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Roundabout Underground

 

Margot Bordelon, director of TOO HEAVY FOR YOUR POCKET. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? Why did you want to become a theatre director? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you? 

Margot Bordelon: I was born in Everett, Washington, a small city 25 miles north of Seattle. I got my BFA in Theater from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, and then (many years later) an MFA in Directing from the Yale School of Drama. I first started directing when I was a junior in college. I was an acting major and auditioned to participate in the Original Works track offered by my program, which meant I took playwriting and directing courses in addition to my core acting classes. I was originally interested in being an actor/playwright, but I discovered directing and loved it. I liked having a hand in every aspect of a production. When you direct, you get to work in multiple mediums at once – acting, dance, music, design. I’ve found this deeply satisfying. My mentor at Cornish was a brilliant director named Sheila Daniels. She first introduced me to Viewpoints and techniques for devising original work. She opened my eyes to the power of expressive rather than literal staging. There are exercises she taught me that I still use in my rehearsal processes. Her impact on my development as an artist is immeasurable.

 

TS: Why did you choose to direct Jiréh Breon Holder's play, Too Heavy for Your Pocket? What do you think this play is about?

 MB: In 2016 Jiréh and I collaborated on his Yale thesis production, Some Bodies Travel, and we had a blast together. When he sent me Too Heavy, I instantly fell in love with it. I find his voice, poetry, politics, and imagination incredibly compelling. He is truly the real deal -- in addition to being a generous collaborator.  For me, Too Heavy is a play about family, community, faith, struggle, and ultimately about personal responsibility. One of the most important questions I think this play asks is: where does our responsibility lie? When injustice thrives all around us, do we invest further in our friends and family? Or do we fight for change on a national scale? Do we have a bigger responsibility to our immediate community, or to society at large? And what does it mean to contribute when you’re without a financial safety net? What is the personal cost of progress?

 

TS: How are you collaborating with your design team -- can you give us a sense of how your production will manifest visually? Do you see the play as written in the style of magic realism? Will there be original music?

MB: One of the first stage directions in the play is “grass everywhere, even indoors.” Our wonderful scenic designer Reid Thompson and I want to explore this idea fully by turning the Underground space into an installation of sorts. Grass throughout the entire space, with the images of trees and nature surrounding the audience. The script says that the audience should feel like guests, and that’s what we’re attempting to do—create a space that is fully inhabited by our characters that we invite the audience into. I think of the play as poetic naturalism. There are aspects of the piece that are fully naturalistic (like Sally cooking a meal), but the transitions and moments of song live in a more poetic realm. Ultimately, we’re hoping to create a poetic space with the set design; costumes that realistically ground us in 1961 and lights and sound that function both realistically as well as poetically. And yes—some original music!

 

TS: Will you give us some insight into your process as a director? What kind of research did you have to do in order to direct this play? How will you use rehearsal time on this particular show? 

MB: I’ve gotten such an education researching this show. Of course, I’ve done extensive reading about the Freedom Riders and about the Civil Rights movement as a whole, and it’s rich, compelling, topical material. I’ve also gotten very specific about Nashville history, Fisk University, the role of the church, and life in the U.S. in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But the subject matter of the play extends well beyond all of this. This is a history piece written for a contemporary audience. Jiréh was as influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement as the Civil Rights Movement. We’ll spend the first few days at the table naming the facts the play offers us both about time period and character. I like to begin from a place where we’re all approaching the play objectively before we begin getting subjective. We’ll share information about the world of the play culled from our individual research. With this piece, it’s essential to ground ourselves historically in the place and time. Then the actors will create character biographies based on the facts of the play, their research, and their imaginations. We’ll spend some time on our feet doing movement based ensemble-building exercises and character work. And then we’ll dive into scene work.

The cast of TOO HEAVY FOR YOUR POCKET. Photo by Jenny Andrson

TS: How do you collaborate with a writer on a new work? Do you expect there to be any rewriting during the rehearsal and preview periods? How involved are you in the rewriting process on a new work? 

MB: Long before rehearsals begin, I read multiple drafts of the script and go back and forth with a writer offering questions and thoughts. Too Heavy has gone through a variety of drafts since Jiréh and I started working on it over a year ago, and it’s been a joy to watch it grow and change. We worked on it at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta last winter, and that allowed us to see scenes and moments that really landed as well as those that could be further clarified. A new play is an ever-evolving organism, and I’m certain the play will undergo more changes once we’re in the room with actors. They will bring experiences and perspectives to the piece that will most certainly affect it.

 

TS: I’m curious how you understand the relationship of the two couples to each other and how the men and women relate to each other in this play? It seems to me both couples (Bowzie and Evelyn, and Tony and Sally) are symbiotic -- would you agree? 

