Director Jim Helsinger Unleashes the Hound this Summer

By Tina Slak and Victoria Marchesani

Veteran actor, director, and artistic director of the Orlando Shakespeare Theater Jim Helsinger talks about the spoof, the cast, and his return to PSF to direct The Hound of the Baskervilles.

On a chilly February day in Pennsylvania, Jim was in repertory at Orlando Shakespeare, where he was directing and acting in two productions. During his brief rehearsal break, we caught up over a phone interview.

Q: British authors Steven Canny and John Nicholson have adapted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel to a spoof for the stage. For more than a century, Holmes has been one of the most adapted fictional characters. What do you like best about this comic adaptation as it relates to the characters of Holmes and Dr. Watson?

I’ve read a number of adaptations of this book into a play, and this is by far my favorite. It’s very similar to PSF’s 2013 production of The 39 Steps. We are taking a famous piece of literature, keeping to the original story, and then spoofing it at the same time. And that’s what’s really fun about this script. It’s much more the wit that you would expect between Holmes and Watson. They are framed within Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original mystery and, in this adaptation, framed as comedic characters for us. (And the original story is told in a hilarious way that only 3 people portraying 16 characters can do.)

Q. This production includes a lot of physical comedy. Is it choreographed? Or does the majority of this develop organically during the rehearsal process?

It’s a little bit of both. The bits are written into the script and sometimes in a way that is not always easy to understand. So the bits are the skeleton—the things written into the show to be done—and then it is up to the director and the actors to add to it, embellish, and make it unique for the PSF audience. We want the audience to feel it’s all improv. But in fact a good comic makes you believe it is all happening for the first time. With that said, as a director, I give the actors permission to find at least one moment in the play where they can do something different every time, with every performance.

Q. Knowing the PSF audience, does this influence the way you direct and present the play?

Yes, in a very positive way. The PSF audience is one of the most embracing for wit and humor. They love physical comedy, but they also love to listen and find the humor in the words, and we will be working on all of the above with The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Q. With a cast this small, how do you choose actors and know that they will mesh well?

One of the blessings of PSF is the bench is deep with great actors we know very well. I’ve known Greg Wood for more than 20 years, and he’s a great collaborator. He’ll be playing the main role of Sherlock Holmes and a number of other roles, too. He’s no stranger to playing multiple roles at PSF, he starred in Around the World in 80 Days in 2005. Carl Wallnau will play the role of Dr. Watson. Carl is an amazing actor. From Sleuth to Midsummer to The Imaginary Invalid, all at PSF, he has made every daring choice I’ve ever asked for. Jacob Dresch, as Sir Henry Baskerville (and others), is a DSU theatre graduate and PSF alum. I’ve worked with Jacob numerous times. Our most recent PSF collaboration was The Foreigner and currently down here at Orlando Shakespeare in The Great Gatsby and in Love’s Labour’s Lost (where we are actually sharing the stage as competing clowns in that production).This is a dream team for me; three of my favorite actors on the stage at the same time. Let the comedy begin!

Q. With few props, few costumes, and a set that must move quickly from many locations and landscapes, what are the unique challenges you face when meeting with the set designer?

There are a lot of challenges with making changes so quickly, but once you succeed that’s where a lot of the humor comes from. One of the running gags in The Hound of the Baskervilles is when they are outside of the estate, and they say, “Let’s go inside.” In an instant the lights change, a fireplace rolls in, a chandeliers drops, and “Bam” they’re back at the estate. And that’s pretty funny! So, there really is no transition from place to place. They just say, “Let’s go here….”and “well, now that we’re here.”; and they’re already there.

Q. What is one wish you have for this production and for your summer at PSF?

I would like for this to be the highest selling show in the history of the Schubert Theatre. That means that audiences are having a great time. My other big wish is to run a half marathon on the Rail Trail—without stopping.