out scenes when direction was needed; Henry immediately commanded fight details, and Producer Trish Clark, as always, was the proverbial glue that held it all together.  It's apparent that each cast member is permitted to develop their character on their own, and that freedom fosters an on-stage chemistry that is undeniably compelling.  Perhaps you will be looking for something fun to do after the holiday weekend is through. I hope you will make a reservation at the Downtown Arts Center to see this unique play.  It is sure to appeal to audiences young and old, will tickle your funny bone and hopefully cause you to reconsider the works of Oscar Wilde, the opportunities that conservatories like KCT provide, and the possibilities that happen when people begin to listen to one another and work together. 

I hope to post a few more blogs about The Impersonation of Being Ernest with notes from Spencer Christiansen as well as Trish Clark, but in the meantime, thanks for reading -- and have a lovely holiday weekend, lambchops!
See you at the show,

No comments: