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The Night Alive cast with director Randall Arney

The Blood, the Sweat and the Flesh

“I am a huge fan of Conor McPherson,” begins Artistic Director Randall Arney’s letter in the program for The Night Alive. He’s proven it, too — The Night Alive is the third McPherson play that Arney has helmed at the Geffen Playhouse.

Ahead of the show’s opening February 3, we sat down with Arney and chatted about finding an Irish cast in L.A., holding his tongue and the importance of being able to say “I don’t know.”

The Night Alive really is one of those plays better seen than read.
Those words are meant to be spoken, not read. It’s dialogue. It’s to be heard. Reading a play is not like a novel. A novel is finished. All it takes is someone to pull it off the shelf and read it. The whole artistic process happens. But with a play, it’s really more like a blueprint than a finished product. You gotta fill in how it looks and how it lives later. It’s not done. It’s just a plan. You need the three dimensions. You need the blood and the sweat and the flesh.

And the ghosts —
In between people! I’ve always said the most exciting part of a play is what happens in the space between you and me. As much as anything you do or anything I do, what we can do together is so much stronger.
This is the third Conor McPherson play you’ve directed at the Geffen. What are the special challenges of directing his plays?
The Geffen audiences have a real history with Conor. We did The Weir in 2000, and in 2008, we did The Seafarer. He is, in my and many other people’s opinions, one of the finest writers of the English language working today. It’s such graceful writing. He weaves such warm, incredibly human stories, but it’s not easy material. The scripts are wonderfully rich, but they really separate those from who can do it, and those who can’t. Inevitably, that’s the great challenge — getting a great cast, finding the thoroughbreds to run the race. In many plays, an actor must juggle three or four balls. In Conor’s plays, it’s more like juggling six or eight balls. It takes a real pro. You’ve got the dialect, the milieu of Ireland, and then you’ve got these incredibly intense relationships.

What is it about Ireland that produces these exceptional playwrights?
The country creates wonderful storytellers. Conor has a real skill at capturing the loneliness of the Irish male. They’re stoic people, yet so human. In The Weir, when a woman comes into the room, things change. And in The Night Alive, Tommy, who’s been sidetracked and is living in a room in his uncle’s house, brings a bloodied girl into the room. He interrupted a fight where she was being beaten up. You could file this play under “No good deed goes unpunished.” He doesn’t know what he’s unleashing on him and his friends by bringing her in. The presence of her in the house changes everything forever. Both for the good, and in some ways, for the ill. But it releases things in this play that are incredibly exciting. One of the characters says, “You only get a few go’s in life.” And Tommy’s light is almost out — but he’s going to get another opportunity for a go at life. It’s a great carnival ride for the audience.

How does this play fit in your career?
I grew up at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, and I’m attracted to plays that are great actor material and great ensemble pieces. I came up with a group of actors who got to pick our own plays. Oftentimes, we followed our passions to the plays we wanted to be in. This fits in that mode because the actors in the piece are tantamount to the success of the play. Conor’s such a wonderful storyteller — and in the theater, we’re in the storytelling business. This is a really special one. Artists all over the place have their hands up for The Night Alive because it’s such fun material to play.

Is it difficult to cast an Irish play in Los Angeles?
There’s a great Irish acting community living in Los Angeles, and they turn out in force whenever an Irish play is being done in town. So there’s a real authenticity in this production. I’m most looking forward to the exploration and excavation of this amazing script in a room with a group of really talented actors. We have a good time finding it together, carving out the story in these plays, which are so rich.

What’s your directorial style?
I really try to create an incredibly fun and safe room in which to play. It requires actors to be open to each other. If there’s tension at all in the room, the first thing that will happen is actors will close down. It’s really just setting the table. I always talk in the room of the importance of all of us living in the creative state of “I don’t know” for as long as we can. As long as you say, “I don’t know,” you’re still learning. It’s when you say you know something that you sort of stop. Keeping that open exploration of the script and characters and [encouraging] the give and take between the actors is what I love doing.
In the beginning of the process, I feel very comfortable moving them around, but I try not to get into their space. That’s where they’re doing the creating. After a week or two, when they have a little more confidence with what they’re doing, they’ll want me in there with them, giving advice and help. A lot of it is knowing the process, and not doing step 10 on day one. I also find when you have really great actors, the challenge for a director is knowing when to keep his mouth shut. You can always give a note tomorrow, but you can’t take back a note given too soon. You can’t get the toothpaste back in the tube.

Why this play now?
That’s a great question. We’re thrilled to have this premiere on the West Coast. Because of our relationship with Conor, we were able to carve out the rights to the play before they really were available. I love being able to bring the play to our audience in such a timely way. It’s still a “new” Conor McPherson play. So the timing is right.
I also think the play is very timely for the reason I think many plays are timely. In our day and age of social media and sitting alone in our rooms typing on computers, the ability to come and sit in the dark side-by-side with a bunch of strangers while we turn the lights off and tell you a story — that communal experience is as important now as ever. I find that people are really hungry for that, for a good story. And no one tells a story like Conor McPherson.

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