TP caught with with Director of Fiddler on the Roof – Paul Watson to discuss the show thar's been enchanting audiences for more almost 50 years.
TP: You’ve performed in fiddler professionally… How have you used that experience to enhance this production?
PW: I did! I was fortunate enough to join the cast of Fiddler and spend time in Sydney, Perth, Wellington and Auckland and it remains one of the greatest times I’ve ever had. Incredible people, amazing friends and it was pure joy to share the stage with Topol, Judy Roberts, Annie Phelan and Barry Crocker and watch and learn from these people who I hold in very high regard. Watching Topol every night was a master class to me. I remember thinking to myself during the wedding scene some nights “you’re not focussed on playing Yussel, you’re just watching this guy control it like a boss” and he did every night.
I was like a sponge on that tour, soaking up everything I could as an actor, dancer, singer and also as a director from just brilliant cast and creatives who all had so much to give, and it’s great to have the chance to put a lot of that in place for this production.
It was Fiddler when I really locked in to what makes choreography, choreography. Jerome Robbins was a master in telling story through movement and every step has a name, a purpose and a benefit to furthering the story and it’s been incredible to discuss and watch Kaela re-create that with me and our cast. I remember the feeling of walking off stage for the first time having just performed Jerome’s bottle dance, on stage, with Topol and I didn’t drop the bottle. I was flying! I was trying to play it cool, but Judy Roberts was like “ahhhhh you’re so excited I can tell!” There’s no hiding from Jude!!!!!
TP: What are you trying to achieve with Fiddler?
PW: I’ve enjoyed putting multiple ideas into the pot on this one. The first thing that attracted me to the show as a Director was the chance to revisit and share everything I learnt whilst working on the tour production. My eyes were always open on tour and this is a great chance to share just a small fraction of some of the incredible things the amazing people I was lucky to work with shared with me. I also wanted to tell my version and focus on what this show does to me. I consider it easily one of the true masterpieces of musical theatre. I’m really into minimalism at the moment, have been for a few years. I think working on Jersey Boys did that to me. I love the concept of pace and the power of suggestion and not necessarily spoon feeding the audience with a contrived… everything! I think staging is vital, but I don’t think it should get in the way of human performances and the audiences connection with the actors all the time… King Kong sure! But a show about community and a show about a man and his relationships with his family, his god, his faith and his enemies, staging needs to be clever but understated. So I definitely wanted to create a designed minimalist version that allowed the cast to sit in front of the staging but that also allowed the staging to contribute more than just geographically.
I think minimalism is actually very difficult to get right and it’s something I’ve been exploring over the past few years with most of my shows. I’m not sure I’m even close to getting it right yet, but it’s a great journey to be on and I learn more and more with each show. How can you suggest something rather than just plonking that something down on deck and going “well here it is!”? One day someone will give me a lot of money and I’ll get to just go nuts! Until then, when working with any community theatre company, in a heavily crowded market, I feel it’s about making the end product attainable creatively and financially at the same time being clever and entertaining, new and interesting enough so the show can fall upon you as if new and for the first time and you can sit, watch, access all the points you need to that allow the story to be king. I’d cry if the only thing I heard coming out of a piece like Fiddler was “How did they do that staging bit?”
I went through several plans, some crazier and more contemporary than others and finally settled on what we have now which I think is very appealing to the current MDMS theatre going patron. I’ve seen several productions of Fiddler, and of course performed it too many times that I’ve lost count and the thing that always stands out to me is the shows ability to appeal to a global audience.
One night in New Zealand during the tour with Topol, we were taking our bows after the performance and all of a sudden everyone on stage could hear something coming from the audience. A big noise. The conductor shut the band down and house lights came up and we all remained on stage as a large group of Maori men became visible, standing up across an entire row of the theatre performing to us a Hakka to thank us for presenting them with a piece that held so much relevance to them. That was a moment of theatre I will never ever forget. That is the kind of thing you want to achieve with this show. Not that amazing gift of Maori men offering you thanks, but the ability to touch people to make them respond that way. Either through tears, laughter, applause, discussion in the foyer, returning for another glimpse or just giving enough so our audience feels compelled to think whilst at the same time being entertained. You can’t ask for more than that. That’s everything.
Fiddler’s themes are universal and instantly recognisable and the balance between humour and pathos makes for incredible viewing, a genuine roller coaster. We’ve focused on how to interplay each end of the spectrum and I think any age group, ethnicity, faith, sex etc. etc. will take something special from the show.
TP: Are there any particular themes you’ve found challenging or interesting to tackle?
PW: All of Fiddler is interesting. Anatevka is a fictional place though, but in reality the story takes place everywhere. For that reason I actually didn’t get too bogged down in executing our research into the show with too much realism in terms of Jewish culture, as there are so many fractions and interpretations that it instantly can get in the way of good dramatic staging. For example Jerome Robbins’ bottle dance is not a custom; it’s something that was created to spice up the staging in a contemporary way. Interestingly enough, the bottle dance has gone on to be a custom in some circles and events around the world. That speaks volumes of the reach of Fiddler on the Roof.
