Actor-director opens thought-provoking theater

 

"Oh, Rod."

Depending on who is talking about Rod Isaac, "Oh, Rod" can float on very different tones with very different meanings. There's the groaning epithet, "Oh ... Ra-had," as in, "What a jerk. I never want to work with him again." Said with motherly concern, it becomes, "Ooooh, Rod. It's just community theater. Why work so hard?" But more and more these days, you'll catch an eager tone when you hear, "Oh. Rod. He just staged Bent. What's he doing next?"

After 20 years acting and directing in community theater, Rod Isaac has opened a new theater that is quickly gaining a reputation for staging exclusively dramatic works in a city where comedies and musicals are most beloved.

The Theater Within, housed in the Fountain Square church known as The Church Within, opened in 2007 with Neil LaBute's Bash, a trio of stories including one about a woman who kills her child. With a fledgling audience, Isaac went on to stage The Laramie Project, about the murder of a gay college student in Laramie, Wyo. Next he chose Imagining Brad by Peter Hedges, which explores the balance of power in a marriage in which the husband has no legs or arms. Theater Within's first season concluded with another LaBute play, This Is How It Goes, about the disintegration of a marriage along racial lines.

This is serious stuff for a man first known to community theatergoers as "the funny fat guy."

In the two decades before he launched The Theater Within, Isaac performed in 50 plays, mostly comedies and often, he says, in "weird uncle" roles. A hair salon manager by day, Isaac was seen on various local stages, such as Epilogue Players, Spotlight Players and Carmel Community Players. He played the only non-singing role in Oklahoma, that seductive if chubby Persian guy.

Eventually, Isaac graduated to meatier fare, directing ambitious and award-winning works like Agnes of God and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Today, as artistic director of his own place, Isaac is still fat and frequently funny, a serious director trying hard not to take himself too seriously.

Thought-provoking plays

Sitting on one of the floral couches in the church's community room, Isaac is, at first, reluctant to play up the connection between The Church Within and The Theater Within for this article. He fears readers will immediately think: "Godspell, starring Pastor Yvonne in the church cafeteria!" However, as we talk, the church and its teachings sneak into the conversation.

"My life really changed when I found this church," says Isaac of his entrance there four years ago. "I had gotten into this negative, gossipy, catty [crowd]. I had to step away from old ties."

Before, when Isaac had told colleagues that he wanted to build a theater devoted to thought-provoking plays, they responded, "Oh, Rod. You can't. It's only community theater." When he approached Pastor Yvonne Brandenburg with the same idea two years ago, she said, "Oh my gosh, that's a dream of mine."

Isaac and Brandenburg came to an understanding that Isaac would pick the plays and the pastor would nod and smile. No censorship. They agreed Isaac would seek plays about pressing social issues. They would have discussion forums on play nights. The church would pay for royalties and buy scripts. Play programs would advertise the church's core beliefs: "All people are holy. Only love is real. Many paths, one God."

"The church's only call," Brandenburg explains, "is to walk with the hopes and hurts of people, to find ways to encourage others' lives. That's what this theater does."

Last spring, The Theater Within staged Martin Sherman's Bent, which portrays the Nazi internment of homosexuals during World War II. After reading the script, Brandenburg thought, "This is going to be a tough one." She was not put off by the issue of homosexuality -- gay families and straight families mix in equal numbers in her church -- but by the play's tragic events.

"I knew it was a good story," says Brandenburg, after she saw Isaac's interpretation. "I didn't know I would be blown away with its beauty."

Few or no answers

Isaac cautions audiences not to be put off by or taken in by buzz words, like prejudice and sexual harassment, which often surround the plays he chooses. So far, the director has avoided using the church's platform stage as his personal or political lectern. Rather, he finds that during each production, at least one of his major assumptions about the play or life will be challenged or tossed out completely.

With Laramie Project, for example, Isaac began directing with a firm grip on the issue at hand: hate crime. However, by the time his nine players faced the audience as 66 different characters, he knew something else. "It was really about the people of Laramie." Audiences met waiters, bartenders, doctors and state troopers' wives. They were asked only to look at life in Laramie, before and after "hate" became their town's ignominious label.

