It’s not often where a production is re-mounted with the original cast at the same theatre company with the same director in the same calendar year.
But that is exactly what is happening at San Francisco’s Theatre Rhinoceros. “The Habit of Art,” a critically acclaimed hit this past Spring for the oldest gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender theatre in the world, is making its return with the same actors and the same director, with previews beginning Thursday, July 31st at the Eureka Theatre. Opening night is Saturday, August 2nd.
John Fisher, the artistic director of the Rhino, the director of the production, and the actor who plays Benjamin Britten is certainly excited about another chance to tighten an already solid show.
“It’s a great opportunity because the first production was a three-week run, and by the end, we felt like we were just getting it,” said Fisher. “You always wish you had more weeks because the opening is so much work and the goal is to put it out there.
“As the show went on, we were more relaxed and found more comedy, we were more receptive to the audience, and we just built on that.”
“The Habit of Art” is a comedy piece written by Alan Bennett, he of “The History Boys” fame. It focuses on the fictional meeting between Britten, who is seeking advice from his friend W.H. Auden while he writes an opera, “Death in Venice.” During this imagined meeting, their first meeting in over twenty-five years after a falling out, they are observed and interrupted by, amongst others, their future biographer and a young man from the local bus station. Britten was a 20th century British composer and a contemporary of Auden, a famed British poet who became an American citizen.
The intrigue of the show is that it is done as a play within a play. The actors play characters that play actors, while the rehearsal room is a space where many personal issues come to the forefront for the characters. Fisher is taking advantage of a larger theatre space in this current run, which allows for the characters to move throughout the theatre, replicating an actual rehearsal experience.
“We’re not only seeing a play, but seeing the process of actors putting on a play, arguing with each other about what should be the meanings of the scenes and relationships,” said Fisher.
What excites Fisher about this work is the fact that it’s a terribly witty comedy of manners, certainly inspired by things like Monty Python or the bawdy banter of a Noel Coward. Bennett’s writing is sharp, smart and pointed, and makes for delicious back and forth amongst the cast.
“What I love about the play is that it’s a clever and smart play,” said Fisher. “The audience really enjoyed themselves. It’s kind of naughty, romantic with sexual elements to it, and very intelligent.”
Fisher is also striving to strengthen the pace of the show. Pace is something that is learned with an audience in tow. Because of the previous three week run, Fisher believes more of the show’s nuance will be strengthened very early and sustained throughout the run.
“It was hard to keep up with the (historical) references in the show,” said Fisher. “I didn’t always feel like I can laugh because I lost a reference. We are sensitive to the information the audience is gathering. We want to keep exploring the comic briskness.”
Because the show focuses on a fictional interaction between actual historical figures, Fisher made sure to include plenty of dramaturgy in the production. It is something that allows everyone involved in the show to go into more depth, and create a more realistic world for the characters.
“It makes us feel like we have more authority, and what is more real is that we understand the backstory and can personalize it,” said Fisher. “When we first read the script, we were confused about stuff, but the actors became more believable in roles the more they knew about the people themselves.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Theatre Rhinoceros presents “The Habit of Art”
Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by John Fisher
July 31st – Aug. 31st
Tickets range from $10 – $25
The Eureka Theatre
215 Jackson Street at Front/Battery
San Francisco, CA 94111
For tickets, call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.therhino.org