Interview: Paul Sztelma (The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde)
It is Victorian London, 1888. Dr Henry Jekyll, a brilliant and respected scientist - shy and unassuming - is content with his reputation as a moral, upright citizen. Or so it would seem.
Frustrated by his dull normalcy and intrigued by the notion of the “dual nature of man”, Jekyll secretly creates a formula to unleash his hidden, bestial nature. Edward Hyde is born! The brutish, magnetic Hyde indulges in drink and debauchery while Jekyll’s life of propriety continues – until Hyde’s passions begin to turn up a body count.
To kick off, what show are you currently working on and what is your role in the production?
I’m the Director of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & My Hyde”, adapted by Noah Smith. Playing at the Pavilion Theatre, Castle Hill from Jan 31.
What drew you to this show and why do you think now is the right time to be bringing this story to the stage?
This adaptation by Noah Smith struck me straight away as something special. The pure theatricality of it – it’s an old story told in a new way that’s visually and technically exciting.
What has the experience been like working on this show? What has been unique about this show and your process in comparison to other shows you have worked on?
As a director, I’ve really enjoyed and valued the collaboration with my actors and my creative crew in bringing something this special to the stage. I’ve never used a Violence Coordinator before (Adam Garden, who is also in the show) and a specialist props maker (Jules Bischoff). The set and costumes are another character in the play: Annette van Roden’s costume design along with Sean Churchward’s lighting complement really enhance my own set design. Working with a composer and sound designer (Chris Harriott) has also been incredibly fulfilling. My young cast too, have shown a commitment and enthusiasm that’s remarkable.
What can audiences look forward to in this show or why do you feel it is a story that they need to hear?
Theatre-goers will find themselves steeped in another world, not quite the Victorian England that they’re used to seeing. A world of Penny Dreadfuls and Grand Guignol. With Jekyll & Hyde, I’d like audiences to feel both creeped out and exhilarated by what they’re witnessing on stage.
What has been the most rewarding part of this show to create for you?
Bringing together a group of people all with their own particular skills and calling on their expertise to create what I really think will be a unique experience for our audiences.
Why is this a production that a 2020 audience cannot miss?
There’ll be thrills, there’ll be scares, there’ll be “oh wow” moments and there’ll be gut punching moments. But beyond the visceral, I hope audiences will walk away thinking, what kind of “Hyde” would I turn into if I took Jekyll’s formula? How dark is the opposite side of my own coin? What would I be capable of if I didn’t conform to society?
When first beginning a new project, what is the first part of your process in approaching a new role?
When I’m reading a script, thinking, do I want to direct this, I always look for a hook. Something that sparks my interest and on which I can build into a complete vision. On J&H it was the characters of the Maid and Butler who aren’t as generic as they sound but drive the show, narrate, play different characters and act as the all-knowing subconscious of Jekyll/Hyde. There’s something inherently evil about those two that, as they aren’t the titular characters, intrigued me.
What is a common misconception that people have about your role in the production?
When talking to friends or family that aren’t particularly “theatre people”, I’m sometimes asked - what does a director actually do? Then, after hitting my head against the wall a few times, I try and explain it all. I have family that, at first, would only come and see shows in which I was acting - not directing. I told them that they would see much more of “me” up on stage during a show that I directed compared to a show that I was in, because there’s a little bit of me in every part of what they see on stage.
What has the rehearsal process been like in bringing this story to life? By the time audiences see this show on stage, what has gone into making it happen?
It’s been a hectic and shortened rehearsal period for J&H. As I was acting in a show during Nov/Dec and because I had to make an emergency trip to New Zealand, we didn’t have the standard three month rehearsal period. We’re all volunteers, we all have day jobs so we can only rehearse around two nights a week. So we really hit the ground running - and the cast were up to it. But rehearsal time is only a part of the process. There was also a good 3 solid weeks of set building not to mention all the time my other designers spent getting their stuff together. And did I mention we all have day jobs?
Do you have any opening night rituals? If so, what are they?
As a director, my opening night ritual is to wish broken legs upon the cast and crew, get out of the green room (and their hair) about 30 minutes before curtain and then hit the red wine.
What is something that you take away from each show that you work on? Do you feel like you take a piece of the production with you each time?
The best things I take away from each show (as director or actor) is one; the friendship of new people who have joined the company and two; the strengthening of existing friendships with people who I have worked with for years.
When was the turning point for you when you realised that theatre was not just a hobby but a passion? How did you go about making it your career and is there any one show that you can attribute this to?
If only this were my career! I went to the University of Wollongong and got a Bachelor of Creative Arts (Acting) degree way back in 1991. I suppose that’s when I made the conscious decision to give the arts a go as a career. But when I finished Uni, I was not yet 21, I needed a job and fell into a non-arts career. So yes, it’s a passion now and as long as I aim for a professional standard in my work, what’s the difference? (Except for a pay cheque.)
Across your work, is there one story, thought or theme that keeps you interested in continuing to create? What stories do you find yourself drawn to the most?
Lately I seem to be jumping between directing comedy and directing adaptations of gothic horror! I see this production as the final part of my gothic horror trilogy after directing The Woman in Black in 2010 and The Fall of the House of Usher in 2015. I love creating a world where an audience can be shocked and delighted at the same time. And when I’m not directing stage versions of dark classics, I’m directing Ken Ludwig farces. With acting, I’m always searching for an interesting role - I don’t care if it’s large or small, it just has to spark my interest.
What has been the highlight of your career so far and what is still on your performance bucket list?
As a director, I’m very fond of my production of The Woman in Black (2010) where I apparently made a woman in the front row pee herself when the titular woman appeared. Still on my bucket list? Well I’m too old to play Hamlet but I’d be willing to give Macbeth or Iago a red hot go.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given that you would like to pass on to aspiring theatre makers?
I like musicals but I don’t have the skill set to be really good in them. I did find myself in the role of Rolf in The Sound of Music while I was studying in Wollongong. I just wasn’t getting the song until the Musical Director told me - “You’re a showman, Just sell the song” and it clicked. That piece of advice has stayed with me - You’re a showman. Just sell it.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
What is your favourite production you have ever seen?
It’s clichéd but I’ve got to say Hamilton - it lived up to the hype.
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world - where do you go?
New York (but not to see Hamilton again).
What is your dream show to work on?
The first production of my unproduced musical 100 Feats of Strength which I wrote with composer Chris Harriott. If any Producer is interested....
What is a hobby you have beyond the theatre?
Cooking. God I love food - French, Spanish, Japanese and Polish (as long as it’s perogi).
What’s next for you after this show?
A rest. I have a garden, a pet and a partner that require my love and attention.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde opens at the Pavilion Theatre in The Hills Showground on January 31, 2020. You can get your tickets here.