Back to the Fringe :: Paula Plum on Directing ’Romeo and Juliet’
Popular Boston-based actress Paula Plum has taken the helm for Happy Medium Theatre’s production of "Romeo and Juliet," opening Aug. 11 at the BCA Plaza at the Boston Center for the Arts. Plum’s participation as director of the production has been hailed as "building a bridge" between Boston’s large and small theater communities. But is there really such a gulf between the two?
"It’s difficult to incorporate the army of people who are fringe, or even to be aware of how much talent there is out there when in the professional union world you only have a certain percentage of non-union people you can use," Plum recounts. "What I have discovered is that there is such talent that is untapped--I have a company of people with such enthusiasm, talent, commitment, and underlying training.
"There’s a prejudice that exists: ’Oh, if you’re in a fringe theater company you must not have training,’ or ’You don’t have experience,’ " Plum adds. "Well, they are young, and they don’t have a lot of experience; but they are trained and passionate, and they’re incredibly hard working."
Plum came of age, artistically speaking, in the Boston fringe theater scene. "That’s how I started," Plum tells EDGE; "I was in fringe before fringe was fringe in Boston!" From there, her talent and hard work brought her to her current status as one of the area’s most respected stage performers. Plum has worked on and behind Boston stages for years, sometimes in the company of her husband, Richard Snee. But Plum has never forgotten her origins, and she maintains a sense of respect for the actors who bring theater to Boston’s smaller venues.
’John Kunz and I did shows at [a small local venue] in 1997--he was doing ’Freaks,’ I was doing ’Plum Pudding’--and, I mean, we were cleaning toilets and sweeping floors, doing our own publicity and printing our own programs," Plum recollects. "We did it all, and that’s what these kids are doing. They build the sets; they hang the lights. In a professional environment that doesn’t happen. The union protects you from having to do all that stuff."
Acting on camera
The actress has branched out from stage work and lent her talents to movies and television programs. For three seasons, Plum, who is also a voice actor, was featured on the animated television series "Science Court." She has also appeared on other animated shows, such as the popular comedy "Dr. Katz."
"All of those were improvisation," Plum said of the animated shows. "And the key to acting [whether solely via voice, on film, or on stage] is communication. It’s kind of vital that you’re able to see the person that you’re acting with. On a sound studio, you’re still in relationship to the other actors. The simple difference [when doing voice acting] is [the way] you’re being miked."
When it comes to acting before a camera, "it’s subtler," Plum said, as opposed to when one appears on stage. "On film and TV, you can tone everything down and the camera picks up the slightest flash; you almost don’t even have to think something, and the camera will pick it up," the stage veteran notes. "You really have to be aware of that. I’m filming a movie right now called ’Orchard House,’ which is an updated version of ’Little Women.’ My immediate instinct is always to use my full voice, but I have to remember that this is a film. Every nuance is picked up by the mikes and the camera. You practically don’t have to do anything. There’s an intimacy with the camera."
Stage work, Plum notes, requires one to be much more expansively expressive. "I just was in ’Private Lives’ at the Huntington," she tells EDGE."That’s a 1,200 seat house. You use your full voice and your full expressiveness to carry your performance to those 1,200 people. "
Acting and coaching
Like many actors, Plum also directs. "I’ve been directing since 1985, fringe and professional," Plum recounts. "I directed on the college level quite a number of times; I directed at the Merrimack Repertory Theater (’Jake’s Women’), Gloucester Stage (’I’m Not Rappaport’), and the Lyric Stage (’Baltimore Waltz’). Before, in the fringe theatre, I directed at the Back Alley Theater in the 1980s," namely, a production of James McLure’s "Lone Star and Laundry and Bourbon."
Indeed, Plum’s directorial resume is far more extensive than those few examples, including favorites such as "Steel Magnolias," which she directed at the Stoneham Theater, "Tell Me on a Sunday," which enjoyed a run at the Stuart St. Theatre, and "The Lady and the Clarinet," which was at the New Ehrlich Theatre.
And Plum’s slate of directorial assignments remains crowded. "I’m directing ’MacBeth’ for Actors’ Shakespeare Project this fall," she reveals to EDGE.
From Plum’s description, fringe theater is a good training ground for young actors.
"I was trained in stagecraft at BU... a thousand years ago," Plum quips. "I took lighting courses and costume design courses. I learned a lot about carpentry while building sets at the Huntington Theater, which was still the BU Theater at that time. That’s what these kids are practicing, a tremendous amount of stagecraft along with their acting craft.
Plum is also an acting coach. She finds that directing actors in a production is, in some ways, not so very different from instructing the actor’s art.
