Crossing Camp & Tragedy: Interviewing James Alexander Bond
Director James Alexander Bond recently staged Richmond Triangle Player’s Devil Boys From Beyond and currently his critically acclaimed King Lear will finish its run on July 3rd as the first installment of the 2011 Richmond Shakespeare Festival.
Bond had hopes of going into entertainment law, but changed course and enrolled in the MFA program in directing at the University of California, Davis. Since his Off-Broadway hit The Merry Wives of Windsor was the critic’s pick in the New York Times and Time Out Magazine launched his itinerant career, Bond has spent the last 15 years working on projects across the country.
Honesty and taking audiences on a journey are the key elements for him as a storyteller. He discusses his vision as a director, the interplay between campy gay shows and tragic Shakespeare, and why he seriously needs a nap.
GayRVA: How did your partnership with Richmond Triangle Players and Richmond Shakespeare come to be and how has your relationship with both theaters developed?
James Alexander Bond: My first theater in Virginia was the Virginia Shakespeare Festival and I did The Comedy of Errors for them years ago and I did The Taming of the Shrew for them a few years ago—I want to say 2006. But, every now and then in my career, I’d have shows back to back or days off in between, or I’d have months when I’d just sit and twiddle my thumbs. During those months, I’ll do some sort of mass mailing to companies that appeal to me, and every now and then, I’ll focus on those Shakespeare companies—because I do a lot of Shakespearse. I sent something to Grant Mudge [artistic director of Richmond Shakespeare] and he called me about doing Julius Caesar. Then I came back for Henry IV, Part 1 at Agecroft Hall.
As far as Richmond Triangle Players goes, I had seen a lot of their work down here while doing Richmond Shakespeare. One night at the opening of Take Me Out, they offered me Devil Boys From Beyond. I do not just do Shakespeare, although it seems that way in Richmond. I always prefer always to do what ever I didn’t do last; I really love the genre of Devil Boys so I jumped on it.
As an aside, it’s interesting to hear your thoughts on the gay undertones in Shakespeare. I noticed that in King Lear you emphasized Oswald as a gay character. Was that your intention?
One of the things that is so fascinating about Shakespeare is that depending upon the energies of your actors, they can go in very different directions. To me, there are two obvious different choices for Oswald. If you make Oswald as Goneril’s sex toy, this makes them much more depressing, brooding and dark—this brings certain qualities of the story to life. The other choice is that you make him the gay best friend, which brings other qualities of the story to life. Initially I planned on going with the former and ultimately decided to go with the latter instead—it was really a 50/50, I could have gone either way. Oswald is one of those characters in Shakespeare that is very much often played gay.
Although your King Lear was classically staged, you assembled an ensemble that paid close attention to sexual drives–for me, this was an unfamiliar, yet inventive interpretation. For instance, Regan and The Duke of Cornwall interwove intense physical lust as they terrorized the Earl of Gloucester. How by emphasizing this politics of sex were you moving the characters’ development and retelling the tragedy of King Lear?
[Laughs] Sex is sexy. I don’t know any audience that wouldn’t want it to be there. One of the myths of Shakespeare is that it is high-culture. He was writing just as much for the groundlings who couldn’t read as much as he was writing for the court. To think that Shakespeare is sterile is a huge misconception. I think the sex is there, and again, who ever you cast makes a huge difference. I think I had two sexy people in those roles and you want to use the qualities that they have to draw it out.
Also, I was making a very specific contrast between Goneril and Regan. I’ve seen this show where you can’t really even tell which was which. Well, the biggest way to help with that is with their interactions with their husbands. I gave Goneril a completely sexless marriage and I gave Regan a hot, sexy marriage. That absolutely helped define who they were and it also changed their reasons for wanting to be with Edmund. Goneril wanted to finally have a man, and once Regan loses a man she was really into, her husband, she then had to have a man, Edmund, for the purposes of maintaining power.
But, I do think there’s a lot of sex in Shakespeare. Shakespeare is a playwright who wrote for an audience who was more oral—his plays are meant to be listened to. And after the MTV generation, we have become more visual. So, what you have to do with Shakespeare, for me, is figure out how to take what is happening aurally and make sure the visual is compounding with it so that the message comes across clearly. If you compound with the visual the audience can get the language cleanly and easily—they’ll go with you on the journey, and the journeys in Shakespeare are stunning.
You have directed a variety of Off-Broadway shows. What similarities and differences do you see between the Richmond theater community and Off-Broadway, especially with respect to the collaboration process between yourself and the artistic directors, actors, and designers of each show?
