Backstage: “The 39 Steps”

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(Host)  An adaptation of a classic Alfred Hitchcock film will soon be thrilling audiences in the Northeast Kingdom.

VPR’s Neal Charnoff traveled to the Haskell Opera House in Derby Line to take us Backstage with "The 39 Steps." 

(Scene)  R: "Beautiful mysterious woman, pursued by gunman.  Sounds like a spy story.  A: That is exactly what it is." 

(Charnoff)  And that’s exactly how one would describe Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film "The 39 Steps".

But in this theatrical adaptation, which is being produced by the resident theater company at the Haskell Opera House,   the spy story is played mostly for laughs.  `

As the play begins, Richard Hannay witnesses a shooting in a London theater, and finds himself holding the hand of a frightened theatergoer, Annabella Schmidt. 

He takes her back to his apartment.

(Scene) A:  "Mr Hannay. I am going to tell you something which is not very healthy.  It will mean either life or death.  But when I tell you you will be in-wolved.  H: In-wolved?  (A): Do you wish to be in-wolved?"

(Charnoff)  Hannay reluctantly agrees to be "in-wolved". 

(Scene) A: "Have you ever heard of, the 39 steps?  H: What’s that, a pub?  Your English humor will not help, Mr. Hannay.  These men will shtick  at nothing.  And I am the only one who can shtop them.  If they are not shtopped, it is only a matter of day, perhaps hours, before the top secret, highly confidential information is out of the country."  

(Charnoff) The next morning, Hannay finds Annabella dead, and he becomes the classic Hitchcockian innocent man on the run, looking for the truth about the murder, and the 39 steps.

The concept behind this version of The 39 Steps calls for the entirety of Hitchcock’s film to be performed as farce by just four actors. 

Director Lynn Leimer explains. 

(Liemer)  "This is an adaptation of that mystery, so it has incorporated vaudeville and Monty Python into Alfred Hitchcock. So it’s quick change, fast paced hilarity." 

(Charnoff) The script features music and references from a number of Hitchcock’s films. 

The four actors do all of the set and character changes. And the set itself is unique in that it’s all on wheels. 

(Leimer) Because of the fact that is has to be fast-paced and they go from venue to venue, and everything is just a suggestion of a piece of a structure of a building or furniture. 

(Charnoff) In this scene, Richard Hannay overhears two traveling salesmendiscuss the murder, and the local races, at the train station.

(Scene)  1: "Good Lord!  2: What is it? 1: Been a woman murdered in a fashionable West End Flat.  2: Oh, these sex dramas don’t appeal to me. What won?  1:  Hmm.  What won what?  2:  The 2:00 at Windsor.  1: 2:00 at Windsor. Umm…Bachelor Boy. 2:Good.  1:  7 to 4 on. 2: Not so good.  1: Anyway, where was we?  Ah yes.  Stabbed in the back, she was, Portland Mansions, Portland Place.  2: By the BBC?  Now that’s the place to put someone to sleep.  Ha Ha Ha…."

(Charnoff) Besides being director of the show, Lynn Leimer is also the artistic director of QNEK Productions, the resident theater company at the Haskell Opera House. 

The Haskell is famous for being the only Opera House in the world that sits in two countries.  The audience sits in Derby Line, while the stage is literally in Stanstead, Quebec. 

More than a century ago, Martha Stewart Haskell had the Opera House built on the border as a gift to both countries.

And it’s a setting that Hitchcock would approve of. The building has classic Victorian exteriors.  The adjoining library features fireplaces and sofas.  The interior of the theater features well-preserved murals, plaster cherubs, original scenery and paintings.

In fact, the Haskell would not look out of place as a setting for the original film.

Staircases and winding backstage hallways would make an ideal escape route for a Hitchcock villain.  

And Hitchcock would also be pleased to know that the Opera House has been examined by the paranormal investigators.

Lynn Leimer says anyone who has spent time at the Haskell has a ghost story to share.  

(Liemer) "We’re very well aware that there’s a ghost, because we’ll turn off all the lights in the Opera House, get into the parking lot and the lights come back on. Then we have to come back in, turn them off…"

(Charnoff) While the Haskell Opera House is an ideal fit for this production of The 39 Steps, its future is uncertain.

Millions of dollars in endowment money was lost in the economic downturn.

Lynn Leimer says this area of the Northeast Kingdom is already economically struggling, and the theater relies heavily on tourism. 

(Liemer) "If we don’t have the public coming through the door to come and see the shows, then there’s the chance the Opera House could close for awhile."

Leimer says that historically, communities on both sides of the border have been very supportive of the Haskell. 

(Leimer) "I think that’s the wonderful part about the arts.  It’s the meeting ground for everyone.  And that’s why it needs to survive up here."    


(Charnoff) For now, Leimer’s main focus is on thrilling audiences with this latest production. The 39 Steps opens Friday night at the Haskell Opera House, and runs through July 30th.

For VPR Backstage, I’m Neal Charnoff. 





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