A Berry Special Interview with Eric and Andy
Jonathan Berry has been one of Chicago storefront's leading directors for the last few years. After graduating from Northwestern University, he got his start at Mary Arrchie Theatre Company directing Nicky Silver's The Altruists. He has also worked with Steep Theatre and Remy Bumppo, each time receiving more praise than the last. He met with us at a T.G.I. Friday's in Elmhurst to discuss his career, his new play PORT, now onstage for the Griffin Theatre, and his love of the technique for actors called Viewpoints.
Hi Jon and thanks for meeting us in this TGI Fridays. Are you ready for wing dings and things and talking to two dudes?
Boy howdy am I. Seriously. I've been trying for years to get the recipe for the chipotle dipping sauce, and they are like Fort Knox...
Let's start with a question we have all wondered for a while... When people say Jonathan Berry has a face like a basset hound, what does that mean?
Well. I think it refers to my earlier work, where I did the complete works of Ibsen, starring basset hounds. What that actually means, I'm not sure - but the work was effective. Nothing says Nordic depression like the hangdog jowls of a basset hound.
(Eric) Good answer. I used to have a mutt when I was a kid. His name was Bugsy Roach.
I had a dalmation named Muffet. She was sweet, but dumb. We called her the "Sweet dummy" she would lie in the road and sun herself.
Ok, now that's out of the way... Tell us about your new hit show, PORT.
PORT is the Griffin's second outing with British playwright Simon Stephens - Chicago has done the US premier now of 3 of his plays - I've directed two and Robin Witt did "Harper Regan" which apparently did well last year...
I dig him as a writer, as he is writing from the sensibility of someone who has left behind a dying town that he loves, but that offers little for him in the way of opportunity. I guess I relate, being a theater artist from Detroit.
How is the hometown these days? Every pic I see of Detroit looks like a terribly depressing video game.
That seems about right. It's a weird place to go back to - since there is such a dichotomy between the people who are hanging on and doing well, and the people who have lost their jobs - you have these white collar business majors competing for jobs at Costco. It's rough times -
but I also think that there is this pervasive hope that pushes people forward. No one is just throwing in the towel. Simon writes about that hope quite a bit - its one of the things I love about his plays - they seem realistic, and have, at their core, this basic human hope for survival and something better. No one really believes that their lives are worthless.
Except for Bears fans this week.
Right. Except for those guys. And Todd Collins.
Tell us about this cast you have together. I know some of them, they are all pretty young with the exception of John Byrnes. They play characters over the course of many years, yes?
Its hillarious. The kids call him Mr Byrnes and he chases them around with his walking stick yelling release the hounds but there are never any hounds.
Yeah - it spans 13 years - from 1988 - 2002. Caroline Neff, who plays the primary girl Rachael, is in every scene and begins the play as an 11 year old girl and ends it at the age of 24. She never leaves stage, except for intermission - so we see the changes that she goes through as she comes to terms with her family and her situation.
Which sounds like it could be totally crappy - watching adult people behaving like children - but Simon writes them in a way that rings incredibly true and I've been blessed with some really good actors who manage to do it and not be super annoying.
It could have easily become a "Saved by the Bell " - but its not.
You are a company member at the Griffin. What challenges do you run into when you direct for the company you are also a member of, and what are some perks?
I think that the perks are, you enter into the relationship with a lot of trust. Bill Massolia, the artistic director, has known my work since the beginning and trusts that I can direct a play. So he gives me a lot of room to breathe and bring the production in. The harder part comes, just with familiarity. I know how I want to do things, and the organization is willing to let me do them, but sometimes folks step back a bit and just let me handle it.
I (Eric) worked at the Griffin right when I arrived in Chicago under the direction of Rick Barletta. How has the company grown and changed over the years?
Rick was my primary directing mentor when I started pursuing directing, and I learned a ton from him, first as an actor, and then as a director. The big thing being, make sure that the group of people you bring on board is A) of all, talented and B) of all good people. This work is too hard and no one is getting enough money in the off-loop world to work with challenging people you don't like. So I've tried to take that ethos and then also just raise the bar a bit in terms of what we can do with production value and quality. I had the rare opportunity to be working, in my early years, at both the Griffiin and at Steppenwolf, and I felt like there was no reason we couldn't apply some of Steppenwolf's professionalism and artistic benchmarks to the work at the off-loop scene. So I hope that we've done that - a bit of a hybrid.
