Sunday, January 17, 2016

A conversation with Suze St. John, the director of Mesa Encore Theatre's DEATHTRAP

Suze St. John
By Gil Benbrook

Suze St. John is having a very busy week. For over twenty years she has taught Theatre Arts at South Mountain High School and in addition to her teaching job, Mesa Encore Theatre's production of Deathtrap, that she directed, opened last weekend and she is performing in Southwest Shakespeare Company's Comedy of Errors that opened this weekend. 

St. John has performed and worked across the Valley for over forty years, She played Yente in Fiddler on the Roof at MET this past November and last season she picked up a Zoni nomination for her role in Valhalla at Nearly Naked Theatre. Even though she had a very busy week she sat down to answer some questions about her experience directing Deathtrap.

For those who don’t know about Deathtrap, what can you tell them it is about?

"Deathtrap is a psychological thriller, with lots of twists and turns, and an intellectual structure.  It borrows from, and pays homage to, other classic thrillers of the genre such as Angel Street (aka Gaslight), Dial M for Murder, Witness for the Prosecution, and Sleuth."

Thrillers like Deathtrap don’t seem to be written much anymore. Why do you think that is?

"I don’t really have an answer for that.  Having done a small amount of playwriting myself, I think a playwright needs to be inspired by the topic. I guess there just aren’t that many people writing currently who have the warped brain of a killer!  I think theatre also goes in cycles; when slapstick does well, we see a lot more farces being written."

Scott Hyder, Petey Swartz, and Debra Lyman
Photo by Sarah Rodgers

What do you hope audiences will take away from the show?

"I hope that they will have had a jolt or two that got their heart racing a little faster. Perhaps strike up a conversation about what it might take to push themselves over that edge – how desperate would you have to be to kill someone.  I hope none of us ever has to be pushed that far!"

This play features a never ending change of events, which keeps audiences on their toes. Did you encounter any difficulties in directing the show to ensure the plot never falters? 

"I wouldn’t say difficulties, but the challenges were many!  The amount of props, safety in using so many weapons, making the fights look realistic, these were all challenges that we welcomed as a cast and designers.  Working with the twists and turns of the plot was like being on a treasure hunt!  Ira Levin was masterful in weaving together the parts of the story.  Each day we would discover some new connection from one scene to the next or within one character’s arc, or between characters.  It was great fun to have such a wonderful cast with whom to do that exploration!"

photo: Wade Moran
It also has a small cast, with just five actors. Does having such a small cast make it easier or harder to direct?

"Much much easier!  The bane of my high school directing experience is having actors missing from a large cast rehearsal.  I rarely had to hold a rehearsal where anyone was missing .  And with a small cast I can pay special attention to each and every character; we had the time to have much more in depth discussions about character background and motivation, and to work out the small bits of business that add such detail to the show.  This was especially necessary in such a small, intimate theatre!"

Did you have any difficulty in casting the show?

"I actually had too many wonderful actors show up which makes it a joyous problem.  I did have one actor that I very much wanted to use who chose a role at a different theatre with conflicting show dates, so I did have to scramble a bit, but count myself very lucky to have found just the right person to take on the role. And I purposely don’t want to tell you who that was!"

Do you have a favorite moment in the play?

"Not so much a favorite moment for me, but I love to see the audience “get it” – especially for those moments that we really worked on to get them just right.  The first big ‘gasp’ moment when the audience realizes things are not as they thought them to be.  And every moment when the props and business go exactly as they are supposed to!"

Vinny Chavez and Suze St. John in Valhalla
Nearly Naked Theatre - 2014
photo: Laura Durant 
Did you learn anything during rehearsals that made you change your original ideas of how to direct this play?

"I knew from the start that I wanted to find the humor without letting it get silly; to keep it set in the late 70s without letting it be a commentary on or caricature of the time, and to make it as realistic as possible.  There were a few details of characterization that I thought I wanted one way but saw something in auditions that made me change my thinking.  But once the roles were cast, everything came together very much as I envisioned it."

Tell us a little about your past acting and directing experience?

"I started dancing at age 3 and acting at age 6; pretty much born to be on stage.  I directed my first play (which I also wrote) in 6th grade.  I have always enjoyed the process of creating a character as an actor, and carrying that joy to the bigger picture of directing.  I have been a high school drama teacher for 22 years now, and hope (and believe) that I have instilled that love of the theatrical process to many students over the years."

Why did you choose this particular play to direct?

"I remembered being delighted by the twists and turns in the film version, so when MET was looking for a mystery I suggested it as a possibility.  The play selection committee chose it and then asked me to direct!  The small cast was a big factor, thinking about a show for the MAC’s Farnsworth Studio space.  I think the show fits very nicely in that space."

You've acted at many theatres across the Valley, including a turn in Comedy of Errors which opens this weekend at Southwest Shakespeare Company. What makes Mesa Encore Theatre unique when compared to the other companies in town?

"MET is getting ready to announce their 80th Season!  This theatre has a wonderful history yet it remains a true Community Theatre, where people with no experience can work alongside seasoned performers, all ages.  The company has really maintained a level of professionalism in their work over the last few years.  They have strong artistic leadership in Debra Jo Davey, and a fun group of people getting things done!  I was asked to audition for Big River a couple of seasons ago and then jumped right in with both feet, as a member of the Board, and now a director.  This is a company that really brings people together and makes a family out of them, and that is the sense of community I have missed in my theatre life, since I left Tempe Little Theatre in the 80s.  Every theatre experience brings people together and makes connections, but MET is a place where I just seem to fit in!"

CLICK HERE for more information about Deathtrap at Mesa Encore Theatre, running through January 24th

1 comment:

  1. Nice interview Suze and Gil! Thanks for the shoutout, Suze, for our very special company! You're a Force behind our success. xoxo