The Illusion of Normality: An Interview with John Director Ken Rus Schmoll

By Elspeth Sweatman 

"I find John terrifying, but find it impossible to pinpoint why," says director Ken Rus Schmoll. "That's what attracts me to it. It's like driving down a road in the fog. You can only see a few yards ahead of you, and you never seem to arrive at your destination." As the New York–based director prepared to direct the haunting John—running through April 23 at The Strand Theater—we caught up with him to chat about bed-and-breakfasts, playwright Annie Baker, and presenting reality onstage.

Director Ken Rus Schmoll. Photo by Zack DeZon.
What is your favorite thing about John
I love the characters. Each of them is deeply knowable and deeply mysterious. One of the play's preoccupations is how different generations relate to one another. In addition to the young couple, there are two roles for actresses in their seventies that are complex, far from the stereotypical "old ladies" that permeate popular culture. Old age, though not necessarily a hallowed state of being, is where wisdom fructifies.

What research have you done for John
Scenic designer Marsha Ginsberg and I went to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and knocked on the doors of bed-and-breakfasts. We were invited into many of them and sent hours with the various proprietors looking through rooms, photographing architectural details, taking notes on how they were decorated and organized. Secretly, we were compiling mental portraits of the proprietors themselves, to understand the type of person who would choose to run a B and B.

What conversations have you had with the design team? 
Mostly about naturalism. The primary setting is more or less an exact replica of a bed-and-breakfast. We've been focusing on the minutiae of real life—actual objects that have wear, that have history; the way sunlight streams through a window; and how conversations in another room sound through walls.

What makes Annie Baker's plays powerful? Why do they resonate with so many people?
They are generous with audiences. There is something immediately recognizable in each of her plays, often the setting (a movie theater, a bed-and-breakfast), sometimes a situation (friends hanging out). At the same time, she does not fill in every detail of the story. She allows space for the audience to project themselves into her worlds and to wander among the thoughts of the characters and their own thoughts, too. Annie's plays are like a communal garden divided into individual plots, where each audience member may plant whatever he or she prefers.

What are the challenges of performing John at The Strand Theater? 
The Strand is so oddly shaped! As a former movie theater, it is quite deep. The front row of the orchestra and the last row of the balcony provide vastly different viewing experiences. The challenge is to create intimacy with each audience member.

John runs through April 23 at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to know more about the creation of John and the numinous? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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