The Butler Didn’t! Director & Playwright Interview
March 24, 2011 § 2 Comments
The Butler Didn’t! Playwright Scott Woldman and Director Brad Dunn have been collaborators since 2005 when Metropolis produced Scott’s first play, Thinking with their Heads… Men Exposed. Since then, Metropolis has also produced five of Scott’s other shows including Dates from Hell, Speed Dating the Musical, Indecent Proposals, Dinner for
Sex Six and now, The Butler Didn’t! Brad appeared in Men Exposed, understudied and appeared in Dates, and directed Speed Dating, Indecent Proposals and Butler!
Scott, hello there. So, this is the first time we’ve done this – we’re going to interview each other by email and see what comes of it. So let’s clarify for everyone – you wrote The Butler Didn’t!, and I directed it. Now you go.
That’s true. On all three counts – I wrote it, you directed it, and this is our first time doing this. Since I didn’t get to attend many rehearsals – how did it feel – being totally on your own after so many other plays where I was breathing down your neck?
Scary. And lonely. It was a very threatening environment to negotiate without you. Ok, I’m just testing the amount of sarcasm that works in this format. Seems like not much.
But to be honest, it was weird. When I directed Speed Dating the Musical and Indecent Proposals, I really liked having you there. It’s helpful with new work to have the playwright because some things can only be discovered when you’re truly working it with actors on their feet. When you find things that need adjustment it’s great to have you in the room. So this time, some fixes were delayed not having you there, and in the end, to speed things up we had to make a few dialogue changes without. You’ll find out what those are.
I’ve noticed that there are some changes. I think I am a bit unusual compared to some of the playwrights I know – I don’t mind when you and the actors make small changes to make things work. To me – not allowing you and the actors that freedom is not really being open to collaboration. That being said – if something wasn’t funny – I’d throw a shoe at you.
It was also weird for me not to be there. I think it was kind of an interesting trade-off. There are some things that I envisioned differently, but I think a majority of those things are better the way you did them, and if I was there, I probably would have tried to talk you out of them. So it probably was good that I wasn’t there in terms of learning to trust my director. But that being said, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to be as absent as I was with a different director.
Wow. Thanks for the vote of confidence. I definitely wanted you their more than you were, but I completely understand how busy your life is with two very young kids. But I also knew that you trusted me, having worked together quite a bit. Also, there are no parts that aren’t funny. So keep your shoes on.
So give me an example of something you would have tried to talk me out of – or that you envisioned differently. Not sure if this is a good idea in a public forum, but I’m going to do it anyway. I think I know one of those things, but I’m curious what’s top of mind for you.
Hmmmm. I’m hard pressed to think of any right now – I’m falling asleep. But instead, I’ll give you an example of my favorite thing that you reinterpreted that you would have had to sell me on.
The Ernesto Monologue in Act 2 with the red lighting and the spot-light. To me, this was sort of a nervous rambling to himself – the way it’s staged is more breaking the fourth wall. That was absolutely the right call on your part – it may be my favorite moment of the show. I know I wouldn’t have received that well had I been there, but what you did with it is genius.
The other things are mostly ticky-tacky which is why I can’t think of any.
Let it be known that you’re falling asleep because it’s 11:00 p.m., not because you’re writing with me.
Yes, I love that moment. Thank you – but the credit also belongs to Joe (Mohamed) and Bill (Franz), our lighting and sound designers. I told the team at a production meeting that I was thinking of having that be the single surreal, absurdist moment in the show by punctuating it with a big flamenco guitar piece and a spotlight. I really wasn’t sure if that would work to go totally over the top like that. But the moment as you wrote it is such over the top melodrama – it’s hysterical. And there’s no other place in the script like it. So I told them I was thinking about that, but that I was a little unsure about it. Joe was like, go big or go home. You have to spot it and we’ll build a big light cue around it. Then I was only going to do the Do I Dare monologue, which is only half of that big monologue. It was Bill’s idea to go all the way through it starting with the Destiny monologue, and he found the music for it. I’m really happy how it worked out.
