It’s all relative
“No matter where you look, something is always changing and people don’t want it to change.” That’s how Skip Ploss summed up Noel Coward’s play Relative Values, which he is directing at the Wilton Playshop. The show opens Friday, May 1, and continues May 2-3 and May 7-9. For tickets, visit wiltonplayshop.org.
Coward, the icon of all things British, drew on the English aristocracy for this play, which made its debut in 1951. Despite the number of years that have gone by, its central theme is timeless.
Ploss spoke to The Bulletin last week about the play and his return to the Playshop after an absence of about eight years.
“We haven’t cut anything,” he said of Coward’s script. “It is exactly as written.”
The play is often viewed as an exploration of snobbery — English aristocracy versus the nouveau riche of Hollywood — but Ploss said it goes deeper than that.
“It is more about the aristocracy in England, or anywhere else, fighting to stay the way they are, with things changing faster than they can keep up,” he said. Fans of the public TV series Downton Abbey will find that a familiar theme.
Relative Values is set in the English country manor Marshwood House, home to Lady Felicity, the maids Alice and Moxie, her butler, Crestwell, and her nephew. Friends are frequent visitors. Lady Felicity’s son has been away for months, but now he is coming home with his fiancée, a Hollywood actress.
The story revolves around the young woman as she tries to gain access to the family but they are not willing to grant it. The comedy that ensues moves the story forward, Ploss said.
There are other characters and complications to fill out the three-act play, but Ploss would not give any more away except to say there is a happy ending.
The cast, he added, “is phenomenal.”
Ploss has a long history of association with the Playshop. He is a past president and has written a “brief” history of the Playshop on its website, wiltonplayshop.org. He also met his wife, Laura, onstage when they both acted in Witness for the Prosecution.
Ploss took over the Relative Values directing job when the previous director had to bow out. He was in Mystic when he got the call.
“I read it that night and said, ‘Sure, why not?’ I was dying to come back.”
His last directing effort here was The Nerd, about eight years ago, Ploss said, although he has done shows in New Canaan and Westport as well as Wilton High School, and he frequently works with the Wilton Children’s Theater.
“Sometimes people offer you something you’d never pick yourself,” he said of Relative Values. He generally goes for slapstick comedies, small dramas or musicals, and normally would not consider Noel Coward, but he said he likes the playwright.
“It’s an opportunity given to me for a reason — so I’ll take it,” he said.
He found some things have changed.
“I usually design everything I direct,” he said, so when he asked for the stage dimensions he expected a sheet of paper, but instead was sent a 3-D version, which offered views from the house seats. This gave him the opportunity to design the action as it would be seen by members of the audience, particularly seats that do not have a full view of the stage.
Ploss spoke about the concept of community theater.
“It’s community theater, so we should involve the community,” he said. As an example, he posted work days on Facebook, and people came and helped out.
He needed help moving some scenery and again turned to Facebook, and students he has worked with volunteered.
Ploss’s day job is as a special education paraprofessional at Miller-Driscoll School, and he is also the webmaster for the central district office.
He works frequently with Wilton Children’s Theater and will direct its next play in the fall.
When asked the difference between directing a children’s performance and a play with mostly adults — the youngest cast member in Relative Values is 15 and she has acted before — they are not as great as one might think.
“In children’s theater you have virtually no egos to deal with,” Ploss said, “and they have no life experience to draw from when you are giving them direction.”
His Relative Values cast “all have life experience. They can use references I might make to movies and cartoons they’ve seen,” he said, adding there are no ego issues either.
But whether his cast members are 7 or 74, he treats them all the same. For children he does not “dumb it down,” and “most of the time they rise to the occasion. … They recognize they are getting an opportunity.”
Most fulfilling, he added, is having the “ability to take a kid with no self-confidence and over a period of time turn them into a star and they come out of their shell.”
When asked what he would like the audience to take away from attending Relative Values, he said, “There is this place where you can see live theater, and more people should be here — backstage, on stage and in the audience — and the town should support it.”