MB: Absolutely. The foursome in this play is incredibly tightknit. Bowzie and Sally have known each other since they were small children, and Bowzie and Tony have known each other since they were teenagers. They have grown up together—they are family.  They are an interdependent community and (spoiler alert!) when Bowzie leaves, their ecosystem is thrown into a dangerous imbalance.

Eboni Flowers and Brandon Gill in rehearsal for TOO HEAVY FOR YOUR POCKET. Photo by Jenny Anderson

TS: What traits did you need in casting the actors for the four roles in Too Heavy for Your Pocket?

MB: With all four characters, we looked for actors who had incredible heart, wonderful senses of humor, and deep wells of emotional availability. It’s a true ensemble show, and so it was essential that we find collaborators that are dedicated to team playing, while also being forces of nature in and of themselves.

 

TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist? Do you have any advice for young people who say they want to direct? 

MB: I’m a firm believer in Stella Adler’s philosophy that your growth as an artist is synonymous with your growth as a human being. I love going to see plays, but I also love reading, and watching films and television, going to museums, protesting, seeing live music, and spending time in nature. I’ve recently begun meditating, and that’s been helping me stay inspired while finding balance. My advice to young directors is that, in addition to producing and directing your own work as much as possible, spend time acting and writing. It’s invaluable to have experience being on the other side of the table. Try to learn on a visceral level about your own expectations and what you’re asking of others.


Too Heavy For Your Pocket begins performances at The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/ Black Box Theatre on September 15, 2017. For tickets and information, please visit our website


Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, A Conversation with, Roundabout Underground, Too Heavy for Your Pocket


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On The Exhale: Designer Statements

Posted on: March 29th, 2017 by Roundabout

 

Set model for ON THE EXHALE.

Rachel Hauck—Set Design
On The Exhale could be set anywhere, Martín does not specify a location. Leigh, Martín, Marin and I had some long conversations about what the liminal space might be from which of our character would tell this tricky, dark, terrifying tale. It was important to make the journey for the character possible, but it was equally important that the audience be caught in the world with this character, that the people hearing this would not be safe on the other side of the fourth wall, as it were.   We have chosen to set it in a highly psychological environment. From the moment the audience enters, this is never a comfortable room. The environment begins charged, it is a place of tension which only increases as the story unfolds. It’s also a very neutral world, the quality of which can change radically with lights and sound and, of course, with Marin’s remarkable performance. I suppose I would call this an aggressively minimal environment. There is nowhere to hide, no stool, no glass of water. The character is pined between two planes. These planes could be the hallway at the school where she teaches, the walls of her home, they could be the barrel of a gun. What these planes represent will be different for everyone who watches this play. We also chose to soften the walls of the theater itself to make them a little harder to define, to create a void within which we are all a bit trapped together. The thing about this story and the way that Martín tells it, is that though none of us imagine we could be in her shoes, this could not happen to us. But, of course, it could.

Marin Ireland in ON THE EXHALE. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Jennifer Schriever—Lighting Design
When I read On The Exhale for the first time, I was a sleep deprived new parent (I still am), feeding my 4-week-old son, Henry. I’d happily spent the 4 weeks since his birth ignoring the heart shattering woes of the world and simply basking in the perfect newness of his gentle being.  This was the first new script I’d read since he was born and I was eager to dive into another world, what I wasn’t expecting was a sucker punch to the gut, and an instant instinctual emotional release.  The experience I had reading the script for the first time is a journey I hope I’m able to support visually through lighting.  Rachel’s set has a focused straightforwardness that I think encompasses the world of this story in a sort of abstract beauty.  It is an island, an abyss.  It allows us to be comfortably delivered into a void of our worst fears, and then having to redefine everything we used to know.  Instead of literally describing the various locations visually, we’re supporting a deep emotional journey.  The lighting may describe the familiar as a comforting haven or sometimes an inescapable prison.  It might be freeing or constricting, immediate and bright, or floating in a vast expanse.   I hope the lighting will be able to deliver us visually- from familiarity, to chasm, to surreal discovery, and then perhaps catharsis.

