For the current production of Bill Cain’s deeply personal How to Write a New Book for the Bible, Ryan Rilette, producing artistic director at Round House Theatre, has moved to the director’s chair for the first time since taking the reins at the Bethesda theatre. The former producing artistic director of Marin Theatre Company in California’s Bay Area and Southern Rep Theatre in New Orleans took over at Round House from Blake Robison in August, 2012.
Rilette oversees the business and artistic sides of the theatre company, now celebrating its 35th anniversary season. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, I Love to Eat, Young Robin Hood, and Glengarry Glen Ross have all garnered critical praise for Round House this season. After How to Write a New Book for the Bible, Rilette’s first season concludes with the DC area premiere of Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw.
The Round House production of How to Write a New Book for the Bible is the east coast premiere of the play and the first time Rilette has directed one of Cain’s plays. At Marin, Rilette presented Cain’s Equivocation and Nine Circles. Rilette shared his thoughts on the play and his working relationship with playwright Bill Cain. But first we asked about his Round House experience so far.
Jeffrey Walker: This play is your Washington-area debut debut and your first at Round House. How does it feel?
Ryan Rilette: It feels great. Being in the rehearsal room, as a director or as an actor, is why I do theatre. It’s why I think anybody who is an artistic director does theatre. You get into it for the art, and then at a certain point you start to do the administrative side of things to essentially pay the bills. It’s not that I don’t love [the administrative side], but directing is why I do this for a living.
And there is such a great community of actors here, that I’ve been so excited to get started. I could not be happier.
Why did you choose this play?
The reason I chose How to Write a New Book of the Bible is because it celebrates to me the most important part of theatre which is human connection. For me, that’s how this fits into our mission statement. Celebrating human connection is what theatre does best, and what this play in particular does better than most.
Especially now, we have become more and more disconnected from each other. We may be connected through technical devices and through social media, and that makes us feel we are at least slightly in touch with people, but that’s not really true connection.
This play is a celebration of family. The play is about taking a long hard look at your family – not just all the good things but the bad things as well. That’s what Bill Cain, the playwright, does in the play, by writing his own family story. Bill is the comedian in his family, and this play is very, very funny And he is inviting us, as an audience, to do the same thing that he did, which is to go back and take a look at the interpersonal relationships, the good and the bad. Bill’s premise is that in doing that, we find God. That’s where you find the divine: in your relationships with each other.
Did you have contact with him during the planning or rehearsal phase?
I have known Bill for a long time. When I was at Marin Theatre, we produced the Bay area premiere of his play Equivocation, and he came out to work on it with us and we got to know him pretty well then. Then we chose his next play, 9 Circles, which was recently done at Forum, in Silver Spring.
It was important for me to have Bill involved in this process. Before it gets to New York and is widely produced across the country, I wanted to make sure that Bill felt like we were doing justice to his family. He and I spent a long time on the phone, we had a lunch together in New York. We didn’t know if he was going to be able to come to rehearsal at all; he is writing for [the Netflix original series] “House of Cards” right now and has a very busy schedule. But he was nice enough to come down and spent three really incredibly intense days with us, during our early weeks of rehearsal. The actors were able to make some incredible, emotional discoveries and did amazing work.
With Bill Cain’s input in mind and your director’s point of view, how did you approach it as a production?
We’re found our own take on each of the characters but we’re also informed that a great deal by what Bill told us about his family. While it is autobiographical, this is a highly theatrical play.
Bill says it’s more of a ritual than a play, and I think that’s true. So a big part of our process was trying to create our own sense of ritual for the performative side of this. It’s two fold: we were trying to understand who this family really was and do justice to that, and, at the same time, creating our own theatrical vocabulary with the designers and the actors so that we could create a very strong, striking ritual for the audience to be involved in.
That ritual concept falls right into the fact that Cain is a Jesuit priest.
The message of the play is to go back and look at your family, but the unique perspective that Bill brings to his own family has to do with the fact that he is also a priest. Bill hides the fact that he’s a priest. Even in the play he talks about the fact that it is the very last thing he tells people; he does not want people to know that. Often when they hear that he is a priest, they treat him very differently.
He wrote himself into the play because he is first and foremost a writer, but he had to admit that he is a priest because it influenced how he looks at his own family. I grew up Catholic and I went to a Jesuit college. Jesuit Ignatian theology is driven by the idea that you can find God in everything. God is not far away from us or removed from our daily lives. God is visible to us and you can find him by taking a close look at your own life.
God is in the details.
Yes. There’s a definition of Jesuit prayer as a long, loving look at the real. Bill says his favorite definition is from the theatre. It is Linda Loman’s line from Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid.” That is basically what Jesuit prayer is, it says pay attention to your life and you will find moments of awe, moments of mystery, and moments of beauty in your own life.
Those are the moments that God is present in your life. I always go come back to the moment I held my children for the first time and the way that I felt about them – more love than I could possibly ever imagine in my life holding those little babies. Bill would say that’s God. I had never thought about it that way before looking at this play.
Bill also says the Bible is not a rule book; the Bible is a story of families. It is, over and over again, different family stories. His point is if God is present in the Abraham and Sarah’s story in the Bible, that means that God is also available to us in our own lives. We just have to look for it and the way we look for it is looking at our own families. That is Bill’s way to write a new book for the Bible.
That is a powerful way of looking at things.
