INTERVIEW WITH BARRINGTON STAGE COMPANY’S JULIANNE BOYD

Julianne BoydNEARLY TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, NOT-FOR-PROFIT THEATRE COMPANY BARRINGTON STAGE COMPANY WAS CREATED IN THE BUCOLIC BERKSHIRE MOUNTAINS OF WESTERN MASSACHUSSETTS.

Now the fastest growing arts venue in Berkshire County, BSC was co-founded by Julianne Boyd “with a three-fold mission: to produce top-notch, compelling work; to develop new plays and musicals; and to find fresh, bold ways of bringing new audiences into the theatre, especially young people.”

Each year, BSC attracts nearly 60,000 patrons to its Pittsfield venues. Some of the most revered work that made its debuts at BSC include the Tony Award winning The 25thAnnual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the acclaimed revival of On The Town that transferred to Broadway in 2014, and the timely play, American Son, now open on the Great White Way.

This week, BSC wraps up its twenty-fourth season with The Glass Menagerie, playing now through Sunday (October 21). Boyd – who serves double duty as BSC’s Artistic Director and director of The Glass Menagerie– reflected on this year’s offerings, teased what’s in store for next year’s milestone quadranscentennial anniversary, discussed her own creative process and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: Looking back at this past season, what were some of the biggest personal highlights for you?

JULIANNE BOYD: Productions of The Cake and The Chinese Lady, as well as our wildly popular production of West Side Story, choreographed by Robert LaFosse.

Which production(s) marked the boldest detour(s) from BSC’s typical offerings?

Probably The Chinese Lady– it was a new play by Lloyd Suh directed by Ralph Peña. It had a very specific aesthetic that was different from any other plays we’ve ever done. The subject matter – that of the first female Chinese immigrant to come to the US –  intrigued our audiences.

You’re wrapping up the season with a new production of the classic The Glass Menagerie. Why is this the perfect play to conclude the season with?

It’s a great American classic that we perform not only for our usual Berkshires/New York/Boston audience, but also for 200 high school students. This play is a great way to introduce serious theater to young people.

The Glass Menagerie

How do you decide which productions you want to direct versus which ones you want to outsource other directors for?

If I have a strong gut reaction to a play, I seriously consider directing it. Then it has to fit into my schedule and allow me time to support the other productions in the season as well.

The Royal Family of Broadway was the first of three world premieres that debuted this season. When I interviewed Will Swenson about the production, he said that he was drawn to it because of the chance to work on something new. From both a curating and directing standpoint, do you prefer working on and presenting new works or revivals? Why or why not?

I love them both but am committed to finding the best new plays and musicals we possibly can. We must look forward in theater – and support writers working today and the ideas that feel they must write about. I love the sense of urgency that many writers have today. It’s tremendously exciting.

This year’s shows tackled lots of very topical issues – including women’s rights (in Typhoid Mary and A Doll’s House, Part 2), gay marriage (in The Cake), immigration (in The Chinese Lady), and racism (in Well Intentioned White People). Did you select these shows as part of a larger narrative structure to comment on what’s going on in the political climate of this country?

Yes, I love producing, and sometimes directing, plays that deal wirh social issues. I love introducing topical issues in dramatic form, getting our audiences involved with those issues and then having lively discussions with them after a performance.

Laura Benanti hit it out of the park when she headlined the 24thAnnual Gala (read my review here). Would you consider this event a success?

A huge success! She is a spectcular performer, multi-talented with wonderful stories, both hilarious and touching. Our audience loved her.

What can you tell me about the plans to celebrate BSC’s landmark 25thanniversary next year?

Ah! Just planning it now. I can’t say too much other than I know we are doing a classic musical and a world premiere musical – and probably the winner of the Burman New Play Contest.

During my interview with A Doll’s House, Part 2 director Joe Calarco, he mentioned that “BSC is like a second artistic home for me” and that “Julie trusts me and always is there to support my vision of a piece.” What’s the process for how you attract/select the talent that is represented across BSC’s stages each summer?

I can’t say specifically. We’ve worked with Pat McCorkle, our casting director, for years. Once the actors and directors and designers are at Barrington Stage, we try to do everything we can to make it feel like their home. We support them (with parties, get-togethers, wonderful housing), listen to any concerns they have and deal with them immediately so they can concentrate on their work at hand and do the very best work they are capable of.

Manhattan Theatre Club will be next to put on The Cake, opening in February 2019. What do you think is it about this play that keeps the demand for productions of it to continue increasing?

