Actors bring Ireland to TheatreSquared play about filmmaking

Actors bring Ireland to TheatreSquared play about filmmaking
April Wallace

What happens when big-time Hollywood descends on a small town to make a movie? Audiences can find out in the tragicomedy “Stones in His Pockets,” which opened last week at TheatreSquared in Fayetteville.

The production, written by Marie Jones, premiered in 1996 and was an Olivier Award Winner for Best New Comedy. In this iteration, actors Jason M. Shipman and Josh Jeffers portray more than a dozen characters — many of them Irishmen in a small town being cast as extras in an epic American movie.

“It’s a virtuosic celebration of the actor’s craft and imagination, as they each play multiple characters,” says Bob Ford, T2 artistic director, as he alludes to the parallel for locals, now that more movies are being made on our turf. “And … it’s a scenario we’re seeing a lot in Northwest Arkansas. It’s funny and quirky and ultimately very touching. And it’s Irish, for Pete’s sake!”

To create the signature stone walls and look of the Irish countryside, a handful of TheatreSquared artisans and a design team spent time in the woods studying rock textures and moss, then pored over photographs of the Irish countryside to find “just the right level of nuance to bring this world to life,” Ford says. “Every detail you see or hear represents scores, even hundreds, of discarded choices.”

Actor Jason Shipman plays Charlie and seven other characters in “Stones in His Pockets” and says what he loves most about it is that it’s a play that sneaks up on you. Shipman says it’s a treat to work on a production as challenging and fulfilling as this. (Courtesy Photo/Wesley Hitt for T2)

The first time that Jason Shipman had a chance to work on “Stones in His Pockets” was back when he was but a “wee buck,” he says, more than 10 years ago. He’s enjoying taking the play on a second time.

“The script has been updated and evolved a bit,” Shipman says. “It’s still a mountain to climb, but I suppose one gains a different perspective by climbing it a second time. The story now bears more weight and depth.”

“Stones” has been on TheatreSquared’s short list for years, Ford says, but this season, it just seemed right for the mix they had in mind. Associate Artistic Director Amy Herzberg researched other productions, reviews and interviews in preparation for directing the piece with a fresh approach. The process allows her to build off of images and ideas that inspire her, Ford says.

As Shipman and Jeffers transform into the dozen odd characters throughout the production, they make those transitions on stage, right in front of the audience, with the change of a hat, a pop of a collar and other subtleties.

“That’s what makes this play an actor’s dream, because it’s all on them to take us on this ride,” Ford says. Costume designer Ruby Kemph assists with the “elegantly telling details” that cinch the transformation. All else is on the two-actor team. “I can’t emphasize this enough: these roles come with a ridiculously high level of difficulty, like a 9.9 in the Olympics.”

Ford and Herzberg selected Shipman and Jeffers in part because of their previous experience with TheatreSquared. Shipman was Mr. Marks in “Apparel” and Slank/Hawking Clam in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” among others. Jeffers was previously in “A Christmas Carol” at T2 and in off-Broadway productions of “Julius Caesar” at the New York Shakespeare Festival and “Macbeth” and “The Rover” at New York Classical Theatre.

They were confident that they could bring brilliant comic sensibility and truthfulness across an array of characters and strong emotional connection to their roles, Ford says.

“Stones in His Pockets” revolves around two guys who meet while doing work as extras on a Hollywood film being shot in County Kerry. Shipman’s main character is Charlie, from Ballycastle in Northern Ireland, who has closed up his DVD shop and begun to tour Ireland, finding work as he goes.

“I think I play eight characters — some locals and some involved with the production of the film,” Shipman says. “Our director has talked a lot about how many of these characters are in a struggle for their personal value, being devalued and not feeling like they have control over their own life.”

He loves this production because it’s one that kind of sneaks up on you, and because it challenges and fulfills him in a way that he hasn’t encountered recently.

Even if you’ve seen “Stones” elsewhere, there’s a good chance that TheatreSquared’s version is a little different. Ford and Herzberg spoke extensively with playwright Marie Jones via Zoom while she was at a writing retreat in Ireland. They discussed a recent, successful version of the play directed by Jones’ son, Matthew McElhinney, in Belfast.

Ford knew he had updated the script, but Jones was able to bring him up to speed on what had been changed and gave permission for TheatreSquared to use those unpublished dialogue changes in their production. They also learned pitfalls to avoid and what the playwright loved most about the play herself.

“It was gratifying to hear much of our own deeply held philosophy quoted back to us,” Ford says. “Like the best comedy comes when actors play the reality of their stakes, not when they play for laughs.

“We left the conversation feeling like we were on the right track and that we’d made a fast new friend across the pond.”



‘Stones in His Pockets’

WHEN — Through Dec. 18, 7:30 p.m. with 2 p.m. matinees

WHERE — TheatreSquared, 477 W. Spring St. in Fayetteville

COST — $25-$57

INFO — or 777-7477

Categories: Cover Story