New Jersey Stage

Monday, July 29, 2013

A conversation between ELTC's artistic director and playwright James Rana

(CAPE MAY, NJ) -- Now that the world premier of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" has opened and is enjoying ever-growing and receptive audiences of all ages, the adaptor of this famous Washington Irving tale, James Rana, sat down with Gayle Stahlhuth, artistic director of the Equity professional East Lynne Theater Company, to talk.  Like last year's "The Poe Mysteries," Stahlhuth is also the director.
       
It was during last season's successful run of Rana's "The Poe Mysteries," another world premiere, that I asked him if he'd like to tackle "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."  Like the Edgar Allan Poe stories, there is very little dialogue, which means the playwright must create it, while keeping to the tone and style of the original story.  

     Rana began working on the script last August, and sent me the first draft in February.  I made suggestions, and had questions, and Rana went back to work.  After several more revisions, the play premiered in Cape May on July 24.  Not only was there dialogue to consider, but how many roles can be played by five actors to populate Tarrytown, NY, while a sixth actor plays only one role - Ichabod Crane, the school teacher from Connecticut.

      While "The Poe Mysteries" was enjoying a successful run at Ocean Professional Theatre Company in Barnegat last fall, I mentioned to artistic director Steve Steiner that Rana was doing this Irving adaptation. Without having seen a script (there was none to show him), Steiner booked "Sleepy Hollow" for the fall of 2013.

     Last year, Rana was one of six actors in his own adaptation. This year, he said he'd rather "sit this one out, so I can focus on getting other theaters and producers interested in the show." 
     Several patrons have already seen "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" twice, bringing different family members and friends each time.  

     Rana's ancestry is far from the post American Revolutionary setting for “Sleepy Hollow.” Raised in Teaneck, NJ, Rana’s father was born in India, and his mother is of German descent.
     When I asked him how he became interested in theater, he was off and running.

     "Growing up, I lived in my imagination. I was a sick kid, so I watched movies on television late at night. Peter Sellers and Charlie Chaplin were huge influences. When I was older, my mother and aunt took me to plays in New York City, not far from our home." 

     The first show he saw was the Broadway revival of "Forty-Second Street" directed by Gower Champion, followed shortly after with the Off-Broadway production of "The Fantasticks."
     At Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he received the Young Alumni Award, he majored in radio and television, while performing in plays. For graduate work, he majored in theater at Trinity Rep in Providence, RI.

     "Between college and graduate school," Rana explained, "I landed my first Actors' Equity union job. It was "Comedy of Errors" at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA. I played three different characters and I had a ball. I love to play a variety of roles and multiple characters in one production."

     Soon after leaving Trinity, James performed with the Classical Theatre of Harlem in "Marat/Sade," "Mother Courage," and "Macbeth."

     "Classical Theatre of Harlem is known for its gritty productions,” added Rana, “and their "Macbeth" was invited to perform in Germany at the Bonn Biennale Festival and at The Globe in Neuss. It was great. I had the good fortune to be in another production that traveled overseas: "Love’s Labor's Lost," set in India, with The Shakespeare Festival in Washington D.C. We took it to Stratford, England at the request of the Royal Shakespeare Festival."

     Rana's other theater credits include performing Off-Broadway with Ensemble Studio Theatre in "Serendib," and with Pan Asian Rep in the world premiere of "Rangoon" about an Indian family in the Midwest, and "Shogun Macbeth." Regionally, he's worked at Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Sheperdstown, WV, Actors Shakespeare Company in Jersey City, Princeton Rep, Luna Stage in West Orange, NJ, and with East Lynne Theater Company.

     He was also the featured performer at ELTC's annual November fundraiser in 2011, greeting people on stilts as they entered the restaurant. He taught juggling classes in Cape May and for Wildwood School District’s After-School program, through ELTC.  I asked him what started his interest in stilt-walking and juggling. 

     "I studied juggling from someone who worked for Ringling Brothers, and then read books about clowning and magic," explained Rana. "I worked for Big Apple Circus, as a juggler and a stilt-walker, and have led the Coney Island Mermaid Parade for seven years as the stilt-walking "Uncle Sam." For my work with this parade, I was featured in the magazine "Time Out New York.'" 

     His television work includes "Third Watch," a recurring role on "One Life to Live," and when Conan O’Brien was televised out of New York City, he was a regular sketch performer. 

     "One of the most interesting roles I've ever played was on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," he explained. "It was an episode called "Hate" about racial profiling. I played an Arabic journalist whose wife was murdered, and everyone assumed that my character had killed her. I hadn't. It was one of their most popular episodes with quite a few air dates." 

     Rana has performed in several films including a French-American short, "A Girl Like You With a Boy Like Me," where he plays a Sikh. It has been shown at festivals in Los Angeles, Tampa, and other cities throughout the country, as well as film festivals in Europe. 

     While performing, Rana began writing.  His "So Long, Pluto" was produced by Camino Real Playhouse in San Juan Capistrano, CA and "Harriett Benchley," at Shoestring Radio Theatre in San Francisco. "Cafeteria" won the Outstanding Radio Play Award at The Moondance International Film Festival, and his "Poe: A Celebration" was a nominee for Outstanding Radio Documentary at the same festival.  "Poe: A Celebration" and another of his documentaries,  "P.T. Barnum: Man of the People" both aired on National Public Radio. His "Has Been" was the Top Finalist in the Outstanding Television Pilot Script Category at the LA Comedy Short Film Festival and Los Angeles Screenplay Competition.

     "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" runs every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. through August 31, at The First Presbyterian Church, 500 Hughes Street, Cape May, where ELTC is in residence. Tickets are $30 for general admission; $25 for seniors; and $15 for full-time students. To encourage whole families to attend, anyone age 12 and under is free. To make a reservation, call ELTC at 609-884-5898, or go online to www.eastlynnetheater.org.