"It depends on the level of the actors," Plum notes, "but a bit of coaching always comes into directing, I believe, at least when I am directing. It’s inevitable that you help an actor find the way into a moment, but that’s also what a director does. There’s a bit of training that goes on; I’m teaching text work, sometimes to people who have never done Shakespeare. That’s what I do at Actors’ Shakespeare Project; I run a course with Jenny Israel called ’Shakespeare Workout,’ and we teach text work to, mostly, non-actors."
Teaching the ’Shakespeare Workout’ had the fringe benefit, so to speak, of providing Plum with one or two of the people who now appear in the cast of this production.
"I have a woman in my play who is a wonderful actress; she’s never acted before. She took the Shakespeare Workout because her 13-year-old daughter was interested in Shakespeare, and she wanted to know more. She came to our course thinking it was going to be academic, and discovered that it was an acting class! She turned out to be instinctive and natural. She has a gorgeous, resonant voice. She’s playing Lady Capulet. I brought a lot of these actors who are coachees of mine into the production; I’ve trained them, and I know them. They are ready to perform."
Plum is well versed in both stage direction and Shakespeare’s plays; EDGE wondered how directing the Bard, as opposed to acting, changed her view of the material.
"There’ s lot more research when you’re and director," Plum allowed with a laugh. "Let me put hi this way--I don’t think directing Shakespeare is that different from directing anything else. You really have to have a comprehensive view of every character’s journey. With Shakespeare you have so many more characters to follow, and you have to make sure that every journey is clear. The brilliance of Shakespeare is that even the smallest character has a journey. We’ve been tracing the journey of Peter the Servant in ’Romeo and Juliet,’ to make sure that it’s clear because the woman who’s playing Peter is doing a cross-gender read on the part as a woman servant, and I want to make sure that her story is clear: She’s got the smallest role in the play, but she’s significant, because Shakespeare has given that character a story.
"There are all sorts of psychological twists and turns in a Shakespeare play that are truly human," Plum reflects. "Shakespeare was the first playwright to bring that to the stage."
Given the Shakespeare is presented in so many styles of interpretation--it’s not all Elizabethan garb these days--EDGE wondered how Plum planned to put her distinctive mark on the classic work.
"What I’ve discovered about his play is that you might have no idea how much comedy there is in ’Romeo and Juliet,’ " Plum said excitedly. "I’ve been advocating for my actors to think about the whole first half of the play as a comedy. I mean, you have incredibly wonderful, deliciously humorous characters in Mercutio, the Nurse, Friar Lawrence, and Benvolio. And Romeo has so much wit.
"And there is a scene that has almost never been done, just before they discover Juliet’s body, after Juliet swallows the potion that simulates death. They are preparing for Juliet’s marriage to Paris, and they’re up at three in the morning cooking! I’ve never seen that scene presented onstage. It’s probably usually cut for the sake of time, but it is hilarious. They’ve got a recipe and they can’t seem to follow it. As he often does, Shakespeare leavens the tragedy of this play with plenty of humor; originally, it was for the delight of the groundlings, but we find this balance of darkness and light in the play."
And will we be seeing this seldom-performed bit of comedy in Plum’s take on the play?
"Oh, yes!" Plum said, laughing. "I feel that the best way to tell a story is through comedy, even if it’s a tragedy."
Asked what her personal feeling is as to the essence of ’Romeo and Juliet--what the play is, what it means, why it has moved audiences so for four centuries and come to stand as the archetypical story of romance--Plum offers, "It’s kind of a cliché, but love is big and powerful enough to mend the rancor of enemies." As for the play’s romantic element, "It’s about young love," Plum points out. "These kids are supposed to be fourteen and fifteen years old. They are very young and idealistic; their love is untainted and pure, and it’s the discovery of that passion for the first time for each of the two of them. That resonates with everyone: The first time you really fell in love with someone."
As an example, Plum cites Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film version of the play. "That film is exquisite. It really is about the youth of these characters," Plum notes. "My Romeo is a bit older; we’re working on his ’adolescence,’ but the impulses are very young."
EDGE hearkens to a more recent film version, "Private Romeo," about two young men at a military academy who become romantically involved, in defiance of military culture and the school’s grouping of the students into separate, perhaps competing, camps. The film was a hit on last year’s GLBT film festival circuit.
"I’ll have to check that out," Plum said, "I’ve been watching all the film versions of ’Romeo and Juliet.’ Thank you for telling me about that!"
"Romeo and Juliet" runs August 10-25, 2012 at the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 537 Tremont Street, Boston, MA . For more information, visit the Happy Medium Theatre website.