We needed a director.
Ron began teaching the Meisner technique at the Neighborhood Playhouse shortly after I left the Playhouse. He taught there, as well as professional classes in the city, for over 30 years. I taught an audition class at The Playhouse every spring for 30 years and got to know him peripherally. I liked him immediately. He was known as a tough but kind teacher and much to the point person.
In Ron Stetson I found both – a wondrous dramaturg and a brilliant director.
It just so happens that Ron’s most famous student is widely considered to be one of the best actresses on the planet. Viola Davis. In a recent interview, Viola said of Ron, “He opened the portal for me.” Ron’s done the same for thousands of others. I recommended him to my wife, Julia Wade, when she wanted to further study the Meisner technique as a singing actress, and she took his classes and worked with him privately when needed over a twenty year period. Then he left the Playhouse and moved away from NYC.
I needed both a dramaturg and especially a director who could work with top actors. He turned out to be the perfect choice He became, as a dramaturg, the perfect foil to me.
He challenged me and taught me at every turn. He let me get away with nothing. He was brutal and yet he was always right a thousand times over except once. 😉 And he badgered me about it until the end. He was relentless and I am ever grateful for his total drive to get it right.
As a director, again, he was the perfect choice. The cast loved and respected him because he brought great intelligence and a fun sense of humor to our rehearsals and recording sessions.
We were very fortunate to have wonderful actors
Most were seasoned Broadway stars eager to work on something experimental during a time when Broadway had shut down because of Covid. We had no rehearsals — just the recording sessions to pull scenes together and make character choices. When it came to the recording sessions we rarely did more than three takes of each scene. For the first take Ron would say to the actors, “I have nothing to tell you right now. Let’s just see what you got.”
Most of the time when a decision was made to do a third take, it came more from the actors who wished to better a moment or two. Ron was always there to assist and guide and because they were all excellent actors, we ended up with great stuff. He created the perfect atmosphere for creativity and became a much loved and respected director who understood just what was necessary and what wasn’t.
The actors came in prepared. They had received their scripts well before the sessions. They loved being respected for their own insights to the characters, and deeply appreciated Ron’s allowing them to first present their own ideas. Often, he would then clarify a few things after the first take and then have them do another — a second take.
It is also important to note that Ron was never actually in the recording room with the actors. Rather, because he lived in Pennsylvania, his presence in all sessions was on a flat screen in the recording room on Zoom.
In fact, in all those sessions, (as well as Ron’s and my critique sessions over the course of about a year and a half) I never saw Ron live and in person. All of our many hours were on Zoom. I haven’t actually seen Ron in person in the last 5 years.
Ron too, is here with us today to give you his insights as well into the making of Rosemary and Thyme.
Ron, you’re credited as both director and dramaturg. Please tell us of the differences of each.
Well, the director shapes performances: slower, louder, softer, try it as if you were happy (even if you’re not). And the dramaturg shapes scripts: move this scene over here; cut this one in half; this one is too short, let’s embellish it. In the long run, the job’s the same for both the director and the dramaturg: they’re both shaping the things they work with in order to make this story clear, compelling, and entertaining, which I hope happened.
Ron, in all the years leading up to the creation of Rosemary and Thyme, what valuable experiences led to the development of the podcast? Talk about those experiences and how they prepared you.
Boy, it would be fun if I could just point to one thing and say, “That! That’s the moment that most informed the work on this podcast.” But I really can’t, you know, because there’s nothing that I’ve done–in my professional life, or even as a person–that wasn’t a valuable experience leading to my contribution to the development…
…it’s impossible to point to one thing or even any number of things and say, “That was the biggest influence.” All the plays I’ve directed, the artists I’ve worked with, all the movies I’ve seen, the books I’ve read, the heartbreaks, the joys, they all influenced me and brought me to where I was standing when the podcast came along.
What are some of your favorite moments in the show?
Well, my very favorite moment is in the opening when we first encountered Gabriel’s narration and how he takes over the first song and introduces Thyme and the birds sing and God shows up. One of my favorite things about the show is the tone of it and the personality of it.
It has such a distinctive character. It’s so American. I don’t think it could ever be mistaken for something that occurred somewhere other than America. It’s just in the good old USA, and I like the fact that God has decided to do stuff in America and not the Middle East for a change!
Tell our audience about this: You were very instrumental in suggesting the creation of the role of Gabriel as the narrator. Why was this a necessity, and do you think it solved the problems that we had?
Yeah, I think it was essential. I don’t know that I was essentially creating the role of Gabriel, but more encouraging the writer to use the device, which was sort of there in the early stages of the script before we started working together, but not fully fleshed out. But the bottom line is, I saw it as the cleanest, clearest way to tell the story.
