New Artistic Director Sets Fresh Course for Local CT Theatre
OnStage Founder & Editor-in-Chief
When thinking about lasting legacies and storied histories of local theatres, I almost immediately think of The Bookfield Theatre for the Arts. Beyond its intimate space, the theatre has been active since 1957 when it moved into its present home.
Now, with this year celebrating its 60th Anniversary, the legacy of this space is primed for another change, under the leadership of their new Artistic Director, Will Jeffries.
While Jeffries is no stranger to local stages, this is the first time he's stepped into a role like this. I had a chance to sit down with him to talk about this new role, its challenges and TBTA's exciting new season which includes masterworks such as Damn Yankees, Frost/Nixon and Martin Sherman's Bent.
CP: Tell me what you're excited about with this season?
WJ: There isn’t anything about this season that doesn’t excite me. It’s a season of fabulous plays, it’s a huge Anniversary season for the Theatre, I’m performing in a new capacity, and I’m getting to know lots of very talented theatre folks who are here for the same reasons I am.
It is a brand new beginning in a way, and I get to help carry the torch that was first lit in Brookfield 60 years ago. Really, what could be more exciting?
CP: Not many local theatres will produce a show like Bent, what made you choose it for this season?
WJ: I moved to New York to pursue an acting career in 1976. I was lucky….by 1977, I had all my union cards, and was making a living as an actor. I saw lots of shows too. But in 1979 I saw BENT on Broadway, with Richard Gere, and it changed what the possibilities that theatre could be for me. It had a visceral impact on so many levels; the story, of course, but in the theatrical sense, the way the story was presented to the audience was breathtaking.
Ten years later, I had moved to Los Angeles, working mostly in TV, and studying with Joan Darling. In her class, along with a terrific young actor, Geoffrey Blake, I did scene work on pieces from BENT. To dig in and play these characters was a profound acting experience.
There are not many plays that have stayed with me so long, or compelled me to see to it that they are produced. I consider myself an actor/director, but I don’t direct as much as I perhaps might, partly because I want to act as much as I can while I’m still able, but also because directing to me is so consuming. It takes me a lot of time. I envy some people their ability to just flit from one directing project to another, several in a year. I don’t seem to have that. It has to be something special for me to devote the time to directing a play. But, I’ve been preparing for years to direct BENT.
CP: It looks like TBTA is poised to get a face-lift soon. Can you tell me about any renovations or improvements you're making to the space itself?
WJ: There are a number of things that we’re looking at doing with the theatre itself. First and foremost, the actual stage is in need of a major overhaul, there are squeaks and weak spots, gaps and bumps, the typical aging stage floor. So, we are aiming before the season starts, to rebrace, level, and lay down a new stage floor suitable for any use we may have, from being a comfortable surface for dancers to being accommodating for rolling scenery.
There is redecorating happening in the Annex, our lobby area, as well, with newly installed carpet, and a new color palette being designed to further its use as an art gallery in conjunction with our shows. Of course, we’re also taking a good look at our lighting and sound systems, as well. We have consultants coming in to help us properly use what equipment we have, and develop a plan of what we may look to evolve toward in the future. Technology, like time, marches on.
CP: How has the transition from actor to artistic director been for you?
WJ: Well, I don’t cease being an actor having taken on the new responsibilities. In fact, it’s probably a good idea to have on the record that in accepting the job as A.D., it was agreed that I would direct at least one show, as well as act in one per season. After all, I’m a seasoned actor with a long professional and non-pro background, it would be nonsensical to prevent me from acting in my home company.
Recognizing, though, that as A.D. I can’t really audition for roles here without at least the appearance of an unfair casting situation, the plan was that I would not audition; I would be precast in a role, in the first season for example, as Nixon in FROST/NIXON, and function as more or less a built in understudy or standby if the need arose. And I would still audition for shows at other theatres.
But as luck would have it, the situation reared its head with our first outing, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, which I had no intention of playing in for all the reasons stated above. In truth, I had my heart set on another role, elsewhere, for which I auditioned, and did not get. Oh well, there are lots of reasons actors don’t get roles, one doesn’t bellyache about it. But when our director for CAT felt she had not seen her Big Daddy except when I was reading with the other actors at callbacks, she asked me to play it. Now, it’s an iconic role in an iconic show, I’m the first to admit. In fact, I thought actors would be lined up to audition for it, but they weren’t.
So I end up in the show. It wasn’t planned, but it still caused some talk, which is unfortunate, but probably inevitable; you can’t please everyone. But let it be known, all roles are open for every show, unless specifically stated otherwise!
CP: What can people expect from TBTA in the future?
WJ: I hope that what people can expect from The Brookfield Theatre for The Arts in the future can be summed up in what I think of as my Mission Statement as Artistic Director:
It is our goal that The Brookfield Theatre for The Arts will maintain itself as a place of artistic excellence; that we will present dramas, comedies, straight and musical productions of the highest artistic and aesthetic standards in all areas, the stories we tell, the performers who tell them, the sets, lights, sound and costumes. We want audiences to know that they are welcome, and that when they share their time and their entertainment dollars with us, they will be the recipients of everything that the theatre has to offer; they will see themselves reflected in the mirror the theatre holds up, as they laugh, cry, and are challenged by our work. We want our theatre to be one where the audiences will come because they know they will be well entertained and moved by truthful, high quality Theatre.
It is also our goal that The Brookfield Theatre for The Arts is a welcoming environment for all the people who come to participate and practice their theatrical craft. We want theatre people to want to be here because when here they will know that their time and contributions are valued. We want them to know that they will be working on projects of merit, excellence and importance. We recognize that as a community theatre, people come with a wide range of goals and experience, and that we endeavor to honor all of those, while striving to do our best theatrical work. We know that for some, rigorous artistic standards are vital, and for others, a collegial and fun atmosphere is the desire, and so we strive to encompass both, armed with the knowledge that it is possible to do great theatre in a collegial way, and that it is far more fun to work on something that is really great!
Auditions for Bent will be held at 7PM on Sun., Jan. 15 & Mon., Jan. 16, 2017 at The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts located on Route 25 (184 Whisconier Rd., Brookfield), just behind the Brookfield Library. Show dates are April 28 - May 13. For more info visit, brookfieldtheatre.org. Photo: TBTA production of Godspell.