Interviews with NYC's Indie Theatre Directors
So, you’re in a mine and it collapses. A lot can happen between the moment of collapse and the moment of (maybe?) rescue. How to shine light on that story? Call in Leah Bonvissuto of course! Leah stopped in to tell us a bit about her directing journey, and her latest project. Welcome to DirectorSpeak, Leah!
LB: Thanks, Cat! Excited to contribute to such a great resource for directors.
CP: You are most welcome, and I’m always hopeful that people find these interviews helpful. So, let’s talk about directing, shall we? Ah, directing. It’s such a layered role and can sometimes be a thankless one. But then there’s those times that make it all worthwhile. Tell us about one of those moments that made you decide “directing is for me” and/or that keep you coming back for more.
LB: I directed a production of As You Like It in Greenpoint’s McGoldrick Park — five actors, a costume rack and tons of puppets. There had been some violent incidents in the park leading up to the premiere — stories of teenagers lighting trees on fire and holding dogs hostage (seriously). We were cautious but excited to engage with our anticipated audience — families with children and the older Polish population in the area. One day when we arrived to set up, the “stage” area was filled with teenagers — they had been hanging around during performances the past few nights —
and as they saw us approach they started quoting Shakespeare. We assumed they were making fun of us, but then they started arguing plot points, asking philosophical questions about the play and thanking us for bringing the show to the park: “It’s good for the neighborhood!” A bunch of them stayed to watch the show, and a few even came back a second, third and fourth time. It was gratifying to engage such an unexpected (and enthusiastic) audience!
CP: That sounds terrific. So rare that you can get such immediate feedback from young people. Theatre in a park is certainly a non-traditional space. Your bio says you believe that any platform can be a stage. Can you share another example of when you turned a non-conventional space into a stage and how that illuminated the story in a special way?
LB: The first show I ever directed was Assassins by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman. I didn’t particularly want to direct but I desperately wanted to see that show and the b’way version had just been cancelled so I produced, directed and acted in it. The only space I could afford was a rehearsal studio with strung up lights and curtains over the windows. At our only matinee, when Booth is convincing Oswald to (spoiler alert!) shoot JFK, Oswald parted the curtains at the window and a flood of sunlight filled the room. There was an audible gasp from both audience and actors — it was eerily realistic and brought us all right to the Texas School Book Depository. So, yeah, I believe that the environment is a tool that roots you in the reality of the story and even if that reality is otherworldly or outlandish, it should be explored, questioned and ingrained as a living component of the production. More recently, I co-founded a company, Bespoken — we do one-on-one and small group coaching to help people speak powerfully and purposefully — and I encourage my clients to look for things in the space to help root them in the present moment. Isn’t that always our intention on stage? It’s all the same.
CP: Bespoken sounds fascinating. As a director in a rehearsal hall, I’m pretty confident about how I address my “audience.” But in my other roles as an Artistic Director – networking, smoozing, pitching, I often feel like a jangled mess of nouns and adverbs. I suspect many people in our industry could use this type of help. Do you work with many artists, and do you find this is helpful for them? Heck, maybe artists can get even more out of it, given that we have a foot in that world already?
LB: We work with people in all industries — entrepreneurs, small business owners, creatives, health care professionals — wherever communication is key (which is, yes, everywhere!). No matter the industry, the big takeaway is the benefit of the outside eye. When we are in a room as directors, we understand that role and the process. But when we are walking into an interview or a networking event, something changes and we cannot be as objective. We doubt ourselves because the role is undefined and we feel we have lost our objective. We can all benefit from that outside eye to clarify what impression we are making and to help us understand how to confidently and authentically tell our own story and own the room. At the end of the day, we just help people be themselves, and everyone can benefit from that!
CP: Yes, indeed we can. I’ll check out your site! Your productions seem to travel a lot. I suspect the lessons learned from non-typical venues have helped you adapt productions to new environs. Do you think that’s true? What other ways do you “venue-proof” your productions?
LB: Directing in festivals in New York will do that to you. One of my first productions was an early Brecht musical, A Man’s a Man, in the 2006 FringeNYC. There was a delay in our venue
assignment (they kept telling me they were trying to secure a 200-seat proscenium) and three weeks before we opened we were assigned a teeny-tiny cabaret space with waitstaff in the aisles (and we had a 12-person cast and a 4-piece rock band on stage). It was thrilling to adjust for it — the show just became a clown car — and I realized that limitation can be a pretty powerful creative force. Thankfully, I’ve worked with ridiculously inventive designers who always have resourceful, scrappy solutions!
CP: When you work on conventional stages, do you find them more “confining” from an artistic viewpoint?
