It has become an unofficial tradition at the Station Theatre to end the regular season with something special. Often this late-spring production is something fresh from Broadway—the late start date necessitated by the fact that the rights have just become available. (Recent examples of this would include Other Desert Cities, Red, and Next to Normal—all pretty hot properties that benefited from a lengthy and deserved build-up.) It’s a plum spot, this “last slot,” and longtime attendees of Celebration Company productions can always count on something exciting to conclude the most recent slate of musicals and plays.
This year will be no different, where the quality of the show is concerned. One thing that does stand out, however, is that this prized place in the production calendar has gone to a first-time director. That might give you pause, but only if you’ve never heard of Lindsey Gates-Markel.
Gates-Markel — who has delivered outstanding onstage performances in such plays as Couples Counseling Killed Katie, Becky Shaw, and Rabbit Hole — is making her directorial debut with Scott Carter’s The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord. (I’ll give you a second to re-read that title and take it in. All good?)
The synopsis of the play goes like this:
“A Founding Father, a Victorian novelist and a Russian revolutionary walk into a…stop me if you’ve heard this one. Thomas Jefferson (yes that one), Charles Dickens (the very same) and Count Leo Tolstoy (who else?) are brought together in a blistering battle of wits. From Scott Carter (executive producer of Real Time with Bill Maher), this whip-smart comedy examines what happens when great men of history are forced to repeat it.”
Before we go any further, let me give the obligatory “full disclosure” disclosure: I have worked with Ms. Gates-Markel on a number of productions, both as an actor and as her director. I’m incredibly biased when it comes to her acting and her general awesomeness, and I make no apologies for it. If you’ve seen her on stage or have ever spoken to her for any length of time, you have some idea of what a badass she can be. But, for the purposes of this interview, I have tried to rein in my admiration and focus on her experience directing this play.
In Carter’s play (which we’ll call Discord from here on out because time is of the essence), Gates-Markel has a cast any local director would kill or die for: Steven M. Keen (as Jefferson), Gary Ambler (Dickens), and David Barkley (Tolstoy). If you’ve ever been inside the Station Theatre, you’ve seen their greatest hits hanging all over the lobby walls. Each of these men has a “past productions” list as long as my arm, and the quality of the work they’ve done has been uniformly outstanding.
So, to recap: “First time director and her extraordinary cast in a smart and hilarious play about history, philosophy, and religion.”
Here’s my chat with Ms. Gates-Markel. It’s almost as much fun as the play.
Smile Politely: So, since this is your first show as director, I guess I should ask what attracted you to this particular show. I mean, the good feeling of being approached to do it aside, you could have said no, and you weren’t sure of all your (very admirable) actors yet. What made you say yes?
Gates-Markel: It was a relief to be approached. I’d thought about directing before, but had never gotten my shit together to even choose a script. Discord has one act, one set, minimal props, and one unchanging costume each for three actors who all have one entrance and no exits (uh, relevant Sartre jokes aside). I had faith that I could cast three great actors. The script is witty and surreal and makes you go “hmm.”
This thing runs itself, is what I’m trying to say.
SP: Is there anything in particular that you’ve consciously borrowed from the directors with whom you’ve worked over the years? You don’t need to name names, of course.
Gates-Markel: Short answer: HAHAHAHAHA YES.
The most overarching one is from the Kay Bohannon Holley School of Directing: build the team you really want and then trust their instincts. I love collaborating, and I have about an 80% idea of what I’m doing, so it’s a relief to be able to turn to a great designer or actor and ask for an opinion. We’re building this ship together.
SP: Since you are a new director (dead horse officially beaten), it seems almost mandated that I ask you if there has been any element of the process that took you by surprise. Anything come to mind?
Gates-Markel: During the first week of rehearsal, there were several moments when an actor would ask a question about, say, blocking—whether he should stand here or here. I’d hem and haw, the rehearsal would grind to a halt, and in the silence I’d think, “Huh, someone should really make a decision here” before realizing, “OH. I AM THAT SOMEONE NOW.”
I knew directing would involve lots of to-dos, but now I think of it as making many, many choices for six to eight weeks. Many of which aren’t life or death decisions. They’re decisions about whether a person should stand here or here. And someone — me — just needs to friggin’ choose already so we can get to the really good rich stuff.
SP: Are you an active director, up and moving about, or are you an audience of one? In other words, do you prefer to sit or stand?
Gates-Markel: I don’t even just sit. I splay. I lounge. I check my phone. FaceTime my friends. The actors claim to be all about collaboration, but y’know, they get very grumpy when I ask for help with my crosswords.
SP: Okay, now you get to brag on your cast a little. Anybody who attends any local theatre at all will know the names of these gentlemen. Since you’ve worked with each of them before in one capacity or another, I wonder if you might share a personal highlight from these past experiences?
Gates-Markel: Turns out one of the weird things about directing is how much time you spend just… staring at the actors. So I’ve been thinking about this a lot, actually.
It was a very specific pleasure to play Steve Keen’s daughter in Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl (dir. Mathew Green!). I’d never met the man, and then we were in the Underworld together, me resting my head on his knee while he read Shakespeare (see above). I could go on about that, but it’d get weird.
In Or, (dir. Kay Holley), Gary Ambler bustled onstage, in drag, for a 10-minute monologue that was technically one long sentence and definitely one long struggle not to laugh, EVERY night, for thirteen performances. He makes a great entrance, and a gnarly woman (see below).
And God forgive me, but my default image of David Barkley will always include him yanking out one of his teeth onstage in Whitey (dir. Rick Orr) and forcing it into my mouth while he pinned me down on a dirty basement cot. Young love!
SP: Great actors (and famous characters) aside, there aren’t that many “sure things” in theatre these days. And this is a pretty new play, to boot. You’ve already talked a bit about what made you say yes to the show. What makes this play worthwhile for the audience?
Gates-Markel: Three dead philosophers walk into purgatory…
The actors are obviously great. Steve’s sanguine Jefferson, Gary’s egocentric Dickens, David’s stringent and blustery Tolstoy. Locking them in a room for 90 minutes and seeing what happens is worth the price of admission.
Discord chews up all the big questions — forgiveness, the meaning of life, the divinity of Jesus, God, the infallibility of the Bible, the fallibility of humans. Is the Bible a children’s story or a sacred text? What does God want from us? But to be honest, if I read any of that in a synopsis of a play, I’d be like “HARD PASS,” so you just have to trust me.
One embarrassing thing about directing is that I laugh so hard at the same jokes every night. I always thought directors who laughed really hard from the audience of their own shows were a little try-hard. You’ve been doing this for weeks! You know exactly what’s coming! But here I am.
SP: Last question, and then I’ll let you grab a nap. Now that your show is about ready to open and the directing is more or less over, do you find yourself wanting to direct again right away? (There’s no wrong answer here, of course.)
Gates-Markel: I’ve been asking myself the same question! Performing will always be my favorite and best thing. The energy between actor and audience is my absolute favorite and that will probably never change, but I have loved facilitating that relationship, too. Directing has given me this greater view of how it all comes together, and as soon as my perspective opened up a little, it blew the top off the whole thing. I’ve been reading scripts, seeking out new plays. The idea that I can bring a vision to something transformative is a thrill. Also I love power, and forcing people to obey my commands. So we’ll see.
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstory: Discord will run April 21st through May 7th at the Station Theatre in Urbana. All performances begin at 8 p.m., and seats can be reserved online or by calling 217-384-4000.
Station Theatre photos by Jesse Folks.
MathewGreen is a local theatre apparition who also occasionally writes for Smile Politely. He is not on social media, but only because he isn’t particularly social.