Stage Directing: Nick Bowling changed his tune about theater
Nick Bowling doesn't beat around the bush about directing: "I'm all about finding the conflict in a play, that's what I'm all about. It's conflict that generates dramatic energy and drives a play toward its climax."
You're thinking this is one serious theater guy, and he is. But what Bowling's terse self-analysis doesn't reveal is the heart of a director who thinks of himself first and foremost as a child of the great American musical. That's where Bowling, the associate artistic director of TimeLine Theatre, made his start. And asked what sort of play he secretly wishes to get his hands on, he answers in a quick word: Sondheim.
"I was a dancer and choreographer from high school, and my early dreams were all focused on musical theater," says Bowling, who grew up in Sumner, Iowa, and pursued his ambitions through studies at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. But his perspective changed when he came to DePaul University for post-graduate work in directing.
"I'm not sure I was conscious of leaving musicals when I came to DePaul," he says. "I'd taught music and taught dancing, and I knew every musical. So I had a real understanding of that side of it, but not a strong understanding of acting and the bigger picture of directing. I knew instinctively that I needed to leave musical theater in order to come back to it properly."
One thing Bowling would learn about actors is that "they have the most difficult job in the world. They never know what's coming next. It's a life of leaping — on stage and off, between jobs. You never have a clear future in front of you. An actor lives in that immediate place of nothing being for sure.
"I could never live that life. But actors are also open to anything. I love people who open doors, who open up doors in my head. I love nothing more than an actor who comes to me and says, 'What if....?'"
Bowling the music man couldn't possibly have foreseen the doors that would open with his move to DePaul. There he became pals with a group of other theater students and caught their bug for straight drama. This new circle founded TimeLine, which observes its 15th anniversary this season. It was Bowling who served as the new company's first artistic director.
But he very soon went to Court Theatre to work with artistic director Charles Newell, for what would prove to be a second education in the craft of theater and the art of directing.
"Charlie taught me an appreciation of straight theater," says Bowling. "He also gave me one of my hardest and most valuable lessons. After watching a play I directed, he told me, 'I wanted to see more of your imagination on stage.' That was tough to take, like your teacher telling you the most painful thing you've ever heard. But I took it to heart and began to rethink my approach to directing."
Like many others in the theater world, Bowling also continued to bounce around — out to the periphery of the game when, willy-nilly, he ended up with an administrative gig in the corporate world that would last for 10 years. But he continued to direct, and in 2010 made a full re-entry when PJ Powers, artistic director at TimeLine and another of its co-founders, lured him back into the ensemble as associate artistic director.
The range of Bowling's directorial skills have been on view this season at TimeLine from Lee Blessing's two-hander "A Walk in the Woods," about the personal interplay of an American arms negotiator and his Russian counterpart, to John Conroy's more elaborately cast "My Kind of Town," dealing with allegations of torture by Chicago police. If sustaining a play with just two actors looks like a vacation for the director, Bowling counsels a closer look.
"It's like coloring with just two crayons," he says. "How interesting is that? But then you begin to understand the complex possibilities of combining those two colors. At the opposite extreme, with something like 'The Front Page,' a rugged portrait of the newspaper business in the 1920s (which he directed last season at TimeLine), with 16 or 17 men and women on stage, you can feel like a traffic cop just trying to keep people from running into each other. The ideal for me is a cast of six to nine. You get to spend a lot time with everybody."
That's about where he was with the Harvey Fierstein-John Bucchino musical "A Catered Affair" — about a mother's desperate need to mortgage her future on a fancy wedding for her daughter -- this season at Porchlight Theatre.
"'A Catered Affair' reminded me of my roots," says Bowling of this intensely serious play transfigured by a score of operatic emotional resonance. "Grimy plays take a toll on your soul. There's a joy about musicals that still lifts me."
Lawrence B. Johnson
Lawrence B. Johnson is the editor of Chicago On the Aisle
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