Halena Kays revives 'Six Characters'

February 22, 2012

"This year has been wild!” says Halena Kays. And she ticks off the items contributing to wildness: “Take over a company [the Hypocrites], direct some shows [Burning Bluebeard, Six Characters in Search of an Author].” Plus last fall, while performing in The Kid Thing, she found out she was having her first baby—due in two months. “Rehearsing Six Characters pregnant was crazy,” she says. “And we killed those poor children off! This baby’s gonna be nuts…”

I doubt that. Obviously Kays’s experience—she also founded and, until recently, directed Barrel of Monkeys—has given her insight into acting, directing and administrating. Which bodes well for the maturity handy with both a new baby and a new gig as the Hypocrites’ artistic director.

However, Kays is living proof that maturity and nuttiness can coexist. While re-reading Six Characters, she says, “I thought I was going to die of boredom.” Though she understood the play’s historical importance and good points (“Pirandello has a great sense of humor about himself and about theater”), to her it was “a dusty philosophical treatise.”

So one night when she was out with writer Steve Moulds in Austin, Texas—where both were UT grad students at the time—Kays said, “‘Someone explain to me what’s interesting about this play!’ We talked about it, and by the end I was like, ‘If you can write that adaptation, I’d direct that play.’”

He did, and she did. Their 90-minute baby transforms and energizes this chestnut, now nearly a century old, partly by multiplying its meta-theatrical layers. 

For one thing, the Director in this version is kinda, sorta like Kays herself. “Anytime someone comes in and takes over for an amazing founding director [Sean Graney at the Hypocrites], then directs her first show—that’s too much pressure! One great way to handle it is to poke fun at the whole situation. I’m just really glad that people are responding positively to that—we tried to keep inside jokes out of it for the most part, because they can be really annoying.”

Moulds and Kays also had the four actors (three of them former or current BOM members) playing the Company noodle around with their portions of the script. “They helped create the work with Steve,” she says, “and then he went away and wrote for them.” The result: some very hapless, very funny slacker theater types.

It’s not just a game, though. “You’re playing yourself, but you’re really not,” says Kays. “You’re playing an idea of yourself—and what version is that?” The hyper-contemporary world of the framing device, which produces a “super-realistic feeling as though it’s improvised,” is meant to collide, she says, with the highly stylized theatrical world of the six characters and “make you contemplate the nature of reality and the nature of making art.”

The play may seem a goof, but it’s been carefully scripted and rehearsed. Brennan Buhl, who plays the bumbling but crucial Director, is one of the hardest-working actors she knows, Kays says. “It’s as if he’s just funny by accident. And none of it is funny by accident—it’s all skill.”

The Hypocrites' adaptation is also painstakingly staged, including the way the action shifts around from one platform or performing area to another. (Swiveling chairs help prevent whiplash.)

“Point of view is such a big part of Six Characters,” Kays says. “Whose point of view is the story coming from, and what is truth, and how do you communicate that truth? I wanted to set up a space where your point of view is really dependent on where you sit.” And where you choose to look when the action ricochets between stages.  Lights and sound also get amped up at the end. “Our goal was that the space you walk into feels very different from the space at the height of the Characters’ story. And when you go back to that original space, it feels shocking to be back in ‘reality.’”

Most of the dialogue and devices in this Six Characters do double-duty of some kind. The Director’s lines sound suspiciously like Kays’s hopes and dreams. “Like, what he wants is to have his own triumph,” she says. “Like, why else do we make theater? We’re not making any money. And the respect comes and goes. Why do this, except to do something new, and tell a story?”