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Ten Minutes with The Last Five Years director

By Beck Holden

Section: Arts

December 1, 2006

With the Free Play Theatre Cooperative's production of The Last Five Years set to open tonight in Spingolds Laurie Theater, director Justin Becker 09 took a few minutes before Thanksgiving to talk about the production with The Hoot.

Hoot: I believe I asked you this question when I was readying the Free Play preview piece in September, but what drew you to directing this play at this moment?

Justin Becker: My answer has probably changed;

I hope so, at least. I didnt initially get to choose this play. I was asked to direct it. Well, first I was asked to be in it, then asked to direct it. The reason why I accepted would be, foremost, the music of the play. Its incredible. Im also understanding more in-depth the material, the reasoning of the show, the flow of it. The little nuances of it are great, how the voices connect with the instrument parts now that were working with instruments, seeing the process of them coming together, seeing the characters unfold from nothing and finally shape into a person. I guess, more of the process of this show than the actual show itself is what I was interested in.

Hoot: Could you tell us a little about what the play is about, either in terms of what happens on stage or in terms of the plays deeper meaning?

JB: There is a deeper meaning and its something that holds true to me, but I dont know who else this would hold true to, so Ill leave that for the audience to delve into for themselves. I guess a brief synopsis of what you will see in the show would be a relationship in struggle, a conflict between two clearly distinct individuals who decide to take on different solutions to problems that they find. Its watching a male and a female struggle, too, and watching the dichotomy between the two sexes, because there are some gender-specific characteristics of each role to make it more of a universal ideal. More of trying not to judge from either side, not saying, Oh, hes a male, of course he would do that, or, Oh, shes a female, of course she would do that, or react in this or that way, but rather more of a universal view of human nature, of two people in a relationship. I could have done this show male-male or female-female with a few snipping of hes and shes. Its a matter of throwing those aside and just seeing two sides of a relationship that you can intimately see and notice that if you bring that into yourself, if you look into yourself and stop looking at the faults of the other person, blaming the other person, and maybe actually communicate with yourself on whats going on, communicate properly with the other person, then maybe youll find that its not about finding the wrongs in a relationship;

thats what goes wrong now. And Ive now gotten into the deeper meaning of the play, but oh well. Its more about the communication between the man and the woman in this relationship in general, but we see that faltering in all relationships now. Marriages now end in divorce 50% of the time. Unsuccessful marriages, I should say, 50% of the time, because we are a society that blames others. We are a society that doesnt look upon ourselves and doesnt view things in our light. We tend to focus on the others, we tend to focus on taking blame off ourselves because thats how our lives continue forward. Were that not the case, Im sure many people wouldnt be in positions that they are now. Enron, Martha Stewart It can be taken out of the context of a relationship and seen as a moment of communication and blame that, I guess, is something that expands throughout American cultural value. It would be interesting to see this play done in another culture, maybe an East Asian culture, see how its taken and if its taken in the proper way.

Hoot: This is the smallest cast show Ive interviewed anyone for about this semester, with only two characters. Could you talk a little about working with such a small cast?

JB: A small cast might seem like the easiest of easy things to deal with;

however, I find it very difficult. Its easy scheduling-wise. Thats about it. Youre dealing with people who might get tired easily, youre dealing with people whose attitudes might change in an instant, and you have to deal with that throughout the rehearsal process. You cant go, Okay, lets put this piece down for a second, move on to someone else, give that person time to relax. You have to work them through. At some points, you can put a piece down and go on to the next character, but there are only two, so they could both be tired at the same time. Its a very demanding show. Very demanding show. All vocal, about an hour and a half of all vocals. Its very intense, and its all at the top of their ranges, so their voices get tired. Thats another aspect I have to deal with, I can only run their numbers so many times before their voices are shot, and once their voices are shot, its hard for them to continue forward. We can go through the songs and speak through them, but it doesnt give the same value that we need, because there are specific rhythms set in the show. That was already created for us, so thats another obstacle. Its nice in the fact that their attention doesnt wander. In a group thing, it can be more social. If I had a chorus to work with, that can go either way. They may look at each other and see one person not going full out, so the next person doesnt go full out, then the next person doesnt go full out, and its like the bystander effect. My two actors know that theyre the show 100% of the time, so theyve been pretty good about giving me energy 100% of the time. Its been a relatively smooth process most of the time. Of course weve hit bumps, but thats with any cast. Its quite an interesting dynamic having only two people too, because you dont get the different energies from this conglomeration of people. And its not just that there are only two people in this show, but theyre doing songs that are monologues. That cuts the dialogue between people and the connection between people, so they have to create the dialogue within themselves, create the connection within themselves. A lot of times, that makes it very difficult for me to explain what kind of connection they need to have. Thats one of the hard concepts Im working with now, and I think that its been a learning experience for both myself and them. Weve grown a lot in that process and weve became a mini-community in our growth. We see each other a lot, and its the same people. I want to now work on a show that has a huge cast, though, for a breath of fresh air. Small cast shows allow for greater growth on a college campus, just because of the individual attention that they require and need. Im not a teacher myself, Im still learning, but I think I can provide insight for them and at the same time I think they can provide insight to me. Its a learning experience on both sides, and I think because we have the individual connection between each other that growth has been relatively exponential, compared to having a large cast where my relationship with even the leads wouldnt be as personal and somewhat abusive and abrasive and loving all at the same time. Its a great experience, but its been draining and its time to move to a big cast.

