Get a Clue

How Do You Put on a 150-Character Play with 4 Actors?

Mark Shanahan returns to the Alley Theatre to direct The 39 Steps.

By Cara Maines July 18, 2017

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Todd Waite plays Richard Hannay and Elizabeth Bunch plays Annabella in the Alley Theatre's production of The 39 Steps, directed by Mark Shanahan.

Mark Shanahan is a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan—he teaches a course on the films at Fordham University, and he’s directed and acted in The 39 Steps at over five theaters, including the Alley in 2010. This year he returned to the Alley to direct The 39 Steps, a hilarious tale of espionage, murder and romance in which four actors portray more than 100 different characters, as part of ExxonMobil’s Summer Chills series. Houstonia talked to Mark to get the scoop on the upcoming performance.

You’ve directed The 39 Steps at several different theaters. How does this version differ?

Every time that you look at this story, it seems to change according to the actors you have and the situation that the world finds itself in, and how the audience might be coming in, and what’s going on in the world. It has some fun political overtones considering it takes place in 1935 with the world on the brink of war. More than anything, I think you always love to reinvent the play. There’s no such thing as putting it up again.

You mentioned that this play has a lot of political undertones. Can you talk about how they might be relevant today?

I’m always amazed by the fact that the movie came out in 1935, and although Hitler and the rise of the Third Reich is never overtly mentioned, it’s always in the background of this play. In fact, it even answers the main question: What are the 39 steps? By the end of the play, when the actors get to talk about the secret of the 39 steps, it really suggests something rather nefarious about the world on the brink of war. I think for any age since that movie first came out in 1935, every generation that’s watched it has seen some of our own predicaments. And given that all we have to do is open the newspaper and read about North Korea or nuclear arms or different things that are going on all around the world and in politics, I think everyone gets to read into it that what they wish.

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Elizabeth Bunch plays Pamela and Todd Waite plays Richard Hannay—Waite is the only actor who plays just one character in the production.

How do you handle representing more than 150 characters with only four actors?

It’s a cast of four. Only one actor plays one role, and the other three play multiple roles. Mark Price and Bruce Warren play our two clowns—they play so many characters I’ve lost count. I think the joy is seeing what chameleons they are and how proud they are of each of the characters that walk out on stage, from housekeepers to evil masterminds to country farmers to even bushes and waterfalls. They take on more than their fair share, and they do it so joyously that the audience loves to watch them, the way everyone loves to as a kid do some backyard acting, and let your imagination run wild.

What are some sources of inspiration for your directing?

I saw Hitchcock's The 39 Steps movie when I was 10 years old. My dad, who at the time was very ill, took me to a dark theater, down in New York City, called Theatre 80 St Marks. On a Saturday afternoon with plenty of rain going on outside, we found ourselves sitting down watching a double bill of The 39 Steps. I remember how fun, scary and humorous that movie was, but also how terrific it felt to be in that dark theater watching that movie with my dad, and I’ve never forgotten it. This play in many ways and the story feel like I get to revisit very good friends.

What do you want audience members to take away from this performance?

More than anything, I just want them to laugh and come and enjoy and go home and say, ‘How did those actors pull that off?’ and know that the world can be really fun and really joyful and really imaginative and creative. That’s what I think the play does. We can tell a story and make you laugh, and hopefully that’s what the audience will do, have a good night out with belly laughs that make their sides hurt.

What is something people would be surprised to know about you?

I think that people think that as soon as the play is over, the director leaves and they feel happy about that, but the truth is I could come back and watch this show every night, I love it so much.

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