The story of Leo Frank,a Jewish-American factory superintendent who was convicted of the murder of a 13-year-old employee, might not sound as though it’s musical theatre material, butAlfred UhryandJason Robert Brown’s Parade is a sensitive and sobering portrait of bigotry and mob mentality in the American deep South. Director Jody Tranter spoke to Paul Couch about its significance and why Bob Fosse choreography is left firmly at the rehearsal room door.
How are rehearsals going?
Really well! It’s a really small rehearsal period for what really is a massive show. We’re having to read a lot of stuff in. The first few weeks were particularly manic; this week is a bit slower, which is great, because we’re able to do some really detailed work with the actors – what they’re feeling, their reservations, that sort of thing.
Are you a very hands-on director?
I don’t know. I think that if I had a fear about myself, it would be that I’m a bit…”dictatorial” is too strong a word. But I have definite ideas about what I want. I tell them what I want but I think most of the time that’s not contrasting with what they think. Usually we’re on the same page. And actually if they said to me: “No, I think in the scene I am…”, then I’m perfectly happy to compromise and hear actors. Actors feel their best when they feel comfortable and when they’re happy, so we have a very happy rehearsal room. There’s lots of laughter, I don’t take it all too seriously. Obviously, this is a true story and we have to honour that story; at the same time, this is a piece about something that happened, but it’s also a piece of entertainment. There are lots of people in the industry, lots of directors, who get it mistaken with brain surgery or saving lives – we’re making some art, we’re playing and we’re hoping that we’re doing something pretty amazing. So for me it’s important that there’s a nice light atmosphere and that everyone feels that they can have a little giggle now and then. I think it’s been a really happy time and I hope the actors would agree with that.
Parade is set in a part of American history that we don’t really know that much about in the UK. Why do you think audiences still relate to it?
I think it resonates today because so many of the themes it addresses are just as relevant. Obviously a lot of the piece is about racial tension, anti-Semitism, something that’s still pertinent and relevant today. A couple of months back there was the row over the Confederate flag after the shooting of the people in the [Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal] church, and this is all about that time. Actually, we had a voice coach, Terry, come in to help us and he said that, when he was over there, they spoke about the American Civil War as if it had happened yesterday! I think that’s what comes up when you hear about that Confederate flag argument – in those Southern states, they’re still so angry that they were told what to do by “the North”, end slavery, etc, and to come into line with the government of that time wanted. In terms of how it relates to over here in the UK, in American history, there was that transition from a rural, agricultural society to a much more mechanised and industrial one. Then there came an influx of migrants and this is another thing that made the people in the States so angry. They felt their jobs were being taken away, their quality of life was being taken away. We’ve got the whole Calais thing going on at the moment and one of the things that fanned the flames of the Leo Frank story was the media. We’re still telling the same stories today – they’re coming here, taking our money, living on benefits, and the truth just isn’t that black and white. So I think it’s incredibly relevant still.
And the Jews were of course used as scapegoats in 1930s Germany
Absolutely! And something interesting that Terry the voice coach was telling us was that were Americans put their hands across their breast as a show of patriotism, before the rise of the Nazis, American arms were diagonally up in the air!
Parade is quite a dark piece and its trademark song is, of course, The Old Red Hills Of Home, which is quite anthemic. It it challenging to stop that becoming too glitzy?
We’ve worked quite hard to make sure that it doesn’t ever seem like some stage school show or something like that, where you’ve got people doing very sharp turns of heads like we’re in Mamma Mia! Everything about the show is naturalistic, it’s about something that happened, it’s about a real community. As long as you get yourself into that mindset, you can avoid being too frothy, which is what we’re doing. What that necessitates for me as Director and Adam [Scown] as Choreographer is simplicity and The Old Red Hills… is so beautiful and so rich that you don’t really need to do too much to it.
It’s quite an epic story – what are the challenges of staging it with 13 cast in a space as intimate as the London Theatre Workshop?
It is a big show and we really had to think about how we were going to deal with that before we started. A lot of it has come from the design of the show, which is incredible. Part of the way we’ve gotten around it is by using a rostrum, which adds an extra level to it. What that does is give us an extra three or four square feet of playing space. That really helped. I think I read somewhere that the smallest cast to date was 15 or 16, but I’ve managed to get that down to 13 with some triple casting.
Parade’s had two outing recently in the UK – at the Donmar Warehouse in 2013 and at the Southwark Playhouse in 2011. What makes your production different?
I think we’ve tried really well to cast it age appropriately for a start. We’re really limited with what we can do set-wise and budget-wise, and that necessitates a lot of imagination and a lot of “thinking outside the box”, but I think what really makes it different is that the audience has to suspend its disbelief more than they’ve had to do before? There are quite a few things that are abstract so I think the audience’s imagination coming with us on the journey is what’s going to separate us from what’s happened before.
My great desire is that one of the many producers who are coming to see the show will see that it’s done so well and sold so many tickets – we’ve broken all LTW records with the amount of tickets we’ve sold at this point, incidentally, and almost recouped the investment – if we can show it’s financially viable I’d love it if it went somewhere else and provided the actors, who are currently doing it for the love and a little bit of money, with the opportunity to make a little bit of money! In terms of what London Theatre Workshop, it’s a really exciting time. Parade marks the start of a season of productions that goes on until Christmas, the next of which is The Tempest, which is directed by Brandon Force, who’s also a member of the cast for Parade. Also, a lot of the set is being re-purposed for The Tempest, and so there’s a real cross-over with some of the same actors, and sets and creative team and it feels like a real season.
Parade opens at the London Theatre Workshop on September 1 and runs until September 13.