Stepping over the fourth wall

SPU’s production of “The 39 Steps” creates comedic, self-aware experience for audiences

Trayton Pike, Staff Writer

From left to right Hayley Philpot as Pamela, Lizzy Butler as Richard Hannay, Ellie Duenow as Clown, and Abby Rhoads as Clown in The 39 Steps. (Courtesy of Michelle Smith-Lewis)

In the 1800s, proscenium theaters were introduced to audiences, which created a place for them to sit behind an invisible “fourth wall,” separating them from the performance and actors. The concept of the wall was designed to separate the characters from reality, allowing them to accomplish unrealistic things that could only occur in a theatrical setting.  However, many plays intentionally break the invisible barrier to invite the audience into the performance. Deconstructing the fourth wall makes the play more than just a fairytale narrative, it allows it to come to life. 

Seattle Pacific University Theatre’s latest production, “The 39 Steps,” exploits the breaking of the fourth wall and makes every effort to connect the performance to the audience. 

The 39 Steps premiered on Thursday, Feb. 2, under the direction of Ian Bond. Set in the early 20th century, the play stars Richard Hannay, a man on a mission to save his country and clear his name from a crime he did not commit. During his journey, Hannay has to dodge spies, police and many other characters who are after him. Characters who all look suspiciously similar to many other characters in the show. 

The production takes advantage of its medium as the fourth wall constantly breaks. The play even uses its limitations as a small stage play to make jokes and engage with the audience. Characters often interact with the audience by running through the seats and creating strategically timed jokes out of the limited props on the stage. The characters are devoted to creating comedic moments while utilizing the available props, such as a disconnected steering wheel and a few boxes that represent a car.

The play has dozens of characters, but far fewer actors actually appear throughout the performance–four in total. Many of the characters are portrayed by two of the performers, Ellie Duenow as Clown 1 and Abby Rhoads as Clown 2, who switch between many different roles throughout the play. These moments are some of the highlights because they showcase the play’s self-referential sense of humor and the versatile talents of the two actresses.

The other characters in the show are played by Lizzy Butler, who portrays Richard Hannay, and Hayley Philpot, who plays Annabella, Pamela and Margaret. 

Butler, a first-year student, explained her introduction to “The 39 Steps” and the process behind putting it on stage, specifically what it has been like for her to be a part of this experience.

“I’ve been doing theatre my whole life, and I’ve always specified in musical theater. So, when I came to SPU, I auditioned for all of the shows,” Butler said. “I didn’t even realize how different this play was compared to what I’ve done before. At first, I was totally out of my comfort zone, but it ended up being a lot of fun.” 

Butler saw strength within herself and the rest of the cast and crew that began to build from the long and unusual process “The 39 Steps” required.

“Auditions were in the fall quarter, and the first rehearsal was on Halloween. There was a lot of work over the break, including working with the various dialects and memorizing lines, but rehearsals paused for a little bit,” Butler said. “Tech week has been crazy, but it’s been so much fun watching everything fall into place. We started getting lighting, costumes and makeup, so it was incredible to see all the work we’ve done in the studio translate so fluidly onto the stage.” 

When all rehearsal and practice periods ended, “The 39 Steps” finally opened on Feb. 2.  On opening night, Butler enjoyed seeing everyone’s hard work, including her own, play out on stage. The feeling was unforgettable. 

“We were all so excited to get to show people the play. I had a bunch of my friends in the front row, and I didn’t tell them about the interaction. It was so funny to watch them react to it. Comedic timing is so important and very dependent on the audience, so it was great to see what people thought was really funny and what got the biggest laughs,” Butler said. 

“The 39 Steps” is the culmination of months of hard work by many different people. They all worked to create something special for students at SPU. Now that the first week of performances has concluded, it is clear that SPU’s production of “The 39 Steps” will keep audiences coming to the theatre for the magic and laughter it produces. 

SPU’s next production will be “Everybody,” written by Branden Jacob-Jenkins, which will be performed in the spring quarter. Auditions began on Monday, Feb. 6, with a dance call and will continue on Feb. 20 with monologue readings. All students are welcome to audition for plays and musicals at SPU, regardless of major or skill level. 

The final showing will of “The 39 Steps “ will take place on Feb. 11 at 7:30 p.m. Visit Ludus – Seattle Pacific University Theatre to purchase tickets for the closing show.