Monday, November 7, 2011

Ron Emmons Takes on SIRENS and Its Mysteries

As you all probably know by now, I have been working on Heartland Theatre Company's current production, a warm, sweet romantic comedy by Deborah Zoe Laufer called SIRENS. That's why I'm able to give you more of a behind-the-scenes look at this show, including interviews with the cast and now director Ron Emmons (pictured at right.)

Emmons is an actor, director, and member of the Board of Directors for Heartland Theatre Company, as well as the president of the Illinois Theatre Consortium and an adjunct professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, where he teaches writing and dramatic literature.

Ron, I know you’re originally from the East Coast and I think New Jersey, since you played a Jersey character before on stage and you seemed to identify with the accent. How long have you been in Bloomington-Normal?

I was born in a seaside community in New Jersey and started my teaching career there, but moved to the Boston area six years later. Then, after 40 years of teaching I retired and, having just married Dr. Linda French, came here 10 years ago when she became the astronomy professor at IWU.

How did you find Heartland Theatre? What was your first show at Heartland?

I discovered Heartland Theatre a few months after we arrived. I was looking for good theatre and saw a review (was it yours?*) of THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE. My wife had headed to do research in Chile for a month, so I came over on my own. I was impressed by the intimacy of the theatre and by the quality of the acting from Lori Adams, James Marlott and Carol Scott. I filled out one of Mike Dobbin’s famous green cards, told Mike about my experience directing before the move, and asked him if he needed any help. Fortunately for me, someone had just dropped out as a director of one of the 10-minute Funeral Plays. Mile explained that he had already asked someone else, but that person had not gotten back to him, so I wrote Mike immediately and beat the other person’s email.

What is your academic back ground? Can you tell us a little about your theater experiences back east?

I went to Monmouth University in New Jersey and got very involved in acting in the theatre program; however, I got my degree in English Secondary Education because no schools were hiring teachers of theatre. As an English teacher, I began directing plays immediately and continued to do so after moving to Massachusetts. I also became active in educational theatre organizations and served as president of the New England Drama Council.

You act as well as direct, with performances in the 10-Minute Play Festival and in the Discovery Walk at Evergreen Cemetery. Which do you prefer?

I gave up acting after graduation because the time needed to teach and direct negated any possibility of rehearsals and learning lines. Then more than 40 years after my last acting job, Mike Dobbins called me and said he needed somebody to fill in for a sick actor in the 2005 10-minute play festival. I said yes despite the fact that I had my own show to direct and it was only 5 days till we opened. After that Judy Brown cast me in the Discovery Walk (I’ve now written 5 scripts for the walk and played 4 characters in the walk) and Nancy Brokaw and Lori Adams cast me as Grandpa in Lincoln Comes to Town. I’ve done a number of 10-minute plays as actor and director as well, though I never direct my own performance. I’ve missed out on the last two 10-minute festivals because I have been in York, England, where my wife was doing research, but this year, we’re heading over after the festival so that I can get involved again. After reading all of the plays entered as a member of the selection committee, I feel I miss out not being here when they are produced.

Do you have a favorite role you've played?

My favorite role at this moment probably was my first major one in college, Jimmy in THE RAINMAKER, but if you ask me that question next week, I’ll probably give you a different answer.

How about a favorite play you've directed?

I can’t really select a favorite play; they have all been my children, and I can’t pick a favorite. I will tell you that among them has to be this one, SIRENS. It is a wonderful blend of comedy and seriousness, of reality and fantasy. Among my other favorites was a play I wrote (an updated version of TWELFTH NIGHT) with my oldest daughter, Jenna, playing Maria with a new Jersey accent. I also loved directing a number of plays with Nancy Walls, who went on to "Saturday Night Live" and "The Daily Show" and went on to marry Steve Carell. I can tell you my favorite musical to direct, one that I would do again in a minute if anybody asked. That was GODSPELL. I directed about 10 productions, and every one was different and fun. I even did one production with my daughter in the cast and my wife on electric bass.

What would you like to tell potential audience members about SIRENS?

I would tell potential audiences to come prepared to see some excellent acting. Comedy isn't easy if you want to create real characters. This cast makes the comedy work while still presenting real people to the audience. An added difficulty in this show (and one of its strong points, as well) is the fantasy nature of the script.

I would also tell people coming to pay attention to the music from the minute they enter the theatre until they leave. It is, indeed, a unique creation of Matt Callahan for the original production of SIRENS. That’s all I’ll tell anyone about it until after the show.

SIRENS is a whimsical romantic comedy with some serious issues underlying the comedy. Is that tough to direct?

This is a difficult show that has been made easy by a marvelous cast and crew. My thanks to you for bringing the script to the attention of the play-selection committee at Heartland; to the production team of Michael Pullin, Brianne Berogan, and Tommy Nolan for creating the fantasy world on stage; to Rachel Krein for helping steer the play through rehearsals.

When I asked Ron what he thought SIRENS was really about, he directed me to the program notes where he answered that very question. So here is what Ron Emmons has to say on the issue of what SIRENS is about....

“So, Ron, what’s this play SIRENS about?” I have dreaded that question and, because I want everyone to come and see it, I have had to give different answers to different questioners.

Were I to say to someone that it is a play about a man’s mid-life crisis, the reaction might well be, “Oh, another of those. Been there; done that.” Much the same kind of reaction might come if I were to say that it’s about a woman’s thoughts about how different her life would have been if she had married a different man, or about a person dealing with writer’s block, or about the difficulty of keeping passion alive in a marriage of 25 years.

A different but no more positive reaction might come if I told one of my students that SIRENS has roots in the story of Odysseus and Penelope, or that it places a contemporary face on the Sirens of Greek mythology. “Oh, yeah, we had to read about that in high school. It was boring.”

Yet, Deborah Zoe Laufer’s SIRENS is all of those. It is a fantasy, and like all good fantasy plays, it is rooted in reality, a reality that strangely includes all of the responses I’ve mentioned. My relationship with this script was love at first read. I always enjoy effective marriages of opposites: classical mythology and electronic solitaire, a New York songwriter and a Greek Siren, a knitting-addicted wife and a Facebook-addicted husband, the Mediterranean and Manhattan. I hope you will also enjoy this marriage of fantasy and reality, laughter and pain, temptation and commitment.

SIRENS continues at Heartland Theatre Thursdays through Sundays, with performances scheduled from November 10-20. To read more about the play, click here, or if you are ready to make reservations, you can click here. See you at SIRENS!

(*Nope. I didn't review THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE at Heartland. That was Patricia Stiller back in 2003.)

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