Also, it’s so interesting how this stuff works. I thought for sure that Ernesto would say his first line with the big guitar right on its heels and that we would get the big laugh there followed by the lights. But the audience anticipates it, based on your writing and Rich and Elizabeth’s delivery – they can tell right where this is going and so far in every performance, the laugh comes so early and big that the beginning of the guitar is totally covered up. The audience knows and they love where it’s going. Doesn’t matter really, but I do obsess about the little nuts and bolts like this.
So I have two questions for you. Is the show more physical than you envisioned? I envisioned it pretty physical and it’s surprised even me. One night during previews, a woman sitting near me said about Michael (the butler), “That guy! How can he do all of that!” We’ve heard more comments like that, too.
Also, when you begin writing, I feel like you start with really fleshed out characters and then determine the plot. Is that true, or do you start with a basic premise and fill it with characters. I should know this about you by now. It probably also depends on the show – your shows have been so different in their structure.
I agree – it is weird that they are laughing, but it sort of makes sense. The designers do an amazing job of using lights and sound to further characterization.
In terms of did I know it was physical – yes and no. I knew it was full of physical bits, but it never really dawned on me how complicated it was to pull them off. It wasn’t until I saw Michael Woods running up the stairs that it dawned on me how physical – but part of that was I never actually envisioned having a full stair case. I really just thought I was going to have the bottom four stairs kind of leading off stage to give the impression of the stairs. I think that was why some of the bits ended up being so much more challenging – when I timed things out in my head – I only timed them for a few steps as opposed to a whole stair case.
How I write – hmmmm. The only thing I really knew when I first started writing was that I had an Anna Nichole Smith archetype, an Old billionaire archetype, and a butler. Ernesto was a complete surprise. I started writing the scene where the Butler was waiting for his bumbling partner – and all of the sudden he was Latino. That called to mind an ongoing joke one of my Latino students would make – which was no matter what I reprimanded him for, not doing his work, being out of his seat, hitting another student, cheating, etc. – no matter what it was – he would jokingly tell me I hated him because he was Latino. But to be honest, at least for this show, I didn’t really have a flushed out idea of either characters or story. Sometimes, you get lucky like that. Other times, you start out that way and you get a great half a story and then you write yourself into a corner. Fortunately for me – the story for Butler was just sort of there.
As a rule, I would say it varied. For Men Exposed, I had a bunch of gross hook-up stories already in my head, and then I just sort of found interesting characters to tell them. For SpeeDating – I came up with characters first before the story. For Dates From Hell, Indecent Proposals, and Dinner for Sex, I really worked at coming up with interesting moments first, and sort of found the characters afterwards.
I think that for right now, that’s sort of the way I am heading.
Okay – questions for you. Why Directing? When I first met you , I never heard you express any desire to direct. I thought you were more of an actor/writer.
Second – you said in passing this was the hardest show you ever directed. Why?
Third – how would you compare this experience to Christmas Carol?
Fourth – do you ever get frustrated that people do not recognize/acknowledge your role in a play?
I had wanted to direct theatre for a while because I had done TV and internet commercials, corporate video, short films and a sketch comedy show in college. During the time I was directing in those mediums, I was acting and improvising in Chicago. I had done theatre in college as well and I wanted to connect the two. I realized that I like to tell stories as much as be in them. I kind of resisted it at first, but now I realize that aside from playing tricks on my 4-year-old son, it’s kind of one of my favorite things. I love being in the heat of battle and coordinating all of these different creative efforts and putting them into one cohesive thing. I nerd-out working to make the story, the performances, the lights, sound, scenic – everything – work together.
Did I say this was the hardest show I’ve done? Hmmm. I said that. Umm, there was just a lot to pay attention to – getting a new play onto its feet is always challenging because it’s the first time that a script is really put to the test. You find little challenges and you have to work those out on the spot, every night. So with this being FAR more complex than your other scripts, it was just harder. More detail and more interconnectedness than Speed Dating and Indecent Proposals. By the way, I still officially refuse to acknowledge that you actually call Speed Dating the Musical, SpeeDating the Musical. Just fyi.
