Thursday, May 28, 2009

Theater feature: Actor McConnell moves into director's chair

Actor/director Gordon McConnell.

By Hap Erstein

Carbonell Award-winning actor Gordon McConnell of Lake Worth likes a juicy role to sink his teeth into, but -- as the clich√© goes -- “what he really wants to do is direct.”

“I’m trying to branch out a little bit,” he says by cellphone, on his way to Miami for rehearsals of this year’s Summer Shorts. “I love theater, but I’d like to direct for the theater rather than act in it.”

McConnell has appeared with most of the major stage companies in South Florida and was nominated twice this year for performances at Manalapan’s Florida Stage and Coral Gables’ GableStage. Yet he has never been involved with Summer Shorts, City Theatre’s annual celebration of short one-act plays, which has employed most of the region’s major players over the past 14 years.

Why has he never joined the ensemble before? “I admire these guys that do it, but I’m too old to memorize more than one play,” he says with a sardonic laugh. “I used to do plays in repertory when I was younger, at Mirror Rep with Geraldine Page and F. Murray Abraham. But we did one play a day. This is doing 10 or 20. "

In fact, Summer Shorts 2009 consists of 16 plays, divided into two programs, but a bit differently from past years. There is Signature Shorts, the prime-time, general audience-accessible playlets, and then there is Undershorts, a distinctly more adult menu of R-rated scripts for those with more adult tastes.

Just as City Theatre needs a group of versatile actors, it also needs a handful or two of directors who can think on their feet. McConnell contacted the company, advised them of his availability and interest, and was hired to direct two plays, one in each program.

“One of the things that attracted me about directing is it take less time,” he explains. “What I couldn’t do as a stage actor was pursue any kind of film career. When your agent calls you up and says, ‘Be in Miami in an hour and a half,’ they don’t want to hear, ‘I’m sorry, I’m in rehearsal.’ Soon they stop calling you.”

Because the Summer Shorts plays all rehearse simultaneously, the rehearsal schedule is a logistical nightmare. As a result, McConnell was simply assigned two plays and given casts for them.

From left: John Manzelli, David Hemphill
and Stephen Trovillion in Jettison.
(Photo by George Schiavone)

One is called Jettison, by Brendan Andolsek Bradley. “It’s three guys adrift in a lifeboat,” says McConnell. Playing them will be Stephen Trovillion, John Manzelli and David Hemphill. “You don’t really learn too much about how they got there or what happened on the boat they were on."

What we do learn is that one of the three has smuggled a little rabbit aboard. “And they’re starving, so we have a conflict there about eating the rabbit or not eating the rabbit.”

Fortunately, McConnell has decided to use a hand puppet, rather than a real rabbit. If that sounds comic, the director agrees, “yeah, well, it borders on the ridiculous.” Still, he adds, “I’ve been told that it’s not funny enough. And my response is, ‘I didn’t write it.’ "

McConnell’s Undershorts play is Pass the Salt, Please, by Jeffrey Ircink, a two-character, mature-language comedy with Trovillion and Elena Garcia. He describes it as the story of “a bored couple having dinner, and the language gets very raw.”

McConnell says he is enjoying the rehearsal process of Summer Shorts, which requires “a creativity that you have to come up with almost instantaneously, without major changes as you go along.” After all, the amount of rehearsal is extremely limited. “We get about, all told, I would say less than 19 hours a play.”

Still, he would like to make Summer Shorts an annual habit. “It’s just to get my name out there as a director,” McConnell says. “If the theaters down here don’t know your work, it’s hard to break in."

And no matter how well his direction is received, McConnell is already committed to appearing onstage twice next season at Florida Stage. He is featured in the Manalapan company’s season opener, Two Jews Walk Into a War . . . , by Seth Rozin (Oct. 21- Nov. 29), a two-hander in which he will play opposite Avi Hoffman, another Summer Shorts director. And then in late January, 2010, he will show up in Israel Horovitz’s Sins of the Mother.

Yes, McConnell wants to be seen as a director, but, as he puts it with a vocal shrug, “I mean, I’m not going to say 'no’ to a good role.”

SUMMER SHORTS 2009, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; opens tonight, runs through Sunday, June 21. (305) 949-6722, Tickets: $42. Continues at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 S.W. Fifth Ave., Ft. Lauderdale, Thursday, June 25 through Sunday, June 28, (954) 462-0222. Tickets: $40.

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