Arts & Events

Shotgun Players Present 'The Norman Conquests'

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Friday January 08, 2010 - 02:00:00 PM

“When I was starting the theater company,” Patrick Dooley of Shotgun Players recalled, “My mom asked me why I was doing it. I’d been working as an actor. And I said, I want to see different kinds of plays—and the only way I’m going to see them is to direct them.” 

That’s one explanation for Shotgun’s Champagne Series of staged playreadings, for three years an annual event during the usually theatrically slow month of January.  

This year, another trilogy—a comic trilogy—Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests, each part performed on one Tuesday night only: Table Manners, directed by Joy Carlin, Jan. 12; Living Together, directed by Mina Morita, on the Jan. 19; and Round and Round the Garden, directed by Dooley, Jan. 26. All shows are at 7 p.m., preceded by champagne and hors d’oeuvres. 

“We’ve had complaints we don’t do enough comedies,” Dooley said. “And with The Norman Conquests, we can say we’ve done three this year already! Ackbourn’s one of those kind of writers who makes you laugh out loud, just reading the script. You don’t need to see the plays to laugh. We did a cold reading, and it was pretty funny. He finds ridiculous situations in normal life; they’re familiar situations. His characters aren’t laughing, but we recognize the situation, though at enough distance to see the humor.” 

What began as a one-time event became popular, and now seems to be a tradition. 

“Five years ago, a board member, who’d seen Tom Stoppard’s COAST OF UTOPIA in London brought me the hardcover volumes of it,” he said. “It took me six months to sit down and read it. It was epic, exciting ... We contacted Samuel French—and they gave us the rights! They must’ve thought a production of a trilogy would be a longshot.” 

Dooley recounted the ins and outs that led up to the idea of a staged reading—though something special. “We thought about doing it in the summer, a few performances of each play, with loose costume, running all of them,” he said, “but it was too much coordination, too many people, too high a charge for tickets.” 

Then they heard of a New York production, which would be a great success, a multiple Tony winner. Still French extended the rights, and the troupe rescheduled “to the only time and space we had, during January, a slow time for actors—and we needed a lot of actors.” 

The series was first quietly billed to subscribers as probably the only chance to see the whole trilogy on the West Coast. Then the champagne came into play, and Dooley’s brother, then a cook at Chez Panisse, prepared hors d’oeuvres.  

Dooley said, “One board member called it, afterwards, ‘like grad school with champagne!’ Now everybody asks us what we’re going to do next. What would normally develop—and develop an audience—over six weeks, has to be done in one night.” 

The troupe casts three or four months in advance, rehearses for 15 to 20 hours, blocks movement, choreographs dances, sets up lights, sound, projections ...  

“It all just kind of happened,” Dooley said, “Like our annual outdoor shows at Hinkel Park that began as a whim, because we wanted to do a play with giant puppets that wouldn’t fit into the basement space where we were, then, at La Val’s. And Shotgun tends to steer away from plays around a couch or table; Beowulf or Animal Farm are more the type of plays we’re drawn to. We want to focus now on doing new plays. But that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy that kind of play! It’s an advantage of being an artistic director, to choose the kind of play you’d like to see. And to finally have a director like Joy Carlin in the same room.” 


The Norman Conquests 

Presented by Shotgun Players as part of the Champagne Series of staged readings. The trilogy will be presented over three nights: Table Manners, 7 p.m., Jan. 12; Living Together, 7 p.m., Jan. 19; Round and Round the Garden, 7 p.m., Jan. 26. All readings are preceded champagne and hors d’ouevres, included as part of the series ticket price of $100. Ashby Stage, at Ashby Avenue and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. 841-6500.