Set in a remote French village, The Three Bears follows the spiraling disintegration of an American ex-pat family struggling to do the right thing: stick it out for the kid.
Simone Marie Martelle is blowing up, seriously! She is currently in rehearsals, directing her third production of her play The Three Bears, which will soon open at the San Francisco Fringe. Last Spring, Simone invited me to work with her in script development on the piece, and since then I’ve acted as a dramaturg for each production. I have been honored to work with Simone; she is incredibly talented, intelligent, motivated, and generous. I am fascinated by how quickly these productions have happened and so I wanted to blog about her process. I sent Simone a series of questions for her to reflect and answer at her leisure during the “hurrication.” Enjoy her thoughts below!
Ellen: Simone, you have been the playwright, assistant director, and director of The Three Bears all in a little over a year. The piece has changed considerably for the Fringe, due to the Fringe’s time stipulations. What have you learned that has surprised you about the piece from all of your different roles, and the different productions?
Simone: Good question! Working on The Three Bears both as A.D. and Director, more than anything, taught me to look at my script differently – I had to completely forget that I was the playwright and that these were my words, and I had to try to make the play work on stage, with real living people to embody the roles. It was definitely a learning process: it was hard letting go of the play I had in my head in order to let it take on a life of its own. What I think surprised me the most, however, was how much the play changed with different actors. The characters of George and Susan were so drastically different in each production! George’s character, especially, went through a huge evolution, from monster to a man that actually is redeemable and sympathetic.
Ellen: In the first production at Shapiro Studio, Susan, was played by Kathleen Marsh*. In the second production at Manhattan Rep, George, was played by Kevin Bohl. Now, the two who were in separate productions are acting together in this latest third production. They are both such fantastic, intelligent actors-I’d love to hear what it was like to create this hybrid production where they each previously had their own rehearsal history with you.
Simone: It is fantastic working with Kevin Bohl and Kathleen Marsh* together. They are both fantastic actors and I am really lucky to have found them.
I was devastated when I learnt that I could not take Kathleen* with me to Manhattan Rep. because of its non-equity stipulation. She was the embodiment of what I envisioned Susan’s character to be like – we had auditioned over two days for the production at Columbia and we saw a bunch of talented actresses, but Kathleen* had that ‘je-ne-sais-quoi’ that we were looking for. I just knew that one day I would have to bring her back to work on the play again. Kevin, on the other hand, surprised me during his auditions for Manhattan Rep’s production. I had been looking for someone to play the role much meaner and stricter – much like Greg Hornison played the character in the first production. But when Kevin came into auditions, both Tatiana and I were blown away by the incredible amount of depth he was able to bring to the character from just page-long sides. He wasn’t playing the ‘George’ we expected, but his ‘George’ was far better than anything I could have ever dreamt of. We knew we had found a rare gem.
Now moving on to the San Francisco Fringe, I am delighted that I can bring these two together. They bring a new dynamic to the play and, for the first time, I think that the characters of George and Susan are equals: equally sympathetic and equally repulsive at the same time. They are both strong actors and they certainly are able to bring a strength to their characters we haven’t seen until now.
However, even though I am now working with two actors that were in previous productions, I knew I couldn’t just mash up the two previous versions. I had to let the two of them find their own rhythm and life in the play. I had to let the play develop organically – just like if I had never worked with them before. In addition, this performance we are lucky enough to have two fabulous actresses play Marie and Young Marie. Chantal Gagnon (Marie) brings a new introspectiveness to the character, as well as an inner strength that we haven’t seen before, and adorable Gabrielle Etzel (Young Marie) has a feistiness that is new to Young Marie’s character and definitely entertaining. The result: we have a very different play on our hands.
(*Actor Appears Courtesty of Actors’ Equity Association)
Ellen: One of your techniques in rehearsals for this play has been “character therapy.” It’s a form of table work/character therapy, and is genius for creating a rich, detailed history between all of the actors. I’ve been fascinated with how affective this has been- did you create this technique? Are there any other rehearsal games that you have found particularly affective?
