Stage Directions: Why Jo Bonney Has Dedicated Her Life to New Dramatic Work

Interview   Stage Directions: Why Jo Bonney Has Dedicated Her Life to New Dramatic Work
 
The two-time Obie-winning director reveals her motivations, mistakes she’s learned from, and what to know about Off-Broadway’s the way she spoke.
Jo Bonney
Jo Bonney Jenny Anderson

“We all had the exact same reaction to the script: As we turned the last page, we basically said to ourselves, ‘I guess I have to do this play,’” says two-time Obie-winning director Jo Bonney of the reaction she, her star Kate del Castillo, her stage manager, and some of her designers reported when they first read the way she spoke. “It wasn’t something that you could read and turn away from.”

Bonney currently directs the new work Off-Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village. In the solo play, written by Isaac Gomez and presented by Audible Theater, del Castillo portrays an actor who performs a work written by a friend dealing with the murders of thousands of women since 1993 in Juárez, Mexico. After the Off-Broadway run, which ends August 16, Audible will release an audio recording of the play.

The_Way_She_Spoke_Minetta_Lane_Theatre_Press_Day_2019_HR
Jo Bonney, Kate del Castillo, and Isaac Gomez Marc J. Franklin

For the last three decades, Bonney has been at the helm of groundbreaking works by renowned writers in New York City, across the United States, and around the world. She won an Obie for Sustained Excellence in Directing both this year and in 1998. She has directed works by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks, Eric Bogosian (her spouse), Tony Award recipient Eve Ensler, David Rabe, Caryl Churchill, Nilo Cruz, Anna Deavere Smith, Lisa Loomer, John Osborne, and Lanford Wilson. She has frequently worked at New York City’s Public Theater, Second Stage, New York Theatre Workshop, Playwrights Horizons, Signature Theatre, The New Group, and Classic Stage Company.

The director is at the forefront of directing new and daring voices. She directed Martyna Majok’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning Cost of Living, both at Williamstown Theater Festival and Off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club. Last fall, she directed Patricia Ione Lloyd’s Eve’s Song at the Public Theater. “I discovered that my role of theatre director was to be of new work, which is what I’ve essentially committed to over the course of my career,” she said. “It allowed me to be part of giving life to stories I really cared about and guide them to a live audience.”

Here, Bonney discusses the way she spoke, her directing career, and her future plans.

Why she became a director:
“I became a director out of discovering that what I was already doing was directing. I come from an art school background, and I was making short videos when I first arrived in New York. I started working with my husband on his theatre pieces—this was back in the 1980s in venues that were not part of the mainstream theatre scene. And Joe Papp, who was always casting around for new talent, heard about the work we were making and invited us into the Public Theater. And although I had never labeled what I did as directing, he would sit and watch us work in the theatre, and he came up to me and basically said at one point that I was a director, that I should be doing more of it, and encouraged me to continue down that path.

“Joe Papp was such a mentor to so many people at that time. Particularly for a young woman at that time—there weren’t many female directors around, and to have his encouragement was a huge thing.”

Her directing principles:
“Probably foremost, if you can call it a principle, is my belief that theatre is a deeply collaborative form of art, and that each collaborator brings a particular skill to the table. Because I primarily work on new plays, I’m usually involved for the first draft often months or even years before a production comes into being. My primary collaborator is the playwright—it’s their imagination that pulls it all [together]. So to give life to that place on the page in as honest and true a form as possible is my guiding principle. I don’t need in the end for an audience to be constantly aware of my presence. I hope that the work onstage is so organic that ultimately the hand of the director is almost invisible.”

In the rehearsal room with an actor:
“I’m married to an actor, so I have enormous admiration for the particular combination of bravery and terrible vulnerability that it takes to step onstage and bring a character to life. Casting for me is a huge part of manifesting my vision for a play. Each actor is cast because they resonate with my vision for the production, and, of course, with the playwright’s vision.

“I really encourage actors to ask their questions, to follow their impulses. I watch, I listen. Each actor has their own particular body language, use of space, a defining language. I like to edit the choices I see until we come to a place where the actors created their characters organically and it’s also in line with my bigger picture for the entire story. The rehearsal room at its best is joyful, it’s focused. It’s demanding and difficult, but my hope is to always build a family out of my cast. Where they have each other’s backs for all those concentrated weeks and months that follow in the theatre.”

