Bruce Coleman navigates the murky waters of ‘The History Boys’ with a cast of newcomers
When "The History Boys" — gay author Alan Bennett’s play about a year in a British boys’ school in the 1980s — opened on Broadway in 2006, it seemed like a perfect fit for Uptown Players, the Dallas troupe dedicated to producing gay-themed works.
But subject matter aside, everything about the play seemed risky. But that’s also what attracted Uptown and the show’s director, Bruce R. Coleman, to the piece, which opens tonight
"There are so many themes and metaphors you can’t encapsulate it," says. Coleman. "It’s not about one or two or three things. It’s herding cats just to keep it focused on the storytelling. It’s hard."
The characters are equally problematic, especially Hector (Bradley Campbell), the beloved veteran teacher. Hector inspires his students to learn, challenging the tyranny of education. But he also has a dark side that threatens to countermand all his good works.
"Hector is really infuriating," says Coleman. "We’ve all known a Hector, a man who has a lot of people worshipping him. His genius is how he engages his students and gets them excited about the ownership of their own intellect. He gets so much of it right, but there’s a sting there that’s hard to deal with. It would be easy to write him off as a joke, as just a dirty old man. But the play is really about power."
There’s an unblinking frankness to the play that, like "Doubt," raises serious conflicts in the viewer about the nature of goodness. But such heady topics presented only the textual hurdles of the production; there were practical ones as well, such as fitting the highly cinematic storytelling in the tight space of KD Studio Theatre. And the characters are mostly teenaged boys of various races, physical types and skills. In fact, finding eight talented, age-appropriate young men for the roles could have been thorny, but that ended up not being the case.
"I always have a great deal of faith in the casting process," Coleman says. "My jaw hit the ground at this endless string of people. Lots of variety — shapes and sizes and colors. There will always be talent around — this city fosters it."
He auditioned 110 people for 12 roles, calling back 30. "But I could have easily called back 60. One of the boys sings and plays the piano and I had three who could do that and were the right age," Coleman says. But aside from Andrew Worley, who acted in "Dracula" and "Bent," Coleman "had never seen or even heard their names before."
The learning curve with so many newcomers, all under 22, could have been steep, but Coleman says they quickly became an ensemble.
"They are so energizing and such a great group of people. We came up with a very satisfying group of eight who are pretty wonderful guys."
But still there was the age thing. "My rule was, anyone who auditioned had to reasonably be a high school student but also had to be at least 18. But [after rehearsals began] I found out one of my actors was 17. I asked, ‘Are you sure this is going to be OK with your folks?’ I was very sensitive to that."
His concern derived from a definite sexual energy woven into the fabric of the play. One of the students is openly gay (although Coleman says they are playing it as if another is in the closet), and the subject of molestation can get squirmy. But Coleman also says the situation presented a wonderful opportunity for himself and the rest of the cast to serve as role models.
"Sometimes gay guys pick on a straight person and make them feel uncomfortable. I don’t know the sexual orientation of any of these guys [playing the students], but all the older men involved in this are gay. I’ve talked to some of the gay guys in the cast like Rick [Espaillat] and David [Plunkett] and said this is really our chance. If I am the first gay person in a position of power that they have every had to deal with, I want them to look at me as a person who respects them."
In other words, Coleman wants them to know that not all gay people are like Hector — for good or bad.
GET TO CLASS
Uptown Players presents "The History Boys"at
KD Studio Theatre,
2600 Stemmons Freeway, suite 180. April 3â€“May 3. Thursdaysâ€“Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. $25â€“$30. 214-219-2718. UptownPlayers.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 3, 2009.