We just closed on our new building, so it seems like we are now going to take another step towards actually building a real home in the community.
Tell us about where you go to watch theatre, and who are some of your favorite actors and designers working in town.
I am incredibly lucky to have gone through Grad School with Joanie Schultz and Robin Witt and I pretty much love everything they do. So they've directed around, Steep, and A Red Orchid, and Redtwist.
I'm a big fan of Sean Graney's work - at the very least, I will know I'm seeing something that has a very strong point of view and, love it or hate it, it will provoke something in me. I dig Matt Hawkins - thought his Red Noses at Strawdog was pretty great. So its tricky, I think I am generally more drawn to a director than to a theater. Basically, I love finding someone who manages to keep the focus on relationship, on human beings talking to each other and dealing with each other, and then going from there - it can go in a far more theatrical direction, or something more towards realism, but it has to start with people communicating and it doesn't always.
I love to see what really creative people can do with the limitations they are given. Every time I see something at Strawdog, I'm struck by that - how they have 2 nickels to rub together and yet, some designers have made it look like an amazing, complete environment. Heather Gilbert and Sarah Hughey are brilliant at that, in the lighting department. Lee Fiskness just made 24 dimmers at Raven look like 42. There are always ways to make the limitations open up possibilities - I like when a designer helps me do that. Chelsea Warren, as a set designer, is fantastic as that as well...
Let's change the subject to YOUR favorite subject. How are you feeling about Viewpoints lately? I know you take a lot of flak from guys like us, but do you consider it something that can really get to the heart of a production?
I would argue that anyone who has gone through some Viewpoints in a process with me is, I hope, grateful at the end for having gone through it. In the same way that I'm hoping designers open up possibilties - I think viewpoints does that same thing. It brings an ensemble of sometimes strangers together in a very fast and efficient way and gets them thinking a bit more physically about the world. It, for me, diminishes the amount of time it takes actors to get past that polite "can I touch you there?" awkwardness when we start blocking - it just gets us to a point where you can respond to the play a bit more quickly.
And everyone looks better in a unitard. So there's that as well.
I find Unitard to be such an offensive term. Please pass the Sesame Jack Chicken Strips.
(He passes them)
Thanks. Do you ever think that choosing any particular style in the beginning can be hard for actors to deal with? What I mean is, if an actor has his own specific process, and you throw them into viewpoints does it ever cause any contention?
Sure. And I try to be sensitive to that. In Journey's End, I did a half day with them and got a bit of resistance - they really wanted to sit and talk about the play - so I scrapped the Viewpoints plan and we sat around and talked about the history, and the relationships, and got at the connection that way. Generally I try to do both - my first week is split between table work and viewpoints work - so that you can almost always find SOME way in.
Jon, I've got an idea. Let's say you cast me and Eric in a show, and then when you start in with the viewpoints junk, we freak out and tell you that there is NO WAY IN HELL that we are going to blow like leaves in a tree with the wind or whatever, and then you fire us. Then EVERYBODY knows that you aren't playing around when it comes to body movement.
Man. That sounds like a great idea but it totally breeches my blood pact to NEVER NOT EVER NOT IN A MILLION YEARS CAST ANDY AND ERIC IN ANYTHING I EVER DO....
I'm not sure- I'll check the fine print of the blood pact - but I'm not sure I can do that...
(Andy) Man, I can totally understand this, since I have auditioned for you 37 times.
You were really close that last time. You are wearing me down...
I would cast Jon in a story about clowns who go to a funeral.
I would love to do that play. I have been practicing painting tears on my face.
Well, Jonnyboy, thanks for lunch and the great talk, but now Eric and I have to topography back to Chicago.
That's great, because I just ran out of wetnaps to clean off my fingers and I HATE to have to lick them in public - but the chicken was just that good.
You're a director who has a point of view and loves wings. I can respect that...but stop lying about licking things in public.
Sorry. I get carried away. I just really want people to think I'm working class.
Eric and Andy
Eric Roach & Anderson Lawfer are the founders of www.reviewsyoucaniews.blogspot.com
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