BY CARY GINELL
For years I have been saying that the best kept secret in Ventura County theater is the Ventura County Gilbert & Sullivan Repertoire Company. Celebrating its 10th season this year, the VCGSRC is currently going through its second cycle of the eleven operettas in the canon produced by the venerable English composing team of lyricist/librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan. Its production of The Sorcerer, now playing at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts, was the first complete G&S opera, first performed in 1877. It’s a marvelous production for the Halloween season, beautifully sung and acted, with a typically witty G&S story, albeit with a serious undercurrent.
The VCGSRC is managed by the husband-and-wife team of Rebecca and John Pillsbury. Both are passionate G&S aficionados and historians and produce and direct the shows, in addition to also performing in them. In The Sorcerer, Rebecca plays the part of Mrs. Partlet and John acts as Dr. Daly, the vicar. We talked to the Pillsburys about a number of G&S-related topics as well as focusing on their current production.
VCOS: How did the company get started?
REBECCA: Michael Jordan suggested that John and I start our own Gilbert and Sullivan theater company. So we started in November 2006. At that point I had already directed The Pirates of Penzance, Pinafore, and The Mikado elsewhere, which are the three that most people are familiar with.
VCOS: There are lots of theater arts fans in Ventura County, but few are aware of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Why is that?
REBECCA: The word that puts people off the most is “operetta.” It scares people because it makes them think of classical opera, Brünhilde, and so forth.
JOHN: And dying consumptives.
REBECCA: So what I tell people is that this is what was called “comic opera” at that time. But if you think of something like Les Mis or Phantom of the Opera, it’s more like those shows, where there is lots and lots of music and less dialog. So that’s what it’s like. The other thing that I say is that they are really still pertinent today and they are also very funny.
VCOS: With shows like those sung-through musicals that you mentioned, the line is blurred between Gilbert & Sullivan and traditional musical theater. But why are people still put off by G&S?
REBECCA: They think that if this is an opera or an operetta, then it must include legit voices and “belt” style singing. Sometimes they might have seen a G&S opera, but whoever produced it didn’t do it so audiences could understand the show because the director did not present it in a way that was accessible for the audience. We do it differently, not by dumbing it down or anything, but simply by making sure that people can understand the words.
JOHN: A lot of times, diction is a big problem, including commercial productions of Gilbert and Sullivan. It’s particularly hard to follow what the chorus is singing.
VCOS: So when you’re directing your cast, is that a major thing with you?
REBECCA: Yes. We emphasize “words, words, words, words, words.” Everything you are doing in this is telling a story and if all people are seeing is people “parking and barking,” which means hitting your mark and singing, and they’re not hearing what the story is about, then this is a problem. With the patter songs, what generally happens is people can get lost in all the fast lyrics, but most of these songs start a little slower and you get those words. Well, later on, it’s the same words, only a lot faster. The other thing is that I think that Gilbert wanted people to come more than once because some things go by so fast, you often miss them. We have audience members who sometimes come four and five times because they want to see what it is they missed. Or, they just liked it so much, that they want to see it again and bring other people along. It’s definitely a genre that sells by word-of-mouth.
JOHN: One other obvious problem is that the vocabulary is foreign to contemporary theater audiences.
REBECCA: It’s not as unfamiliar as Shakespeare, but one of the ways I sell it is to ask people if they like Sense and Sensibility or things that take place during the Victorian period. Obviously, people spoke differently then, but sometimes people just don’t understand it.
JOHN: Gilbert liked to play with words and he liked to play with obscure words and multi-lingual words, so it’s a tough nut for a lot of people to crack. One thing we do to make the shows more intelligible is that we do not mike singers — ever. What you hear is their voice. Even with the best amplification, you lose something, with inter-modular distortions and other things happening, like phase problems.
VCOS: The Sorcerer is one of G&S’s early works. For our readers, the story deals with a magical love potion, whereby anyone who drinks it falls in love with the first person he or she sees, provided both are unmarried. Of course things go haywire and there is a lot of confusion which ends up in tragedy for the sorcerer. As an early work, were the G&S trademark characters and plot devices in place by then?
JOHN: Most of it was. You have a lot of the same types of characters already established that are in the later ones. But I think it’s looked at unfairly.
REBECCA: It’s really interesting because a lot of Savoyards, the people who are the biggest supporters of Gilbert and Sullivan, couldn’t really say what happened with The Sorcerer and why it isn’t as favored as the more familiar shows like Pirates, Pinafore, and Mikado. For some reason, D’Oyly Carte [note: Richard D’Oyly Carte produced the original G&S operas in England] liked the other shows better. So Sorcerer didn’t get done very often. It wasn’t because it had poor attendance. It was successful. They did the original in 1877 and then a revival in 1881, but they didn’t do it again for maybe 30 years. And nobody really seems to know why. It just got overlooked. D’Oyly Carte evidently wasn’t that fond of it. And since he was the one who sent out the national tours and the international tours, that one wasn’t brought to the public as often. In The Sorcerer, it’s more of a serious subject so you have to be careful about how much shtick you put into it. You really need to be careful. One of the problems with the show is that they took out a scene between John Wellington Wells, who is the sorcerer, and Ahrimanes, in the second act. So it didn’t make any sense to people why Wells suffers the fate that he does at the end of the opera.
