1,200 miles apart, but still practicing for upcoming play

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April 10, 2017

By Mike Killeen

Tom and AdamTom Darnall is retired and lives in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Adam Houghton teaches at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

That’s not especially noteworthy – unless the two former faculty members from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University Theater Department are trying to prepare for a play.

So, just how do these two veteran actors who are 1,200 miles apart get ready to present “A Number” April 19-21 at the Colman Theater, Benedicta Arts Center, CSB?

By tele-rehearsing.

Using a computer program called Zoom, the two have practiced since December - Darnall from his home and Houghton from his BYU office. Each sees the other on their computer’s monitor.

“I was a little skeptical about this,” said Darnall, a professor emeritus who taught at CSB and SJU from 1975-2000. “I’m really kind of amazed how engaged we’ve been with each other.”

“In our beginning conversations about rehearsing via computer video-conferencing software, we thought the idea was crazy,” said Houghton, who taught theater at CSB and SJU for 13 years before moving to BYU in the fall 2016. “Could it really work? It turned out to be quite useful.”

Each sees the other only from the waist up.

“I am amazed how physically involved I get just sitting in front of that tube and relating to it,” Darnall said. “There has been real interaction. As far as I’m concerned, we’re both as psychologically and emotionally engaged in it as we will be when we’re on stage together.

“But the live contact is missing. That’s what theater is about,” Darnall said.

Houghton, who is an associate professor in the theatre and media arts department at BYU (he graduated from the school in 1996), said that is the major weakness of the method.

“We have not attempted to do physical action beyond what can be done in a chair in front of a computer,” Houghton said. “Luckily, that is sufficient for our needs up to this point in rehearsal.”

Houghton is returning to campus April 12 to complete the staging for the production, which they are actually performing for a second time.

In January 2014, Houghton received FDRC faculty development funds for the professional costume design. One of the people who saw the play was Brian Jose, who was the director of Fine Arts Programming at CSB and SJU at the time.

“Brian saw it, and asked us if we would be willing to do it in season,” Darnall recalled. “I thought he meant the next year, and he said, ‘No, I’m thinking in 2016-17.’ I said I’ll be 79 years old. Do you really want to invest in an old guy? And, he said yes.”

“The value of that past experience cannot be overlooked,” Houghton said. “It brings confidence to us both, and allows us to take risks in trying new methods and artistic choices with the current rehearsal process.

“The play is so well written with complex characters and situations – we are making new discoveries in the text in every rehearsal,” Houghton added.

Written by English playwright Caryl Churchill in 2002, the play address the subject of human cloning and identity. The story, set in the future, is structured around the conflict between a father (Salter, played by Darnall) and his sons (Bernard I, Bernard II and Michael Black, all played by Houghton). Bernard II and Black are clones of Bernard I.

When the play made its debut Sept. 23, 2002, at the Royal Court Theatre in London, Daniel Craig – who has portrayed James Bond in the last four movies of the series – played the two Bernards and Black.

“Churchill is one of the best playwrights working today,” Darnall said. “Churchill writes the way people talk in conversation.

“One reviewer said this play asks questions that are almost unanswerable, and therefore that’s why they should be asked. This is a short play, only about an hour and 10 minutes, and another reviewer said this play has more drama and in-depth issues than most three-act plays,” Darnall said.

Both actors are fans of the other.

“Adam is marvelous in this. He has made three very distinctive characters,” Darnall said. “They are completely different. I’ve read some reviews where some of the criticism of the performer was the fact they may well have had two of the characters down pat, but they didn’t have all three. I think Adam has really wired it.”

Houghton points to the trust he has developed with Darnall over the years.

“From my first day on the job at CSB/SJU, Tom has been a remarkable mentor and friend. That trust allowed us to take a risk in this method,” Houghton said. 

If you go...

“A Number,” a play featuring former College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University faculty members Tom Darnall and Adam Houghton, will be performed at 7:30 p.m. April 19-21 at the Colman Theater, Benedicta Arts Center, CSB.

Tickets are $20 for adults, $17 for seniors and $10 for students, faculty and staff. Please note that all seating is general admission.