Ben Klein: 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time allows empathy for people who see the world different'

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time Photo courtesy of Dr. Phillips Center

As arts columnist for Orlando Weekly, I enjoy opportunities to interview an array of above-the-title talent, often when new shows arrive from Fairwinds Broadway Across America. Last week, thanks to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time coming to the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts (running through Sunday, Nov. 6), I finally got the chance to speak with someone whose résumé I can really relate to.

During my 20-year career producing and directing local theater, many of my credits have come with collaborative caveats such as assistant, additional, or co-. Benjamin Endsley Klein's CV is similarly studded with modifying prefixes, albeit on a much more impressive playing field: Klein served as assistant director for the Broadway version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; was resident director of the award-winning War Horse at Lincoln Center; and was associate director of Tom Stoppard's epic trilogy The Coast of Utopia, the 2013 Macbeth starring Ethan Hawke, and even the West End premiere of Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber's sequel to Phantom of the Opera.

"Associate director" is also the credit Klein claims on both the original Broadway production and the current tour of Curious Incident, whose Orlando appearance this week marks a rare example of a non-musical play making it to Dr. Phillips' main stage.

Since I've spent years trying to translate similar titles I've taken, I began our conversation by asking him to define the associate director's role in professional productions. His answer: "Working along with the director all the way from the workshop process through readings and out-of-town tryouts, all the while being part of the creative process." In the case of Curious Incident, that meant watching the show several times a week, running the understudy rehearsals and "making sure the alternate lead was able to go on at any time."

Klein's responsibilities cover both the show's practical aspects – "for a show that is incredibly detail-oriented and very specific, making sure that all of the technical elements are spot-on" – and its human performers – "making sure that the performances stay as close to what they were on opening night."

While few drama students aspire to associate directorship, Klein lauds the position as "an amazing way as a young director to learn from seasoned veterans and be part of the collaborative process," while also permitting him to work on his own projects, like directing the 2013 Broadway production of Ann (about Texas' late Gov. Richards). While studying theater at the University of Michigan, Klein connected with Tony-winning director Jack O'Brien, whom Klein calls "one of the amazing directors who feels it's his responsibility to be training other directors," and O'Brien took Klein under his wing. That led to the opportunity to work on major productions around the world, but Klein warns that it's rarely glamorous: "There's a lot of hard work that goes into it. ... You're not getting overtime, you're working many, many hours, you're there way past when all the actors have left the building."

Klein must also ensure the show remains the same night after night, without snuffing the spontaneity live theater relies on. "I always tell the actors that what they're doing is the most unnatural thing, repeating something the amount of times that they are doing it. It's highly ridiculous to ask that they do it the exact same way each time," he acknowledges. "Things do shift, and I encourage them to shift, but I keep an eye on how far they've shifted, and what the knock-on effect is [and] weigh that against the original director was thinking about."

In its original book form, and on stage in London and New York, Curious Incident has attracted both praise and condemnation from activists over its depiction of the lead character's cognitive disabilities. Protagonist Christopher's apparent spectrum disorder is never referred to in the text as autism or Asperger's; and according to Klein, the show doesn't ever specify a disorder because the creators "don't want anyone thinking that they're experts on the topic," and because "it closes off what's going on with Christopher if you put a label on it."

Even so, he recalls numerous encounters with showgoers who tell him they or a family member have Asperger's or autism. He says, "They are remarkably touched, and are telling us that they've never seen something that 'got them' more."

"I think what it is doing is allowing empathy for people who see the world different, and that's what's really wonderful. So it's not important for us to say what he is; people come to the show and see what they see, and it helps them understand how someone like Christopher's brain works."

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