Well, it’s not like there is a style set for regional versus a style set for Off-Broadway. In both cases, you have people who are extremely on the ball, on top of things and who get you everything you want. In both cases, however, you’ll find people who are lazy, behind and you have to work harder than you think you should. There are people who are great at their jobs but there are people who are messes everywhere. [Laughs] If there are differences between the actors that’s my fault, I’m talking about the machines that produce the show. Even in Richmond, I’ve worked with three different companies—Theater Battery Park, Richmond Shakespeare, and Richmond Triangle Players—and there’s an energy that permeates through a theater based on the people who run it. These three theaters gave me extremely different experiences. Likewise, all my Off-Broadway shows gave me extremely different experiences.
Not only are Devil Boys From Beyond and King Lear thematically dissimilar but their theatrical genre is disparate: the first is a farce, while the second is a tragedy. How do you approach these texts differently as a director? Is one genre more stimulating, or more challenging for you then the other?
[Laughs] That’s funny: comedy is always on some level more work. With something that’s dramatic, you can take the time that you want to for a moment and let it take as long or as little as it needs. But with comedy, you have to have the same dramatic arch but have an end at the exact moment to create the rhythm that makes the laugh. As far as the approach to it goes, in both cases I am trying to tell a journey as honestly as possible; the differences are the confines of the world and way things manifest. There’s more mass to a comedy, but really in everything, I figure out what the main character’s journey is, how everyone else supports it and try to make that story as truthful as possible. It’s just a question about what rules do I create around the journey to make that happen.
Even in King Lear you were able to unearth humor very naturally, which is not an easy task. How do you motivate your cast to get better at being authentically funny?
Let me think, everything is case by case. No two actors are alike and I always say “whatever gets you home”. There’s a lot of drilling in comedy, which is why it takes longer. With doing Shakespeare, to get the rhythms of the language that’s a lot of drilling if they don’t come out naturally out of somebody. There’s a difference between a laugh and a joke. A joke is when you’re doing something solely to create a joke and I avoid that because jokes are at the expense of the scene. With a laugh, you’re using what’s in the scene to create something that naturally finds a laugh. If you go for a joke, you may find something funnier in the moment that may be hilarious but after that, it almost always shoots the scene in the foot. I work toward laughs not jokes.
Devil Boys From Beyond speaks to the theme of tolerance. What role do you see theater playing as an agent in the social change process, especially with helping audiences to think about unconventional ideas that they may be uncomfortable with?
That’s such a big question. Some shows yes, some shows no. It’s always nice if it is. Even with King Lear there are things in there that you can think about with the way you deal with your own family. In Devil Boys, there is a message; I did kind of believe the message was tacked in a later draft, but it’s definitely there. Then, again, there are other shows—like the first show I directed was Bent [a show about gays in Nazi Germany]—I was very aware of the message elements, especially to the gay community in 1994. I was aware of the changes happening in the gay community. So picking that play was about the social qualities—I was young, I wanted angst and sturm and drang. Yet, these are not the things that make a story work. If it’s in the script and you tell the story well, those things will find their way to the surface.
Both of your shows that I saw received glowing reviews from local critics, but I’m interested to know how reviews help you to look at your pieces differently from when you did during the rehearsal process?
In truth, I can’t think about what people are going to think about it. Part of my job working with an artistic director is to make sure his or her vision of a theater is being shown, so I do listen to that person and do stick to my gun for things that are important to me if they contradict. Theater is the most collaborative art form…and the outside world will see it as they see it. As far as reviews go, to a degree, there are great ones, but they can’t be the reason why you do it. As far as the ones that aren’t great—and I’ve gotten a few—sometimes you read it and you’re like “yup, you know what that guy is right, that’s exactly what I forgot to put in that scene, that’s exactly what this show needs”. As a freelance director, who’s constantly trying to make connections with new theaters cause that’s the only way to survive, my best tool are the blurbs I can pull out about my productions from the reviews. I, myself, saying King Lear is triumphant means nothing; every director is going to tell you his show is triumphant. But seeing it in print helps me to get work and that’s the importance of reviews to me.
I hear that you are leaving Richmond and won’t be back for quite some time. What new projects await you?
I’ve lived comfortably with the same set of friends for 5 years, who are moving. Most places as I bounce around the country have housing and travel set up so I can get there, live somewhere, have transportation from my home to the theater, and then do my job—none of the theaters in Richmond are set up to do that. So, once my Richmond home packs up it’s more difficult to be there. Who knows what the future foresees. Right now, I am in Maine directing Romeo and Juliet for the inaugural year of MaineStage Shakespeare. Then, for the first time in a long time, I have a break—I have not been home to my apartment in New York for more than four days since before Thanksgiving. So, when I finish with this, I’m going to go home to my own bed, I’m going to sleep in my own sheets, and take a very long nap.
“King Lear” runs through July 3, 2011 at Agecroft Hall as part of the Richmond Shakespeare Festival.For more information or to purchase tickets, visit http://www.richmondshakespeare.com/default.asp. For more information on James Alexander Bond, visit his website: http://nycdirector.com/. Photo credits Eric Dobbs for Richmond Shakespeare, John Maclellan for Richmond Triangle Players.
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
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