LB: I tend not to think of it that way — it’s always about telling the story and using whatever resources are at our disposal to do so (which are often very limited, leading to fun solutions!) — but it does irk me when it seems a director has not considered the space, like when you see a b’way show from the balcony and actors are only playing to the orchestra, etc.
CP: What are your thoughts about the use of production values in story-telling? Can you tell us of a particular time that you found the use of lights, sound, scenery, etc., went a long way to underscore the story for the audience?
LB: I’m a sucker for lighting, I have to say — especially practicals or a well-positioned light to create spatial boundaries. It doesn’t have to be realistic — it just has to tell the audience where we are, and if you give them a clue or two, they will figure it out. When I first saw 39 Steps on b’way it pretty much blew my mind open in terms of creative lighting — they created a moving train with a few chairs, a suitcase, a window pane and lighting. Since then I’ve used it as much as possible and have even cut down considerably on my use of sets. There’s no better example than Butcher Holler, of course, which is lit entirely by headlamp.
CP: Headlamps? Wow. That’s gotta be interesting. But before we get to Butcher, let’s talk about assistantships. You’ve done several – what is the most important thing you got out of doing that?
LB: Watching how other people work is endlessly fascinating, especially because directors rarely see each other work, whereas actors share a room with other actors. There’s something about an outside eye — even the best actors benefit from an external gauge — and the same is true with directing. When you’re in it, like anything, it can be hard to remain objective, so any opportunity to watch from the sidelines is illuminating.
CP: I usually like to ask directors about what it’s like directing in NYC, but I see that you’ve also directed in New Orleans, a place I find fascinating. Perhaps you could speak to both? How they are similar, and how they are different?
LB: New Orleans is pure magic. I can’t speak to it too specifically because I’ve only brought one show down (Butcher Holler), but the energy was just electric. Especially during Fringe, the streets are buzzing with theater-goers, and those theater-goers are from all walks of life and experiences. And the fact that you can drink — everywhere, but especially encouraged in the theater — goes a long way to creating an environment where audiences are excited to not only see the show but talk about it afterward. It allows audiences to feel more involved and there are less perceived “rules.”
CP: Ah, yes, rules can be incredibly confining. And I hear you’ve broken a few with your latest project, Butcher Holler Here We Come. How did you become involved with this show? What drew you to it?
LB: If you’ve never seen an Aztec Economy show, they are unlike anything else — wild, unpredictable, exciting, raw. They wanted an external eye on this particular production and I had been dying to work with them. After the mine collapses, these men expose so much of themselves. Like when life flashes before your eyes before you die, except that the “flash” is stretched to eternity because they have no perception of time or reality. I was immediately drawn to that, how people see things differently when the end is near and also the volatility of the environment itself — decreasing oxygen, food and water and increasing suffocation, withdrawal and sheer terror. Having the audience be a part of that visceral world has led them to be more emotionally invested.
CP: I read that Butcher Holler is an environmental piece. How have audiences reacted to that? Any specific directorial challenges that have come out of it for you?
LB: We wanted the audience to be as immersed as possible — you will feel actors breathe on you, that’s how close you’ll be. With that came many challenges, mostly how to have a show travel while maintaining safety when there are weapons swung and fight scenes galore. The result was an incredibly detailed blocking process and in the 2.5 years that the show has traveled, the actual movement of the piece has not changed one bit. It’s essential that it remains exactly the same for the safety of the audience and the actors and I think that has been a contributing factor in allowing the meat of the story to deepen and grow. Just like how limitations can lead to more creative choices, the actors stay within certain physical bounds but know there is no limit to the depths of the play and that been thrilling to watch.
CP: Can you tell us some “fun fact” about Butcher Holler Here We Come? Something we wouldn’t read about in the press releases?
LB: Five minutes before the end of the show in New Orleans, during the most climactic moment, a girl in the audience fainted. Adam Belvo, who plays K-Bus, looked up at her (she was only a few feet away) and with that his headlamp illuminated her as she collapsed. We stopped the show, of course, and called an ambulance. She was okay and was taken to the hospital for some hydration and rest. The audience was pretty shaken up — everyone was on the street, drinking and talking — and I came out and said, “Who wants to see the end?” They cheered and we piled everyone back into the theater. We started again at the beginning of the scene and finished the last five minutes of the show to a standing ovation. That’s the thing about Butcher Holler — the audience feels so connected to the show because they are forced to be immersed. There’s no seat in the house where you can just be an observer.
CP: Butcher Holler to the rescue! This has been a fascinating interview, Leah. Thanks so much for chatting with me, and best wishes on your directing journey!
LB: Thanks for having me, Cat, and for all you do to support and connect directors!
For more info and tickets to Leah’s next show, please check out their website!