Asolo Repertory Theatre’s last production of the season spreads a universal message.
For director Theresa Heskins, life really does imitate art. Heskins is the artistic director for the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, England, and what began as her small-town production of “Around the World in 80 Days” has turned into an international touring show that’s most recently checked its bags with Asolo Repertory Theatre.
The story follows the ridiculously wealthy Phileas Fogg’s race against time after he bets his personal fortune that he can travel the globe in 80 days. Fogg and his loyal valet Passepartout use every form of transportation imaginable to accomplish this, from riding elephants across Asia to speeding over the Pacific in a steamer ship — experiencing plenty of dangerous, romantic and hysterical adventures along the way.
We caught up with Heskins prior to her voyage to Sarasota to learn what goes into picking up and constantly restaging a show on the road and why this was the perfect play with which to travel. How did this production end up on tour?
We did it for a three-week run in 2015, and we knew we had a hit the first week. They (audiences) were on their feet by the end. They’d stop me at the local supermarket and say, “You’ve got to do that play again!” We remounted the show the following year. I met Kenny Wax of Kenny Wax Family Entertainment, and he decided to create a U.K. tour of it. So it went around last year, and it’s been amazing because every step of the journey I’ve wondered if they (audiences) would like it as much as Newcastle did — and they have. The New York audience has welcomed it with the same enthusiasm.
How did that success feel?
It’s an amazing thing, really, that from a small market town, we feel quite connected to the theater community throughout the world. That’s kind of what this play is about — getting out of your little bubble and discovering there is a whole world out there. I didn’t have a passport until four years ago.
What did you learn through this process?
During the run we noticed we’d made it for the mainstream audience of adults who come to see most of our work, but they’d come to see it then they’d come back and bring their children, or teachers would come back with their whole class. We hadn’t noticed it’s a great family show for all generations.
What are the logistics involved in a touring show?
The company arrives — they have a week’s holiday between New York and Sarasota. … And they have a couple of days usually to put it in a new theater, but this time we have four. One thing the shows have in common is it’s always a rush to move it from place to place in a short amount of time. The actors on this show are typically working a 14-hour day, most of which are spent running around because it’s an action-based show.
How did you connect with Asolo Rep’s Michael Donald Edwards?
To be honest, it all happened through an intermediary. What was interesting is I’m a great fan of circus and I love incorporating circus in theater, and not many directors in the U.K. do that or are enthusiastic about it. What’s been great is he has the same kind of enthusiasm for the artform, and this show has a little circus in it. I’m hoping it’s the start of a beautiful friendship.
What attracted you to this show?
I love making theater that is impossible. Looking at this play that takes the audience around the world and meets 109 characters and travels by boat and train and elephant — it was literally impossible to stage, far too much for theater to do, so we had to take a bold approach. I’m quite inspired by films and gaming and the kind of energy and action those media use. Whereas theater is more measured and more dialogue-based, those other media are action-based with a strong element of adventure. It attracted me because it was going to be so difficult to create all of that.
So how do you execute the impossible?
I work closely with the actors to achieve that. People have to bring a lot of imagination to the table. For inspiration we watched a lot of Bollywood movies, and we completely overdosed on Jackie Chan movies. The play includes a fight in the Wild West as well, so we enjoyed watching classic Westerns for that.
What do you ask of your actors?
I like action onstage. So the actors have to be super talented, great comedians and incredibly fit, good physical performers. The amount of sweat sweated is a sight to be seen, but it’s not a problem because I avoid them after [every show]!
What was your biggest fear going into this tour?
Right in the beginning you’re worried about it being good, that’s part of the anxiety. If you’ll get it done in time, if everyone will like each other by the time it’s done and if the audience will like this thing you poured your sweat and blood into. I suppose the other thing is that the original novel is by a French novelist, the adaptation is by an American playwright, and the production is by a British theater company, and at the time I thought, “Is that a lot of world views to incorporate into one play?” But I think that’s why it’s an international success.
Once a production is on tour, what’s your job?
The cast is very capable, and the company manager is fantastic, so in a way it can take care of itself. But the show keeps growing and developing, so I keep going back to it to finesse it and make sure it doesn’t outgrow itself. I also want to get to know a new audience, so I did go to New York to put it in there. I want to get to know the rest of the world and get to know audiences who might enjoy our work in the future.
What’s been the most rewarding part?
There was a moment when we were rehearsing it this time — I’ve cried from laughter three or four times this week — and I thought, “My goodness, this is a medicine — if only I could bottle that!” How lucky I am that it still makes me laugh so much that I can cry. It’s quite a special gift to look forward to that at work.
Why is this show special?
I think it works best when several generations come see it together. So it’s when we see children in the audience with their grandparents or parents bring their grown-up children, it’s a special treat and at its strongest when that happens. It’s such a lovely story about diversity and people coming together and valuing each other and the world out there. And I feel like Britain at the moment is more insular with Brexit, so what’s lovely is to be able to look west and east and meet new friends. And that’s so in keeping with a show about seeing the world and meeting people, and hopefully, audiences will find the same joy in it.