For every two or three hats most people wear in the theatre world, Joe Banno wears four or five. Over the last 25 years he has directed over 100 theatre productions, many of them operas and musicals. From 1997-2006 Banno served the artistic director of Source Theatre on 14th Street. He has been prolific in print as well, having written reviews of opera for City Paper and of classical music performances for the Washington Post.
But this month Banno explores another side of his many-faceted self: an ex-little Catholic boy. DC Theatre Scene spoke with Banno by phone about his most recent work directing Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, the 1979 stage comedy by Christopher Durang, with American Century Theatre. (The play opens June 9 at the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington).
Although our focus began on the play, Banno shared some more big news at the outset: After many years in Washington DC, he will be moving to Los Angeles this summer.
Why Los Angeles?
Joe: There are quite a few irons in the fire. I have some projects lined up, directing an indie film and also working on a Shakespeare-based script with another writer. I love it out there, and I have a lot of friends out there. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. So I said, let’s take the leap and see what happens.
DC has always been my artistic home. I’m keeping connections to several theatres here. Later this summer, for instance, I’m directing a production of Julius Caesar at Washington Shakespeare Company. And I look forward to coming back when I can. I don’t think of it as a divorce. It’s more of a bi-coastal relationship.
Tell us about directing Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You with American Century Theatre this month. Why did this play appeal to you so strongly?
When I was talking with ACT about doing some sort of project, we discussed doing some old plays from the 1930s or 1940s. But ACT is also looking to expand into more recent plays that have been neglected, like early Mamet or others from the 1970s and 1980s. Plays by Christopher Durang came up in the conversation, and they said they were interested in exploring those plays. So I mentioned that Sister Mary hasn’t been done around here in a while. I think it’s one of his stronger plays and it’s held up really well. They liked the idea immediately.
I haven’t done any other Durang plays. But I like his work a lot. His sensibility is certainly close to mine. I enjoy his sort of anarchic take on comedy. He manages to skewer a lot of social conventions without getting preachy about it.
I’ve never directed this play before, but I’ve always felt close to it. Having gone to Catholic grade school, Catholic high school, and then Georgetown for my undergrad years… For me, Sister Mary is not just a satire, it has elements of documentary to it. At certain points it paints a pretty accurate picture of the lives of nuns, how they think and speak and teach. At moments it’s uncanny in how accurate it is.
Some people think of this play as controversial, in its take on religion. Where does the laughter come from?
Well, it probably depends in part on whether you’re a Catholic or not. If you do happen to be Catholic, I think the humor is cut with a sort of wince-inducing pain as you recollect moments from your own upbringing at the hands of women like Sister Mary. Really, all the humor derives from what she’s saying. Now, as far as she’s concerned, she is being deadly serious. But the play comes off as so ridiculously doctrinaire. Plus, Durang lets Sister Mary head off on some really great tangents as she talks. It’s just good comedy writing. Durang finds these absurd, dark elements that contrast the neat and tidy catechism. Then at the end of the play, things escalate to a point of craziness that still seems, somehow, a logical extension of her personality, even though it’s out of keeping with what a nun is supposed to be.
It’s all woven together very nicely. For example, there’s a scene where her former students come in and they do a nativity play, written by one of the former students. And you can hear, in the way that it’s written, what this former student must have been like as a fifth-grade girl. There’s an innocence to it, but also a neurotic element to that girl that has gotten into it. There’s a great ironic edge to this nativity play, which has such purity, being done by adults. And it all blows up eventually, inside this neat and tidy world of Catholic school.
Sister Mary is known for being a scary little comedy. The play is chilling. It’s a very naturalistic play that keeps spiraling off into these absurd scenes. But it’s all played very much as real life unfolding, so it’s not done as broad parody. It’s pretty much taken straight and played straight. But still, things keep hitting their logical extremes. So it makes sense in context, but it’s an absolutely crazy story.
Cam Magee is playing Sister Mary in this production. Have you worked with her before?
I’ve worked with Cam a lot in past years. She and I worked together during our Source days. And she’s also a dramaturge, so she has worked on many of the Shakespeare plays I’ve done at Folger and at WSC. We’ve had a long friendship over the years.