Bart Fasbender—Sound Design
Before reading the script, all I knew of On The Exhale was that it was a one woman show that Leigh Silverman was directing. Working with Leigh is always a great experience and our last show together, Neil LaBute's All The Ways To Say I Love You at MCC, also a one woman show, was no exception, so I was psyched. The first read through of a script for me, I try not to “hear” too much in my head because I don't want to get too many strong ideas before meeting with a director to discuss her concept. In his production notes at the beginning of his script, Martín Zimmerman instructed “metaphoric sound” as a must. So I did have that in mind as I started. There are no scenes, no transitions, no grounded locations that need to be established in order to convey story; the words alone take care of that. It became clear that my sound design would need to have a light touch and stay out of the way of the words, not lock in any specific emotion, time or location. I was thinking of wind. Not like a blustery cold wind, more a wind that you don't know you feel unless you focus on it. It's there, it's part of the environment, you sense it subconsciously but you don't notice it...unless it becomes completely still. I'll consider it a job well done if no one knows.


On the Exhale is now playing at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, On the Exhale, Roundabout Underground, Upstage


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Martín Zimmerman

Ted Sod: Please give us some background information on yourself: Where were you born and educated? When did you decide to become a playwright?
Martín Zimmerman: I was born in Maryland outside of Washington, D.C. and grew up in a bilingual household. My mother is an immigrant from Argentina and my father is from Baltimore, so I grew up speaking both Spanish and English. Also, the D.C. area is an incredibly diverse area with residents from all over the globe,whether they are refugees or people who work for foreign governments or global nonprofits, so I had friends from literally all over the globe. This is something I suppose I took for granted at the time, but now I understand was a tremendous gift and has informed a lot of my thinking and artistry. I became interested in acting and theatre very late in high school, but when I became interested, I became very interested. I went to undergrad at Duke University, where I studied both economics and theatre. I dabbled in writing a little bit very early in undergrad and then I acted in a new play festival at Duke my freshman year, and I think that that turned me on to the idea of writing plays. So I very aggressively embraced playwriting as an undergrad and wrote a ton and was very fortunate to get several of my plays staged during that time. I went straight from Duke to graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin — so I also have an MFA in playwriting.

TS: Since you studied theatre and economics, it sounds like you have both sides of your brain working.
MZ: Yes, and I also think that the economics degree helps inform my understanding of how people are shaped by circumstances. I think economics – and all the social sciences — can illuminate how social forces shape people. That informs my thinking as a writer politically as well; how social forces interact with an individual’s psychology to shape the way they behave. Obviously, my mom being an immigrant has also informed the politics of my writing. By that I mean I also try to think globally, cross-culturally in much of my writing.

TS: Will you tell us what inspired you to write On the Exhale? Can you talk about your process writing it?
MZ: The initial spark for the play came in the aftermath of the Newtown Sandy Hook shooting and seeing how even something as horrific as that wasn’t going to move our national government to take meaningful action on gun control. My frustration and deep anger about that was the seed for the play. Once I have the spark of an idea, I’m always immediately thinking about how the form of that play can be tightly bound to the content of the story I’m telling. I’ve long been fascinated with the act of firing a weapon and how it is a very aggressive act, but how, to do it well, you need to be incredibly calm, centered, focused. It can be a meditative experience if you do it very well — I’ve long been fascinated by that paradox. I think that those two things — my anger about gun violence and my fascination with the psychological experience of firing a weapon — converged in my mind. I knew that because the act of firing a weapon is so solitary I wanted the play to be one woman alone onstage in order to replicate that experience. I knew that pretty early on. And, because I knew it would be a one-woman play, the act of writing this piece was very much about being still and trying to live in this woman’s experience moment to moment. Then, as I was actually writing the play, the play became as much about that initial impulse as about how grief can isolate you — especially when you feel unable to grieve with a community. The writing process became about how that tunnel vision of grief can warp the psyche.

Marin Ireland in ON THE EXHALE. Photo by Joan Marcus.

TS: Why did you choose not to name the woman who the play is about?
MZ: In a lot of my writing I try to embrace a theatrical world that allows many different people to identify with what’s happening onstage. I want to give just the right amount of specificity to make the world of the play and the characters vivid, but at the same time, I don’t want to give extraneous detail that could shut people out of the world of the play. I feel like too much detail could put a barrier between the character and the audience. I’ve had a number of readings of the play, and at each one people think that the play takes place in many different geographical locations within the United States. Often, audiences see the town that they live in. I tried to make the play open-ended enough so that the play can contain multiple interpretations and can speak to people in different places.

TS: What kind of research did you have to do?
MZ: I certainly did some research for this play in particular, but a lot of specific research that I did for other plays also informed the writing of this play. I worked on a play for a while that was about soldiers in combat in the Iraq War, and a vital part of that play was about the emotional impact of firing weapons. For another commissioned play I’m currently working on, I have done a lot of research about trauma and how it impacts the body and the mind — that research was especially helpful in writing this.

