“Steel Magnolias” is a play based on playwright Robert Harling’s real life, and the death of his sister Susan Harling Robinson in 1985 due to early diabetes. The film adaptation starred Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts.
The play is currently onstage at the Palace Theatre. It’s directed by Dinah Watts who was kind enough to answer a few questions about the production.
What was it that drew you to Steel Magnolias?
I love the characters in this play. Robert Harling based them on real people and I think that’s what makes them so compelling. They are tough and witty and smart-mouthed (particularly the older characters), and then there are the gushing, passionate younger women.
The story is told with unapologetic irreverence and deep respect. And it is about women! Friendship, love, life and beauty – a perfect combination.
How tough was it to find your actors?
The casting process was very challenging – but not because we had trouble finding people to play these delicious roles. In fact we could have cast the play several times over. The interest in this play was huge right from the start and I was very fortunate to have so many terrific actresses to choose from.
The script has comic moments, and very poignant moments. What directing techniques did you use to bring out both without making the comedy so broad it overshadowed the poignant moments?
Well there is certainly plenty of both comedy and poignancy in this show, that’s for sure.
I think any actor or director worth their salt will tell you the most important thing is to stay honest and real whether you are working with dramatic or comic or almost any theatrical genre. The actors in “Steel Magnolias” all understand that, and that’s why their performances work so well.
In real life, we snap back and forth in our emotions and attitudes without pausing. So, if we are doing our jobs right, the comedy and poignancy work beautifully right up against each other. You could say (if we are doing it right) both are overwhelming, and neither is in danger of disappearing.
What did you learn about your personal limitations as a director during this production?
That’s easy: THERE IS AN AWFUL LOT THAT I DON’T KNOW.
I sort of knew that before we started the rehearsal process, but it can never hurt to be reminded. Luckily, lots of people helped me with lots of the things I don’t know, including planning a set and deciding where to put those crazy salon chairs (thank you Sean Armstrong), creating a gorgeous costume design (thank you Whitney Bolam) and lights (thanks Rob Coles) and sound (thank you Sookie Mei) and general stage management (Cailyn Arnot).
But above all, the actors bring an enormous amount of passion, creativity and wisdom to the whole process. It is always a collaborative effort.
Now that you’ve directed an all female cast do you have any desire to do an all male show?
I would certainly not be averse to directing an all male show – and there are certainly a lot of beauties out there! I have directed all female shows before, though, and I am drawn to them because I’m an actor myself and I know there are so many wonderful women out there who want more opportunities to act.
There are FAR more opportunities for men and, in my experience, far fewer men interested in acting. Its kind of a cruel joke when you think about it. I think it started with Shakespeare. And speaking of him, I love seeing productions where genders are reversed – by Shakespeare and others. That often makes for some very interesting theatre.
Either / Or
Choose one and explain
1) The stage or the screen?
I love the stage because it is alive – anything can happen. Each moment requires focus and attention, and each moment presents a unique opportunity. Will the actor screw it up, or do a good job – or will she make it sing!? And once one moment has passed, there is a whole lot more opportunities to savour. In many ways I think acting is a lot like baseball (which I also love).
2) Comedy or Therapy?
Both are great if taken seriously enough! If you can laugh during therapy, you are very likely on the road to recovery.
3) 15 minutes of wonderful or a lifetime of nothing special?
I’ll take wonderful of course! There is a hilarious character in the great novel “Catch 22” who is always looking for ways to make his life more boring so it will last longer. When we live life with passion and love, the time may fly — but it is the best way to live, hands down.
“Steel Magnolias” is onstage at The Palace Theatre, London, On. The final performace is 2pm Sunday, Oct. 18.
Click here for tickets.