ICCT - The Iowa City Community Theatre's next show is based on the 1986 Newberry Medal winning children's novel, Sarah, Plain and Tall. We recently had the chance to speak with three of the principal actors of the show: Brian Tanner, who plays Jacob; Susan Jacobson, who plays the adult version of Anna, Jacob's daughter; and Kathy McDonald, who has the title role. All are experienced performers. In the past year alone, Brian has done shows with Dreamwell Theatre, Rage Theatrics, the defunct group Catalyst, and Starlighters as well as working with Riff Raff Theater and Comics in Action. Susan has done a number of shows in Ankeny and Des Moines; this is her first production with ICCT. Kathy has been in shows with both ICCT and City Circle and has also directed children's theatre in her hometown and at Regina Catholic Education Center in Iowa City.
Thank you for joining me today. Let's start with a short synopsis of the play. What's it about?
Brian: On one hand, the show is an examination of rural life circa the early 1900's, and on the other it's a good, wholesome show about the nature of what it means to be a family.
But more specifically, please give us an idea of what happens?
Kathy: The play is about a family in Kansas who have lost their wife and mother. The father decides to advertise for a wife, and Sarah comes from Maine to check out the family. She is a third wheel in the house of her brother and sister-in-law. One of the Witting children wants Sarah to stay and the other doesn't. The story is really about Anna, and how she processes her mother's death, and comes to care for Sarah.
Now let's go into the characters you play. Brian, you are Jacob Witting, the lonely widower who places the article in the paper for a wife. What are the challenges you faced in bringing the character to life?
Brian: Jacob is a pretty stand-up guy trying to do right by his children. He's a hard worker but I think he's looking to fill a void for himself and his children. I don't think he's looking to replace his late wife, but I don't think he feels complete without a wife either. He's pretty straightforward and says what he thinks, unfortunately what he thinks is very old fashioned compared to modern standards. That makes him interesting for me to play, since he has a lot of outdated notions about women's place in the family and farm and that's a direct contrast with Sarah's progressive outlook. The challenge I've had is to try to convincingly portray someone with beliefs contrary to my own, which is a little bit different than just playing someone completely unlike yourself.
Kathy, tell us about Sarah. We know she's plain and tall, but what else can you tell us?
Kathy: Sarah is very independent, and actively fights against the social strictures for women in her day. That is what I really like about her. She also really likes children and is good with them. I can identify personally with all those qualities, so the character comes fairly easily. The challenge is not to make her too strident, because then Jacob wouldn't like her. A potential challenge would be trying to duplicate a Maine accent, but I don't know if I'll be doing that or not.
And Susan, tell us a little bit about portraying Anna.
Susan: I think of Adult Anna as creating the frame with the rest of the cast filling in the picture. One of the challenges for this role is that my character always addresses the audience. During rehearsal when there is no audience there, I strive to be consistent and sincere, even though there is no one to interact with yet.
What was it like working with Annie Hartley, who plays the younger version of you? Did you try to copy mannerisms or anything to bridge the two characters?
Susan: Annie is a very talented young actress, and a pleasure to work with. I did try to
study her to copy mannerisms, it turned out to be easier than I thought because it seems to me that we already have similar mannerisms to begin with!
There are lots of kids in this play, from the two who play the Whitting children to the ones who have smaller roles. What was that like working with the kids?
Brian: It's been a great experience, they're all very talented. Annie is particularly skilled musically as well so she will be someone to watch for in the future. Daniel shows a lot of potential as well, especially in finding variations in emoting as a child who's never had a mother, but now has the opportunity to have one. Overall the kids are pretty well focused on learning their lines and characters or otherwise keeping themselves occupied. I've been involved with other productions where it's been a bit of a challenge to keep them reigned in but am not having those troubles with this cast. I'm also pleased to have my own daughter along watching the rehearsal process and who will have a walk-on role during the show.
Kathy: Yes, I agree. Nearly every show I've been in in the area has had kids in it. I work with kids every day and I like them, so it is fun for me. I love to see them grow as performers.
Now as I understand it some of the action takes place in Sarah's home on the East Coast and some takes place in the Whitting's home in Kansas. How is that portrayed on stage?
Brian: The stage is divided up between the two locales. It's pretty minimal and suggested by a few props. For the most part, the settings are character driven and conveyed by the actors.
Susan: Right and the audience sits in a 'U', creating a square in the center where most of Kansas takes place. The stage behind that is Maine. The separation of the two places will also be enhanced by lighting.
Kathy: And all the Kansas scenes are outdoors, while the Maine scenes are in the house.
Your director, Evie Stanske, is a Iowa City theatre veteran to say the least. What was it like working with her?
Susan: I learn something different from every director that I have worked with. It is good to be able to work with both the very experienced to the very new, as every
director has a different style, you learn to be flexible.
