To begin our series of interviews with the director and cast of Kensington Arts Theatre’s Les Misérables, meet Director Darnell Morris.
Joel: Why did you want to direct Les Misérables?
Darnell: The short answer- I’m a glutton for punishment! The long[er] answer is that I find myself drawn to period pieces, and I seek out projects that explore what it is to be human. Les Miserables is truly epic. It covers so many facets of human existence-love, hate, war, poverty, just to name a few. There’s so much in Les Misérables to explore, which is extremely rewarding to me. When Kensington Arts Theatre’s Artistic Director Craig Pettinati called me and offered me the show, I was directing Ragtime (which won the 2013 WATCH Award for Outstanding Musical). He simply said to me “I trust you,” and I haven’t second guessed working on this very challenging and extremely rewarding production. It has been the opportunity of a lifetime.
How many people are in your cast?
We have the largest cast in KAT’s History- 28 people! We have a fantastic group of performers who all portray approximately 4,721 characters (just a slight exaggeration).
Take us in to auditions. How many people auditioned for the leads, and why did you select the actors/singers you did for your leads and introduce them. What do you admire about their performances?
We had a terrific turn out. We had nearly 150 talented actors come out and audition for the principal adult roles in Les Misérables. From the moment one my brilliant Music Director Stuart Weich and I were on the same page-we needed to create a company of singers who can act. All the artists in the show had to sing to be cast, but we really demanded something more, which was to require them to embody their characters and perform with conviction. Over the years, we had both seen and heard many productions of Les Misérables that focused all on the beautiful vocals and lacked the heart of the story. We needed to cast dynamic performers in order to properly convey
Our first priority was to find a Jean Valjean. This performer needed to be someone with the vocal stamina required to sing this immensely difficult role, as well as someone who was able to share with the audience a fully developed character arc. We wanted our Valjean to really be able to share his emotional journey. We wanted our Fantine to be independent and strong, but also vulnerable and open with the audience. We needed to find a Cosette and Marius who could do more then sing pretty love songs…I could go on and on. Basically, every character from Fauchelevant to Javert was well thought-out before we stepped into the audition room. We were looking for very specific qualities for every character, and I think we came up with the perfect cast.
What I most admire about the group of artists we cast is that they are more then just singers or actors reciting lyrics and pretty melodies. Their passion and drEdit Edit date and timeive to earnestly tell the story is what makes them so captivating. They aren’t relying on big fancy sets or turntables to get the audience involved in the story but instead they have taken ownership of their roles and developed three-dimensional characters. They have consistently concentrated on their personal motivations and objectives as well as relationships with all the other characters within the story. I am extremely proud of all of their hard work.
What makes this production of Les Misérables unique, special and/or different than the many other production that have come before you?
The joys and challenges of working with Kensington Arts Theatre have a lot to do with the space where we perform. We are able to turn a turn-of-the-century Town Hall Gymnasium into a full fledged theatre. We are able to create new looks for every show, and we have a lot of freedom with building our vision of the show. One of the major disadvantages, however, is the lack of offstage space. Finding ways to utilize set pieces has always been challenging. I am lucky to have an extraordinary production team including Laurie Kimi, Jenna Ballard, Chris Holland, Sue Goldberg, Suzie Freedman, and Eleanor Dicks. These designers have collectively helped me revisit the “standard” look and feel of Les Misérables and sort of turn the audience’s expectations upside down. From the way we start the show to the way the barricade comes to be, to the way certain characters die-we have made bold, distinct choices. Those who have seen shows at Kensington Arts Theatre know that we sometimes are forced to think outside the box for our shows. I am excited to share the new choices we have come up with to combat with struggles and challenges our space creates.
What was your vision when you began rehearsals and how has it changed and how have your designers help to bring that vision to life?
Who is your Musical Director?
One of my favorite parts of working on Les Misérables with Kensington Arts Theatre has been having the opportunity to work with Stuart Weich. Stuart is one of the best Music Directors out there. His understanding of music, text, character choices and development is unparalleled. I have never walked into a first staging rehearsal with a cast that had such a clear understanding of who their characters were. We have a running joke with the cast that Stuart “speaks Darnell.” He is able to take the direction and motivation that I give to the actors and help them translate it into their music and voice. Collaborating with Stuart has been an absolute delight.
What scenes have been the most challenging for you to direct/block/stage?
The two most challenging scenes to stage have been The Barricade and “Javert’s Soliloquy.” Before staging these sections of the show, I heavily brain stormed and collaborated with my production team and designers .We played around with several ideas trying to figure out what would best serve the show and tell the story. The physical space played the biggest role in our decisions. I am blessed to be surrounded with designers and artists who are flexible. They aren’t afraid to take risks.
What do you want audiences to remember about this production of Les Misérables after they leave the performance?
At the end of the day (pun intended), I want the audience to leave feeling touched and moved by this company’s performance. My goal has been to help guide this cast to tell the story as uncomplicated and as heartfelt as possible. As a company, we have spent a tremendous portion of the rehearsal period focusing on character building, text interpretation and understanding the complexity of the characters’ relationships with each other. I have challenged and empowered my actors to take ownership of their story and share it in the most truthful possible way.
Les Misérables plays from May 2-24, 2014 at Kensington Arts Theatre performing at Kensington Town Center-3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (206) 888.6642, or purchase them online.