A conversation with Jere Lee Hodgin on directing All My Sons
By Cohen Ambrose, Production Dramaturg
A few weeks ago, I sat down with the director of Montana Rep’s 2016 National Tour of All My Sons, Jere Lee Hodgin. I wanted to offer the Rep’s audiences some insights into Jere’s process as a director, how he approaches a classic text by a such a staple of American drama like Arthur Miller, and how he will go about working with the actors when rehearsals begin in early January.
CA: What is the first step you take when you prepare to direct a play?
JH: I always start by identifying the major elements of the play. I begin with the most basic structural devices. What is the incident that begins the conflict of the play? What event occurs that acts as a turning point? And of course, what is the climax of the play? In All My Sons, the inciting incident is when Chris reveals to his Father that he’s going to propose to Ann. That event sets forth all the motion of the play. The point at which the play turns in a direction from which there is no return is more obvious and that’s when [Ann’s] brother George arrives, having just visited their father in prison, with the intent purpose to stop Chris and Ann’s marriage. Like many characters from the Greek tragedies, he comes in with a vengeance. Had he not come in, it would have been a different play, it might have worked out okay, and I think Miller was trying to write a tragedy that was an outgrowth of who we are today and not who we used to be. Joe’s flaw is that he thinks he can get away with his crime. George’s insistence on the truth being told, to right a wrong and avenge his father, is what ultimately leads Joe to the step that he takes at the climax of the play. He cannot live with his own guilt. He has been living through denial, but when he is no longer allowed the luxury of self-denial, he cannot live with the effacement that that’s going to produce in him.
CA: What is your concept for the Montana Rep’s production of All My Sons?
JH: The play is a boxing match. I think Miller adopted a real robust straightforwardness with this play. It is all set in Joe Keller’s backyard. There are no interior or private scenes. Everything is there for the whole community to witness, and so when I began talking with the set designer, I saw that the play is like a boxing match. I wanted there to be a “ring.” The characters have to get into the ring, so to speak. They spar with one another until George shows up and starts throwing blows. It was important that even in the front of the set, there would be a fence – it’s only suggested, but it’s there nevertheless. It’s containment – there’s no escape from this yard. Joe is a brawler. Even when Kate confronts Joe at the end of the play and tries to convince him to face his guilt, they go into the yard, into the empty ring, as it were, with no one else there, and she really takes him down to his knees. Then Chris comes in and reads the letter, which is the total knockout. There’s no recovery for Joe. He cannot get up.
CA: What will you do in the first rehearsals?
JH: Part of what I’ll do in the first days of rehearsal is to determine how the energies of the actors fit together. I’ll be keenly studying the actors and from that, I’ll determine how I want to rehearse the play. I’ll work out a rough rehearsal schedule beforehand based on how the play is structured, but that will be tempered by who the people are. The cast will not meet one another until the first read-through, so I’ll also be watching their reactions to one another. I also like to try to work out what each individual’s rhythm is and how that rhythm can coincide with the character’s rhythm, or what the character’s rhythm is going to be as a result of the actor’s rhythm. For example, Joe Keller is a blue-collar man who has risen above that level, but he’s a hands-on man. Therefore, his energy has to be big enough that he can be in control – how he reads a newspaper will even tell us a lot about his rhythm. Dr. Bayliss is restless, so I want Scoob [Decker] to be forward-moving and quick. I think George [Mason Wagner] has to have a very fast, flailing rhythm. There would be a considered rhythm – no wasted energy or movement for Chris [Colton Swibold]. Chris is grounded. I’m going to work with each actor on activities and their physicality to help them establish and bring out their character’s rhythm.