Bob Bartlett is a big, friendly, generous guy who easily wraps his arms around every project and everyone. As a friend, I’ve had a front row seat in his life for the last 10 years. I have watched actors readily sign on to be directed by him, and volunteers show up to sweep out a forest so that his show can go on. I have seen his own plays produced. We have shared so many ideas about theatre it’s probable that some his intellectual DNA is carried out on this site. Add to the list that Bob is fearless. A fall off a stage, which confined him to a wheelchair for a while, didn’t stop him from somehow climbing steep stone steps to catch a Rorschach show or from coming to my Fringe production. It was only a temporary redirection, and now his plays and his directorial ideas are wiser and more brilliant than ever.
After seeing his direction of Athol Fugard’s “MASTER HAROLD” … and the boys at Quotidian Theatre, I thought it was time you got to know him.
As a writer, talk about “MASTER HAROLD … and the boys” and Fugard.
My first exposure to the play, I believe, was in the eighties and a PBS (!!!) broadcast of the Broadway production with Zakes Mokae as Sam and Matthew Broderick as Hally. But my first run-in with Fugard was in an undergraduate lit course and Sizewe Banzi Is Dead. I wasn’t studying theatre at the time – I was just your average English major carrying around a tattered copy of Godot in his back pocket.
I finished high school in the early eighties when the world’s frustration with white South Africa and Apartheid was on the rise – so there was a context in America for a play like Sizwe Banzi. But I remember sitting in class and being blown away by this little play about a passbook, about the men required to carry it and their eloquent and passionate argument against it, and about it being worth more than a man’s life. The notion that these actors could come together to tell their stories in such a public way despite the real threat of imprisonment or worse – and actually make a difference – still blows me away. Imagine those first audiences, seeing truly dangerous work, unable to escape just like the lives they were seeing portrayed before them.
In Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona, I found artists whose words cut deeply like the best protest literature has always done.
As a writer, there’s nothing more frightening than writing plays, poems, anything which doesn’t matter. And, here, with MASTER HAROLD – Fugard gives us ninety real-time minutes which matter gravely – and we get to watch and our hearts are broken for it. For the men inside the St. George’s Park Tea Room, the world changes in those ninety minutes – the world outside the Tea Room and the world inside are radically different. And, although he doesn’t know it, Sam has that ninety minutes and only ninety minutes to fight to keep it outside for a bit longer, ninety minutes to try to protect Hally from so much – from his father, from his teachers, and from white South Africa which expects the boy to toe the line.
(And, by the way, I finally got the chance to direct Sizwe Banzi on our Bowie campus a few years ago – and it was a wonderful experience.)
Did you think of contacting Fugard?
This time, no. I directed MASTER HAROLD almost fifteen years ago at an outdoor amphitheatre in the woods of Accokeek – and at that time – well, I wouldn’t have imagined you could do such a thing as contacting a South African playwright. And today, the play is so established and there are so many resources available to a director … but … if I had the chance to talk to him, I’d want to know about the play’s early days and about the real-life spitting incident which remains so shocking to audiences, and if he was concerned about including autobiographical elements in a work of fiction.
I’m not sure what political theatre is or if all theatre is political, as some say – but what better example do we have than Fugard and his deeply personal work which evokes so wonderfully a sense of location, struggle and often desperation.
And in MASTER HAROLD, we see men fighting to love each other despite circumstance, despite seemingly overwhelming obstacles, especially in Sam who Fugard makes wiser than the world outside, and certainly more so than an excitable, arrogant, and foolish teenager confused about his past, future, and just about everything. Sam, a truly good man, chooses the path of wisdom – not a popular one for some of us who’d feel much better if Sam smacked the hell out of Hally, knocking some sense into the kid.
Tell everyone about your cast.
I had seen Jason McIntosh and Theodore Snead performing across the city, loved their work and hoped one day we’d be able to work together. So I invited them to read for the roles of Sam and Willie and I’m happy they were able to work the play into their schedules. For the role of Hally, I was hoping we’d find someone in his twenties who could pass for a sixteen or seventeen year old. I saw my friend Audrey Cefaly’s play last August at the Silver Spring Stage’s annual One-Act Festival. Ben Davis performed that night in a Noel Coward piece and I invited him to read for the role. Hally could easily become a device, an apology, by the end of the play. And I needed an actor who could elicit empathy despite the monstrous things he says and does – and Ben is able to do that. Sam and Willie never give up on him – I didn’t want the audience to either.
Tell us about them and about working with them and Quotidian.
Actors are just about my favorite people – there’s not much I like better than being in a rehearsal room, even if it is filled with toys. We rehearsed in a day care center at a church on 16th Street. Being surrounded by toys – some rather old ones we remembered from our childhoods – was fun and a bit odd. I’m not sure how it impacted our work. Maybe it relaxed us, who knows? But working with the guys was what I expected – fantastic – and I hope it’s the first of many such occasions. The material challenged us and they certainly challenged me in all the right ways.
