Spotlight on Art Suskin

interview

{Featured image is a rehearsal shot from The Fox on the Fairway, courtesy The Theatre Gym Facebook page.}

Note: this article will be published in the December 2011 issue of KC Stage Magazine. Additional note: this is an updated version with a correction to the title of the play. 

“I still get nervous before every rehearsal. I still get nervous before every performance. And I think that’s important. You’ve got to keep that anticipation and excitement. And I look for not young people, but youth. I look for people who are still young at heart, if not actually young. I am, I think. And I think that’s what keeps you going. Hopefully it’ll keep you alive. I always say that theatre keeps you young and keeps you alive. That’s what I do.”

Art Suskin has been doing theatre since about the 5th grade, and he never really wanted to do anything else. In fact, he started his own company – the first, that is – in 1965, when he was still in high school. He grew up in the Kansas City area, attended Pembroke Hill, then went to college at Swarthmore in Pennsylvania, which game him several opportunities to go up to New York to see auditions.

“I was both acting and directing, and I’ve never really looked back,” Suskin says. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else. I mean, I just love it. I love both sides of the footlights, and I’ve done a little of everything – a lot of some things, obviously, a lot of directing, a lot of acting – but I’ve also designed everything at one time or another. I’ve even choreographed a couple of shows. I mean, you just pick it up. I’ve been doing this now, you know, for over 45 years. That gives you a bit of an edge. I’ve done it all. But it’s all different.”

KC Stage December 2011 cover. Photo by Kelly Luck.

In 1984, after working in the Kansas City area for a while, he moved to New York doing shows, including of all things working with the Florida Shakespeare Festival for three and a half years, and so he traveled a lot between the two, including being in an off Broadway show that was actually written for him. However, after about 10 years of that, he decided to come back to the Kansas City area.

“I decided in the first part of this century that I have one more theatre in me,” Suskin continues the tale, “and in 2006, after having a bunch of successful productions out of Olathe and a lot of people who were really wanting to work with me, I said, I might as well just … this is it. And so we started The Theatre Gym.

“At first, it started as a school. But I never intended it to stay that way only. I mean, it still is. It’s just that the school is on a hiatus. The main thing: the production’s what’s important and doing shows, and frankly I can teach a lot more in a rehearsal process than I can in a classroom. And it takes better – it’s more fun if the focus is a play.”

And so, The Theatre Gym started producing plays, including the current production, The Fox on the Fairway, the most recent outing from Ken Ludwig.

rehearsal shot from ‘The Fox on the Fairway’, courtesy The Theatre Gym Facebook page

“I had heard about it for a long time, and ordered it the second I saw it, because I love Ken Ludwig,” Suskin says with a smile that reflects his enthusiasm for the work. “I’ve done Lend Me a Tenor, I love farce – it’s what I do best, frankly, as a director. And so I saw it, and I ordered it from Samuel French and it didn’t come, and it didn’t come, didn’t come. It hadn’t been published yet,” he says with a disbelieving laugh. “So finally they sent it to me in I guess it was May {2011} and I saw that Ken Ludwig’s introduction to the script had been written in April. I mean the ink was still wet. So I really just went nuts. And I said, ‘Well, this is it. This is the show.’ I mean I want to do this.”

As to why he is drawn to farce and Ludwig specifically, Suskin explains. “Audiences love it. You know, it’s just – leave your brain at home – but it’s entertainment as art, and I love that. Believe me, I love doing heavy stuff – I did Murder in the Cathedral, I’ve done Duty, which was to say the least heavy – but this: there’s nothing more fun than, for me and the actors, than just entertaining the people really well. They expect to be entertained. But you want to give them something that they don’t expect. You want it to be over the top, and Ken Ludwig’s scripts provide that.

“One of the nice things about Ken Ludwig is that his farces are not mean spirited. At least they shouldn’t be – this one won’t be. There’s something joyful about them. I mean, Feydeau farces, who is the king of farce in most people’s minds – these people are nasty. It’s funny, and it’s fine, but that’s not the English farce of the 30s and 40s that Ken Ludwig is basically bringing back and updating for modern ears and modern audiences. And that’s what this is. It’s just joyful from beginning to end.

“Another thing about farce, I think, is that it celebrates the joy of theatre – of just doing theatre, of playing in the truest sense of the word, like a child plays, in front of people and having a rapport with them in a feedback loop. Comedy does that, and farce does it better than anyone – a good farce.”

Art Suskin. Photo by Angie Fiedler Sutton

While Suskin has done pretty much every role available to do in theatre, his true love is in directing. “When you act, there are certain things and certain ways of looking at a play you just shouldn’t do – they get in the way. You don’t need it. So, when I act, it’s a matter of putting on the blinders and focusing on character and plot and point of view of that character. But when I direct, there is nothing – there is no single thing I do that uses more of what I can do than directing. Period.

“And I actually know, kind of, what I’m doing after 45 years. I think I would, or I’d really be an idiot, you know? I just continue doing it after 45 years. I use everything. There’s nothing that I’ve ever seen done, learned, unlearned, felt about, that isn’t at least potentially useful in directing. I pride myself on being able to talk to any actor and find something that floats their boat. I mean, whether it’s popular culture, whether it’s scholarship, whether it’s psychology, whatever it takes. And not only that, enjoy doing it on both parts. I think it’s very important that actors enjoy themselves when they work. I think that if they don’t, the work isn’t going to be good.”

So, what makes a good director in his eyes? “I think it’s important that a director have a lot of knowledge,” Suskin says. “We stand on the shoulder of giants. You’ve got to know their names and why you’re on their shoulders. That’s important: history of theatre is important. It doesn’t have to be book learning. There has to be an awareness of it.

Art with the folks at the Big Dumb Fun Show. Photo courtesy Kelly Farrar’s Facebook page.

“I also think that a director also has to be able to think visually. Action is a strange word in theatre. It’s often used as a bookmark or a placeholder for something that people don’t know what else to call it. I mean, you can have one guy standing alone, as I just did in Underneath the Lintel, and it’s action. But why is it action? Well, the action isn’t just a physical movement – the action is the action of the mind. The action of the way of the vocality, the action of the way the mind delivering those lines moves from one thing to another. Those vectors have the force of stage crosses. And if you can, you know, that’s important. And the director has to see that, and you have to see it quick. There can’t be a lot in the way involved – you can’t go back and mull it and come back. I mean it has to happen right there, because otherwise the moment can be lost. So you’ve gotta be able to work quickly, focused.

“Once you walk into that room, there’s nothing else going on in the world. It’s just the play. That’s it. You know? And that’s not a manic thing – that’s easy. That’s kind of comforting. You know exactly what you have to deal with when you’re in that room. It’s always the same room, by the way. It doesn’t make any difference. That rehearsal – it’s the same rehearsal room every time. You know, it just looks a little different some times, but it’s the same space – you’re just filling it up with something. I love that.”

Art Suskin is directing and producing Ken Ludwig’s newest play, The Fox on the Fairway, from December 15 – December 31. More information about this production can be found at www.theatregym.com. Want to hear more about Art? Suskin is also the subject of the December podcast for Stage Savvy, which you can download after December 15 right here.