What happens when big Hollywood comes to a small town to shoot a movie? Audiences can find out in the tragic comedy Stones in His Pockets, which premiered last week at Fayetteville’s TheaterSquared.
Written by Marie Jones, the production premiered in 1996 and won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. In this iteration, actors Jason M. Shipman and Josh Jeffers portray more than a dozen characters – many of them Irish people in a small town – who are cast as extras in an epic American film.
“It’s a virtuoso tribute to the skill and imagination of the actors as they each play multiple characters,” says Bob Ford, T2’s artistic director, as he alludes to the parallel for the locals now that more films are in our field be rotated. “And … it’s a scenario we see a lot in Northwest Arkansas. It’s funny and quirky and ultimately very touching. And it’s Irish, for goodness sake!’
To create the distinctive stone walls and look of the Irish landscape, a handful of TheatreSquared artisans and a design team spent time in the woods studying rock texture and moss, then pored over photographs of the Irish landscape to achieve “just the right amount of nuance.” ‘ to bring this world to life,’ says Ford. ‘Every detail you see or hear represents dozens, even hundreds, of discarded decisions.’
The first time Jason Shipman got the chance to work on Stones in His Pockets was when he was “a little buck,” he says, more than 10 years ago. He enjoys playing the piece a second time.
“The script has been updated and evolved a bit,” says Shipman. “It’s still a mountain to climb, but I suppose climbing it a second time gives you a different perspective. The story has more weight and depth now.”
“Stones” has been on TheaterSquared’s shortlist 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 to bring a fresh approach to the play. The process allows her to build on images and ideas that inspire her, says Ford.
As Shipman and Jeffers morph into a dozen odd characters throughout production, they make those transitions onstage, directly in front of the audience, with hat-changing, collar-popping, and other niceties.
“That makes this play an actor’s dream because it’s entirely up to them to take us on that ride,” says Ford. Costume designer Ruby Kemph helps with the “elegantly meaningful details” that complete the transformation. Everything else is up to the two-actor team. “I can’t stress this enough: these roles are a ridiculously high level of difficulty, like a 9.9 at the Olympics.”
Ford and Herzberg chose Shipman and Jeffers in part because of their previous experiences with TheatreSquared. Shipman’s credits include Mr. Marks on Apparel and Slank/Hawking Clam on Peter and the Starcatcher. Jeffers has previously appeared 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 the New York Classical Theatre.
They were confident they could bring brilliant comic sensibility and veracity to a cast of characters and a strong emotional connection to their roles, says Ford.
Stones in His Pockets is about two guys who meet while working as extras on a Hollywood movie set in County Kerry. Shipman’s main character is Charlie from Ballycastle in Northern Ireland who has closed his DVD shop and started touring Ireland finding work along the way.
“I think I’m playing eight characters — some local people and others involved in the production of the film,” says Shipman. “Our director has talked a lot about how many of these characters are struggling for their personal worth, being devalued and not feeling in control of their own lives.”
He loves this production because it kind of creeps up on you and because it challenges and fulfills him in a way he hasn’t experienced in a while.
Even if you’ve seen Stones elsewhere, there’s a good chance TheaterSquared’s version is slightly different. Ford and Herzberg spoke extensively via Zoom with playwright Marie Jones while she was on a writing retreat in Ireland. They were in Belfast discussing a current, successful version of the play, directed by Jones’ son Matthew McElhinney.
Ford knew he had updated the script, but Jones was able to update him on the changes and gave TheaterSquared permission to use these unreleased dialogue changes in their production. They also learned pitfalls to avoid and what the playwright loved most about the play itself.
“It was gratifying to hear how much of our own ingrained philosophy was recited back to us,” says Ford. “How the best comedy is made when actors act out the reality of what they’re doing, not when they’re acting for a laugh.
“We left the conversation feeling like we were on the right track and that we’d quickly made a new friend across the pond.”