We did a lot of character research and dramaturgy, enough to choose what we liked and how to stay true, but use it to storytelling benefit.
Accents have been taken care of by my dear friend Jennifer White who lives in Sydney and vocal coaches the best in Australian and overseas talent. Jennifer and I did the pro tour together. We’ve focused on 4 levels of dialect to show the progress of the breaking down of traditions in an audible way, in particular by the younger generation. So the elders and Russians have thicker accents than the sons and daughters who deliver dialogue in neutral tones.
There is one event in particular that became strongly evident during our rehearsal period. With soldier Lee Rigby horrifically being slain in the streets of South London, I had to have a big think about a few things and how we wanted to stage things. With his attackers filmed on smart phones and using the words “an eye for an eye” which is a strong line in the show, it made me realise just how contemporary this musical actually is and just how simple yet poetic the writing is. Tevye responds to the line “and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” by simply saying “very good, that way the whole world will be blind and toothless” and you can’t believe how stunningly simple and poetic that is.
Whilst we cannot do much, we did stand in a circle and discuss the events as an ensemble and have decided as a company to dedicate our season to Lee, his family and friends and colleagues and those who were just going about their day in South London and were forced to witness something that just shouldn’t happen in this world. As I said, it’s not much, but we just wanted to do something… anything.
TP: What is the overall look of the show? How has it been designed?
PW: We’ve taken majority of the settings away and gone for an adaptable open space that allows the fast play of small floor settings. Whilst we are in a proscenium theatre, it’s actually more a black box design with the added ability of using a fly tower. Everything fades away to black in the wings giving us a floating world centre stage as if out of a picture hung on a wall in a museum. We’ve predominantly done away with walls and structures and gone for depth and imagery. We’ve focused on floor and baron trees and one floating wall that allows us to interplay between exterior and interior instantly. Skeletal roof structures are all flown above and we’ve toned the colouring down in both settings and costume to provide a staged reality
TP: What is the appeal of fiddler for audiences?
It’s instantly relatable. As I said before, it takes place in Anatevka but it really takes place everywhere. If you are a person who has family, has fallen in love, has a faith, has not been able to do something you want to do because of that faith, been discriminated against, started over, lost a loved one, said goodbye… man even if you have had weird bizarre dreams where your Grandmother comes to you and insists you marry your second cousin………….
TP: What have MDMS been like to work with?
PW: MDMS always provide a challenging but enjoyable environment for show creators. They don’t have the resources and budgets that the bigger companies have, but they make up for that by trusting the creative team and their vision to the end. A good original design for MDMS that factor in capability, budget and their ongoing creative support and understanding means you can produce something of great quality and with attention to detail and execution.
The reason I’ve liked MDMS in the past is that you can create new ideas with encouraged freedom, as you just can’t try and do the poor cousins version of the Broadway version.
TP: What was the casting process like?
PW: Casting was actually pretty difficult. We had a stunning turn out and everyone was of quality that was instantly useable. We grumbled over a few selections I can assure you. In the end we got a perfect cast for what we were looking for. We’ve been so impressed with how they have tackled the show, grown together as both an onstage and off stage community and developed real relationships that can be played out on stage.
TP: How do you encourage your actors to develop their characters?
PW: There are a few things I consider really important. The first is to get the script down immediately as it just prolongs the ability to discover the character physically. I think where your character sits physically drives so much of what you can and cannot achieve. Character development, together, not just solo and also a decent amount of dramaturgy is vitally important. I always put time aside for this in the rehearsal schedule for the whole cast to do together. My feelings as an actor is you can’t make choices on stage without knowledge of your world, your environment, the history and the people. Knowledge is power. Research, discussion, asking each other questions about each other’s characters… I like to play a game late in the piece called ‘speed dating’ where I get the actors to ask other actors questions about their characters and try and find some sort of secret, desire, or juicy thought process that they can use together on stage. I think as a cast, trying to find an understanding of what each character needs to achieve from the scene and helping each other do that is vital. All too often I think we just focus on our job, our role only, but there is so much more going on in the scene than just one thing. Whilst your character may need to achieve a certain something, there are several ways to achieve that and you need to find the one that may not destroy an important arc for the other actor. That is the battle. I always think that with stage acting you are unfortunately dictated to by the fact that your line and the next line is coming regardless. Your lyric comes in on that beat whether you feel like doing it then or not. The trick is to always be setting up the next line, not just deliver yours. Throw the audiences focus where it needs to be, not where you might want it to be by locking down a singular point of focus and complement each other and each other’s arcs as best as you can. That’s my theory!!!!! Oh and book is KING! Nothing is more important than book. Not even a bottle dance, which by the way is real! We have no tricks, no Velcro, no sticky tape. If the bottle falls it falls!