Also, you know this, but others don’t – we had to switch David Belew and Chuck Sisson into each other’s roles. David was originally cast as the Doctor and Chuck as Ezekiel. Chuck sustained a small injury which was going to make it difficult to perform the surprisingly difficult work the dead body has to do and the flying sequences. Plus I had to recast the role of Anna – the attorney – about two weeks in. I have to tell you – all blessings in disguise. Elizabeth came in nearly off book about two days into rehearsal. She’s hilarious, has great timing and is so talented. She’s perfect. Also, David and Chuck were even better in their new roles. I lucked out. But then we also lost days due to the blizzard, etc. etc. Tough but fun.
Your next question – how was it different than A Christmas Carol. Ummm, it was harder. See previous two paragraphs. And that’s saying something because Carol had 23 actors including three Tiny Tims, a children’s chorus of 45 and moving set pieces. And I wasted one entire rehearsal on choreographing the movement of drinking glasses in a scene. DRINKING GLASSES. Ridiculous.
To answer your last question – actually, more often than not I receive a compliment that I have to redirect to an actor or someone else because it’s more for them. Ultimately I just want something that is great and that people like. I don’t care about credit. I really don’t. My payoff is if people like it. When I want to be the center of attention again I’ll perform my one-man show Did You See the Size of that Guys’ Nostrils?
If you were to write a one-man show, what would the title be?
Actually, I wrote and performed a one man show a few years back – it was called How I Learned to Be A Woman and I’m not even dong a bit.
What did you learn about being a woman?
I didn’t learn how to be a woman. I learned how to become a woman.
Give me the first three steps. Go!
Snip. Cut. Scream
Ok last question. You were an improvisor for years. Why did you start writing?
I had always wrote screenplays – but I was doing Odd Couple at Metropolis and Tim Rater, the then Executive Director at Metropolis asked me how I felt about trying to write a comedy for a late night show at Metropolis.
I had no idea if I could do it, to be perfectly honest. However, I didn’t tell him that. I said absolutely. What I find even stranger when I look back is, at that time, I think I had read about 4 plays. I didn’t have any reason to read them as an improviser.
Everything I started writing for Tim was terrible. Then I had the opportunity to go on a bachelor party in Vegas – the problem was I don’t drink, I don’t gamble, I’m not really one for Men’s Clubs, so instead, I followed my friends around and wrote down everything they did and put it in play form – and that ended up being the play Men Exposed.
So now, every time I need a play – I just schedule another trip to Vegas.
What about you – why did you move away from improv?
I viewed the process of learning to improvise (which I think you never actually stop learning improv) as a step in the process of learning to tell stories on stage. There’s so much that I learned from performing at iO and from my teachers there and at Second City that I still use in rehearsals now. I learned a lot about character development and about writing, surprisingly.
But I still don’t think I’m done improvising. I think I’ll go back to it. This is going to sound incredibly lame, but I feel like really great improvised theatre can be some of the best theatre. Without a script, good improvisors have nothing but listening and discovering – things that many actors have to work so hard to make sure they’re doing genuinely when they know what their next line is. I like the joy that happens when the audience discovers what you’re thinking, feeling and doing only seconds after you do. So yeah, that’s my real BS-sounding theatre-y answer. I think I’m not done improvising. I just don’t know when I’ll have time. But what I do know is that my last team at iO went down in flames like an 80s hair band. We had a guy with a drug problem, we had a guy that wanted all of the attention but didn’t deserve it and we had bad scenes. Our last scene ever ended in a tea-bagging joke. I can not allow that to stand as how my improv career officially ended.
And now, I cannot let this interview end with a tea-bag reference. So we have to talk about something else. What do you think we should talk about?
What are Brad Dunn’s 5 tips for watching theater?
1. Don’t be afraid to see theatre that challenges you, but don’t be afraid to see stuff that is indulgent.
2. Challenging might mean Shakespeare or Beckett. But it might mean a story about a relationship gone bad at a time when your relationship is frustrating you.
3. Needs to be said: turn off your phone. Tip: the volume button on the side of EVERY phone EVER made will stop a ring or a vibrate when pressed. You don’t need to open it, look at who is calling, then silence it by entering a small line of programming code. Just press the volume button on the side.
3b. Don’t talk. Just don’t.
4. Do be ready to laugh, clap, etc.
5. Talk about it after, preferably over drinks.
Those are my thoughts.
Thanks for chatting, Scott. It was fun.