“The life of a theatre director is so glamorous!” jokes Robert Horn of North Fork Community Theatre in Mattituck, chuckling as he sits on the stage sticking felt patches to overturned pieces of furniture. It’s just two hours before his play is set to open.
For Horn, the theater business is a family affair that began in the mid-1980s. He grew up in Sag Harbor and, as a self-described “theater kid,” co-directed high school plays with his brother, Michael, and gave direction to his sister, Kathleen, who acted in them.
After moving to Florida and shifting gears for several years to a career in human resources with Disney, Horn returned to his hometown and eventually found his way back to the stage. Since directing “Doubt,” his first show for NFCT, in 2011, he’s gone on to direct nine more productions there. His most recent, “Ripcord” by David Lindsay-Abaire, ran from Jan. 20 to Feb. 5.
I shadowed Horn during a “Ripcord” rehearsal and on opening night to get a behind-the-scenes look at how he makes the magic happen on stage.
Horn admits that his favorite part of directing is finding shows that are a good fit for the theater and figuring out how to make them work on stage.
“I prefer plays. And there has to be something that catches my eye about it,” he says. Once his submission of “Ripcord” was selected by the NFCT’s board, it was time to start casting. Open auditions were held in November for community members, many of whom Horn had worked with on previous shows. But Horn is quick to point out he always casts the actor who’s best for the role. Although he cast his brother in a supporting role for “Ripcord,” Horn says there are other times Michael has auditioned for him and not gotten the part.
Once the cast was finalized, set design and staging could begin. Horn always looks for ways to keep costs down — using pieces from previous productions, shopping locally whenever possible and scouring the dollar store and Amazon for deals.
“We have a little barn out back that has furniture in it, so I’ll look there first and see if there’s anything I need,” he says. “For this play, the two main characters are supposed to have dressers. Well, because of the size of our set, we can’t really put dressers out. So, I went to Habitat for Humanity and got two end tables instead.”
Horn relies on a local volunteer group, The Tuesday Crew, for free set construction, and estimates he spent only about $200 of his $1,000 budget to stage “Ripcord.” He notes that everything he buys becomes inventory that can be used for other shows, including the props.
One thing Horn says he’s “really fussy” about is getting the set up as quickly as possible, so the cast can start interacting with it. He explains actors will often use a piece of furniture or a prop as a cue to remember their lines.
The six-member cast rehearsed two hours a day, five days a week during the seven weeks leading up to opening night. Horn would arrive 30 minutes to an hour before the cast to think through that evening’s scenes.
He explained: “I’ll think about: Is there movement that is wasted? Do I have them standing too long? If they’re having a conversation with another person in the scene, are they looking at that person?”
When the actors take the stage, Horn’s directing skills kick in.
“My job is to get the actors to where they have to be — emotionally and physically — on stage. Even something as slight as a shift in the shoulders can entirely change the body language and message.”
For “Ripcord,” which takes place largely in an assisted living facility, the way the two main characters, whom he describes as “ladies of a certain age,” were portrayed was important.
“They’re vibrant. They’re colorful,” he says. “I didn’t want them doddering. I didn’t want them to be absent-minded, because I find that’s an insult.”
Assistant director Stephen Ness says he learned a lot from Horn.
“His kindness to the cast … he’s very mellow, he never loses his temper,” Ness says. “And he also listens to them, whereas some directors that I’ve worked with, it’s their way or the highway.”
Most nights, Horn admits, it’s hard to turn off his thoughts after getting home from rehearsal.
“This job takes so much of your time even when you’re not here,” he says. “You’re thinking about, OK, is this gonna work? If it’s gonna work, how’s it gonna work? So then I’m banging out an email to my stage manager at midnight. And then I’m writing a radio ad. Now I’m back in theater mode, so let me pack up my Christmas lights to decompress.”
Horn says the final week of rehearsal, known as tech week (he jokes that some call it hell week), is when lighting, music and sound effects are added. This is also the time when any last-minute wrinkles are ironed out, as in the case of a scene that used an elaborate video wall to make the cast appear to be in an airplane preparing to skydive.
“The cast worked extensively on the airplane scene,” Horn says. “The video wall works very well, but we had to switch from them standing for the jump scene to sitting on milk crates.”
5 P.M. HORN ARRIVES AT NFCT When I meet him there, I notice something different from the week before. Every director has their ritual before a production opens, and apparently, Horn is no different.
“Nobody knows this, but I usually get my hair cut the day of or the day before opening,” he says. “I know that’s weird, but it’s just something that I started doing all of a sudden.”
5:15 P.M. CAST GIFTS As we chat, Horn is fills out cards for the cast. He beams as he places the cards in the players’ dressing rooms, along with vases of fresh flowers for the ladies and jars of specialty salsa for the guys.
“It’s just a little thank-you because I know that they’ve given up a lot of time,” he says. “Like the two ladies who play secondary characters, they’re only in a couple of scenes, but they’re here every night to support the rest of them. And the same with Michael.”
5:45 P.M. CAST ARRIVES The set is lively as cast and crew members begin to filter in. Horn and Ness banter lightheartedly as they put together a chair that fell apart on stage moments earlier.
6 P.M. STAGE CREW DIRECTION Horn goes over music levels with a crew member and reviews a printout of stage crew directions with his stage manager.
6:45 P.M. CAST AND CREW MOMENT Horn is quick to point out that when it comes to pulling off a play, it takes an army. He mentions cast and crew members often and gives full credit where it’s due. He calls everyone together for a brief moment before the start of any production.
“We may all work together again in some form, but it’ll never again be the same group that we have,” he says. “We just enjoy that moment because it’s not going to happen again.”
7 P.M. DOORS OPEN AND RECEPTION BEGINS The concession tables in the rear of the theater are decked out with sky-themed decorations and topped with cloudlike cupcakes and cheese plates, ready to welcome guests to the opening night reception.
“All these decorations are courtesy of Stephen — he has an eye for decorating,” Horn says. “Whoever is involved, they try to make it as immersive as possible, so that you’re coming to the theater and you’re out of the doldrums of the winter.”
8 P.M. SHOWTIME I take my seat in the back row a few seats away from Horn and eagerly watch from the audience. When I ask why he doesn’t sit backstage, he shakes his head: “It’s their show now. All communication is between the lighting booth, the stage crew and the actors.”
10:15 P.M. CAST CELEBRATION “Usually on opening night there are friends and family that are here,” the director says. “So I save any notes for the next day and let them just enjoy the evening and the moment.”
When the party disperses, I find Horn to congratulate him on a successful opening and ask him what’s next, after “Ripcord” goes dark. “Have I already thought about next year’s submissions?” he says. “Yes. I’m an empty-nester; what am I gonna do, twiddle my thumbs?”