Interview with Elena Day

Movement Consultant Elena Day has an essential role in developing the characters, world, and tone of Laugh.  Literary Intern Jen Gushue sat down with Elena to hear her insights on physical comedy, 1920s slapstick, and her favorite parts of the job.

Jen Gushue: What is a movement consultant’s role in the development of a play like Laugh?

Elena Day: A movement consultant is responsible for the development of the movement world of the show, which is how the characters move individually and how they move within the show’s style.  The movement in an 18th century drama is going to be different than a 1920s slapstick which is going to be different than a musical.  Laugh is set in America in the 1920s and 30s and makes many references to the silent film and vaudeville era.  My role is to help design the physicality that relates to that era.  That includes slapstick and physical comedy sequences, as well as simply how the characters comport themselves.

JG: How did you get started as a movement director?  What is your training and your background?

ED: I went to a school in Paris called L'École Jacques Lecoq.  It’s a mime and movement school that’s well known for its mask work, clowning, and movement analysis.  I’ve worked for Cirque de Soleil for the past 15 years in various capacities as a performer, so I’ve also learned just from being around other wonderful clowns, mimes, and physical comedians.  My training and my work were initially much more based in the circus world and physical theatre world.

When I moved back to Washington, DC, I took a directing class with Joy Zinoman at the Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory, which is known for its realism.  That has opened a lot of doors in terms of movement directing work.  Now I work with a wide variety of theatres in the DC area.  I’m moving toward plays where characters talk more than they did in the circus, but, of course, they still have bodies, and those bodies need to move in a certain style and manner.

JG: What’s the key to successful physical comedy?

ED: Timing, surprise, and practice are the keys to physical comedy, as well as playfulness and a lot of hard work.  I was watching a documentary about Buster Keaton yesterday, and they were talking about this one particular sequence that he just wasn’t getting, and he finally got it on the 59th take.  Things that look effortless and simple often require a lot of skill in terms of timing and practice.

JG: What particular challenges do you anticipate on a show like Laugh?

ED: I think the biggest challenge will be unifying the cast in the same movement style.  I’ve only had the opportunity to watch them on their feet once so far, so we’re still very much at the beginning of the process.  If you think about it in terms of music, you can imagine you have all these excellent musicians who may have different musical backgrounds.  The musical director’s job would be to unify them so that they create a cohesive sound.  Similarly, I, along with the director, will be working to unify the cast so that they’re all speaking the same movement language.

JG: Take us through the process of coaching a production from start to finish.

ED: With Laugh, I’ll start as an observer.  While the director does the initial blocking and characterization, I will have the chance to see what the actors bring to their roles on their own.  What are their ideas?  One of my strengths is the ability to watch what people do naturally and pick out what’s going to work for the show.  Then, I will go in and hone specific scenes and sequences. The fine tuning will come during tech when we’re on the stage with the final props. If someone sits down on a couch and the couch is really hard, that’s going to play differently than if they sit down on a couch and it’s squishy.  Slapstick and props are inextricably combined.  Once we have the props, that’s when the physical humor really comes out.

JG: Which character has been the most fun to develop?

ED: Many people in this cast play multiple characters.  There’s one sequence where one of our actors, who is a man, has to play three different female characters in incredibly quick succession.  There are 12-second quick changes between each character.  It’s going to be a hoot to work with him on his physicality and characterization for each of these women!

JG: What scene are you most excited for the audience to see?

ED: I think the opening scene will be really exciting for the audience.  There’s an explosion within the first five minutes of the show!  I’m also really excited to see how the director will approach the final scene, because it’s very beautiful and fantastical.  I just love that.