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February 07, 2006

The World's a Stage TV: Austinist Interviews dirigo group

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Just because you were highlighted by American Theater Magazine as one of the country’s Hot, Hip, and on the Verge performance companies, or the Austin Chronicle called you Best Theatre for a Fresh Look, or you’ve been nominated for four B. Iden Payne Awards (and counting) – does that mean you can officially resign yourself to the hallowed artistic halls of pretentious slacker-dom?

Apparently not. We wandered over to the Blue Theater this past weekend to check up on the dirigo group and their upcoming production of Carlos Murillo’s A Human Interest Story. To our surprise, we found dirigo group Co-Artistic Director (and director of Human Interest Story), Lowell Bartholomee, up on a ladder, hanging his own lights in preparation for that day’s technical rehearsal. That’s work ethic: hanging lights sucks.

We dragged Lowell away from his work for a little conversation. About halfway through, we were joined by another dirigo group Co-Artistic Director (and actor in "Human Interest Story"), Ellie McBride, which was a nice surprise for us. You’ll find most of that conversation after the jump (although we admit, we didn’t have the work ethic to transcribe all of it – but rest assured you’re getting all the best parts).

We notice a bunch of TVs scattered around an otherwise empty stage.

Austinist: Cool set. What was the inspiration?

Lowell: Well, we were like, you know, it’d be great to follow up something like The Jinn (dirigo group’s last production) with something that doesn’t need a set.

A: Right.

L: This play just doesn’t call for one…but then of course, we thought about it, and we were like, OH WAIT A MINUTE—

A: It doesn’t need one but that doesn’t mean that—

L: We’ve done projections before, but what if we had six of ‘em? (In reference to the TVs)

A: Yeah, so what’s the deal with those TVs – are they gonna move around? Are they part of the show?

L: Yeah…we wanted to take a blank space and create playing areas with them. I also wanted to experiment with using the televisions as lighting units. The play revolves around television news, basically, in a way. I know that sounded kind of boring when it just came out of my mouth.

Austinist laughs.

A: No way, “Action News”? How could that be boring?

L: It revolves around these stories that get shoved on us. So television is definitely a part of it.

A: Cool. So is this a new play?

L: It’s been done twice. It was done in Chicago, and Los Angeles. This new playwright named Carlos Murillo.

A: How did you find him?

L: Well, he met Dan Dietz [actor in Human Interest Story/local playwright] at some sort of writing thing in Seattle, where they went for however many days or weeks, and everybody would start and finish a play, and then stage it.

A: Wow.

L: Dan met Carlos, and while he was up there Carlos started working on [Human Interest Story]. Dan had always really been interested in it – he thought it was right up dirigo’s alley and brought me the script. So I read it, and I mean, everyone who’s read the play is just like…they can’t put it down.

Ellie McBride, dirigo group Co-Artistic Director and actor in A Human Interest Story, comes in.

ELLIE: Hi! I’m Ellie.

A: I’m Jonathon. Good to meet you I was just…

E: Thanks for coming.

A: Thanks for taking the time to hang out and talk. How’s the rehearsal process been going?

E: Really good. Really good.

A: Cool.

L: The thing about this play, it’s just not the usual kind of play. When I first picked it up, part of what was exciting about it, was that I couldn’t think of any way to stage it.

A: Awesome.

L: It seemed like the play resisted – almost like it was written with an attitude that resisted being staged.

E: It totally was, it TOTALLY was.

A: I dare you to try and stage me?

E: Yeah!

L: Well, one of the first lines of dialogue, is “no attempt should be made to stage the following stage directions”.

E: The only thing I get to do the entire play is read stage directions, [for a character] who then, essentially, has two lines – but [the stage directions] go on for four pages!

L: And [the playwright] worked the drama into it – it really does work as dialogue. It’s not like you’re watching a staged reading or something. As a director I’ve had a lot of experience with very natural stuff. Very naturalistic setting, very naturalistic acting. So it was nice to get something where you could step out and do something new.

A: So is it the writing or the actors’ playing style that moves away from naturalism, or realism, or whatever you like to call it?

E: I think a little of both. Because everything that happens in the play is so… “oh my god that can’t be real!” that it’s a challenge to not make it “out there”.

A: Like refuse to connect to it or something?

E: Absolutely, so sometimes we are very much playing against the realism and sometimes we are very much playing into the realism.

A: That’s a fun challenge.

E: It is, and I think it makes a very nice ride for the audience, because it wakes them up a little bit. Something really terrible will happen, and then something funny will come along and kind of wake them up…

Ellie is distracted by a photographer that’s showed up. She leaves our conversation to chat with him for awhile.

A: So was Carlos involved much…you said this was the third—?

L: I’ve been keeping in touch with him here and there, hoping I’m not killing his baby.

A: Sounds like that not in danger of happening.

L: Well in a way it’s kind of scary ‘cause up until now I’ve only directed my plays. I directed a show with Lee Eddy that she wrote, but she was there, so that was very collaborative, and then I’ve directed, like Neil LaBute. This is really this first time that I’ve directed a playwright that I don’t know personally that could possibly show up and see the show. As a playwright myself, that scares the hell out of me because I can’t imagine…what if he shows up and says “what did you do?”

