Karen Sheridan, Director of “The Constant Wife” answered a few questions about her time and experiences directing at Meadow Brook Theatre, as well as what it was like to have Travis Walter as a student at Oakland University.
What was your experience teaching Travis Walter? (What was he like as a student?)(What did you expect to come of his professional theatre career?)
Travis came into our program when it was still small. I believe I was teaching the beginning acting class at the time. My first thought was to wonder how he found us. There tend to be more women than men in a theatre major in any university. And so it is encouraging when someone as intelligent and interested as Travis shows up. I remember his favorite play was A Walk in the Woods by Lee Blessing. It’s a two-person play about arms negotiators—an American and a Russian—and how their relationship develops over a year of negotiations. It’s a heady but brilliant play and one of my favorites, so I was immediately impressed with his good taste. J He was also a bit of a rebel. I remember having a “reining him in” talk with him early on. He was more interested in certain aspects of undergraduate education than others. I was the same way when I was in college. So, I recognized the syndrome and encouraged him to do the things that actually would get him a degree in theatre and not just selected experience. He must have known I was speaking from a place of understanding, because he appeared more focused on all of his studies after that. He was a leader as an actor and later we found him a VERY organized stage manager who was reining his directors in! His sense of humor was always a great gift to any rehearsal, and he tended to progress quickly working on any production, no matter his role. I always knew he would have a career in the theatre. I just didn’t expect he’d stay so close to his geographical and academic roots!
What’s it like to work with him now?
He’s been working at MBT in a number of capacities for many years, but aside from my coming in to dialect coach from time to time, my first project with him was the farce Boeing, Boeing three years ago. He cast me as Bertha the maid. It was a plum role and, as written, she is on stage during some of the funniest moments in the show. Travis LOVES to laugh and smiles most of the time. Any actor would love rehearsing a comedy with him in the room. The cast was polished at farce and so rehearsals were hysterical since Travis lets people try anything as they are working. He doesn’t say no to even the most outlandish idea. That is always fun for an actor.
So now, he has hired me to direct The Constant Wife and he is my “producer.” As a producer Travis babysits the progression of all departments to make sure things are on schedule and there are no snags as we move toward opening. He voiced his observations in auditions and sometimes drops into rehearsals. He roves from the rehearsal hall, to his office, to the shops to get the current picture. He has a gift of expressing opinions in an off-handed way in conversation. But, no one can miss them if they are paying attention.
When Travis called to ask me to direct The Constant Wife, he told me he wanted to have a female director for the project. He felt that our central character Constance’s situation might beg a woman’s touch. He gave up the opportunity to direct this wonderful play, to see what a feminine energy at the director’s table might bring to the story. I admire that strong sensitivity to the text.
How does it feel to be returning to Meadow Brook Theatre as a Director?
I was fortunate enough to be asked to direct And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank by James Still in 2005. It is a play adapted from the book “Eva’s Story” recounting Eva Geiringer Schloss’s experiences during the Holocaust as a friend and posthumous stepsister of Anne Frank. The project was unique as the person at the heart of the play came from England and joined us for 10 days, answering questions from the audience after every performance. This generated a group of survivors to volunteer to come after each remaining performance and tell their own stories and answer questions. Aside from working with the generous ensemble of actors and designers that brought the story to the stage, facilitating the talkbacks after each performance was one of the most profound moments I have experienced in the theatre.
Being asked to direct The Constant Wife is a different kind of invitation. It lets me explore this unique work that will surprise its audiences with its forward thinking. Most people would not believe this was a play written by a male playwright in 1926. We’ve assembled an acting company that can find the fun wherever it hides, so rehearsals have been a romp.
What do you like about the Constant Wife?
W. Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife takes a whimsical look at double standards. The situations that pop up are unpredictable and unfold in all directions. Every character has a place in the social scheme of things and some entertain other possibilities. Scandal may or may not be alive in the Middleton household, but even the thought of it gets some folks’ knickers in a twist. If we do our job, the audience will ask themselves what they would do in the same situation, and will look at their spouse very differently on the way home!
Anything interesting you’d like to add for me to add about the show/you/Travis/anything? Any stories or comments that might be interesting for the paper?
Travis played a number of roles for me during his time as a student at Oakland—musical and non-musical. One of the stories that comes to me was when he played Manus for me in Brian Friel’s Translations. It is an Irish play, and Manus is a teacher living in the shadow of his father and in love with a spirited local girl. Manus has a limp which is less apparent to others than to himself. He lives upstairs in the hedge school and often has to go up to gather things for his father. We were getting close to opening and doing what is called a speed-through where the actors speak as fast as they can and do everything quickly without leaving anything out. It’s a valuable tool for finding new ideas and picking up the pace of the performance. We stopped at a certain moment and had to do it over and over again quickly. It happened to be a moment when Manus has to fetch something from upstairs. Travis tried not to complain as we watched him “limp quickly” up and down the stairs for about 10 minutes!