The last ten pages of this play scared the hell out of me. I delayed working them until about a week and a half from previews hoping for, well … I’m not sure what – maybe some of Sam’s wisdom. The day we finally got on our feet with those pages was stressful – we were all a bit anxious, I think it’s fair to say. It was just me, Jason and Ben in the room and Ben, as you’d expect, was apprehensive about spitting in a man’s face who he’d come to know and like and who towers over him. I think it was Jason who suggested that Ben practice by spitting on a blackboard in the room, so he did. The first time Ben spit in Jason’s face, he hugged him immediately after and I think we were all relieved to have it out of the way. The last few minutes of the play are about as powerful as I’ve experienced in the theatre – and quite moving every night for us and for audiences.
I’ve worked at Quotidian twice before – directing Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Frankie and Johnny – and what I like most about them – they work so hard to ensure nothing gets in the way of a director, of an actor, of the words on the page. And with a play like this, I wanted to get out of Fugard’s way – he’s done so much of the work for us. And in an actor’s capable hands … well, the results are formidable.
The set is amazing – it was designed at Bowie State University?
Right. When Quotidian offered me the job, I asked them about the possibility of involving the University and our students. The set was designed by Bob Gandy, our assistant tech director, and he led undergrads in the build. Quotidian agreed to allow us to preview the production on campus – so we built the set and rehearsed on it for a week and previewed it on the Myers stage, and then we moved into the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.
I was worried we wouldn’t find a period jukebox but I jumped on Craig’s List and was surprised to find several for sale in the area. I contacted a gentleman in Reisterstown selling a 1938 Seeburg Regal jukebox and he agreed to rent it to us for the run. It certainly became the heart of the set, and it illuminates Sam and Willie’s final dance better than we could ever have imagined.
Let’s talk about you. You’ve been writing and directing for how long?
I’m a late-comer to theatre. I guess you could call me a career-changer. I worked in higher ed administration before moving into a faculty position at the University. I’m an alum of Bowie State University – I earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English at BSU. I started directing community theatre about fifteen years ago and writing in the last decade, and slowly took it more and more seriously until I believed I could make a career out of what I had been doing for fun.
And then after a nasty fall from the stage in 2007 which smashed my left leg and left arm and left me in a wheelchair for almost a year, I decided to head to Catholic University for an MFA in playwriting, which I finished in December.
I grew up in the Accokeek area and I’d performed in the eighties at a little outdoor amphitheater at Hard Bargain Farm. You’ve been there and know what a magical place it is – so in the mid-nineties I gathered some friends and helped revamp the Hard Bargain Players, a community theater formed initially in the 1930s by Henry and Alice Ferguson who owned and operated Hard Bargain Farm, and I worked there for about five years. The space is so lovely – the stage is set at the bottom of a naturally-occurring ravine and seats about a hundred.
And we didn’t shy away from tough material – we staged Beckett and Fugard, Caryl Churchill, Sam Shepard. I directed my first August Wilson there – Fences. I love Accokeek and I’d still be there if it weren’t for the commute to work and the price of gas.
Do you think your future will be as a playwright? a director?
I hope both. I have a wonderful job at Bowie State University where I get to work every day with young people who inspire me. And we’re about to occupy a new performing arts center which will have an intimate 400-seat main stage, a 200-seat black box, a recital hall, a movement studio, so I expect my campus life to keep me very busy for the next thirty or so years. I’m a better writer when I’m directing – especially plays like MASTER HAROLD. I leave rehearsal wound up and that energy has to go somewhere. Sometimes it ends up on the page.
Any thoughts of reviving your theatre company or starting a new one?
Well, now that I’m finished school (for the last time!) I’m going to get things going again with AccokeekCreek. We plan to participate in the Capital Fringe Festival again for the first time in a few years. I’ll be directing Fugard’s The Island at a beautiful new gallery, the Lamont Bishop Gallery (which recently opened on 9th street) with my buddy JaBen Early who’s about to perform in Ruined at Arena Stage. And we’re also planning, for AccokeekCreek, a site-specific evening of original, short plays set in a laundromat.
Otherwise, I’m about to go into rehearsals for a sharp new play by Dave Holstein, one of the writers of Showtime’s “Weeds”, called The B-Team for Landless Theatre Company and I’ve got a few new plays I’m working on – one is set in the city on the day of Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination and another concerns Anacostia Flats and the Bonus Army’s march on Washington in the early 1930s. And my play Whales will have a reading in New York City in the fall and Atlanta in the spring thanks to The Alliance Theatre and their Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition.
“MASTER HAROLD”…and the boys runs thru April 17, 2011 at The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD.
Bob Bartlett’s theatre company is Accokeekcreek