A: So there’s Wayne and Dan – Brenner, sorry I’ve heard that he hates it when people call him Wayne.

L: Brenner, Dan, Heather Hannah, Leigh Anderson Fisher, Michael Mergen

A: There’s some considerable acting girth—

L: We’re packing some heat.

A: Do you guys work together often? I mean obviously Michael and Ellie—

L: Yeah it’s been interesting. I mean, I’ve worked with Ellie before, obviously, we kind of know each other’s ideas before anybody else does. I’ve worked with Michael – he directed me in Pale Idiot, I’ve known him for a few years. Leigh was in a couple of my early plays. And Brenner I’ve known for awhile, but we’ve never really worked together. It was a lot of finding out what they needed, what they respond to better, what was a waste of time as far as direction goes. You don’t want to sit there and keep—

A: Right, the way that you direct might not be the way they work—

L: Right.

A: Their styles are all a little bit different.

L: Yeah. It’s like spinning plates. You need this, and this person needs this…the play backs you up on that though, because it’s not like an A-B-C-D kind of play. It’s made it very easy to direct one on one with people. [The characters] aren’t necessarily inhabiting the same place so you can take two people that are in the exact same scene and talk to them in very different ways, and have them do two completely different things.

A: So everybody’s able to go with their individual acting style, you’re not really trying to get a group thing—

L: Yeah, there’ve been a couple things I’ve worked on as far as trying to shape the character, but I haven’t tried to conform everyone to one way of doing things. I’ve realized that the way I direct is, number one, hire really, really excellent actors.

A: It’s a good first step.

L: And then I just want to see what they bring to it. It’s been interesting I think – Brenner has done a lot of one man shows, he’s done a lot of his own stuff so it’s been interesting like – “you’re not playing you!” Usually when Brenner’s on stage he’s representing that strong personality of his. So this has been like, “this guy does not have your personality.” Really, nothing like you.

A: So where’s it at now?

L: We’re teching today and we open on Friday.

A: Is it complicated technically?

L: Surprisingly not. We’ve certainly done things that have been more strenuous, tech-wise. Video design can be pretty complicated—

A: Did you do that?

L: Yeah, I’m designing…pretty much—

Ellie comes back into the conversation.

E: Everything!

L: I designed the lights, and I designed the sound. I designed the video—

A: At least it’ll be cohesive.

L: Exactly, and if something blows it’s all my fault. Nobody else to blame.

E: Usually the director can get mad at other people when things aren’t done—

L: But I can’t.

A: You could yell at yourself in the mirror.

L: It’s also tricky because when you’re doing all of that stuff it’s like – does this work, I don’t know, I have to see it all together, now that I’ve seen this, I want this now – you can’t just [snaps his fingers and points to the lights] you know.

E: Make that happen!

L: Exactly! So I’ll probably be a little tired on Friday, but it’ll all be worth it.

A: Anything else we should know about the play?

L: The things I like about this play and about a lot of things that [dirigo group] takes on, is that it handles personal politics – as in, human to human politics. In some sense, in the larger scheme of things, it has something to say – like politics with a capital “P” politics – but most of our approach is always on the ground level. We like finding out how things actually affect one individual, or a small group of individuals. When I read this play I thought, yeah, we should do this, because it fits that idea of big things and how they come down and effect –

A: Right, it’s theatre for ninety people – it might not be the appropriate place for broad sweeping political agendas.

E: Right!

L: Yeah.

E: This [topic] is, media of all sorts – music, video, television, internet, and how people are responding to it. There’s a lot of talk about what impact those things have on people. This addresses that, it addresses individual response from having absorbed so much, whether it’s fascination, or the kid who goes off and shoots a bunch of people because they’ve listened to too much violent music or seen too many violent things.

L: It definitely has something to say. Horrible things happen, and we [the media] treat it like its horrible, but we do it eight times in an hour – just to keep reminding you – “we’ll show you some more of this video, not the really horrible stuff but”—

E: Enough to keep you watching.

L: There’s a thing in the show – it’s based on a true event. This government official in some state got caught doing something and he was gonna resign, and he called a press conference and shot himself in the press conference.

A: This actually happened?

L: Yeah, like 15 years ago.

A: That shows my age that I didn’t even know.

L: And, you know, I remember at the time the news would show you almost everything, but it would stop. And they would play that out – and the play actually talks about that. They’d show a little bit more and a little bit more but they’d always stop.

A: Actually teasing the viewers along?

L: Yeah, and this week I’m pulling video pieces and I pulled from ABC News. They come on, and some anchorman got wounded over there. He was doing a standup on a military base – you heard about it—

A: Yeah—

L: An explosion went off. And they come out and go, “he was shooting at the time but we will never, ever, show that” you know, like “we’re better than that”. But this one day they’re like “we’re not gonna show you the whole thing, but this is like five seconds before the explosion goes off!” I love that [the playwright] latched onto that.

A: That sounds like an exciting show. I’m pumped.

Then we thanked each other, shook hands, and, for Lowell and Ellie, it was back to work. Human Interest Story opens this Friday, February 10th at the Blue Theater. Call 371-0554 for tickets, or visit the dirigo group website.

Photo courtesy of taktikal at Stock Exchange.

Posted by Jonathon Morgan in Interview , Theatre

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