JOHN: I doubt the average Victorian was well-versed in the art of Manecheism. The character “Ahrimanes” comes from “Ahriman,” who is a Zoroastrian deity. In Manecheism, there was an emphasis on good and bad; you had a good god and a bad god, and Ahrimanes was an evil force.
REBECCA: Wells is essentially conjuring up the Devil. The Ahrimanes scene was originally in the show and they decided to take it out. We don’t know why they decided to do that. When we first did The Sorcerer in 2010, one of the Savoyards who comes to see our shows said he went to Buxton, where the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival was held, and he saw The Sorcerer there and said, “You know, yours is better. People can understand what happens now.”
VCOS: This is the second time you’ve done The Sorcerer and Gary Saxer is playing Wells again, as he did in 2010.
REBECCA: Yes, but Gary is doing it a little bit differently this time because I’m having him approach it more seriously than he had before. I brought him a printout of who Ahrimanes is and I said, “Here. You need to read this. This is the person Wells has been dealing with. When he comes out and you see him and see that he’s really there, you should need to go change your shorts.” And after that, he understood it a lot better.
VCOS: Gary has done many shows with your company but it seems to me that he is most effective when there is a serious side to his character, like when he played Jack Point in The Yeomen of the Guard.
REBECCA: I think so. Jack Point is the best role that he has ever done in any theater in the county. Other people who have seen Gary do this have said it as well. I told him that you can’t do this part like it’s Moorpark Melodrama. Jack Point has to have two distinct personas. You have the public persona, where he’s the court jester, and then you have Jack Point, who’s bitter, depressed, and insecure. You need to see a distinct difference between the two because it’s an actor’s role and not a singer’s role. So he did it and did it really well.
VCOS: And he brings that excellence to his performance in The Sorcerer as well.
REBECCA: Yes he does. And he has really grown as an actor in that regard.
VCOS: There are two other performers who were in the 2010 production you did – you, John, and Sydney Bowling.
REBECCA: Sydney is very cute as Lady Sangazure. I did not promise her the role. I told her that if we found someone more suitable for the role, they would be cast, and I even told John, as director and co-producer, “If I find somebody else who can do it at least as well as you, I will cast them and you won’t have to be in the show. You can wear your other hats.”
JOHN: Other things suffer when I’m in the show. When I’m in the show, I’m not in the position to shoot the press photos and do the other things that I do with the technical aspect of the show.
VCOS: The set you are using is gorgeous. Can you tell me about it?
REBECCA: This particular set that we are using is the best one that Jeremy and Christy Hanes have produced. They’ve been getting progressively better with each show. Michael Jordan was the one who started out doing them and those were mostly simple. Christy and Jeremy have learned better techniques for doing things like the stonework, and Mark Reyes has helped a lot also. He’s always been a mentor to Jeremy. For this production, we also have another extremely experienced person, Ron Dallas backstage, who has done a lot with lighting and building sets.
JOHN: He and his wife just moved here but they were in a G&S company back in Massachusetts for decades. He’s an engineer and is much more experienced about those things than anyone else who works on the sets.
VCOS: Tell me about the teapot, in which Wells brews his magical potion.
REBECCA: That was put together by Ron Dallas and Kent Bowers.
VCOS: The teapot is supposed to levitate also, isn’t it?
JOHN: Yes, but it’s hard to make that work because the teapot is very heavy. If you have a piston mechanism that can lift five pounds, it won’t be as reliable if you put ten pounds on it. One time, it did it when it wasn’t supposed to. I went to pour the tea and it started coming up and someone had to put their finger on it to make sure it didn’t rise.
VCOS: When Wells pours the formulas into the pot, is that supposed to activate the dry ice?
JOHN: Yes. The dry ice makes it look like steam, which flows downward instead of upward.
REBECCA: As for props, this one has the most props of any of the shows we’ve done, because you have a lot of trays, dishes, and a wedding breakfast, so even though we have a lot of things in storage, I still end up buying a lot of stuff. Part of my staging is working with the “tray brigade.” You have to rehearse the actors and rehearse them and rehearse them and it’s like choreographing a dance in order to make sure that everything actually gets on stage at the right time.
VCOS: Stage magic is a tricky thing, but even if the teapot doesn’t levitate, it’s still an effective scene with the lighting and the dry ice.
REBECCA: It’s great when it works!
The Sorcerer plays through October 23 at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts. See our review of the show in this week’s edition of the Thousand Oaks Acorn. For dates and showtimes, visit the VC On Stage Calendar.