BY CARY GINELL
Many people are not aware of the fact that High Street Arts Center’s acclaimed production of Guys and Dolls is a first-time directing effort by Chris Mahr. Mahr usually plays over-the-top roles in over-the-top ways and is always magnetic on stage. He was last seen as a chorus girl with Amazonian proportions in High Street’s The Producers. Guys and Dolls marks his first directorial turn and we talked with him about it. Here is part one of our interview.
VCOS: So now that you’ve directed your first show, tell me if it was what you expected.
CHRIS: (laughs) You know what? It was and it wasn’t. When Ken Rayzor approached me and asked me to direct Guys and Dolls, I had directed a kids show version of Beauty and the Beast the summer before. So that was my first directorial gig. As far as doing this by myself, I kind of had an idea of what it would be like, but you learn to respect and see how much work truly goes into putting a show together, picking your production staff, figuring out how you want your actors to move. So you see this vision in your head and you want to be able to translate it to the actors and get them on board with your vision. My crew and my actors did such an amazing job of doing so, but I think they actually exceeded my expectations.
VCOS: Did Ken know that you wanted to be a director?
CHRIS: I had actually approached him because I had this itch that I might want to try working behind the scenes. I didn’t expect to start immediately with a directing gig. I thought maybe he’d bring me in as an assistant director to get my feet wet, but he said, “Hey, do you want to direct Guys and Dolls?” – a small show to start off with (laughs).
VCOS: There are no small shows.
CHRIS: No, there are no small shows. But this was definitely an undertaking, for sure.
VCOS: What part of it did you enjoy the most?
CHRIS: I think watching something that you’ve been constantly thinking and spending every waking moment – even when I’m at work, I’m thinking about the show – watching it come to life and watching the stages; the audition stage, the growth of the actors, and watching them soak up information that you can bring to them. I’ve learned something from every director I’ve worked with. But watching your creation come to life – there’s nothing better.
VCOS: Did you do the casting yourself?
CHRIS: I did the casting with the help of [choreographer] Julie Auxier and [music director] DJ Brady. We had three days of auditions and we had choices. The best and worst thing that a director can have are choices. When you don’t have choices, you have to go with what you are given. But when you have choices, you have to make decisions, and it’s the hardest thing I ever had to do. And no one took it personally if I didn’t select them. I had a lot of friends who auditioned, friends who I’ve worked on previous shows with, and they understood that it’s a vision so you have to see what fits. So it’s not about the actor as a person, you have to see who meshes well together. You can have a best friend working across from you as an actor but they don’t have the chemistry to make it work. I was blessed to have people who understood this. I tell people to never pre-cast your show because something is going to come along and surprise you.
VCOS: So, you’re going into your first show, and you bring in a choreographer, who’s never done a show, and a music director, who’s never done a show. Had you considered getting someone with experience that could anchor your crew?
CHRIS: (laughs) Ken’s idea for this show was that he wanted to bring in some new blood. So I wanted to keep the ball rolling by bringing in more new blood. I thought, how cool would it be if I had an entire team that has never really done anything this full scale, and to put on a show so that no one would know if it was a new team or not. I was kind of trying to prove to myself that the new kids on the block could do as good a job as the Arrycks, the Tamis, the Shawns, the Deidres, the Erin Fagundeses; those people out there that put on these phenomenal shows. We have some amazing people who put on shows in Ventura County, but I wanted to see some new blood and put their own footprints in there.
VCOS: When the curtain goes up and you start doing “Runyonland,” there’s an extra bit of energy there. The energy is in the show inherently, but it was charged right from the beginning and just kept going.
CHRIS: Thank you. We communicated very well and we talked about what we wanted and what we envisioned. It wasn’t just me telling them what to do. Everyone had input, which was awesome! I could not have done it by myself. Julie has amazing ideas that we absolutely incorporated. DJ did wonderful music direction. I just could not have done it without the two of them. It was one perfect unit.
VCOS: Did any of the performers bring specific ideas to the table?
CHRIS: Oh, God, yes. You have your Kelly Greens, your Ryan Driscolls, these seasoned actors who know what they’re doing. One thing I really wanted to do – which I feel like I haven’t done yet as a director – I sat down with my actors individually – especially the major characters, like Nicely-Nicely and Benny Southstreet, and the “fab four” – Adelaide, Sarah, Nathan, and Sky – and I said, “Let’s talk character. What do you guys want to do? I have ideas. You, obviously, have ideas. Let’s talk it out.” It was awesome to hear the things that they came up with. Ryan Driscoll decided that Nicely-Nicely should be constantly eating or always having coffee in his hand. When I heard Ryan was going to be auditioning, and that he had played Nicely before, but I realized there was an expectation of what Nicely was supposed to be like, but we went against the grain by using Ryan. I loved the way that it turned out. Ryan plays a lot of ingenue leading man types, but if you give him a character role, he just runs with it. Same thing with Kelly Green. Kelly and I talked about the character we wanted to develop for Nathan Detroit and he kept suggesting new things and kind of reinvented it. He’s played Nathan before, but he remade it and made it fresh.
VCOS: What was different about this Nathan?
CHRIS: In the revival, Nathan is larger than life. He’s almost cartoonish, which Kelly does very well. But what Kelly brought to the table was that he made Nathan very human; real reactions and real moments, which I haven’t seen a lot of Nathans do. I did the same thing with Masaya as well as Adelaide. Those two are the comic reliefs, but I wanted to bring in some real moments and they did that and beyond.
VCOS: Did you play down Miss Adelaide’s accent?
CHRIS: It wasn’t as accentuated as you’ve seen it, but yes, I did. I wanted people to connect with her more than just, “Oh, she’s funny.” I want the audience to fall in love with her in Act I, but when she does the reprise of “Adelaide’s Lament,” when she’s broken down and upset that Nathan isn’t there to marry her, I want people to feel her heartbreak. By making her funny and big, but real, that kind of helps the audience with that.
Our visit with Chris Mahr will continue later this week. Be sure not to miss Guys and Dolls before it closes this weekend. For dates and showtimes, visit the VC On Stage Calendar.