With Oleanna, the playwright David Mamet was clearly addressing sexual harassment, the power struggle between a college professor and a female co-ed. Or was he? As he worked with his two actors for his version, Isaac says he was increasingly absorbed instead by the neediness of the two characters.

Later this fall, Isaac will direct John Logan's Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story, which revisits the infamous court trial of two teens accused of a grisly murder. As he rereads the script in preparation, Isaac is torn by the eloquence of one lawyer's attack on the death penalty and the other lawyer's defense of it. Isaac says, "As I age, I see more and more shades of gray."

To be a Theater Within play, a script must have some social question -- and preferably few or no answers. Rather than send audience members home with only their questions, however, Isaac hosts the play night talkback sessions called Looking Within.

More like a college drama class than a typical actor meet-and-greet, Looking Within advances conversations about acting and theater, as well as societal issues. One Oleanna discussion broke into a debate between the men in the audience, who defended the professor's innocence, and women, who felt certain that the young female student had been ill-used by him.

Isaac reiterates that he has no agenda, except to start conversations.

"The only way to effect change is if we talk about it," Isaac says, explaining his motivations as a theater director. "It fulfills me if [after a play] someone is a little more open minded. If I don't get paid for 20 years, that's OK."

The plays and the talks are drawing a small but steady crowd to the Fountain Square church, but Isaac is in no danger of drawing a paycheck anytime soon. His inaugural play drew six to 13 people per show. Just over a year later, 30-40 patrons came to see Bent each night. Isaac knows that with a lively adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace, sales would shoot up to 200 easily, but he prefers the intimacy, even voyeurism, of small groups and sets.

"I don't want it to look like a play," Isaac says. "I want it to look like you're looking through a peephole. I want audiences to think they're eavesdropping from the next room."

Keep it simple

According to his preference and his budget, Isaac's sets are kept to a minimum. If he can't get every detail of costume or set just right, he'd rather have none.

For Laramie Project, nine players breathed life into 66 characters by alternating between aprons, caps and jackets hung from hooks behind them.

Oleanna's set was made up of borrowed furniture, a table for a desk and two library-issue wooden chairs. And yet, fireworks seemed to volley back and forth over that table, as professor and student argued bitterly.

For Bent, Isaac dreamed momentarily of recreating a 1930s Berlin nightclub and the period's exquisitely tailored clothing, but knew that would easily soak up thousands of dollars. Instead, he had an actor dressed in drag, plunking lazily at a piano, and he willed audiences to hear the last strains of gay party life dying in Nazi Germany.

"You don't have to have the bells and whistles," Isaac says, "if you concentrate on the acting."

How does Isaac get the acting right, when he has a reputation as a diva director? How does he get actors to show up for rehearsals -- three hours a night, four nights a week, six weeks without pay -- if he is such a jerk?

Isaac knows about his reputation -- and tells each prospective Theater Within actor about it on day one. It's something he's trying to change, like a recovering alcoholic, one day at a time.

"I got bitter," Isaac says of his past harshness in the director's chair. "I came here and I started to listen. I never berate my actors."

Along with the great Indianapolis community directors who continue to inspire his work, Isaac remembers the many unkind, unproductive ones who lashed out vehemently at actors. "Why did you take this role? You're ruining my production!" Years ago, one director even suggested that Isaac give up acting, go home and kill himself. These are the directing techniques Isaac refuses to copy.

When actors argue for a change in blocking or direction, Isaac's new style is to listen first. Will this idea improve the play? If not, can we acknowledge our differences and move on? If this tack doesn't work, Isaac has been known to leave the room before he says something that will make him a jerk again.

"Before I met him," actress Cheryl Fesmire says, "I heard extremely positive things about Rod and extremely negative things." Fesmire found out the truth for herself when she accepted multiple roles in Laramie Project, a bit part in a later play and, now, the role of Abbey in Neil LaBute's The Mercy Seat.

Isaac is "intense," Fesmire concludes, especially during tech week (aka Hell Week), when lines and blocking must be fused seamlessly with props, sound and lighting. He is quick with the "smart alecky" comment, but also flexible and willing to partner with actors. In fact, he wants actors to know their characters inside and out, to have back-stories.