Hoot: This is, I believe, the first undergrad-led production going up in Spingolds Laurie Theater. Could you talk a little about how youre approaching this production from a design standpoint?

JB: I am set designer and light designer and costume designer, so of course Id like to talk about design! Yeah, Ive gone nuts, but the great thing about this show is, I think, if the director didnt do that, it might end up seeming clunky, in a sense. Thats just my personal take on such a small show. If it was a large piece, I think it would be easier to have someone to work with and feed off of each other. My design for the Laurie setting is, because the theater is three-sided, trying to make it open up rather than have that broad outlook that everyone does in Shapiro, because thats the only thing you really can do in Shapiro. Because I am in the Laurie, I am trying to open that up and keep it open. Because were in such an intimate setting looking at such an intimate story of love (how intimate can you get?), the set will be basically on stage the whole time. Nothing will move. Its very minimalistic, very memory-like. The stage is like youre looking at the layout of the relationship. Different parts of the stage will light up for each moment in time and each moment in the relationship. There are no walls, theres nothing prohibiting anything, there are no platforms. There are different configurations of wood that are raised a little bit, which will be used as a bed, a pier, a desk, but all these items are ambiguous. It can be whatever it needs to be. Its supposed to morph with their relationship throughout. Im not here to put on a musical revue, which it could turn into very easily, or just a bunch of different songs. I need something to unify the show, and I think thats a major part of what the set does, the costumes and the lights too. It brings these songs that could be very staccato, very separated, together.

Hoot: We havent really heard from Free Play since October. Could you talk a little about this new group and how you see it impacting the Brandeis theatre scene?

JB: The Free Play Theatre Cooperative, we are still new and fresh and young, and therefore ever-morphing, but I think after these two shows, The Black Eyed [running this weekend in the Merrick Theater] and The Last Five Years go up, we will have a more solid outlook on what we want to do. Im not 100% sure whats going on next semester, I know Im spearheading a project that will deal with intercultural and gender relations The main objecting of Free Play, as I see it, is to be a bridge between department and undergrad student theatre, in that we dont have to be sucked into department shows that do take up a lot of time. Its difficult for some undergrads to get involved in that because thats basically a semesters worth of work. Some people just dont have the time to put 24/7 into that. Ive been talking to people involved in theatre around the campus, and not just Free Play people, and they would like to see more collaborative work with the department in the sense that they can help undergraduate work. Just, having professors help you work on a project youre doing rather than having to work under a project theyre doing, so that the creative and collaborative processes grow rather than just staying stagnant as what we still have. Yes, it was great having the department open up the option of doing UTC things for practicum, but thats just credit, what are you gaining from it? Its nothing new, its nothing fresh. Its not about just getting credit, its about expanding your cultural creativity and the ability to put on a show. Politics aside, its about focusing on the creative process and what goes on behind it, in front of it, and all around it, exploring all venues of the actual production, and seeing what you can create from that, seeing what art can be created, what theatre can be created, what art truly is. The best way to learn is not only to do it but sometimes to fail and to flounder and to struggle. Right now there doesnt seem to be much struggle going on between department and UTC shows, and I can tell you I have learned much struggle in this process. Ive grown a hundred times more than I would have if I had just easily gone through the process with the UTC. Not that thats a bad thing, but Im happy that I can look back on this and say, Okay, if Im ever in this position again, I know what to do. It just takes you and opens you up to different avenues that you didnt think you had before. Hopefully someday well have mentorships rather than internships, where the graduate costume designers can come look and help us out, or the grad actors, or the grad lighting designers. Right now were just at the point where they say, Okay, you can borrow our costumes, you can borrow our space. But its baby steps, and were moving towards that. Although this seems unprogressive to some people, I think we really have made a lot of progress in our first semester. With the first show in October, Summer Evenings in Des Moines, I thought that was beautiful. That something like that could be put up right here in the ATM Lounge You look at it now and say, Who the hell would put on a show and get a show done in this room? Then you think back and say, Wow, that was a fun show! Things were actually created, and it was playful, it was theatre! And it was done in like a months time even, with very minimal budget. That show was a great stepping stone for Free Play, and now I hope to put on this immense production to show the opposite side of Free Play, that we can do something deep and meaningful that requires a more traditional space, that ideal of what the outside world views as theatre.

Hoot: Are there any productions youve seen at Brandeis that really stand out in your mind, that you really enjoyed?

JB: The Waiting Room, by far. That was incredible. It was the first time I saw the grad actors and the undergrad actors really come together as a community, as an ensemble, for a piece. Not one weakness shone through, there was no dropping of the ball. It was just a great production that definitely had the passion involved that theatre should have and allowed audiences to emote, even though its such a strong topic that maybe some people dont connect to. It was a great piece of theatre than I definitely enjoyed a lot better than what was done last year with the department. I havent really gotten to see much of the undergrad theatre. Summer Evenings in Des Moines was good. Summer Evening was great, it was a lot of fun. I thought it was amazing that it could be done with so little time, and that such a quirky show could be so understood by audiences. Even if it flew over some of our heads, it didnt at the same time. It was very well, very well put together.

Hoot: And, quickly, vital informationdates, location, times, tickets.

JB: It is in the Laurie Theater in Spingold Dec. 1 and 2 at 8:30 p.m. and Dec. 3 at 2:00 p.m. It is $6 for Brandeis students and any other students out there (Harvard, Yale, etc.), and $8 for outsiders, aka adults. Seats are reserved and assigned. They can be bought at the box office at Spingold and should be bought soon because apparently theyre going fast.

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