Why Wait? Director Ken Marini talks about Quintessence Theatre’s brilliant WAITING FOR GODOT

Quintessence Theatre’s production of WAITING FOR GODOT just closed after an acclaimed three-week run (read the Phindie review). Henrik Eger spoke to the director, Ken Marini, about his background and his experiences directing Samuel Beckett’s classic.

[The Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue] January 31-February 18, 2018; quintessencetheatre.org.

Frank X and Johnnie Hobbs, Jr., in WAITING FOR GODOT from Quintessence. Photo by Shawn May.
Frank X and Johnnie Hobbs, Jr., in WAITING FOR GODOT from Quintessence. Photo by Shawn May.

Henrik Eger: What were your first experiences with the theater world during your formative years?

Ken Marini: My dad was a music teacher so there was a lot of music in the house, especially jazz. I attended Bowling Green High School in Ohio. In 1966, I took a speech and drama class during my senior year and enjoyed it so much that I was invited to perform in the senior play. I played the grandfather. A pretty young lady played my granddaughter. I liked her so much that during one rehearsal I gave her a big romantic kiss.

The director told me not to do it again, but I paid no attention to her. During rehearsals, I kissed the girl two more times. She did not complain and everybody laughed—but the director threw me out and that ended my theater career in high school.

When I graduated, I wanted to play golf at North Texas State University, but I needed a major. I chose Speech and Drama because I had good experiences with the drama department at my high school—in spite of having been kicked out.

Henrik: So you got bitten by the theater bug?

Ken: Definitely. After graduation, I studied toward an MA in Theatre at Bowling Green State University, but dropped out because I thought their program was boring. And so I moved to Philly, where a friend introduced me to the Hedgerow Theatre. That was in the early 1970s.

The legendary Deeter had just passed away in 1972. [Hedgerow was founded in 1923 by Jasper Deeter who directed, performed, and taught at the Hedgerow Theater for over 50 years.] I spent three years at Hedgerow doing carpentry, stage props, and, really, like everybody else: everything and anything. From this experience, I developed not only practical skills, especially carpentry, but also a strong sense of community and listening to each other.

Henrik: Deeter’s work and spirit at the Hedgerow apparently lived on in you and three of your colleagues.

Ken: True. We all met at the Hedgerow—Danny Fruchter, May Fruchter, and Dick Keller—when we founded the People’s Light and Theatre Company in Malvern in 1974.

Henrik: Wow. Apparently you fine-tuned another skill you had developed in the theater world.

Ken: I love woodwork and cabinet making. At People’s Light we built everything from scratch and that is where I developed this craft. I went to New York for three or four years making cabinets and working for the Joffrey Ballet. Back in Philly in the early 2000s, I became a cabinet maker, and occasionally directed at People’s Light and some other theaters, including Hedgerow, Arcadia University, and others.

Henrik: How did you meet Alexander Burns, the founding artistic director of the Quintessence Theatre, who hired you to direct WAITING FOR GODOT at his theater?

Ken: I’ve known Alex since he was five years old. His mother [Jane Casanave] designed costumes at People’s Light. The Burns family and I have been friends for at least a quarter of a century.

Henrik: What was Alex like as a youngster?

Ken: Alex was like any other kid, very smart. But he was also different. He loved language and came to the theater all the time, even during rehearsals. He was tenacious about learning. No wonder he is where he is now.

Henrik: When Alex invited you to direct WAITING FOR GODOT, what did you bring to this production?

Ken: Fifty years of theater experience. It’s all about relationships—about putting diverse groups of people together and having them interact with each other. I don’t know about Alex’s style of directing, which I was told is quite different from mine. Alex pretty much gave me free reign. We lucked out in having some of our best actors on stage together.

Henrik: How did you prepare for this often produced yet challenging drama?

Ken: I read the play a bunch of times and read articles about it. I also figured out the set. However, unlike Alex, I don’t do a whole lot of intellectual work. My feeling is: it’s all in the text and that’s what I work with and make it come alive.

Henrik: During his lifetime—and after his death via the Samuel Beckett Estate, run by his nephew Edward Beckett—the world-famous playwright felt so strongly about the integrity of his work that he frequently took directors and theaters around the globe to court for even the smallest of modifications of his plays. You made some important changes, including giving the leads to two of our finest African American actors in Philadelphia.

Ken: I always look for the best actors. Frank X as Estragon (“Gogo”) and Johnnie Hobbs, Jr. as Vladimir (“Didi”) were perfect. I’ve known Johnnie and Frank since I’ve worked in the theater world. You can trust them completely and you can give them the room to explore what they need to explore.

Choosing two African American actors, another actor from the Latin world, and one white actor have nothing to do with what Beckett wrote. I have seen Greg Isaac perform before and liked his sense of theatricality which I thought was perfect for [his role of] Pozzo. For Lucky, I wanted someone who was really good with language and that was J. Hernandez. They are both highly skilled actors with a powerful physical training behind them. Working with them was quite remarkable.

I wanted to give my production a living, contemporary cultural feel: the white guy as the master with his Hispanic slave and two black tramps who have much to offer, in spite of their poverty. I like to let things just sit there and let audience members think for themselves.

Henrik: You also changed some lines of the text from French to English and you relocated some of the action from Mâcon in France to California. Tell us why. Apparently you were not concerned about getting into trouble with the often litigious Beckett Estate.

Frank X and Gregory Isaacs in WAITING FOR GODOT from Quintessence. Photo by Shawn May.

Ken: Why California? Most people in the US don’t know what the characters are talking about when, occasionally, the actors switch into French. One of them brought it up and asked me whether I could change the text.

Apparently, Mike Nichols, the famous US director, replaced the French wine-producing Mâcon area in France with the Napa Valley, the great American wine Valley. He got permission from the Beckett Estate. And so, we, too, made a few changes in location and language to connect Beckett to our American audience.  

Henrik: What did you like the most working with the cast and the artistic team at the Quintessence Theatre?

Ken: It was fun, an easy process. Even the talented 12-year-old Lyam David-Kilker as “Boy” blended in nicely. Everything was organic and smooth. We had no conflicts. Working with our actors was a dream come true as they are highly talented and experienced.  

I saw the same professionalism and cooperation in the members of the artistic team: Jane Casanave (costume design), John Burkland (lighting design), and James Pyne (set design).  Together, we even handled the right amount of dirt on the stage without much fuss. Some theaters go crazy over it, but we wanted everything to flow harmoniously.

It was stimulating working with everyone at Quintessence. In fact, actors and the artistic team were over-generous with their input and it was a joy working with everyone—a truly great experience.

Henrik: What are your plans for the future?

Ken: I will continue designing and making beautiful furniture and remodel houses for more customers.

Henrik: When I searched for information about your life and your work, I discovered the Ken Marini website with photos of some of the most exquisite pieces of handmade furniture possible. Alas, your website does not provide any contact information.

Ken: Oops. I’ll fix that because I love to design and make special pieces of furniture.

Henrik: And your future as a director?

Ken: Right now, I have no plans as a director, even though I heard the reviews were pretty good. However, anyone who would like to hire me is welcome. I’m ready—waiting for Godot!

Henrik: Gogo, Ken. Go!

[The Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue] January 31-February 18, 2018; quintessencetheatre.org.

4 Replies to “Why Wait? Director Ken Marini talks about Quintessence Theatre’s brilliant WAITING FOR GODOT”
        1. APOLOGIES! This is a really messed up mistake to make and I’m ashamed and sorry I missed it and didn’t properly fix. Fixed now I believe.

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