Tuesday, June 21, 2016

a conversation with Ron May, director of Stray Cat Theatre's production of GREEN DAY'S AMERICAN IDIOT

by Gil Benbrook

Stray Cat Theatre is known for the edgier and thought provoking plays they present. So it's a bit of an anomaly that this season, their 14th, features not just one, but two musicals. Earlier this year they presented the recent Off Broadway musical Heathers and this weekend they end their season when they open the Broadway musical American Idiot, which is based on the Green Day album of the same name. 

While these two musicals may be a bit of a departure from the plays Stray Cat usually presents, they actually fit right in to the type of show this talented theatre company continues to bring to the Valley, as both are quirky, irreverent, contemporary, provocative and challenging. Though American Idiot does have one major difference when compared to the other shows they've produced as it also marks Stray Cat's first production in their new home, the Tempe Center for the Arts. 

I had the chance to talk to Ron May, Stray Cat's founding Artistic Director who also directed this production, to ask him about this show, the move to the TCA and his somewhat well known distaste for musicals. 

For those who may not know American Idiot, what can you tell them that the musical is about?

"It's basically the story of three guys in their early 20s who are trying to navigate their way into adulthood in a post-9/11 world. In our production, it's pretty immediately post-9/11. they live in an imagined "everysuburb" named jingletown and long for the freedoms promised by the bigger city and America at large. They plot their escape and things almost immediately start falling apart. What follows is a kind of dark night of the soul where all three of them are put through hell but wind up coming out the other side in one piece."

I have to imagine this was a show that a lot of actors in town auditioned for. Did you find it difficult to cast the show or was it an embarrassment of riches where you had numerous people you could have cast for any of the main roles?

"Embarrassment of riches is an understatement. I could have easily cast the show three or four times."

David Samson as Tunny, Nicholas Gearing as Johnny and Eric Boudreau as Will
photo by John Groseclose
The show focuses on three friends who are very close but who all go in very different directions in their lives. Those three parts are played by Nicholas Gearing, Eric Boudreau and David Samson. Did the three actors know each other before they started rehearsals, and if they didn’t were there any challenges in working with them to portray the deep bond the three show? 

"They did not know each other, but they bonded really quickly. The whole cast did, honestly. and we didn't even have to play those stupid theatre games that 'facilitate cast bonding.' Barf!"

You’ve directed many contemporary plays in Phoenix and I believe the only really big musical you’ve directed in town before was Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson at Phoenix Theatre. I also know that you’ve commented before how you’re not really a big musical fan. So why the decision to present and direct American Idiot?

"Just like with a play, I need to be able to find a way into it. Like, I don't think I have a way in to Sound of Music. Not that I know of at least. I like rock music. I like aggressive theatre. I like things with a contemporary sensibility and a sense of humor. I appreciate a ton of things about all kinds of musicals - they're just not what I usually order off a menu. Some musicals - and they're few and far between - speak to me the way plays do but somehow find a way to do it to music. Bloody did that. Heathers did that. Idiot does that."

Cole Brackney, Brittany Howk and Sara Sanderson
in Stray Cat Theatre's production of Heathers, the Musical - 2015
photo: John Groseclose
Speaking of Heathers, I know Stray Cat presented that musical earlier this year, which Louis Farber directed. Did you specifically decide not to direct both musicals this season?

"I'm the artistic director for Stray Cat Theatre. not Ron May Theatre. Every season when we're looking for shows, we look for things that Louis wants to do. He had never directed a musical before but wanted to, and we both loved Heathers, which was also a show that I thought was totally in his wheelhouse in terms of being equipped to nail the style and the spirit of the thing. It was, to me, a perfect fit and a no-brainer to have him direct it."

Any specific type of research you did for this show?

"I researched stuff about the band's original intentions behind the songs - but a lot of that wound up landing anecdotally since a lot of stretching had to take place to make the book of the musical what it is now. and then we stretched it even further - just in different ways."

Did you see this show either on Broadway or the national tour?

"I did - I saw the national tour at Gammage."

Did you know when you saw it that you wanted to direct the show one day?

"It's weird because I have a rule of not directing something I've seen. Primarily because I know if I have another production in my head, my brain keeps reverting back to "what I saw." But this was the first time I saw something that I responded to viscerally but sat there thinking, 'I would really love to look at the book for this and take a whack at it.' "

I remember on Broadway that the set design was incredibly elaborate, using a huge number of video screens across the back wall. What can you tell us about the set design that you are using?

"It's much simpler. Much, much simpler. Think a gutted old club with old posters left on the walls and old roadboxes left behind. That's kind of where we went."

Nicholas Gearing as Johnny and Breona Conrad as Whatsername
photo: John Groseclose
And, was there one thing with Michael Meyer’s original direction of that production that you were blown away by, or something that you knew you’d want to change when you directed it?

"Well, going back to the video screens - that tv wall drove me nuts. I kept wondering what was on the tvs and am I supposed to be watching that or watching the people and while it visually was frequently gorgeous - I felt the media kind of swept in and trampled over the story a lot. and I get that 'tv' is sort of the antagonist of the piece to a point...but that was something I wanted to see if you could play with to humanize the thing more. I also remember watching the movement and immediately thinking, "I would love to see what Lisa Starry would do with this." And now I get to! (Spoiler alert: it's fucking gorgeous.)"

Are you concerned at all that because of this being based on a Green Day album that the show may alienate audience members who feel it shouldn’t have been turned into a musical?

"Nah. I can't imagine a Green Day fan thinking that. It was written as a rock opera so it already was a kind of musical before it became a musical."

I believe this probably is the largest cast you’ve ever directed in a show. Have you found that to be difficult?

"It's trickier. It's more cattle herding than I'm used to. But I wouldn't say it's been difficult. They're an incredible bunch and we're all there for the same reason. Their commitment to the material and every weird thing we've suggested they've been willing to dive in head first so it's been great."

Is there a specific song or part of American Idiot that you love hearing?

"All of it. Ha! That's such a stupid answer but the arrangements for this thing are just so damn good. "Last Night on Earth" is the one that really gives me goosebumps. But so does "21 guns," and "Letterbomb." And, and, and..."

What do you hope audiences will take away from American Idiot?

"An adrenaline high, a huge smile, difficulty hearing right away? ha. Kidding. Kind of. If we're lucky, you may walk out going, 'wow...this was very clearly written as a response to America post-9/11 but holy crap is this not a period piece.' "

This is your first production at the Tempe Center for the Arts. What do you believe are the pluses and minuses of performing there?

"I'd be guessing at this point, ask me when the run is over! I can say, though there is ample free dedicated parking. So no more driving around looking for a spot! And a bar! So no more not drinking at the show! But everything else would be conjecture at this point."

Are there any other musicals that you would like to direct?

"I want to do a super bloody Sweeney Todd some day. Like...just...gallons of the shit. I want Tobias to not be able to stand up when they find him downstairs at the end because there's so much blood on the floor it's just too slippery to stand. I don't think it's a show about blood but it's certainly about how people get swallowed by something like the need for revenge. Seeing the place slowly get swallowed in blood is my kind of dream Sweeney. I'm also mildly obsessed with the score to American Psycho, so apparently I want to do all the musicals dealing with blood and murder. All of them."

for more information on Stray Cat Theatre's production of Green Day's American Idiot, which runs from June 24th to July 16th, CLICK HERE

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