Friday, April 24, 2015

Interview: Eric Tucker of Bedlam

To celebrate Will Shakespeare’s birthday and deathday (which was yesterday, April 23), I got you a gift! Last month I interviewed Eric Tucker, the artistic director of Bedlam, during his company’s rehearsals for a double-staging of Twelfth Night and What You Will. My article got aborted but I didn’t want to waste the work, especially since I found Tucker very insightful about how Shakespeare works. So to celebrate the great playwright’s life and work, here’s an edited transcript of our conversation in March!
Bedlam in What You Will
(photo: Jenny Anderson)
How are rehearsals going?

Not bad, not bad. We have good days and bad days. Sometimes a lot of good stuff comes out and some days we’re nowhere.

Well you’ve bitten off a lot with two versions of Twelfth Night at the same time. How did that idea come about?

We were actually going to do Twelfth Night in rep with The Country Girl, the [Clifford] Odets play. We weren’t able to get the rights though. So I was thinking I wanted to find another play while we were working on Twelfth Night. But you know, in rehearsal you come up with these ideas that could be cool but they don’t fit in the play you’re doing. So then I thought maybe it would be fun to do it two different ways.

How are you approaching each version of the play?

Well they’re both with five actors, the same actors. We go into the rehearsal room every day and we all try a lot of things and talk about it a lot. We don’t plan things out or have anything programmed. It’s a team effort.

So we started approaching it from a place of what the themes of love were that we might pull out from each one. And one was about the trials and tribulations of love and how difficult it can be, but hopefully the message is that it can end up rewarding and exciting and worth it all. And then with the other one, we were looking at it as love being a madhouse or a sickness or disease, and it doesn’t always end up well.

I don’t think that’s exactly where each one is now, several weeks later. Now we’re just figuring out what the language of each one is, what the world is, what the rules are and what each one of them can hold aesthetically. Sometimes we’ll have an idea and think, ‘That’s better for the other version.’ So it’s like a devised piece in many ways. 
Bedlam in Hamlet
(photo: Elizabeth Nichols)
Is that similar to the approach you took for Saint Joan or Hamlet, or last fall with The Seagull and Sense and Sensibility? Did you go in without a plan and instead discovered and experimented? Or is this a new approach?

It depends on the play. With Joan, I had done it in Los Angeles with three actors. It turned out pretty good but there were things I still wasn’t satisfied with. It was very hard with three people. I always knew I wanted to do it again, I loved the play so much. So when I came to New York and formed a company, I thought that would be a good one to start with, just add another person to make life a little easier. But I had a road map of that one already, there was a blueprint for me as a director.

When we added Hamlet, I had directed the play many times, played it once. But I knew basically how I wanted to split the roles up amongst us. I knew that I wanted both plays to be in the same world and be interchangeable in terms of the visuals. But other than that, in terms of how we would tell it, the aesthetic was that we were constantly just experimenting.

And that was what I did in the fall too. I had a vision for what I thought Sense and Sensibility would be. But when things are very actor-driven, you need time to play and experiment. It doesn’t always look like what you think in your head. Or you get surprised by these things you never thought of that the actors are doing. And I like to be open to that.

Do you think there’s something to Shakespeare that allows for that sense of play and exploration that more realistic theater doesn’t have?

I do think Shakespeare allows for that. There’s almost no stage directions, nothing very descriptive other than what’s in the text. There’s so much left to our own imaginations that you can do just about anything with them. Oftentimes that leads to them having a shell put on them, a time and place that gets chosen because maybe the costumes will look cool or—I don’t know, I think if you do something like that with Shakespeare you have to think about what that means for the play in depth. But also there’s such a freedom with that, because you can tell the story in a modern way. I think when they’re done at the speed of thought, when they’re done quickly and economically, then a modern audience still gets it. So you don’t underestimate an audience.

Again, I think it’s just because so much is left for us to decide. If you follow the text and the stage directions are there, but it’s really open to play. You can see five Twelfth Nights a year and get five different types of storytelling. His plays, the stories are so fantastic. There’s so much about human nature and the characters are so three-dimensional that we’re always finding new stuff. I think it was Ben Kingsley said how everyone, whether they’re male or female, has a Hamlet in them, because he’s written so completely and fully. How could we get tired of seeing it? If we’re seeing someone else play it we’re seeing this whole new person.

