Nearly a decade ago, actors Christian Borle, James Hindman, and Tom Souhrada were working side-by-side onstage in Disney’s Mary Poppins on Broadway when Hindman came across a newspaper article about a town in his homestate of Michigan going bankrupt.
Distressed by the news, Hindman couldn’t stop thinking about this tiny town and its fate.
“At the same time, I knew about a town that got a check for a theatre, but they didn’t have a theatre. They took the check and said, ‘Yes we do,’” and used the funds to save their city, says Hindman. “I never forgot that.” The actor began writing what is now Popcorn Falls, his new play (which officially opens October 8 at the Davenport Theatre) about the eponymous—but fictional—American town that is about to go bankrupt unless they can put on a play in less than a week and save their city.
In its earliest stages, Hindman wrote the two-hander for his pals Souhrada and Borle to star in, but “then Christian became ‘Christian Borle,’” says Hindman. “That’s when he really took off, but we had been working on it so I said, ‘Why don’t you be the dramaturg?’”
“I’m not part of the ‘Dramaturg Guild’ if there is such a thing,” Borle jokes, “but I was like, ‘I will continue to read and tell you my thoughts.’”
“He just knows good storytelling really well. If you can make people laugh and you can keep people laughing, you know good storytelling,” says Hindman. “The guy’s a genius. Whip smart. Not just a brilliant performer.”
Which is why after rewrites and dramaturging, Hindman asked Borle to direct.
“During Something Rotten!, during Peter and the Starcatcher, during Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I always had outside ideas that had more to do with the play and the structure than necessarily my characters,” Borle says. “When Jim first asked me, I thought I might have an idea of how to do this.” Now, the play marks Borle’s New York directorial debut.
Known for his charisma and magnetic stage presence, Borle won Tonys for his wildly kinetic yet vulnerable Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher and his egomaniacal yet desperate Shakespeare in Something Rotten!. He has conquered the delicate balance of raucous physical comedy with unparalleled emotional reality. So he seems the perfect fit for a two-hander farce in which the actors play a total of 24 roles, including characters such as Popcorn Falls’ Bea Arthur-like Mrs. Step and her lover-turned-nemesis Floyd, the one-armed lumberyard owner.
“I think there’s a certain expectation for two-person plays where people play 20–24 characters, and I was more interested in subverting that and making it a play that two people just happened to be doing,” says Borle. “Jim, who has a heart as big as all outdoors, his play has a heart as big as all outdoors, and that interests me more than any of the slapstick.”
Borle’s vision is a show that is heartfelt without being sentimental; hilarious but not overdone. “My philosophy in acting was always: You can get away with huge things but [it’s about] the choice. If they don’t laugh, do you still feel good about yourself at the end of a choice? That’s where I’m trying to steer these guys.”
Like the best directors, Borle digs for the kernel of truth. How does he know when he’s getting close? “It’s almost easier to spot the negative—something that’s not truthful. Peeling those moments away and you’re just left with the truth,” he says. As he learned from his Spamalot director Mike Nichols, it’s “one step at a time, taking a scalpel to moments, answering one question at a time.”
Still, Borle says he works swiftly, flushing the room with a creative energy. “Ultimately, what we’re aiming for is that feeling of what we all had in high school, like, ‘I can’t believe I get to stay after school and put on a play,’” he says.
And just like in high school, Borle is surrounded by friends.
“Watching my pals work, I forget to breathe, so at the end of a show I’m exhausted from holding my breath,” he says. “I’m just thinking and planning and watching; it’s a different kind of focus and exhaustion.”
But this taste of directing has left Borle wanting more. (Though fans of his acting need not worry: He’s ready to balance directing and performing—and writing something he “can’t talk about yet.”)
For the newly minted director, fulfillment derives from the variety of creative moments—especially this chance to enjoy from the audience. “One of the most satisfying moments that I’ve had sitting with the audience instead of deliver something—my work at any given preview is already done. Heading to the first preview I was like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t have performance anxiety right now,’” he says. “Sitting outside with the audience and having imagined a moment working and not knowing if it’s going to, and then having it work or being surprised by reactions is just so satisfying and so invigorating.”