Performing Frost/Nixon

David Frost (Michael Zemarel, left) interviews Richard Nixon (Jeff Murray). Photo courtesy of Ken Stanek

Performing Frost/Nixon

-An Exploration of Collaborations in Theatre by Jeffrey F. Barken


Few artistic media require the same level of collaboration as theatre.  In a recent interview, Steven Goldklang, of the Vagabond Players theatre in Baltimore, reflected on his role and his vision directing the performance of Peter Morgan’s acclaimed play, Frost/Nixon.  The show premiered on Friday, April 13th. Strong performances by Michael Zemarel, who captures the polite yet persevering nature of talk show host David Frost, and Jeff Murray, whose masterful portrayal of “Tricky Dick’s,” (President Richard Nixon), dark and brooding mannerisms, promise to draw enthusiastic audiences throughout the play’s five-week run.

Originally performed in large theatres in London and New York, Frost/Nixon calls for an elaborate rotating stage and advanced multimedia props including television monitors and intricate sound and lighting systems. When Goldklang and his talented set and lighting designers, Roy Steinman and Bob Dover, first got together in February to review the script, they knew they had to strip the play down to suit the limited budget and smaller stage dimensions at Vagabond. For several weeks they scrutinized each stage direction, tracked characters’ movements, and eventually reformulated the show.  The resultant script still includes over one hundred lighting cues, an effective Oval Office set composed of collapsing furniture, and additional minimalist props.

Performed without intermission, the production is a seamless stream of dramatic events. During center stage set changes, the lighting oscillates between theatre wings to highlight the liberal musings of columnist Jim Reston, played by Eric C. Stein, and the counterbalancing Jack Brennan, Nixon’s devoted chief of staff, played by Tom Moore. Reston evokes the nation’s anger and disillusionment over Nixon’s Watergate scandal while Brennan delivers defensive right-leaning invectives, forcing the audience to conger the tense political history of that time.  One is forced to balance Nixon’s foreign policy achievements with his ultimately self-destructive abuse of presidential power here at home. What is achieved in this production, ultimately, is a carefully drawn, dramatic reenactment of the original dialogues of a disgraced U.S. president and the talk show host who succeeded in publicly portraying Nixon’s limited remorse.

For Goldklang, the success of the premier, a night the Vagabond Players commonly refer to as “Vag Night,” was predestined by his choice of actors. “Casting is seventy percent of your work,” he explained, and in most cases he was pleased to hand select the cast members based on their previous working relationships. In order to illustrate how the show evolved once the cast was selected, Goldklang gave a tour of the theatre.

For over a month, Frost/Nixon was dutifully rehearsed in a small room above the theatre while the actors awaited the conclusion of the preceding production, “California Suite,” and an opportunity to assemble their set downstairs. Sandwiched between a carpenter’s workshop, a makeshift dressing room, and a closet stuffed with props and costumes, the cast bonded around the script, stage and lighting directions that Goldklang had carefully prepared.

When asked what compromises he made, altering his original vision of the play to accommodate suggestions of actors and crewmembers, Goldklang is confident that the play is a triumph of collaboration and communication. “Good actors want feedback and direction,” he notes, recalling minor adjustments made as cast members memorize their lines and perfect their character portrayals. “The main thing is to know your people and make the show a shared vision.”

The transition from the upstairs rehearsal space to the professional stage is a challenge. In the case of Frost/ Nixon, the first all-day rehearsal brought together over twenty-five people to coordinate aspects of the show such as sound, lighting, and actors’ movements. The Vagabond Players do their own make-up and it takes practice to perfect their timing backstage.

Relieved to have everything finally assembled, on the eve of the premier Goldklang acknowledged the final wild-card element inherent in this collaboration: the audience. “You tend to lose perspective performing a play in an empty room,” he reflects, “but this is the essence of theatre and what differentiates it from film.” Whereas a movie always reveals the same action, a different live audience each night can alter a play’s performance and reception.

As cast and crew made their final preparations and last minute tweaks before the premier, Goldklang appeared confident that the show would be a hit in Baltimore. He likened the last week of rehearsal to a pilot landing a jet. “You don’t want to put the landing gear down too early and you don’t want to miss the runway either. If you’ve done it right, then you’re ready to go on two nights ahead of the premier and the actors don’t get bored rehearsing.”

Frost and Nixon Meet. Left to Right: Richard Nixon (Jeff Murray), Jack Brennan (Tom Moore), John Birt (Joel Ottenheimer), David Frost (Michael Zemarel), Jim Reston (Eric C. Stein). Photo courtesy of Ken Stanek

This cast and crew come in for a smooth landing.  As the different players engage Nixon, hoping to extract money, apologies, career boosts, or perhaps resurrection of public opinion, the audience is drawn into the drama, leaving the show reflecting on the paradox of the Nixon presidency. This is the achievement of Goldklang’s dramatic vision and his clever and creative management of an engrossing and entertaining collaborative theatre project.


Read Additional Reviews at:

DC Metro Theatre Arts

MD Theatre Guide



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