‘No Sex’ in the theatre! Behind the curtain at Andrews Hall

It’s ten minutes until the curtain goes up. Backstage, in the green room, the cast of the farcical comedy “No Sex Please, We’re British” can hear patrons taking their seats in the house through the P.A. system.

One actor paces behind a table where his cast mates apply finishing touches to their stage makeup in front of a long row of mirrors. Another tells animated stories about past performances while curling the ends of a bouffant wig into a flip. Another one concentrates on each stroke of the makeup brush as she transforms herself into her character. Yet another recites his lines beside the prop table. Actors prepare for their roles in a variety of practical and creative ways.

Jennifer Peck, an actor by trade, has driven from Corte Madera to Sonoma three times a week, since June, to rehearse her leading role as Frances Hunter. She uses that commute time to study her lines, listening repeatedly to her self-recorded script. Peck, who has been acting since she was a child and trained at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in New York and Los Angeles, believes that every moment of every day prepares her to go on stage.

“An actor’s instrument is who they are, and that is something that needs to be taken care of.,” she says. “I make a lot of choices in my daily life so that I can be a better actor: going to the gym, taking care of my appearance, yoga and meditation. I think it’s impossible to do the work without coming from a place of quiet and relaxation. That’s where, I believe, inspiration comes from. If you’re not in a quiet place and you can’t find who you are, how can you find your character?”

Sonoma hairstylist Len Handeland plays Peter Hunter, the newlywed assistant bank manager, whose life spins out of control in a series of events surrounding the delivery of an unexpected package of pornographic photos. To prepare for a role, Handeland empathizes with the characters he portrays. He tries to get into their heads and looks for pieces of himself in them.

“There’s a little bit of every character in us. I bring that to the surface.” If he has five percent of a character’s trait,  he explains, he might turn it up to 65 or 70 percent for that character’s development, breathing life into it.  “It’s a bit of a stretch that he’s English and I happen to be American,” Handeland said about Peter Hunter. The play is set in Windsor, England, in 1969. “I’m trying to do the accent justice, and trying to get into that time period, as an adult.”

Handeland purchased makeup, magazines and costume pieces from 1969 to give an authentic feel to the production.

Jeremy Berrick, who plays the pedantic and frantic chief cashier and scapegoat, Brian Runnicles, prepares for his role in a very regimented way. He goes over the script with a red pencil and pairs his blocking (stage movement) with learning lines.

“Once I understand my movement, I start learning my lines and work with that,” he says.

“I learn my lines word perfect. If I don’t understand a line, I go to my director and we figure it out. What needs to be communicated here? What am I setting up for the next person to say? What has motivated me to say what I’m saying? I get all of that down to detail so I can be repetitive on stage. Then, within that context, I can allow the moment take me. Certain performances will be more dynamic than others. I’ll get something from another character I wasn’t expecting, so there’s still a lot of variability within the very strictly regimental approach I take.”

Sonoma theatre veteran Rhonda Guaraglia, plays Peter’s haughty and overbearing mother, Eleanor. After she has her make up on, she walks the stage to get comfortable. She says a few lines, looks at the set and gets settled in to figure out where she’s coming from.

“I picture Eleanor arriving in a cute English cab, and being pampered on her trip from London.” She also often dedicates her performance to someone special.

The police superintendent is played by Rich Thompson. He prepares for his role by walking with his English mastiff, who understands he’ll be helping to run lines when his master breaks out in an accent. Thompson is slightly worried his neighbors think he has lost it.

Saskia Bauer writes about her characters in order to get to know them. She also ritually listens to three favorite songs on the way to the theatre before a performance, and then transitions into character by doing improvisations, and having conversations as that character before she goes on stage. That can be great fun for all when you are playing a Cockney hooker.

George Bereschik, who plays the bank inspector, Arnold Needham, is in his first play since college. He has no superstitions, or stage fright, just a bit of apprehension, and he prepares by “running lines, running lines, running lines,” he says. “Oh, and I eat.”

Nellie Cravens, co-founder of Silver Moon Theatre and director of “No Sex Please, We’re British,” dedicates an entire day to be alone with the script, to study it and break it down.

“This script is much more detailed and clever that I first thought,” she says of the play, which was first staged in London’s West End in 1971. A smash hit, it ran until 1987.

“The great rule of farce is ‘faster, louder, funnier,’” Cravens says, and in order to reach that level, she advises her actors to know their lines, to stretch, and to avoid dairy products before a performance. She is a stickler for elocution and is known to hand out pencils to actors so that they can bite down on them while practicing diction exercises. Also, very important, “remember to breathe,” says Cravens. Easier said than done when chasing a prudish Brit over the back of a sofa while wearing a corset!

Faster, louder, funnier

The fast-paced farce “No Sex Please, We’re British,” the longest-running comedy in London, plays the Rotary Stage at Andrews Hall through October 20. Directed by Nellie Cravens, the play concerns newlyweds who begin receiving unordered, and quite naughty, things in the mail. Performances will be at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Sonoma Community Center. 938.4646. Svbo.org.

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