A mistake she made she learned from:
“Some scripts I’m sent are fully realized. But usually with new work I get I’ll read a script with the understanding that it’s still a work in progress. But because of falling in love with some characters, or the initial conceit of a story, I make that leap of faith that the play will find its fully realized form before we hit that relentless [production] schedule. Now I’m more vocal in advocating for the nurturing period that a play needs. A new play is a tender thing. I want to really protect it before it’s exposed to the world, exposed to audiences, comments on it. As I continue to work on new plays, [rushing] is one of the mistakes of the past that I hope to be more aware of.”

About the way she spoke:

<i>the way she spoke</i>
the way she spoke

“The piece is written by Isaac Gomez, a Mexican-American playwright, who grew up in El Paso, Texas, a border town, just across the border from Juárez [in Mexico]. I think most people have heard, with no real depth of knowledge, about the history of violence in Juárez, particularly against women. Thousands of young women have disappeared. And the mothers of these women have been very much a presence, a voice in that city, in that country, to find answers to the disappearance of their daughters. The fathers too, of course, but the madres have been a very present force.

“Isaac essentially had always vaguely heard about this but at one point understood that he wanted to understand it more and went down to investigate. And he did his investigation, placing himself in the story. He interviewed a lot of the women, and the piece is his journey to some understanding of what is happening, obviously not just to women in Juárez.

“Isaac’s journey into the story of the women is so honest, just beautiful and painful. It’s a play in which a solo performer plays many roles. And Isaac was very clear in his introduction in the script that the narrator, the actress, should be played by a Mexican or Mexican-American actress. The authenticity of their cultural experience was so crucial to him. And having Kate play these roles, and bring all her talent and experience to the production, has been invaluable. The piece, at its heart, gives voice to the resilience, humor and humanity of the women of Juárez. They are Kate's scene partners.

“We’re in previews now, and an added joy of doing this play is that I’m also seeing an expansion of the usual audience. The play is resonating deeply, and that’s very satisfying. There’s a line in the play, ‘Once you know, you can’t unknow.’ To me, this is a very powerful concept, a driving force in the choice of the stories I tell onstage. How do we tell the stories of our time? How can we amplify the voices that have been muted and ignored in the past? How can we encourage as broad and diverse an audience as possible into the theatre? Isaac’s play really brings all of these elements into play for me.

On working with Audible Theater:
“Theatre is a very ephemeral form, which is one of its joys and curses. It’s a live experience that you catch or miss. With Audible, we can have our cake and eat it. I get to have all the resources and the quality I expect in a production, all my talented designers and crew for the run of the show. And then, at the end of the run we’ll go into a studio and record the play with Kate and with a soundscape that our sound designer, Elisheba Ittoop, has created, and that will then give another life that can travel out to thousands maybe millions of people in its other form. Which is extremely exciting to me. We have the life in the theatre plus we have the life as an Audible play. Like the old-fashioned radio plays that everyone used to gather around the radio to listen to and share, but in this case it will be the listener with their personal experience in their headphones.”

The future:
“What I love to do is new plays, and what I want to do is continue doing new plays. I’m taking some time off to focus on just developing new work and to travel for a bit. The past years I’ve been going from production to production, each with something I love, something I was proud to be part of. But I started worrying that I was functioning in a bottle—breathing the same air, losing some perspective. And I feel like the more we can absorb outside theatre the more we can bring back into it.

“I’ve collaborated with a lot of very experienced, wonderful playwrights, like Suzan-Lori and Lynn. What I’m hoping to do in the future is encourage and also work with all these new voices, with young playwrights that are coming in, like Isaac or like Ione Lloyd, who I just worked with. Or the wonderful young playwright Hilary Bettis, whom I’ll be working with at the Roundabout in the new year, on a piece called 72 Miles to Go . . . [Laura Pels Theatre, February 2020]. I’m developing a new piece with Martyna Majok. What I’m doing is really helping all these new voices get their platform in theatre.”

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