The unbelievablly real characters Bekah Brunstetter has created. There are no villains in this piece. Bekah has given a big heart and soul to Della, the lead, who is a character you want to dislike but can’t. Ultimately, you understand why she feels the way she does but don’t agree with her. If only the rest of the country could be as open …

What makes beloved shows like The Glass Menagerie and West Side Story stand the tests of time and stay relevant for contemporary audiences?

The writing is brilliant and the characters are as vivid now as when they were written. We can still identify with these characters and follow their journeys as if they happened yesterday.

Barrington Stage CompanyWhat else can you tease to me about your 2019 season?

A hilarious musical about fracking!

Is there anything else that you’d like to add that we didn’t discuss?

We are thrilled that American Son, a play we commissioned and premiered, is now on Broadway. As The New York Times pointed out this past Sunday, regional theater is really the birthing place of many exciting new plays. Eighteen of the thirty-two new plays and musicals we’ve produced have moved on to New York or around the country!

 

Originally published on PopBytes

TALKING “A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2” WITH DIRECTOR JOE CALARCO

IT’S SAID THAT WHEN ONE DOOR CLOSES, ANOTHER ONE OPENS.

At the end of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic, A Doll’s House, protagonist Nora Helmer decides to (spoiler alert!) leave her husband and children to start a new life. This game-changing examination of gender roles and 19th century marriage was bold, controversial, shocking, and liberating in ways that were never seen on stage before the time of the play’s publication.

The lingering question of where Nora’s journey took her next is now being answered in the new play, A Doll’s House, Part 2. Picking up fifteen years after Nora closed the door of the Helmer house and on her old life, this new play written by Lucas Hnath finds Nora returning to her previous home to finalize her divorce. What ensues is yet another brilliant and poignant exploration of identity and society that expand upon both the world and ideas that Ibsen presented over a century ago.

Now playing through July 28 at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, A Doll’s House, Part 2 is directed by Joe Calarco. I chatted with the director about the show, the timelessness of Nora’s story, the impact of the #MeToo movement on this production, and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: A Doll’s House features one of the most iconic endings of all time. What is it about Nora’s story that makes her such a fascinating character to continue exploring beyond the groundbreaking source material?

JOE CALARCO: Well, Ibsen’s original play was incredibly controversial. When it first premiered in 1879, many were appalled by it, finding it an attack on the institution of marriage. It was forbidden to be performed in London. For the German premiere, the actress playing Nora refused to play the last scene, saying she could not imagine a mother leaving her children. So Ibsen wrote an alternate ending for that production – though he felt doing so was “an abomination.”

The play opens with the stakes already incredibly high. Nora knocks on a door – the same one she walked out of fifteen years prior. Now a successful writer, she has evolved a great deal since the last time she stepped foot in the Helmer house. How challenging is it to maintain this same level of tension throughout the duration of the entire show?

Honestly, that tension is so beautifully written into the play by Lucas Hnath that it wasn’t a challenge at all. The play is a series of two person-sparring sessions between different characters. The tension is there because of the loaded 15-year history all the characters are bringing into those interactions.

What does Obie Award winner Laila Robins bring to her interpretation of Nora that audiences may be surprised by?

I’ve known Laila for a long time. I first saw her in Albee’s Tiny Alice at Second Stage in New York years ago and became determined to work with her. We ended up workshopping the musical Picnic At Hanging Rock by Daniel Zaitchik at Lincoln Center and at the O’Neill Music Theater Conference but we had never done a full production together. The minute I read this play I thought, “Laila has to play this part.” She is always surprising to me. She makes choices most actors don’t think of, so those who know her work will just revel in getting to see her rip into a character that demands so much from any actress playing her, and boy does she meet those demands. If you don’t know her work, then you will have the great joy and thrill of seeing one of the best actresses we have just killing it. She’s as good as it gets.

A Doll's House, Part 2

Although it’s set in the late 19th century, the play remains very topical to contemporary audiences. What is it about this story that makes it so timeless?

It was way ahead of its time when first written in terms of showing a complicated three-dimensional woman who has a clear understanding of self on stage. The box she’s put into in her marriage is suffocating her and she makes a decision she has to make in order to survive – a decision that was considered unforgivable by many when it first premiered well over a hundred years ago. Watching audiences during previews and seeing some people gasp or look shocked at things Nora says is a sad reminder that times have not changed as much as some would like to think they have.

How has this production been influenced and/or shaped by the #MeToo movement?