"If you're someone who wants to do your thing," Fesmire warns, "he's not the director for you. It's a workout."

No money exchanges hands for these strenuous theatrical workouts, but pay comes in other forms. As one of his former colleagues at Carmel Community Players puts it, "I've never worked with Rod that I didn't learn."

Lori Raffel, now the artistic director at CCP, first saw Isaac's work eight years ago, when she was thinking of returning to acting. He was directing The Elephant Man at CCP on a bathtub of a stage, with no special makeup for the disfigured main character.

"It only took you a few minutes," Raffel says, "before you saw everything. You saw what wasn't there." She knew that she wanted to work with Isaac and she did, as an actress and a producer, before directing herself.

When she was a maid in Isaac's Frankenstein at CCP, he called her Irish accent "too Lucky Charms." It was tough on Raffel's ego, but she was glad that Isaac told her straight out that it didn't work, rather than allowing her to take her bad accent before an audience. Some community directors, she says, routinely let actors go on stage in poor shape.

Raffel offers this anecdote about how Isaac learned to put his own ego in check, and put the focus back on the play.

For years, Isaac was the golden boy of Encore, Indianapolis community theater's award body. Everything he directed, from Frankenstein to Agnes of God, won something. Isaac and Raffel expected their collaboration on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to be a shoo-in. They won nothing. Isaac's streak was broken. Isaac reflected on the loss calmly and said, "An award doesn't change what you got out of a play. No one can take away from that experience."

Isaac tries to hold on to what pleases him about any given play, rather than judging himself by awards or reviews. He is, however, a slave to the details of every production: the grocery bag a character carries, the timing of a light cue, the bored audience member who wrinkled his program during an important line. During his ride home after a show, Isaac reads the director's notes from his own head. "If only I had ... " "Why didn't I ... "

"It's not a negative thing," Isaac assures me. "It drives me to do better."

When I ask Isaac about his gifts as a director, he deftly turns the lurking compliment back to his actors.

"I think I have an innate skill to choose the right people for the roles," Isaac reasons. "With Oleanna, the passion they [John Rice and Hillary Hittner] had for that script. That was three quarters of it. The rest was directing traffic."

An affinity for Neil LaBute plays

Three weeks before Theater Within's next production opens Sept. 11, Isaac is "directing traffic." He is rehearsing the final scene of Neil LaBute's The Mercy Seat with actors Cheryl Fesmire and Horace Webster. Set in the aftermath of Sept. 11, The Mercy Seat considers the dilemma of a man who survived the terrorist attack because he was with his mistress instead of at his office. Does he confess to his wife or start a new life with his lover?

It is Isaac's third LaBute show in two years. He likes the playwright and filmmaker who is known for play-turned-films like In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things. Isaac says Labute is able to depict atrocious acts without judging the characters who perform them.

From his seat in the audience, Isaac notes out loud that Indiana Repertory Theatre and The Phoenix Theatre (both professional Equity theaters) are following in his footsteps to stage LaBute plays this season. Perhaps now he will have to find a new playwright to champion.

On stage, Fesmire crosses in front of Webster as directed, but something about her gait is wrong. "Stop it," Isaac whines, with mock irritation. "I hate when you do that." She acknowledges the tease and the correction and repeats the crossover.

For several lines of heated dialogue, the two actors are seated, facing one another in profile. Isaac calls to Webster for the blocking they must have forgotten. "There isn't anything in my notes," Webster responds, sounding mildly peeved by the interruption. "Can we just go through and see how it goes?" A few minutes later, Webster rises from his chair, smiles with a silent "Ah ha!" and grabs a pencil to note in his script where the blocking should occur.

Isaac calls a few more notes for Fesmire, and then the script calls for a conciliatory embrace. Webster moves in slow motion to wrap his arms tentatively around Fesmire, still clutching his script behind her back. Isaac sits back in his chair, while the actors take this awkward step toward stage intimacy.

Throughout the rehearsal, Isaac alternates between teasing and yielding, being blunt and being quiet. But he is never a jerk.

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