It is a profound idea. There is this deep resonance that runs through the play, yet, on a simple level, it’s about a man taking care of his dying mother and thinking back about everybody involved in his life, all of his family members. I think that’s what lifts it from a personal story to a really universal story.
The way something becomes more universal in its specificity.
Exactly right. And that’s what Bill is trying to do. In the play, the character Bill says the Bible teaches us that you have to pay attention to the details of our life. And in paying attention to the details, you find the universal.
I read some excerpts from the play and in one scene Bill observes to his mother that he never sees her cry. She responded to him, saying that she does cry, but she cries inside “about the good things.”
The whole play is like that. At the beginning of the play, Bill is told his mother has six months to live. At the end of the play, she ends up living past those six months. He spends everyday with her during that period. She’s scared and he moves in with her because there’s no one else to take care of her. At the same time, he was working on his very first screenplay, and he kept a detailed diary of everything that happened during that period. Everything in the play is drawn from the diary.
Does the play cover just the years Bill helped his mother or does it go past that time?
It really goes beyond those years. Bill used the period he lived with his mother to closely examine his entire family story.
And the way the play uses time is more theatrical, correct?
Before we finished casting, Bill said you can’t cast someone who is actually old enough to play the older version of the mother; you have to cast someone who is powerful enough to play the 40 year old and also show the aging later in her life. Bill’s mother was 82 when she died, and our actress, Marybeth Wise, is much younger than that. In the course of the play, you see his mother at 82, but you also see her when she is 40, 60, or 80.
As the brothers, Ray Ficca plays Bill and Danny Gavigan is his older brother. There is a point in the play when Bill says when you write about your family, they often get stuck in time, like his brother. “He will always be my older brother but he will always be in his 20s, no matter how old I get,” that’s the way Bill likes to think of his brother. That’s why, when Bill wrote it, he wrote with a mid-20s guy in mind to play his older brother, and Danny is actually younger than Ray.
It’s a fascinating theatrical construct Bill Cain created for the piece.
You’ve mentioned them a little already, but tell us about your cast.
It is a phenomenal of DC actors; they are a killer team.
I already mentioned Danny Gavigan, who plays Bill’s older brother. He was in our production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo this season and Double Indemnity last year. Mitch Hébert is playing Pete, the father in the show. He has done a number of shows at Round House and just directed Glengarry Glen Ross for us.
Mary Beth Wise is Bill’s mother, and she has performed throughout DC theatre. She also teaches acting, and is an audiobook narrator.
Ray Ficca, who plays Bill, had never done a show here before. Most people are used to seeing him in comedic roles and smaller roles. He is also the artistic director of the Totem Pole Playhouse up in Pennsylvania. The interesting thing is there are moments of profound revelation and moments of serious heartbreak. But it is also incredibly funny, mostly through Bill’s sharp wit. Bill is the comedian in his family, and this play is very, very funny. That was why we used Ray, who is comfortable and charming and was used to talking to audiences and really be funny when necessary. He’s amazing in this.
Closes May 5, 2013
Round House Theatre – Bethesda
4545 East-West Highway
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
I am lucky enough to be working with one person with whom I have worked in the past, who is pretty new to the DC area, like me. Eric Shimelonis is our sound designer. He and I started in New York around the same time. When I was in New Orleans, as artistic director of Southern Rep Theatre, I worked with Eric when I needed a sound designer. He was working on a lot of Off-Broadway shows and was the hottest sound designer out there. We worked on many plays in New Orleans, including the two Katrina plays that I commissioned, and we have a great, great working relationship.
Right as I was moving here, we lost our original sound designer for Bengal Tiger and I got a message that Eric lived here, now. He decided to concentrate on composing. He ended up designing that show and I am really excited that he could do this show with us, as well.
The rest of the team is new to me [as a director] but not new to Round House. The sets are by Dan Conway; he has done tons of stuff here and throughout the area. Dan is an amazing designer and is an associate professor at University of Maryland. Rosemary Pardee, who has probably done more shows as a designer than anybody, is our costume designer. Wooly Mammoth company member Colin K. Bills is doing the lighting design.
This is my first process with all of them and it’s been really exciting to get to know them. And I’m really excited to get to know all the other local designers over the next year or two.
We appreciate your time, Ryan. Do you have any last thoughts on How to Write a New Book for the Bible?
Two things, I think. First, there are different types of audiences, of course. For me, I am the type of audience member that I want to be moved by a play. I want to laugh, I want to cry, I want to take a journey over the course of it and I want to be changed at the end of the play. If you are that kind of audience member, you absolutely need to come see this play. This is the type of play that will have you laughing hysterically one second and then on the verge of tears the next. And you will leave a different person than when you walked in; there is no way for you not to.
That’s not marketing copy: that’s me just talking about my experience being in rehearsals. Every actor in the show would say the same thing. We have all had profound experiences working on this play.
Secondly, the title of the play can sometimes scare people off. People hear the word ‘Bible,’ they think it’s about The Bible and they say “I don’t know … I don’t want to go see a Bible thing.” If there is one thing that I could say to everybody, it would be don’t let the word ‘Bible’ scare you off from coming to see this play. What is important about the play is it’s about family. If you have a family, if you love your family, if you hate your family – it does not matter. Anyone who has a family can benefit from coming and seeing this play, and understand this play and find things in this play that are resonant in their own lives.