She’s onstage the whole time. The play is only about an hour long, but she opens with a long monologue and she is, of course, the catalyst that sparks all the ensuing action. I’m a big fan of shorter plays that can be taken in one big bite.
In terms of the other actors, a couple of them I knew already and hadn’t had a chance to work with, and a couple of them were brand-new to me. They’ve been great. It’s a fun cast.
Cam has actually played Sister Mary before. Robert McNamara directed her in a production at Scena Theatre a while back. She’s done many shows between then and now, and I know she’s happy to revisit this one.
ACT’s website mentions that every performance of Sister Mary includes a post-show discussion. How come?
Well, it’s very common to see Sister Mary get paired with The Actor’s Nightmare, which is a very brief show. It’s great, but it has nothing to do with Sister Mary. I think the two just got paired up early on. Jack Marshall, ACT’s artistic director, felt that it was absurd to do that just for the sake of it. So, no Actor’s Nightmare this time. Instead we’re doing these post-show discussions, to give the audience a little more time with the material. People from different walks of life will be hosting these discussions, a number of whom have had experience in Catholic school as well. It’s a chance for the audience to ask questions, to get another angle on the play. I think it will be interesting.
This play also involves the audience in a unique way. As it’s originally written, Sister Mary comes into a lecture hall and gives her thoughts. But I thought it would be more interesting if she’s doing this in her own classroom. So, the audience is seated at school desks, and Sister Mary walks up and down the rows.
Sounds like some audience members might have flashbacks to Catholic school.
Yes, if you have any buried fears about being close proximity to nuns, they may come back. So, don’t be talking during class or dropping notes on the floor.
I remember, when I was in first grade in Catholic school, our teacher was a nun who took us one day into the boiler room. She pointed to a boiler and said, this is the grinding machine. When children are bad, we put children in here and turn them into ground meat!
Even so, there is some sympathy to be had with Sister Mary. Her thinking has just spiraled into psychosis at some point. So you feel some sympathy toward her even as you also fear for your life at moments.
Do you think the show will have many Catholics in the audience?
I’m sure of it. Active Catholics, recovering Catholics… I mean, the play was written in 1979, so the students in the play who would have had Sister Mary as a teacher would have had her in 1959. We thought about updating the production, but if we did so that would mean the students would have been in school during a very different time in the Catholic church. It wasn’t the same kind of approach at all as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. So, we kept it set when it was. It’s important that Sister Mary is a nun from the old school, so that you really get a look into those days. These days there are fewer nuns teaching in Catholic schools, and not everyone will recognize this kind of person that Sister Mary is. So it will depend on the ages of the people in the audience.
Updating a play to a new period can be difficult, sometimes out of place. Just like you describe.
Yes. I mean, you can’t do Hair set in 2012. It’s such a play of that period. In order to understand it you have to get into the mindset that people were operating in back then. Otherwise it becomes too different a play. That’s what I discovered with Sister Mary.
Although, I do tend to be an inveterate updater. When I do Shakespeare I tend to update the show. I do that to find the contemporary relevance, to find common ground between our era and the era of the play. I also do it often in the opera productions I direct.
So, some plays lend themselves to certain updates.
Yes. It’s interesting that even though Sister Mary is done in the original period, the issues raised include abortion, gay marriage… I mean, it’s pretty much our entire political primary season this year. People were grappling with these issues then, and they crop up as issues now. Here they are all over again. So even keeping it in period, it actually feels like an unusually contemporary and timely play.
Whenever possible I try to engage with these things. My production of Titus Andronicus several years back put focus on the wars in the Middle East. When I set the Scottish play in 1960s Huey Long Louisiana, with all its political corruption, that was right around the time of the contested 2000 George W Bush election. So whenever I can engage with what’s going on, I try to do that.
I find it so interesting that we can see controversial issues in plays that are hundreds of years old. And many of these shows are funny, thought-provoking, and really entertaining at the same time. It’s great.
American Century Theater’s production of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You is onstage June 8 through July 7 at the Gunston Arts Center, Theater 2, 2700 S. Lang Street Arlington, VA .