That leads me to another question. You did Chekhov last fall, which has a sense of realism, a ‘you’ve gotta have a samovar onstage’ type of attitude that doesn’t necessarily fit with Bedlam’s style. What sort of things do you look for in scripts to enable your aesthetic of activity and movement? How do you approach a script that’s rooted in realism?

One is the language. The dialogue. There’s a rhythm to it that’s slightly, I don’t know—it’s like the first time when you read Angels in America or a Stephen Adly Guirgis play. Some people have this gift to write characters that lift off the page and you just see it up there. And those two guys, you can do almost anything with them. We know where they’re set and we know the situation between two people. They might be in an apartment having a fight but that apartment can be anything, you can put it on any stage, bare or not bare.

It’s also definitely plays that you read and think that can only be a play, it couldn’t be a movie. Then you can really get in and have fun with it and give the audience something that can only be gotten in a theater. That’s what I look for, that’s the key, the theatricality. That real gift of language and dialogue is rare. There are a lot of really good plays that are new, but it’s rare to get one that is extraordinary, they don’t come along quite as often—the kind of boldness that Kushner has, or Rajiv Joseph, who wrote Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. There’s just so much magic in them even when they’re highly violent or when the subject matter is dark. That’s hard to come by. So that’s why I go back so often to classics.

Are there any classics that you feel would not mesh with your aesthetic? Do you pull Sophocles off the shelf and say, “I just don’t see how I could stage this?”

No, not really, nothing comes to mind. I get excited to tackle anything. I think when a story’s exciting or I feel like we have the cast for it, I get excited about it. But I can’t think of anything that I would say I don’t think that would mesh at all. For me it comes down to a story that gets me excited, then some sort of image of how I could present it, and then I go.

You mentioned story and you also mentioned language. That’s surprises me simply because the first thing I think of when I think of a Bedlam style is the movement and the use of space. How did you developed that aesthetic?

Early on, when I was in college in Rhode Island, I saw an outdoor production of Midsummer Night’s Dream—in Washington Square Park, I think. And the audience was being led around and we would watch a scene then go somewhere else. I kind of fell in love with that aesthetic for outdoor theater. I started doing that when I went back to college, learning how to move the audience around and keep them involved in a way that wasn’t their average experience in the theater.

Then I went to Trinity Rep for graduate school, and the aesthetic there has always been about the audience and how the actors relate to the audience. It’s always thought out: ‘what will the relationship be for this story? where will we put them and where will we be? and will that change?’ For me, I just kept switching that up. One time I did a Macbeth with everybody on moving risers and we moved them in their seats throughout.

Also, I’d walk into a space and know I have to do this story here, and I’d ask, “How will it fit into the space from corner to corner and wall to wall, not just necessarily up on the stage?” Sometimes I think the space should come first; it’s nice when that can happen, though it’s rare. So the audience feels like they’re in on something from the start, when they come in the doors. Over the years I’ve tried to keep exploring the nature of the audience and the actors, and how we’re in relation to each other. I think that’s at the heart of it.

Taking it back to Shakespeare, how do you conceive of his plays’ relationship to the audience?

What’s great is that it’s already there from the start. These solilioquies were meant to be spoken to the audience, so you’ve got a person just speaking out, asking them questions. There’s also something about the speed at which the scenes come together. Things just go, and I think it should be as seamless as you can make it. In the modern day, people cut a lot of text and then they add a lot of transitions. I do that too, I suppose, but I think it’s nice when you can keep it as seamless as possible. That is part of the relationship to the audience, because you’re keeping them in the story and on their toes.

The great thing about Shakespeare is that you can take one of his plays into the library of a school or you can do it around a campfire or on a Broadway stage or in a warehouse. He says it to us in Henry the 5th: ‘you’re going to have to bring something to this. You have to imagine armies, you have to imagine location.’ And I love that, I love to go and watch people pull something out of thin air. With Shakespeare, his mode of storytelling was to pull things out of thin air. He didn’t have anything but that wooden O. It’s magic, actors have to perform magic. And that’s the stuff that excites theatergoers, because it takes us by surprise.


Bedlam's Twelfth Night and What You Will runs from Mar 13 thru May 2 at 312 W. 36th St.

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