The most important thing is that the audience can follow the story, that they stay engaged and they understand what’s happening. And when I first saw the script, it read as though the author hadn’t decided whether he was writing a play or a television show or a radio script or…so, it seemed a little disjointed and a little bit hard to follow.
I kept losing the plot, so it was clear that the audience for the piece needed a guide to move them through the story, and as soon as I convinced the author that he was not breaking any rules to use a narrator, that it was okay to do it, that the narrator, in fact, could become an interesting character, not just a guide but an integral part of the story … and after that, sort of everything just fell into place and the character of Gabe was fully born, and he’s a wonderful character.
He’s right for the piece. And once Gabe came to life, the podcast seemed to write itself in a way.
Now, as director, what was your approach to working with the actors when we had next to no rehearsal time?
That’s a good question because it really was limited in terms of time. But, I have to say that the process, the approach was the same as any directing I’ve ever done with actors, you know, which is essentially: trust the actors and stay outta their way as much as possible. And we had really good actors and it worked out to trust them and stay outta their wa
Acting is like playing, and it has to be free and joyful in order for it to work. And if the director gets too involved and fills the actor’s head with too many thoughts, it can make them think too much and then tie them up in knots, and then their sense of play and joy is gone and they end up tripping over their own feet.
So, I like to see what they do before I get involved at all. And if it turns out that what they do doesn’t quite tell the story as I think it is best told, I’ll try to offer suggestions that are really simple and easy to incorporate. And I always try to be practical and not philosophical, simple stuff. Instead of discussing a Freudian reason why some actor’s playing a character that is hyperactive, I might just say, “Oh, for the hell of it, why not try doing the whole speech in one breath?”
So, now that your work is primarily finished, any regrets?
Yeah, my biggest regret is that it’s over, you know? You get involved in a project like this and it’s sort of all- consuming: you wake up thinking about it, you go to sleep thinking about it, you dream about it, and then it’s over. And then for a while, sometimes for too long a while, you got nothing to wake up to, nothing to go to sleep to, and nothing to dream about…so it’s lonely
and you feel a little empty…at least, until the next one comes along.
Though the three of us were creating a modernization of a story that took place in another century, in another country across the world with all new characters, we stuck to the dramatic foundation of the story in the Bible. That foundation was always our guide. The basic plot remained intact and in fact supported us throughout our work. It always gave us confidence to be able to let our imaginations go a little wild and be inventive and run along the edges of the cliff. That bedrock plot, that great timeless story, was always there supporting every notion. It was the rock upon which we placed our reliance. We also basically stuck to the characters in the Bible – Joseph and Mary, Elizabeth and St. John The Baptist, Gabriel and God, King Herod, The Shepherds and even the three wise men – though we made one a woman. And, of course, we added additional characters as we traveled along the journey.
People have asked, “Rosemary and Thyme — Is It A Religious Piece?”
Yes and no. Primarily, it’s just a great story. It’s been called The Greatest Story Ever Told and it’s been told and celebrated once a year now for centuries the world over at Christmas. One thing we worked very hard to do was to stay away from, in any way, proselytizing. Both Ragan and I are certainly spiritual seekers with long histories of religious studies, but we approached the modernization of the story more as a fantasy than a religious teaching. Just as the Bible is sometimes viewed as a history book of great stories, we wanted to go down that road as well. The bottom line is that we want this modern version to be just a great story. If our audience gets no more than that, it’s fine with us. If, through the story, their lives are lifted in any way, well, we’re fine with that as well.
Working with these two guys was one of the great joys of my life.
They challenged me and often saved me throughout the two and a half years of work. My one disappointment in this entire experience is this: Ragan’s second heart attack left him deaf. Though we continued to meet and discuss in writing, sign language and extrasensory perception, he has never heard the work we created, never heard the songs, never heard the wondrous performances of the actors. And it’s a podcast, for god’s sake! It is a crying shame, a dirty deal and the height of unfairness. I will never understand how this was allowed to be. But with all the goodness of this experience, perhaps I’ll just have to chalk it up as the strange unjustifiable balance of the human experience. The bad comes with the good: the good comes with the bad. And we’re sometimes left to figure it out.
2 thoughts on “The Making of Rosemary And Thyme – Chapter 2 – Part 2”
I finally found the time to sit and read this wonderful sharing of the Making of Rosemary And Thyme. I loved learning the inside story! There is nothing like finding the right collaboration. It’s like being given a slice of perfection! That team, big or small makes or breaks a project, whatever it is. I’m deeply touched by the immense talent, intelligence, and expertise that went into, guided, and created this groundbreaking work of Art!
Thanks, Jenny, as always for following us and supporting us!