Simone: Yes and no – I did create this “Character-Therapy” rehearsal game because I thought it might be a nice way to get the actors to think about their characters and it seemed like therapy suited the premise of the play, given that this family clearly needs some therapy! J However, I don’t know if I can take full credit. I sort of stole the idea from my training at the Yale Summer Conservatory for Actors that I attended in the summer of 2008. There, my teacher Blake Hackler encouraged us to keep character journals where we would answer questions about our character’s background, much like the questions I ask my actors in the ‘Character-Therapy’ sessions. Also, back when I used to be an actor, I was a little Method and so that may have also influenced me when I thought of this rehearsal game.
As for other rehearsal techniques… my assistant director Tatiana Rivera is actually great at coming up with exercises for the actors. She seems to have a knack for finding exercises or games that unlock new things in the rehearsal and the actor’s performances – even if sometimes these games irritate or frustrate the actors in the moment. For example, in one of our scenes, Tatiana had Gabrielle Etzel (Young Marie) knock over George’s chair every time George said something mean, and as a result, George not only became angry with Young Marie, but ultimately broke down in sheer exhaustion– showing him what it really is like to lose control and the desperation that comes with it. As a result, George’s performance in the scene is more nuanced.
Ellen: As the play’s productions have progressed, the graphic design for the postcards/posters has changed (you can see all three images at the top of this blog post). Can you talk a little bit about this evolution, and how it is linked with each specific production?
Simone: Well, for the first production, Chandler and I decided to hire a graphic designer to make the postcard. I had an old image of my childhood panda bear, which I sent to her and we gave her some ideas that we had – although nothing concrete. The postcard we got back – while beautifully designed – was not really quite what I was looking for, or what I had envisioned, but with budget and time constraints, there wasn’t the time to really make a new design.
Later, I decided to make the postcards myself. I have a little background in design from high school, and experience with Photoshop, so I thought I’d play around. For the second production, I wanted to play around with the idea of child and adult worlds, and find a way to merge them: hence the child’s drawing of wine glasses. I also wanted bolder colors, so I went with black, white and red – very dramatic and bold – like the production I was hoping to put on at Manhattan Rep.
For this play, I knew that I had found some fabulous actors and I wanted to showcase them. Kevin and Kathleen*, in particular, have worked with me for a long time and I guess I was looking for a way to thank them for their loyalty and dedication to the project. Also, I spent the summer interning at The New Group and found myself a little influenced by their poster designs, which frequently involve simple, dramatic pictures of their stars.
Ellen: Wine plays a huge role in the play, and I realize that I actually don’t know your favorite wine! Does it have a taste of cassis?
Simone: You know, I don’t actually have a favorite wine. I’m ashamed to say that despite my upbringing in France, I know very little about wine. I usually defer to my father about such things… although I do love a glass of white wine. Much like Susan, I actually hate red wine!
Ellen: I believe that The Three Bears has been the top selling show for advance tickets for the Fringe. Can you tell us about how we can get advanced tickets before the show sells out?
Simone: Yes. Half of all tickets will be available at the door a half hour before curtain but you can also purchase tickets online at BrownPaper Ticket. Tickets are $10 ($12.99 online) and can be bought at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/182381 You can also find out more about the play and details about performance times on The Three Bears website at www.threebearsplay.com
Ellen: After the fringe what are you up to next? How can we see more of your work?
Simone: Right now, I might have to take a little break from directing. When I get back, I will be busy writing my thesis play for Columbia, under the mentorship of David Lindsay-Abaire – and that play is scheduled to perform at New York Theatre Workshop in early April. Other than that, you can always check my website www.simonemartelle.com for updates and more about my work.
Merci mille fois to Simone for taking the time to answer these questions! If you are in San Francisco check it out! I will be sending my dramaturgical support from afar. Again, you can learn more about the play and details about performance time here: www.threebearsplay.com