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  • Writer's pictureJeff Thomakos

A Conversation with our Esteemed Director (Full version) of

Jeff Thomakos is the founder and producing artistic director of The Inspired Acting Company. Currently, he is working on IAC’s next project, The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence, a painfully funny, time-traveling adventure of love, intimacy, & technology. We sat down with Jeff to ask him about his thoughts about directing this Pulitzer Prize-nominated play.


What drew you to direct "The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence" by Madeleine George? 

There’s a lot that drew me to this play. First, it’s funny. The wit and dialogue in this play are excellent. Scenes go to unexpected places and sometimes the scenes are just plain hilarious while still reinforcing its themes. Second, it’s unpredictable. One never knows quite why one scene follows the other until its themes become obvious and the dialogue begins to repeat itself. Things don’t go in a straight line and it leaves you breathless as you try to figure out what’s happening and why. Finally, while it’s incredibly smart, it still aims straight for your heart and leaves you feeling for these incredibly flawed people, especially Merrick and Eliza who make so many profound mistakes (like all of us) and come out wiser at the other end.

What about this play resonates with you personally or artistically?

I think what resonates the most with me is the theme of control vs. vulnerability. Both Merrick and Eliza try to exert some level of control over their relationships mostly through embracing technology. Like so many of us, they use technology as a substitute for real human connection. As someone who used to be addicted to social media (I’m better now), I know how tempting it can be to think that we are truly connecting with other people through the various mediums, but my personal opinion about all that has evolved considerably since I first went on Facebook in 2005. Now, I’m more apt to embrace face-to-face interactions. I like being in the room with people and sharing something with them in person. I guess that’s why I love theatre so much. There is no substitute for the experience of and in-person interface. 

Madeleine George's play explores the relationship between humans and technology across different time periods. How do you plan to navigate the shifts in time and space within the play to create a cohesive narrative?

There are four very distinct time periods and styles in this play. There is the “main” story-line which follows Josh Watson and the love triangle that forms between a modern-day Merrick and his ex-wife, Eliza. We are playing this in a style of a modern romantic comedy. 

Then there is the story of Dr. Watson, Sherlock’s right-hand man, who investigates the strange markings left on Victorian Eliza, wife of wealthy industrialist and nefarious inventor, Frank Merrick. This is done in the style of 19th century melodrama. The lines between good and evil are clear, the acting is a little more presentational, and there is even some direct address to the audience. 

Third, we have the radio program of the 1930s in which Thomas Watson, assistant to the great Alexander Graham Bell (“Watson, come here, I want you.”) is being interviewed by Eliza about the famous invention of the telephone. We are approaching this as a 1930s comedy.

Coming full circle, there is Eliza’s interactions with Watson, the IBM program that Eliza may or may not have stolen as a basis for her own AI invention. This is more of a sci-fi feel for us and that’s the way we’re trying to approach it. 

I think the change in acting styles, the character work the actors are doing, along with lighting shifts will make it pretty clear to the audience where we are in space in time, even if they are not quite sure how it all fits together until the end. 

The play features multiple characters named Watson, each representing a different era of technology. How do you envision differentiating these characters while maintaining a cohesive vision for the production?

We have been doing character work since the very beginning of the rehearsal process. Not just Watson, but all of our actors have the challenge of playing more than one character. I am confident that our excellent actors, Dan Johnson (Watson), Maggie Alger (Eliza) and John DeMerrell (Merrick) are more than up to the task of delivering nuanced and unique portrayals of each of their characters and I think the audience is going to be enthralled with each of their changes. 

”The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence" delves into themes of artificial intelligence, love, and human connection. How do you plan to balance these complex themes to ensure the audience remains engaged throughout the production?

I think that work has already been done for us in the writing. Madeleine George’s script is one of the smartest scripts I’ve ever read. There is so much subtle repetition in dialogue, theme, and feeling peppered throughout the script. Each scene contains so many easter eggs that it makes you want to listen carefully so you don’t miss them. 

The play incorporates elements of comedy, drama, and science fiction. How do you plan to approach the tone of the play to ensure it resonates with the audience while staying true to the script's intentions?

As I mentioned before, there are four parts to this story: the main love story, the Sherlock Holmes detective story, the 1930s radio interview, and the interactions between Eliza and her AI invention. In rehearsals, we are trying to incorporate different styles within each part of the story. We believe this will help the audience know exactly what part of the story they are in efficiently and quickly so they can focus on how each part of the story unfolds. In short, the tone will change with the characters so that you can follow along and enjoy. 

Madeleine George's writing incorporates intricate dialogue and nuanced character development. How do you plan to work with the actors to bring out the depth of each character while maintaining the pacing of the play?

Having directed a lot of Shakespeare, my go-to approach to pacing is to leave it for the latter days of rehearsal. What’s more important is that we are hitting each moment of the play with clarity of objective and characterization. Once that has been firmly established, then we start to think about tempo which tends to speed up naturally over the course of rehearsals anyway. Again, my cast is pretty terrific and I’m not worried about pacing being an issue at all. 

The set design for "The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence" can vary greatly depending on the director's interpretation. What are your ideas for the set design, and how do you plan to utilize the space to enhance the storytelling?

When moving quickly between time and place in theater, I think it’s best to keep the set as simple as possible.Tim Pollack, our set designer and builder is putting together a simple, but beautiful design utilizing backing flats, projection, and different furniture pieces to create different environments quickly and efficiently. Additionally, mirroring the repetition in dialogue, the set will also repeat. For example Eliza’s office will mirror Merrick’s office in a very literal sense. The coffee shop of present day will be pretty much the same set as Mrs. Kemp’s Pie Shop of the victorian age. And so on. If you’ve been to our theater before, you know how intimate it is. I think our set design will use that intimacy very effectively creating an unforgettable experience for our audience. 

Collaboration is essential in theater production. How do you plan to work with the creative team, including the designers, stage managers, and actors, to bring your vision of the play to life?

Indeed, theater is an ensemble art. At The Inspired Acting Company, we try to make a creative space for everyone involved. It’s really important to us, that the actors, designers, backstage staff, and house staff feel like we are all moving towards a mutual goal. While we are new, I do think word is getting out about our creative vibe and we hope that attracts artists, designers, staff, and even audience members that are attracted to our brand of inclusive creative individuality. Certainly with this show, it’s something we are always thinking about. 

What do you hope audiences will take away from their experience of watching "The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence"? How do you plan to engage and challenge them with this production?

I was talking to a patron the other day and she asked if I felt if this show would appeal to an average audience member. My answer was a resounding “YES!!!”. While the narrative structure is a little different from what you might see in most plays, the story is very accessible, especially in today’s world where the desire to have control over all aspects of our relationships with others is so prevalent. The unpredictability of our relationships with others can be terrifying and we have tried throughout history to create something that will serve us only when, and in the way, we want. I think what this play is trying to tell us is that there is more to life than what we want and the real joy in being alive is listening, connecting, and giving to others unselfishly and joyously. And if there is anything I would want the audience to take away from this play, it’s that. 

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