Interview: Private Lives Director Rachel Korach Howell on the making of a modern classic

Divorce gets complicated in  Nöel Coward's play. --Image via Fourth Room Theatre
Divorce gets complicated in Nöel Coward’s play. —Image via Fourth Room Theatre

Private Lives

Fourth Room Theater — August 13-15, 20 and 22 at 7 p.m.

This summer, Fourth Room Theatre opens its third annual Free Summer Classics production, Noël Coward’s Private Lives. (N.B. — the author of this article is an Associate Member Artist with Fourth Room.) The play centers on the lives of divorced couple Elyot and Amanda, and their tangled path back into one another’s hearts. Their marriage was a volatile one; when they meet again, coincidentally at the same hotel on honeymoon with their respective new spouses, both the rage and the passion of their prior romance are re-ignited.

When the play premiered, Coward himself took on the role of Elyot. In Fourth Room’s production, that part is played by Core Member Matthew James. Rounding out the cast are Jessica Link as Amanda, Matt Brewbaker as Victor, Erin Mills as Sybil, and Kelly Garrett as Louise. Core Member Rachel Korach Howell directs.

Fourth Room’s Summer Classics series is in its 3rd year, but this is your first time directing for it. How does that feel?

Daunting. I mean, amazing, but it’s definitely a lot to figure out. It’s not just directing a show, it’s also a ton of coordination with getting sets that can take shifts in weather, props, costumes. It’s coordinating dates with local events, with the property owner. Lighting is always rough outdoors.

We have a very intense strike plan that we follow every single night of tech and performance. All this, and then there are, of course, the bugs and the humidity. I’m pregnant, so, you know, priorities! Also, most rehearsals are outside. We’ve been very lucky to have had some people take pity on us and let us rehearse indoors for a few of these extra hot and muggy days.

Rachel Korach Howell directs. --Photo via Howell
Rachel Korach Howell directs. —Photo via Howell

Private Lives is a departure from the Shakespearean fare that 4R has offered the past two years. What can audiences expect?

Laughs! Lots of passion and wit. Not that you don’t get that with Shakespeare, of course, but it’s what Noël Coward is known for: lots of superficial attitudes with wonderful emotion underneath; lots of reading between the lines with these people. Really beautiful, passionate intentions… but they have a hard time expressing them.

What drew you to this play – both in general and as a part of your Classics series?

My mom directed the [Christopher Durang play] The Actor’s Nightmare at my old high school. there’s a portion of it that’s ripped from Private Lives. I laughed so hard. I immediately wanted to see what the actual script had in store. It’s such a wonderful, fun, witty, exciting, ridiculous script – I’ve always wanted to be a part of something that made other people smile as much as this story made me. Watching Matthew James and Jessica Link together is a sight to behold. Everyone is doing amazing with the material. They’re working so hard! It’s been a test for everyone involved, but it’s a test we’re enjoying. Its fast and it’s amazing – just like Noel Cowards banter.

Private Lives premiered in 1930. What does it take for a more modern work to be considered a “Classic”? Longevity? Reception? Is it like a car, where anything past a certain date qualifies… or is there something more nebulous at play?

I think “Classic” can be many things. We have things that are called modern classics, of course. I think all those things you mentioned have something to do with it: longevity, it’s place in society, in context at the time it’s written… the example it can give of a society that no longer exists. Especially at the time this play was written, it was such a seemingly-carefree life being depicted: they all have money, they have education, multiple homes. It’s a world that simply doesn’t exist, but it creates a basis for all those other amazing things that go on within the play to happen unquestioned. It’s not about logic. It’s a picture of a lifestyle we can’t imagine.

I would say Eugene O’Neill, for example, is classic — differently classic than, say, a Shakespeare, or a Greek, or a Chekov. They are all differently classic from each other, as well. I think “classic” has more to do with what the piece has given to the world in which it exists, and the staying power it has. Shakespeare had scenarios we understand not to be real anymore, but relationships and a way of speaking about human nature that still resonate. Coward does that too, but in a very different way. It reflects us… the parts we hate, the parts we love. the parts that make us laugh at each other and ourselves. It’s a comment on who are at a given time. People, in general, struggle with so many of the same things, no matter when something was written: love, family, guilt, marriage, children… The themes, when expressed eloquently enough, will never go away.

You played Beatrice in Fourth Room’s production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing last summer. Do you notice any parallels between the two stories of lovers treating one another horribly?

You know what’s crazy? I actually hadn’t thought of that. I must use different parts of my brain for acting/directing! Yeah. I mean, absolutely. There’s a sort of passion there that I think we all crave in our romantic relationships. I think, for some, it’s hard to distinguish between wanting to smack someone or kiss them, when the feelings get so intense.

There’s probably more resistance with the more violent tendencies; when we really look at who we are and what we want, we are humbled enough to take advantage of the opportunity presented. To accept each other more fully.

There’s a line in Private Lives where Amanda asks if Elyot thinks they’ll ever stop fighting. He says yes, when the passion runs out. She asks if they really want that. That’s not a direct quote, of course… but, the idea is there – that there is so much passion, so much fight. They’d do anything for each other.

Private Lives opens on August 13 at Fourth Room’s outdoor location, 901 Melrose Ave, Iowa City. All performances are free to the public. It runs August 13-15, 20, and 22 at 7:00 p.m. each night. Check the Fourth Room Theatre website or Facebook page for more information and weather-related updates.

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