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Exclusive Interview: Christopher Gallu Talks about Directing Mojo
Mojo is set in the late 1950s in London’s Soho district. What about this play do you think will speak to a contemporary American audience?
First, it's largely about a time when American music was taking over the British scene - Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard - these were the sounds that British kids were listening to and it was changing the culture significantly. But even more than that, there is an emotional core that anybody can relate to - American, British, even Canadian! The play is about upheaval and the struggle to gain control after something horrible happens. Its power politics set in a crumby bar. Who hasn’t worked in a place were people are jockeying for position with the boss or making moves to get a promotion? Or had to deal with working with the boss' son or daughter? So although the setting is different, the scenario is something that anybody can understand and relate to.
You mention American music taking over the pop-culture scene in London. Have you and your actors been listening to much early rock ‘n roll to get into the spirit of the play?
Constantly! Over and over! And the music is fantastic. Our sound designer, Brendon Vierra, used to work in the shop at George Washington University. He would play this music while working. The students working for him - kids who are 18, 19 years old - couldn't help but move to the rhythm of these songs. It is absolutely infectious! But it's not just cutesy oldies - once you start looking at the stories of these performers and looking at their lyrics, you realize that this music was completely subversive. Jerry Lee Lewis singing “60 Minute Man”? That could make Lady GaGa blush!
You and set designer Luciana Stecconi decided to put Mojo in the round. Can you tell us a little bit about your decision to do so?
I always felt that the play's energy and themes were well-suited to the round. The play is about a power struggle among men - it always felt like a boxing match to me. Plus, the writing is incredibly dynamic and creates an energy that wants to go "three-dimensional" in a way that only the round provides. Luciana and I worked on it a lot because there are many inherent difficulties when you are staging something in the round - for example, you automatically give up a truly naturalistic approach (Luciana and I had many conversations about unseen doors and stairs!). In the end, Luciana designed a beautiful set that not only creates a very clear picture of the world of the play but also allows us to truly embrace the play's energy and the characters' struggles.
The Studio 2ndStage just finished Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, which featured a female director and an almost entirely female cast. You’re in the room with an exclusively male cast. Do you see a difference working on a show with a single-gender cast? How has all the testosterone in the Mojo rehearsal room fed into the world of the play?
I should first point out that our stage manager extraordinaire, Marley Monk, is a woman - God only knows what she's been thinking the last four weeks!
It has been a lot of fun working with these guys. They love the play and have completely embraced the play's Cockney/testosterone fueled energy. Maybe a little too much, sometimes. One night after rehearsal the guys went out for a couple of drinks to blow off steam and "bond as a cast." They did not leave their accents at the theatre, though, and spent the night trying to convince impressionable young ladies that they really were from England. Happily, I can report that the accents were universally believed by these women.
As for the testosterone in the room - it's great. It's hard to keep the dynamic of the play out of our non-play interactions. I thought that this could be an issue going into it, so I made sure not to cast anybody taller than me. Luckily, I'm 6'4". Danny Gavigan (Potts) and I are actually about the same height, but I've got a good 60 or 70 pounds on him, so if it ever comes down to it, I can just sit on him.
The Studio 2ndStage has been called “a playground for directors and actors”. As a veteran of several 2ndStage productions, do you find directing here different from any of the other theatres where you’ve worked?
Speaking as a director, I can say that the best thing about working at 2ndStage is the focus on developing clear conceptual approaches that serve the play's thematic content and style. And in doing that, there is always a great deal of support from everybody at the theatre, including, but not limited to, Keith [Alan Baker, Artistic Director 2ndStage] and Serge [Seiden, Associate Producing Artistic Director]. I can honestly say that each time I've worked at 2ndStage, I've had a great amount of freedom to experiment, but I've also had the support necessary to make sure that those "experiments" are well-thought out and fully realized. This "playground" analogy is very interesting - next time I will make sure to ask Keith for a slide, a swing set, or a see-saw. You know, just for breaks.