Brian: This is the first time I've worked with her as a director. She certainly has a lot of energy and is quick on her feet. I'm impressed with how well she can connect with the actors, particularly the kids. There's always a chance on a show with a number of children that things can get a little crazy, especially if they don't have an outlet for their energy. On this show though, it says a lot for Evie that she can both motivate them and connect with them, and I never feel that she's talking down to them or anyone.
I noticed that Nelson Gurrl, another veteran of the Iowa City theatre scene, plays multiple characters. Can you talk a little bit about that - who are the characters, what was it like working with Nelson?
Kathy: Nelson plays most of the incidental characters in the play; a driver, a station master, a farmer, a postman. His funniest character, I think, is Mr. Titus the farmer, who is trying to sell Jacob a cow. Nelson knows a lot about stage accents.
Brian: I've worked with Nelson in a couple other shows and have always enjoyed his company. He's certainly a recognizable figure so watching him find different characters through different vocal patterns, accents, and body language, has been interesting.
Susan: I honestly don't share any stage time with Nelson, which is unfortunate... hopefully I'll be able to get to know him more when we're backstage!
Are you familiar with the book on which this was based? Did you use that source material at all during the production?
Brian: I'm not familiar with the book and we didn't refer to it at all. Some friends that have read it speak very highly of it.
Kathy: I read the book last week. I'm actually a bit miffed with the playwright, since he lifted things from the book, but changed the focus of the story completely. So, that kind of precludes using the book as source material.
How about the TV movie with Glenn Close? Anyone see that?
Kathy: I've never seen the TV movie, so I don't know how it is the same or different from our production. A number of people not involved in the show have commented to me how much they liked the movie, but I refuse to watch it. I'm not foolish enough to think that I can compete on any level with Glenn Close! Except maybe as a singer - I don't know if she's good at that or not.
Brian: I didn't see that either, although I see from your blog that Christopher Walken was also in the movie. I'm guessing he played my character so although I'm curious about his portrayal, I'd rather not watch it until after so as not to be tempted to try to imitate him.
Susan: I am not familiar with the book and I did not see the movie!
What has been the most challenging part of the rehearsal process?
Susan: I've never had to sing before an audience before, so that is my most personal challenge to overcome. I wasn't sure how it would turn out!
Brian, you sing in this show too. Now I know that's not something you're extremely comfortable with either... how is that going for you?
Brian: The signing is a little scary for me. Hopefully it won't be as scary for the audience by the time we go up. Maggie Gurll is the music director and has been a big help. Kathy is a fantastic singer and so she's a big inspiration too. I believe she was a former music teacher so hopefully between the two of them they can cobble something together out of me that will work. Singing is something I've always admired other people for, and it's always something I'd like to be able to do. Unfortunately, I was born with nerve damage in my ears so that presents a challenge. One thing that helps is that while there's some songs and singing in the show, it's not what I would call a musical. The songs are part of the building blocks of the relationships between the children and Jacob and Sarah, so they are essential but it's not like we're breaking out into a song and dance accompanied by music that appears out of nowhere. Since Jacob is a farmer and father first, I think we're taking the approach that his singing style may be more folksy than Sarah's beautiful voice. In the end, I think everything will work out, but it's definitely a challenge!
What about you, Kathy?
Kathy: I sing every song in the show, all a capella. I was trained as a singer, and I love it, so no, I'm not anxious at all about it. The "barn" is a wonderful place to sing in because of the acoustics.
Did you consider heading out to karaoke some night to get yourselves ready for the show?
Brian: We haven't discussed it, but that's a good idea!
Kathy: I've done karaoke, but not for the purpose of practicing for the show. I don't really like it that much, because you can't do your own thing with the music. The audience expects you to try to sound like the recording, and there's no flexibility in terms of tempo and dynamics.
Spoken like a true singer! So tell me about a fun moment during the rehearsal process.
Kathy: Danny [who portrays Caleb Witting] wears his iPod during times he's not on stage. He's usually late for his entrances. We proposed fining him a quarter every time he was late... he said he couldn't afford it, because he's broke.
Susan: Brian singing like Bob Dylan was entertaining!
Oh, I can only imagine...
Brian: One time in rehearsal, Nelson had just left the stage playing a character with a penchant for spitting tobacco. Annie as Anna was rushing over to me and slid on the bare theatre floor. I mentioned that it was because of all the spitting Nelson had done. But on a more serious note, I've enjoyed hearing Kathy's singing and I always enjoy watching people find their characters and seeing them grow. Susan's performance has been great to watch too and since our characters don't interact, we're able to talk with each other backstage about how we're doing.
Why should audiences come to see this show?
Brian: It's a pretty light but touching show that should appeal to people of all ages, particularly families. It's a nice story that will entertain people with a look back into yesteryear.
Kathy: There are some pretty songs that we sing, and Sarah demonstrates that it is acceptable to be different, and that doesn't have to be a wedge between people.
Thank you so much for doing this.
Sarah, Plain and Tall opens tomorrow night. More information is available here.