Jim Helsinger: Director of The Foreigner is No Stranger to PSF

Editor’s note: As director of marketing and public relations for PSF since its inception, I’ve seen most of Jim Helsinger’s work for the Festival. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to ask him a few questions during a break from rehearsals for The Foreigner.

LH: One of the things I’ve always loved about your work—both as an actor and as a director—is how you take your time. During last season’s Lend Me a Tenor the seemingly languid pace of some of the scenes, like waiting for the Tenor to arrive, made the frenetic pace of others even more hysterical. Some of that is built in to the script, but other elements seem more like the director’s choice. Without divulging all your secrets: What do you look for when you’re directing a comedy and how do you do it?

JH: One of the things we do in any production is work to create full moments and confidence on stage. The relationship of the actor and audience is important to me, whether it’s Shakespeare and I’m talking directly to you [the audience] or another production. I’m never in a rush to get Shakespeare over with; I enjoy performing and directing it.

I once received an award for “Longest Time on Stage with Fewest Number of Lines,” a gag award we used to do at Orlando [Shakespeare Theater, where he is artistic director.]

The Longest Pause award I would have to give to Carl Wallnau. [People who saw Carl in Tenor know exactly what Jim is referencing.]

In The Foreigner, there are two places in the script where something that happens to Charlie [“The Foreigner” of the title], will be different every performance. That’s fun!
  
LH: The comic duo of Carl Wallnau, who played the Cleveland Opera House manager in Tenor last year, and Jacob Dresch, who played his assistant, are returning in The Foreigner. Can you share some of your creative process with them? 

JH: Carl and Jacob have amazing on-stage chemistry. They’re both very alive. When they’re together, they feed off each other very well. Carl’s characters are always trying to get everything in control and Jacob’s are always losing control. They played so well in Tenor, Patrick [Mulcahy, PSF producing artistic director] and I wanted to bring them back.

LH: The basic premise is hilarious to begin with. There’s a pathologically shy Englishman [Charlie, played by Dresch] who takes a holiday to a rural fishing lodge with his friend Froggy [Wallnau], but is afraid to talk to anyone. So Froggy tells all the other guests that Charlie can’t speak English. Now that rehearsals are underway, have you discovered anything that surprised you?

JH: We’ve got a great cast. It’s always fun when you’ve got a real-life couple, Zack [Robidas] and Marnie [Schulenburg], playing a couple on stage, even when it doesn’t mirror the play. [Zack’s character is a villain in The Foreigner, in contrast with his title role in Henry V.]

The play is set in 1983, which is now nostalgic for us—but we were at the height of the spy war and there was fear of foreigners, which is still rampant. Charlie is a little bit, but not too foreign.

Everybody is playing somebody they’re not. Except Froggy. Froggy is exactly what he seems throughout the play. Charlie is in a slump, convinced he’s boring. When people think he can’t understand English because they know he can’t repeat what they tell him and he won’t give advice, ‘listening’ helps him become a new person—or get in touch with parts of himself he didn’t know were there.

All the characters in the play are people who change—or our perception of them changes.

LH: You’ve been with PSF since it’s second season in 1993 when you played Malvolio in Twelfth Night the first time. Can you share some of your thoughts about the company with our readers?

JH: Father Jerry’s vision had professionalism at the very start. My first year, I was surrounded by Equity actors. Through the years, there has been great loyalty to people. Twenty years ago, I wasn’t married and didn’t have kids. There has been a great effort to bring couples together in the season and to accommodate their kids. [Jim is married to DSU alum Suzanne O’Donnell.]

There’s a great dedication to mission here—and there was from the very beginning. The size of the shows, the technical possibilities, the number of shows has increased, but the mission is the foundation.

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