Award-winning veteran director Jules Aaron has been putting his directorial stamp on plays and musicals for several decades. Mr. Aaron took time out of his busy schedule to talk with us about his current project, The Group Rep’s production of Agatha Christie’s New York Critic Circle and Tony award-winning play WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION featuring guest artist Salome Jens, running January 27 through March 12, 2017 at the Lonny Chapman Theatre in North Hollywood. Last season, Jules Aaron directed the most successful play the Group Rep has ever produced, the sold-out, twice extended musical THAT LOVIN’ FEELIN’.
written by Steve Peterson
When did you first get interested in theatre as a performer and later as a director?
I performed since I was six years old through graduate school. I made two close friends — Bernadette Peters, who I went out on auditions with when I was young; and Lily Tomlin in undergraduate school at Wayne State University. I became close to Lily and her brother. She and I did reviews together.
When I saw Olivier do Beckett at 20, I knew I was not going to be a real actor. I became interested in directing during my PHD program at NYU, and my former wife and I had a theatre in a loft in the West Village. My first show, THE MAIDS, was fortunately well received by The Village Voice and given a good review.
What was your first directing experience and what did you learn from it?
Since as an actor I had no connection with my inner feelings, I learned to find that inner life in the actors I worked with. I was always good at orchestration and visuals, but as they say - casting is 2/3 of directing, and I’ve learned from wonderful actors.
Did you have a mentor along the way?
Richard Schechner, the king of environmental theatre, was my mentor and Joe Papp and his wife Gail Merrifield at The Public Theatre in New York also took me under their wing and I learned a lot from them.
How did this particular project come about and was Salome Jens attached when you took on the directing assignment?
The Group Rep originally had The Visit on their schedule with Salome and Mitch Ryan as guest artists with me directing. As it turned out, the rights to the play were not available. Salome’s brother-in-law, the well-respected character actor Anthony Zerbe, suggested WITNESS which also had a plumb role for Salome. In addition, there were roles to go round for Group Rep company members.
You’ve worked with Salome in the past. What is it about Salome and her creative process that makes for a good working relationship with you?
Salome and I have worked on five or six shows together, with A Long Day’s Journey Into Night being one of the most satisfying experiences. We’ve developed a type of shorthand in regards to developing characters, even working privately on her character before joining the cast for an official rehearsal. Salome and I are blunt and to the point about her character’s choices. We are a symbiotic spirit - - sharing a sense of humor, in a loving relationship of both friendship and artistry.
Tell us a bit about the play
Agatha Christie fashioned this play in 1952 from an early excellent short story of hers which was subsequently made into a feature film.
The play has a different ending than the short story; and Christie also took care to develop the characters fully, which was not usually the case with thrillers written at that time.
Please note that in the early 1950s, when Witness for the Prosecution takes place, women were taking their place as part of the justice system. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a barrister during that time. But, true to the time, the role of Mayhew had traditionally been played by a male actor. However, I chose to partner the Sir Wilfred character with a woman solicitor (Mrs. Mayhew) to second him in court. With the rising role of women in law and politics, Mrs. Mayhew becomes a vital part of the defense team – especially in the dealings with defendant Leonard Vole’s infinite charm, and the maneuverings of his enigmatic wife Romaine Vole.
What do you want the audience to take away or perhaps feel, from having seen this play?
I want the audience to experience the passionate love story disguised as an intricate cat and mouse game between the defendant’s wife Romaine Vole and his defense attorney Sir Wilfred - - to feel the twists, turns and surprises - - and have some laughs along the way.
I’m reminded of when Craig Lucas and I were working on two projects at South Coast Repertory (Craig on the premiere of Prelude to a Kiss) and I on Marry Me A Little (libretto by Craig and music by Sondheim), we became friends. In our discussion of the journey of a play, Craig compared a good production to a rollercoaster ride. The audience gets into the car, you move them through unexpected loops and drops, and they all end up experiencing an exciting ride. That became my credo for good story telling.
I hope that this play will be great entertainment at a time when we need to be lifted out the reality that surrounds us, for a few hours.
You’re very busy with multiple projects both in Los Angeles and New York. What’s up next for you?
I am directing Separate Tables for a May opening at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills. After that, I’ll be helming Daybreak, a play about two women whose lives were affected by the Armenian Holocaust celebrating the endurance of the human spirit, which goes up at the Odyssey in September.
In addition, I continue my work on the musical “I Will, I Can,” inspired by the life of Sammy Davis, Jr targeted to open in 2018.
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Witness for the Prosecution runs January 27 – March 12, 2017. Fridays/Saturdays at 8:00 pm. Sunday matinees at 2:00 pm. Lonny Chapman Theatre 10900 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood 91601. Tickets: $25. Students/Seniors with ID: $20. Groups of 10+: $15. Buy tickets www.thegrouprep.comInfo: (818) 763-5990.