Interview with Jessica Stone
Also see Fred's review of A Funny Thing Happened on theWay to the Forum
Jessica Stone, electing and then suggesting that she cast only men for her upcoming production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, first discussed the idea when she and another actor were on the way back to New York City after having performed on stage in New Jersey.
John Patrick Walker, who was conversing with Stone, is one performer she has selected for her Forum contingent in Williamstown. So, too, is Stone's husband, Christopher Fitzgerald, about to play the slave Pseudolus, who seeks freedom. The musical for which Stephen Sondheim penned music and lyrics typically includes women.
"Yes, hookers and a dumb hottie," said Stone recently, speaking by phone as she was returning home from a meeting. "But, really, we women who act have had our share of playing these parts. It's actually a masculine show. I have acted in productions Nicky (Nicholas) Martin has directed and I've been assistant director for him other times. At first, he wanted me to be in the production but I asked if I could direct instead." In a prior statement, Stone said, "He wanted to be sure that I wasn't cobbling together a drag show Forum, which I'm not. I think drag is a beautiful art form but it's not the same thing as a male actor playing a female character. Stephen Sondheim also signed off on the concept once he was assured that it wasn't going to be mere camp."
Jessica Stone, while in high school in Rochester, New York, was in Forum. "But it never was one of my favorite musicals," she says. "Not like Annie." Excited to be in pre-production with the design team, she awaits three and one half weeks of rehearsal before the play opens on June 30th. "To me it's everything: exciting, unnerving, humblingand I am just so grateful for the opportunity." She has directed for the Huntington Theater's Breaking Ground Festival and elsewhere. The current WTF opportunity, though, is major.
Having performed often on and off Broadway, Stone sees herself "more as a storyteller. As an actor, I have always been interested in the entire story. I adore musical theater and am usually a purista conservative about it. Now, however, I am defending my insane, hair-brained concept. I am double-casting the men and I know many of the actors and have worked with some but not all. There's a lot of risk here. If you look backward at Roman comedies, you see that men were playing women. As I auditioned, the best moments were natural, not, for example, with anyone trying to bevel ankles. I have a kind of shorthand and similar sensibility with many of the actors I cast. I'm totally open to recommendations, too. It will almost be 'best idea wins.' And if the whole process is messy, it will be so in a good way."
Stone has many stage, screen, and television credits. These include Broadway turns in Butley, The Odd Couple and Grease. She speaks with affection of her recent time as the voice of Mrs. Sparklenose, a new "Sesame Street" character. Directing this type of production is a first for her. "I cannot believe how lucky I am and only want to do the actors proud. The place, too, is special for me. Chris (Fitzgerald) and I were married in Williamstown. We met doing Babes in Arms in New York. Now, I am directing him ..."
She intends to "plop the actors on stage in Rome," so those expecting a conventional setting will not find it this summer in Williamstown. Expect a surprise. She feels that "the stars have aligned for me to be doing all of this. It feels right and I respect the Williamstown audiences and feel they will be game. If not this way, then what? Isn't this what theater's all aboutshake it up, explore, push the envelope and see if something new works?"
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum will be presented at the Williamstown Theatre Festival June 30th – July 11th. Visit www.wtfestival.org for further information.
- Fred Sokol