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INTERVIEW: Shoot the Glass’s Ryan Nielsen on Company

The cast of Shoot the Glass Theater’s upcoming production of Company.

Tomorrow, Shoot the Glass Theater opens its second-ever production: Stephen Sondheim’s classic 1970 musical Company. This show, which plays at the New Century Theatre in Minneapolis through Sunday, November 20th, was lauded at its premiere for its exploration of changing relationship and family dynamics in a socially turbulent time. The Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine spoke with Shoot the Glass’s co-artistic director Ryan Nielsen to talk about the award-winning musical’s enduring relevance, navigating dated aspects of classics, and the show’s successful Goldstar ticket promotion.

Ryan Nielsen
Ryan Nielsen

Why Company? On your organization’s website, you talk about being primarily focused on actors; what is it about this 46-year-old Sondheim musical that drew you to it for your second production?

We really only re-discovered Company a short time ago, but we were struck by how relevant the text seemed to us. Many critics disregard the material as “dated”, and while that is true in some sense the ideas are extremely current. We seem to be living in such a disconnected age with the rise of technology and social media – a show about a person searching for and trying to understand his own relationship to intimacy seemed like a natural fit for our actor-based company.

There was also a desire in the community (among our actor and director friends) to tackle a show like Company; for some reason, there was a real longing for this show. It just seemed – considering where we are in society and where many of us involved with the show are in our personal lives – that Company was the right choice.

My secondary answer to “Why Company?” is much simpler: because Sondheim.

What are some of the specific aspects of this show (besides, perhaps, the novelty of its sound) that you feel have aged less well and why?

Elaine Stritch as Joanne in the 1970 premiere of Company. Stritch, then 45, was 6 years older than her costar Dean Jones (as Bobbie) and a decade older than the character of Bobbie – a then-striking difference in age.
Elaine Stritch as Joanne in the 1970 premiere of Company. Stritch, then 45, was 6 years older than her costar Dean Jones (as Bobbie) and 10 years older than his character – a then-striking difference.

To me – the ideas and relationships in the script are very relevant to us today – but the choice of words is often dated. But what really stands out to me is the way the character of JOANNE is written. She’s written like a Hollywood caricature – which is a difficult hurdle for a production to overcome.

The JOANNE/BOBBY relationship has always bothered me. What’s the attraction? Why are they friends? How old is she??? I asked a friend of mine who happened to see the original production in New York several times with Elaine Stritch and Larry Kert. I asked him about the moment JOANNE propositions BOBBY, “How did that moment work?” My friend responded, “Well, it didn’t. But it was Elaine Stritch.”

In our production, there needed to be a real sense that BOBBY could choose JOANNE in that moment – and we have handled it by casting JOANNE as a younger version: a trophy wife that has seen too much of life and marriage at a relatively young age. In our production, JOANNE is played with sublime brilliance by local actress Emily Jansen – I cannot wait to get people’s reaction to her version of JOANNE.

Watch a documentary segment on Elaine Stritch’s work recording the original cast album of Company:

Besides guiding the selection of materials, how has the focus on actors manifested in the rehearsal process? How does this influence directing decisions?

There are two significant things about our process: One, we come in off-book. Two, we want (and need) everyone’s input. Everyone involved in the show: actors, designers, musicians – we love having other folks in the room during rehearsal, because sometimes the best ideas come from unexpected places.

I’m not saying that people don’t have input in other rehearsal processes, we just make a point of trying to encourage an environment where people feel they can express their ideas. It has certainly worked for this production, and some of my favorite moments are a direct result of someone outside the scene and the director sharing a thought.

Being off-book is important to creating this environment in that the actors aren’t reading a book and being blocked for three weeks. The downside to this process is that it’s extremely intense – a few nights of rehearsal for us can feel more like a week of rehearsal in a traditional sense. I love it because you get to work on the relationships immediately and unencumbered.

I get fairly annoyed working in processes where I feel like I spend three weeks helping other actors learn their lines. To me, time spent rehearsing with book in hand is time wasted. It’s great to know that I’m not alone!

One aspect of this show that has troubled some revivals is the use of accents and the stereotypes that sometimes accompany them. What sorts of accents and dialects are you using in this show?

That is a great question, and one we considered quite a bit. In our production, only the character SUSAN speaks with a dialect – a soft southern. And the actress playing SUSAN – Sarah Zuber – was very conscious of the issue that can accompany characters becoming stereotypes because of dialects. Our production is very intimate – dialects seemed a poor and unnecessary choice. I saw a production of Company recently where the dialects ruined some key moments.

Tickets to this production are currently available from the Hennepin Theatre Trust box office and at the door. Earlier, however, I understand that you made some discounted tickets available via Goldstar, which sold out very quickly. How is the advance buzz for this show?

We put a few tickets on Goldstar and yes, they essentially sold out in a day.  It’s both exhilarating and humbling to see how much anticipation there seems to be for this production.  Tickets are selling very well – we hope that continues.  The cast and artistic staff are doing such an amazing job in such a short period of time – we are dying to share Company with an audience.

This interview has been updated to correct an error in an image caption that misstated Elaine Stritch’s age.

Basil Considine