UND grad student directs his first comedy in Burtness Theatre
If you go:
- What: UND Department of Theater Arts presents “Rumors.”
But, the play isn’t a drama. Set in 1990, “Rumors” is a laugh-out-loud comedy about four wealthy couples attending an anniversary party for the Deputy Mayor of New York. And when the guests arrive, they discover the host has shot himself in the ear, in what they believe to be an attempted suicide.
To protect the deputy mayor’s image, they create a cover story. But, soon they are tangled in a mess of lies and are desperately trying to protect their own reputations. Chaos ensues with deceit and misunderstandings.
“And it just sort of snowballs until the cops show up,” said director Brett Olson.
Diving into ‘Rumors’
Olson, a UND grad student, chose “Rumors” for his master’s thesis and has spent a lot of time immersing himself into the script over the past year.
“I wanted to do it because I think Neil Simon is funny, and I wanted to learn how to direct comedy,” he said.
Diving into the play, he has discovered that “Rumors” has much more physical comedy than he expected.
“For the people who like one-line zingers, they’re in there. For the people who like seeing people fall on the ground, it’s in there. For people who like seeing door slams, it’s in there,” he said. “He really does jam a lot of different styles of humor into one play.”
And, locking down those various comedic styles has been the challenge for Olson.
This is Olson’s first time directing a comedy. Last year, he directed “The Last Five Years,” a dramatic musical. It’s also his first time directing on the main stage. In fact, Emily Cherry, co-chair of the department of theater arts at UND said it’s the first time in many years that a grad student has been allowed to direct on the main stage. Most thesis plays are performed in a smaller theater downstairs.
“Usually, only faculty are up here,” she said. “Usually, we put (grad students) in the small shows because directing a show is a lot to manage and the bigger the space, the more moving pieces.”
But she said Olson has been very successful as a grad student, and with the timing and placement of shows, “Rumors” was a better fit for upstairs.
“We talked about it as faculty and thought he could handle it, and he’s done beautifully,” she said.
As Olson’s adviser, Cherry has been available for feedback and consultation, but she said she’s left the majority of the decisions up to him.
A student collaboration
And from figuring out the physical comedy aspect to perfecting the timing of punch lines, Olson said the play has been a learning process for everyone.
Senior Emily Wirkus agreed, saying it’s a new genre, a new director and a new type of character.
“Comedy is hard,” she said. “People who are really truly good at it make it look so easy, but getting jokes and getting punch lines and knowing how to build something up to get a bigger laugh than how it’s originally written, it’s been a fun challenge.”
With 10 characters on stage, there are many conservations and elements to time out, and the timing needs to be precise to hold the audience’s attention.
But, Olson said building the sense of jeopardy and high stakes has helped the actors get the timing down.
Wirkus added that the over-the-top characters in this farce have been challenging as well.
“Embracing the cartoon is sometimes harder than it looks,” she said.
Wirkus plays Chris Gorman, who is one of the first to arrive at the party. After discovering the news about the Deputy Mayor, she continues to throw back glass after glass of vodka to keep her nerves down.
“She spends the whole show just being a nervous wreck,” she said. “By the end of the show, she’s pretty tanked.”
First year grad student Joe Bussey plays Ernie Cusack, who is one of the last guests to the party.
“He’s an analyst. He tries to keep the peace, but ends up adding to the chaos,” he said.
Bussey said the biggest challenge for him has been finding some reality in these cartoon-ish characters.
“(The balance) comes from remembering they are real people even though they’re in these ridiculous situations,” he said.
But, the actors have tackled these challenges together by discussing lines and slight acting changes outside of rehearsals, Wirkus said.
“A lot of it is working as a group and as a team,” she said. “Once you’re sort of up there, there’s sort of a pulse going through the whole thing, and it’s going faster and faster as the jokes are building up, and you kind of feel that collaboration of working together.”
With the challenges, she said it’s really rewarding when they get to the end of the play and make the director laugh because she said that doesn’t happen often.
She said it’s also been really cool to not only grow as an actor, but be able to watch the director grow as well. Many of the actors have taken classes with Olson, and now they are seeing him apply those lessons and grow through the process.
“It’s like, ‘This is your thesis; we get to work on your thesis, and you get to write about it,’” she said. “It’s been a learning experience all around.”
Another challenge the cast has faced is getting used to the “loudness” of the decade in which the play is set. Costume designer Michelle Davidson said, “(The costumes) cannot be too loud, (with) the spangles and the glitter and every excess you can think of from the late ’80s.”
She said while researching the time all she could think of was the excess and the idea that greed was good.
“I wanted to reflect that,” she said. “That’s where all the glitter comes in and the big hair, the big shoulders.”
Some of the costumes include a full-length bright blue sequins gown, tight red sequins pants, a black sequins jacket with shoulder pads and blue velvet jackets.
Wirkus said she loves the costumes. “There’s something awesome about going out there and seeing your friends with giant hair and looking like a disco ball,” she said.
The fact that the play is a comedy allowed Davidson to have a little more fun with the clothing. She said if it was a drama, she probably wouldn’t have put everyone in glitter.
To add to the comedy, she also wanted to make some clear connections between the couples.
“Each couple has their own color, and they match one another,” she said. “In another show, you might not want to be playing matchy-match, but for this show, it works.”
With the style elements from the late ’80s/early ’90s, the costumes help the audience determine the time frame of the show.
“The set is beautiful, but you don’t really know when (it’s set),” she said. “When they come out in costumes with their big hair and dresses and huge shoulders, it gives us a sense of time.”
And, the loud costumes, along with the physical comedy, rhyming character names and all the little comedic bits, only add to the hilarity of the show.