An acclaimed director takes on Gogol’s biting satire – curious arts

Hello and welcome to another issue of Talking Theatre!

I’m joined today by Ron Jenkins, director of Studio Theatre’s upcoming play, Government Inspector, by Nikolai Gogol running February 9 – 18, 2017 at the Timms Centre for the Arts. You can read an excerpt of our interview here, or listen to the podcast for the full experience!

Can you tell us a bit about your background as a theatre artist?

I started in theatre back at what is now called Cape Breton University. I was planning on pursuing a law degree at the time and was in the middle of my Arts undergrad. They were doing Hamlet and the guy playing Fortinbras got mono and couldn’t be in the show. My English professor asked me if I wanted to be in the show and I was hooked from there! The law degree fell by the wayside at that point. I started as an actor and was mostly acting up until 1999, when I left acting to concentrate fully on directing. So for the last twenty years, I’ve been concentrating on writing and directing.

What drew you to this play?

The first time I read it was back in university. I’ve always wanted to direct this play and when Kate asked me to direct it for Studio Theatre I was thrilled. I think it’s a really funny, great piece. It’s a masterpiece! I love Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Bugs Bunny, Richard Pryor, and I think Nikolai Gogol is one of those masters of that type of comedy.

You mention Chaplin and Keaton, and this play is very much a period farce, so what are some of the challenges of dealing with a comedy of this age? Have you had to update anything?

I think we have. This is an adaptation of the original by David Harrower, who’s this brilliant Scottish playwright that has done his own work in terms of updating the show. This version was presented in 2010/11 at the Young Vic Company in London and I know they took a wild 70s mishmash approach. We’re staying more to the traditional side, but we’ve updated it in our own way in terms of the comedy. But when this play was first performed in 1836, Gogol didn’t know whether it was going to be well received or not. It wasn’t until the Tsar gave his ok that it was considered a success.

It seems the Russian audience at the time didn’t really know what to make of a show like this.

Exactly. I think it’s really funny, biting and great satire. I think that’s the key. Gogol wasn’t happy with the first production either, he felt like these actors were playing people like caricatures. And I think I agree with him, so that’s been our goal to avoid that since the beginning of rehearsals. We’ve tried to strike this balance with the characters so that it’s not just hijinks because there is a great story to be told. And that’s been hard, to strike that balance. We’ve been working on that for the last week or so and that’s where we are now. Comedies are hard too; if you don’t earn it, then it won’t work.

Speaking of rehearsals, what is your preferred style of working? Do you do a lot of table work, or do you like to get up on your fight right away?

Not a lot of table work. We’ll spend the first two days at the table and then we’ll start putting it on its feet. I’ve always believed, whether it’s right or wrong, plays are meant to be played. Actors want to get up and feel the play and work with the other actors. I think these are great young actors who do all the work at home and come in very prepared. So I like to put it up on its fight right away so we can get the play going. It’s been fun and very hard, which is the best place to be in.

Getting to work with students can be great because they’re steeped in a program that emphasizes doing the work. What are some of the joys and challenges of working with students?

This is, I think, the fourth show I’ve directed here. The students are always very well prepared and I’ve worked with many UofA grads in the professional world after they graduate as well. These roles are a big challenge for them; the whole play is a big challenge in fact. I think they’re rising to that challenge and they work hard to work on their craft. In another few months, they’ll be leaving the school to hit the boards and try to find work and find their technique. It’s a pleasure to come to work here every day and work with these actors.

I was wondering if you could talk a bit about what design approach you took with this show? You mentioned that you’re setting it in 1836 unlike some of the more wild adaptations like the Young Vic. What spurred that decision?

Well, coming back is always great because I get to work with Colin Winslow again who is just a wealth of incredible knowledge and such a pleasure to work with. Colin and I talked a lot about the play and the approach we wanted to take. I didn’t want to do my version of the play because I don’t know what my version is. I know what Gogol’s version is and it’s simply a room – the story takes place in the Mayor’s house, in the tiny little inn with the room under the stairs. I just felt like adding all of this other stuff to it, not that new designs for this play aren’t sophisticated and add something to it, but I didn���t want to put anything on it. The story’s great, the characters are great and I didn’t think we needed to do anything else but that. Colin has this book in his thousand, ten thousand or so library, called On the Estate – it’s a collection of watercolours that this woman had painted of this Russian Estate in this small town. It was before the 1917 revolution and it was this quiet country life look at what Russia was like in the 1840s and 50s. We’re a bit out of time era wise, but we’re trying to keep the integrity of that and let Harrower’s adaptation of things take care of the more modern elements.

To hear the rest of the interview head on over to the Talking Theatre podcast or click below to listen right here! Follow us on iTunes at Talking Theatre. 

Government Inspector runs each evening at 7:30 p.m. February 9 – 18, 2017 in the Timms Centre for the Arts (87 Avenue & 112 Street). For the full creative team, show dates and ticket details, see

Presenter: U of A Studio Theatre
Event Title: Government Inspector
Dates: February 9 – 18, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.
Matinee Thursday, February 16 at 12:30 p.m.
Venue: Timms Centre for the Arts, University of Alberta
Single show tickets: $12 student, $25 adult, $22 senior, available online and at the Timms Centre box office one hour before each performance.

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