Scot McKenzie (Mickey)
Daniel Eichner (Baby)
Dylan Myers (Skinny)
Matt Dewberry (Sweets)
Danny Gavigan (Potts)
Logan Dalbello (Silver Johnny)
Director and Designers
Christopher Gallu (Director)
Luciana Stecconi (Set Designer)
John Burkland (Lighting Designer)
Frank Labovitz (Costume Designer)
Brendon Vierra (Sound Designer)
Joe Isenberg (Fight Choreographer)
The Playwright: Jez Butterworth
Jez Butterworth is a prominent young playwright who has garnered much praise for his timely and comical pieces. Born in London, Butterworth studied at the prestigious Saint John’s College division of Cambridge University. His first play, I Believe in Love, was produced in 1992, but Butterworth’s notoriety as a playwright skyrocketed in 1995 with his hit comedy, Mojo, earning him the Laurence Olivier, Evening Standard, and George Devine Awards for outstanding new plays. In the wake of the play’s success, Butterworth wrote and directed a film adaptation of Mojo, released in 1997. Other plays of his include: Huge, The Winterling, The Night Heron, Parlour Song, and Jerusalem (recently named the number two play in the Times Top Twenty Plays of the Decade). In 2007, Butterworth was bestowed the E.M. Foster Award, which provides British and Irish writers grants to travel and work in the United States.
Just as the Atlantic Club in London’s SoHo district is reaching its pinnacle, its headliner is kidnapped and the owner is found sawed in two behind the club. Nervous that the party behind this abduction and murder has it in for the rest of the staff, Mickey, the club’s number two man, orders the Atlantic on lock down. When Baby, the deceased owner’s flippant son, challenges Mickey’s power, Mickey banishes him from the tightly-sealed club. Things change, however, when Baby reemerges with some shocking information behind his father’s murder and Silver Johnny’s abduction.
Top Songs of the 1950s
“Tennessee Waltz” performed by Patti Page (1950)
“Sixty Minute Man” performed by Dominoes (1951)
“Unforgettable” performed by Nat King Cole (1952)
“I Believe” performed by Frankie Laine (1953)
“Rock Around the Clock” performed by Bill Haley & His Comets (1954)
“Tutti Frutti” performed by Little Richard (1955)
“Don’t Be Cruel” performed by Elvis Presley (1956)
“All Shook Up” by Elvis Presley (1957)
“Yakety Yak” performed by Coasters (1958)
“Mack the Knife” performed by Bobby Darin (1959)
Jez Butterworth: Playwright and Pig Farmer
British playwright Jez Butterworth took the theatre world by storm in 1995 with his break-out hit Mojo, carving a name for himself among the edgiest playwrights. The writer-centric Royal Court Theatre first took an interest in Butterworth and produced his play about underground rock ‘n roll in late 1950s Soho, London. Butterworth explains, "I was interested in that historical moment: rock'n'roll landing like a spaceship on postwar, just-out-of-rationing Britain." Lauded by critics and presented with numerous awards for his sensational Mojo, Butterworth was among the hottest British playwrights.
After Mojo’s whirlwind success, Butterworth turned his gage towards the silver screen. He was commissioned to adapt Mojo into a screenplay and made his directorial debut with this film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival featuring playwriting legend, Harold Pinter. In 2001, he directed another self-penned screenplay, Birthday Girl, starring Nicole Kidman. A year later, Butterworth premiered his newest play, The Night Heron.
A master of both playwriting and screenwriting, Butterworth explains that the two are very different crafts for him: “Screenwriting and playwriting always strike me as like different sports that I can play. It’s like cricket and football; they don’t really have much to do with each other except a lot of strenuous activity.” He confesses that screenwriting comes easier to him but that he is fascinated by the stage because it poses more of a challenge to him as a writer.
In 2005, Butterworth moved his young family from fast-paced London to the fresh air of the English country side. Butterworth found respite his new rural environment. He also prides himself on raising pigs on his humble farm, which he and his family eat.
Fresh air did this now middle-aged playwright well. A few years after his move, he pumped out two major hits in one year. Butterworth premiered Parlour Song in 2008 at the Atlantic Theatre, which transferred to the Almeida for its English debut. In the fall of that same year, he opened Jerusalem at The Royal Court Theatre, which received extraordinary praise before a successful transfer to the West End. Long-time collaborator Ian Rickson, who has directed most of Butterworth stage plays, notices, “Having children and animals has had a really powerful effect on [Butterworth’s] work.”