TS: How did you deal with writing about the grief of this character? Is that something that you had to explore for yourself?
MZ: I’ve certainly experienced grief in my life. Most people have. But seeing how people around me respond to deep grief had a greater impact on how I wrote this play than did my own personal experiences of grief. It’s important when you’re writing a character who is grieving to remember the dramatic fundamentals. I think those fundamentals serve you very well. They force you to constantly remember what the character is trying to accomplish. She is intentional. When a lot of people try to portray grief they will depict a character who is stuck in emotion and not moving with any kind of intention or motivation. This character is intentional and motivated, but grief keeps her from thinking strategically, from thinking in the long term. She’s merely following whatever impulse happens to seize her in that moment. That’s how her grief shapes her. When trying to write a character who is grieving, it’s vital to remember that no one can live forever with such massive emotion weighing down on them. Their body would shut down after a while. One of the shocking things about the body is how people are able to assimilate things into their experience and genuinely function after a while. They may function differently, but they do function. Grief can surge up unexpectedly at any moment, but that doesn’t mean someone who is grieving is always consciously aware of their grief. It more subtly tweaks the way that person navigates the world.

TS: Did you always know On the Exhale was going to be a play with one actor or did that idea present itself during the writing process? What are the challenges of doing that? What excites you about it?
MZ: I knew from the beginning it would be a one-woman because of the solitary nature of firing a weapon and also because of how being a victim of violence can make you feel isolated, alone. It’s hard to write a one-woman play in the sense that I really had to be inside this woman’s head. As for the challenges of writing a play with one character, once you’ve done that heavy lifting, the act of putting words on the page will flow more easily. You’re just inside her experience. You don’t have to constantly change your way of thinking while writing. Whereas when you’re dealing with different characters, you’re thinking, okay, well this is how this person sees the world, this is how they would behave, and you’re having to leap from one character’s experience to the next. We haven’t entered rehearsals yet, but one of the things I find exciting about doing a solo play is that it is a much more intimate process. I think everyone is in greater communication because everyone is so vital to the process. It allows every collaborator to be really attentive to everyone else in the room, and that is really exciting to me.

TS: Will you talk us through the development process for On the Exhale? How much rewriting did you do?
MZ: The initial spark happened in January or February of 2014. Then I got my first job in TV that March. I knew I wanted to focus on that job while I was in the writers’ room, so I just let the idea percolate in my subconscious. Once I was on hiatus from that job, I knew I wanted to write a new play right away. It was very important to me to maintain my practice as a playwright. So I wrote the first draft in the Fall of 2014. Then I had an in-house workshop at Goodman Theatre during the spring of 2015, and then I had a public reading there in November of 2015. I had a reading at Roundabout Underground in February 2016 and a reading at the Ojai Playwrights Conference this past August. I had another reading at the Alley Theatre in September. Readings are a shorter process in terms of working on things, and there isn’t a ton of rewriting — it’s about gauging the audience reaction and assessing what you’ve learned about the play afterwards. I made the most substantial revisions during those first two workshops at the Goodman, and the workshop at the Ojai Playwrights Conference was more about trying to determine how the play will function theatrically. But I’m always open to rewriting.

Martín Zimmerman

TS: What do you look for when you collaborate with a director?
MZ: I look for people who are humane collaborators, who are very attentive to everyone in the process. Directors who can work with different aesthetics. As a writer, I try not to live in the same aesthetic world, I try to do very different things from play to play, so working with directors who can do the same is very important to me. I also look for directors who understand what makes theatre unique as an art form and know how to exploit the unique advantages of liveness.

TS: What qualities does the actress need to play this role?
MZ: Tremendous confidence. The character is very self-assured, and she has a great strength — she does so much by herself. She’s very independent. You need to have an actor whose instinct is not to lean into the emotion — that’s a great temptation when portraying grief. Part of the strength of this character is the self-assuredness to say, “No, there are parts of my emotional life that you don’t get. They’re just mine.” I think that’s a very important quality. From a technical standpoint, an actor playing this role needs the ability to really shape text — shape it classically — as you would have to do in playing Shakespeare.

TS: What advice do you have for a young person who wants to write for the theatre?
MZ: Writers often get told to start from a place of writing what they know. That’s something I haven’t actually done. To me the writing process has been about finding stories I can viscerally identify with that are also in some way outside of my personal experience. This approach then forces me to research rigorously, which helps keep my writing specific. I think it is important to try and tell stories that are alien to your experience. It’s a scary thing to do — I won’t deny it — but I think it’s good to be scared. I think you should embrace that terror, use it to motivate yourself to be incredibly specific in your research, to be humane and gentle in how you represent characters. Writing plays in order to step outside yourself and learn is a way to sustain a lifelong practice.


On the Exhale is now playing at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, On the Exhale, Roundabout Underground, Upstage


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