To me, context is everything in the theater. What is happening in the world allows or forces an audience to hear things differently. The first use of the “me too” phrase was in 2006 by Tarana Burke as part of a campaign to unite and support women of color who had experienced sexual abuse. The phrase did not become widely known about until (surprise surprise) a white woman appropriated the phrase and used it as a hashtag on social media in October of 2017 to draw attention to sexual assault and harassment. The original Broadway production of the play closed in September right before the hashtag became widely used on social media.

I think hearing the play in the current environment ignites an audience in a very immediate way and in different ways, depending on who they are and their feelings about the movement. On opening night when Nora yells, “I don’t need a fucking savior!” some people cheered and I could see others a bit more cold to it, maybe threatened by it. That’s what good theater does— startles, provokes and creates the opportunity for conversation.

Often times, sequels to beloved classics by different authors tend to not be embraced the same way that the original stories are. Why do you think Lucas Hnath’s play has become such a hit?

It’s a damn good play even if you haven’t read the original! It stands on its own as a really good play. But anyone who knows Ibsen’s original has wondered what happened to Nora after she slammed that door and this play allows you to engage with that question.

Is there a specific scene that you’re most excited for audiences to see? If so, which one and why?

Every scene is a tour de force. Each one is almost a three act play unto itself in terms of how they’re structured so I love them all. But I find the Emmy scene the most surprising because I think an audience has its own ideas of how Nora’s absence will have impacted her children. And Nora wonders too, of course. So in that moment when Emmy first appears, the audience is in the exact same place as Nora is – and where Emmy is in her life isn’t at all where Nora expected her to be and I think most audiences have the same response.

What are some of the key takeaways that you hope audience members have after seeing this production?

I know they will be knocked out by the performances and I hope they leave talking about the play and discussing how far we’ve come or not come as a culture in terms of how we view women.

When you were laying out your directorial vision for this production, did you approach it more as a brand new and standalone piece? Or was it more similar to working on a revival since the characters and their backstories are already so well known?

I think the play stands alone as a great piece of writing, but of course our knowledge of Ibsen’s play informs so much of how you view the characters. We read parts of Ibsen’s play in the early days of rehearsal and that was fascinating— to see who Nora was and who she has become— or as Hnath has Nora say about who she was in the marriage “That’s not me. That was a thing I was doing because if I didn’t do it, then you wouldn’t have listened to me about anything that was important to me.”

As the recipient of several Helen Hayes Awards, the Barrymore Award, and the Lucille Lortel Award, along with numerous nominations, what would you consider your signature touch as a director? 

I think I provide a safe rehearsal space for actors to take risks so I hope the plays and musicals I direct always have very raw, honest performances in them. I’m fortunate enough to work with designers who share the same aesthetic as I do and we always challenge each other to up our game. I think visually my shows are always very striking without getting in the way of the performances— the design is always there to support the actors.

How will this production be both similar to and different from last year’s Broadway production?

I actually didn’t see the Broadway production, which I’m happy for. I didn’t have any images to influence me or to have to fight against. I feel very strongly as a member of the directors union, SDC— I sit on the Executive Board— that a director’s work is their work and it should not be replicated without permission. It is a director’s job to bring their own vision to a piece. The script itself demands certain things, but I think our production is even more spare visually than the Broadway production, allowing the actors to carry the play. I think, like on Broadway, the audience will see four master actors tear into a great play.

You’ve worked on many shows at Barrington Stage Company, including Ragtime and The Burnt Part Boys. What is about this specific theater company that makes you keep wanting to work on more projects here in the Berkshires?

Julie [Boyd, Artistic Director of BSC] has always been so supportive of me. BSC is like a second artistic home for me. I’ve gotten to work on new work here both as a director and as a writer and I’ve gotten to re-examine existing work like Ragtimeand Breaking the Code. Julie trusts me and always is there to support my vision of a piece. That’s a gift.

The show has its final bow on July 28. What’s next on your plate? And what are some dream projects you hope to work on in the near future?

I get a little bit of a break, which I’m looking forward to because this is my third show in a row since April and I’m looking forward to letting my brain recharge. I’m a writer as well as a director and I have a new play I’m looking to finish. I’m Director of New Works and Resident Director at Signature Theatre outside of D.C. and I’m directing two shows there next season – the first being Heisenberg starting rehearsals in August. I also write a world premiere one-act play each year for Signature’s education program, Signature in the Schools, so I will be getting started on that soon. I’m looking to expand the play we did last year, 12 Million Footsteps, about the Syrian refugee crisis, into a full length play, which I’m going to develop with some Syrian actors. Another theater in D.C.— 4615 Theatre Company — is producing the world premiere of another play of mine, Separate Rooms, next spring.


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to A Doll’s House, Part 2, now playing at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA through July 28.

Originally published on PopBytes