OSF’s ‘Great Expectations’ director shares story behind the story

Penny Metropolus

Penny Metropulos directed and co-adapted (with Linda Alper) “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens, now playing at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Other OSF adaptations to her credit are: “The Three Musketeers,” “Tracy’s Tiger” and a musical version of “Comedy of Errors.” Metropulos originally came to OSF as an actor and singer in 1985. After three seasons, she turned to directing.

EH: Did directing come naturally to you?

PM: I went to a training program at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. It was about collaboration. It wasn’t the “dog-eat-dog” kind of thing. I came back with this holy grail of “company,” and that never left me. The idea of being in a theater company has always been with me. And I have been lucky enough to do that.

Because of my background as an actress, I had done a lot of classical, contemporary and musical work. Right away, I was doing all different kinds of things. I guess it was right because the work kept coming. I took every job because I needed to learn how to do this. It was great. I knew it was right.

I started singing so early in my life, that singing was always second nature to me. That’s what directing felt like. It was like breathing, like singing. It was the right thing for me. At the end of my acting career, I realized that I never wanted to leave the rehearsal hall — the process was what was interesting.

EH: Tell me about the process of adapting “Great Expectations.”

PM: It was a very daunting project. We had learned from “The Three Musketeers” how to take a big piece and wrangle it. Initially, “Great Expectations” was supposed to be in the Elizabethan Theatre; we were adapting it with that in mind. That’s one of the major reasons for that thrust of that narration, because we knew we were not going to have a lot of “stuff.”

That big open space reflects a Shakespearean way of presenting a play. You leave a great deal up to “you” to hear and fill in, and frame it with lights and set. Not many bells and whistles, just a lot of good language. It wasn’t until much later that that they decided they wanted to be able to present it to student audiences that they really wanted it inside.

EH: It seems that there is a lot of power in using all that space.

PM: The idea of what an actor, in space, can do to tell a story is very powerful to me. I think we are hardwired for stories, and when it’s a good story, we’re leaning forward. “Great Expectations” is in serial form. It’s written with that feeling of “What’s next?” My love of Dickens is the fact that he tells a great story with amazing characters, and you ride that wave. But there is this undercurrent of social consciousness, which is always there. And he never bangs you over the head with it, but it is always pulling at that story all of the time.

EH: What’s the experience of theater that is so magical?

PM: Whenever we’re in a theater, sharing something with a group of people, even if we don’t speak to anyone else, we have a common experience. The objective is that everybody has that common sensation, like a gasp or a laugh. I believe that you only get that in a live experience, it’s really thrilling. It moves me so deeply, I can’t give it up.

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