Joel Sass makes suspense fun

Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater

​Joel Sass is a busy man. Hours after his latest directing effort The 39 Steps opened at the Guthrie Theater, Sass was in Berkeley working on preliminary plans for a production of one of his signature works, Titus Andronicus, set to run next summer at the California Shakespeare Theater. "It's a kind of artistic whiplash," he says about going from the high humor of The 39 Steps to the gruesome tragedy of Titus.

Putting plans for bloody dismemberment and revenge-laden meat pies aside for a moment, Sass took a look back at the four-actor, Alfred-Hitchcock send-up at the Guthrie.


City Pages: What were the biggest challenges in bringing the show to the stage?

Joel Sass: The biggest challenges had to do with staging what is essentially a very intimate show in a very large theater. I worked very closely with scenic designer Richard Hoover to re-frame and re-scale the McGuire Proscenium so that it wouldn't swallow our four actors whole. The rest of the challenges had to do with staying half a step ahead of our incredibly inventive, energetic cast. My job is to do everything necessary to make a safe environment for them to risk looking ridiculous -- as well as brilliant. The two states of being share a very thin boundary, and you can't achieve one without risking the other.

CP: Has the audience reaction been what you expected?

JS: By and large, the audience has responded in the way we hoped they would. They laugh a lot, but they also follow the suspenseful plot very carefully. I had wondered if in the midst of all the crazy game-playing, that that part of the story might be lost. But you can sit in the audience and hear the gasps and the murmurs when our hero is about to step unknowingly into a trap, or a love interest from the previous act shows up.

CP: Have there been any surprises?

JS: There have been a few surprises: some of the scene changes inspire a lot of laughter, as when the Scottish hotel-keeper Mrs. McGarrigle prepares a love nest for our hero and heroine. The actors are finding they have to pause and wait for things to settle down in the audience before they can start the scene.

CP: How much does a live audience change the experience for the actors?

JS: The live audience has a huge impact on the actors' experiences. For the previous three weeks, they've been performing the show for the same 10 people who've seen it daily, so now they're learning a whole new set of responses: where they need to slow down so the audience gets the information, and where they need to speed up because the audience is already ahead of them.

CP: This is the second time you've worked with material inspired by Alfred Hitchcock (Sass directed Hitchcock Blonde in 2009 at the Jungle Theater). How has this experienced differed?

JS: Doing Hitchcock Blonde at the Jungle was all about cultivating an authentic atmosphere of "Hitchcockian" mystery, eroticism, and paranoia. The 39 Steps is in some ways a more complicated endeavor: we're trying to pay homage to the artistic conventions of Hitchcock's suspense aesthetic while simultaneously doing an affectionate send-up of those same conventions. The audience derives humor from the fact that they can recognize what is being parodied, in addition to the fact that what they're watching is actually funny all on its own.

The 39 Steps runs through Dec. 19 at the Guthrie Theater.