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Artist Spotlight: Here Lies Love Director Alex Timbers

MASS MoCA Marketing Coordinator Emily Evans sat down with Here Lies Love Director Alex Timbers to find out what it’s like being a director, working with artists like David Byrne, and making theatre at MASS MoCA.

Director Alex Timbers

I was a dance major at Conn College, my mentor being that wonderful dance maker David Dorfman, and I know you’ve co-directed some of his work. How is directing dance different than directing theatre or musicals?

David’s great – I’ve been a dramaturg for a couple of his pieces. I think dance works in a more abstract, less narrative way. There’s a sense of pacing and scale and variety that I think is also true to directing a musical. [With dance] you’re working much more with a sort of principal nature of the elements, because you’re serving a story and emotional palette that is much more visceral and abstract. In a musical, you’re trying to get that richness, but you ultimately have to serve a prescribed script and set of songs.

Do you have a preference, a favorite thing to direct?

I love to direct theatre, and I’ve really enjoyed working on shows like Peter and the Starcatcher and The Pee Wee Herman Show, that are kind of what I like to call “plays plus.” They have all the attributes of a play, a sort of naturalism and an emotional hook, and yet they also have song elements and dance and movement and a certain heightened design. They feel inherently and richly theatrical, instead of the type of play that could take place in a living room or a kitchen. They are sort of epic in scale and yet emotionally more grounded than more traditional or conventional musical theatre.

How did you get into directing? How did you discover you had this passion?

I was in college and I was doing a lot of improv and sketch comedy. I had acted a little bit (just sort of in the way that everyone acts in college or high school) and I got very interested in the mechanics of comedy, so I decided to direct a farce, and then another farce, and I got really into directing. I started running the college theatre company, and then I snuck into graduate school classes at Yale School of Drama and started learning about the management side.

When I graduated, I worked as an intern at Manhattan Theatre Club, and I realized no one ever tells you that in the real world, people don’t hire young directors – it just doesn’t happen. [If you’re young,] no one’s gonna hire you to direct Thornton Wilder or Shakespeare because they’re entrusting you with a lot of money, and they don’t trust you. In film and TV, you’re trying to appeal to young people as often as older people, so it makes sense to let [a young director] be the voice. But in theatre, you’re not going after really young audiences, so why would you ask a young director or playwright? So what I did was create my own opportunities. I created a company – that’s where Les Freres Corbusier started.

How did you get involved with Here Lies Love?

I had done a show for The Public Theater called Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, that was sort of a classic example of the shows I was doing with LFC – sort of about historical figures but done in an irreverent, post modern way. It combined pop and rock music and big visuals. The Public Theatre was also developing Here Lies Love, and the artistic director Oskar Eustis put me in contact with David [Byrne]. I think there were a couple of directors that interviewed for it, but David and I hit it off pretty immediately, and I think the impression I had of what the piece should be in 3 dimensions, more than just an album, was similar to what David always had in mind for it.

Can you tell me what Here Lies Love is about in 4 sentences or less?

Sure. Here Lies Love is a fully immersive club musical that tells the story of Imelda Marcos’ rise and infamous fall. It’s told entirely through song, without dialogue and without seating. It takes place all around you – it’s what I call a sort of 360 degree theatre piece. It refuses to glorify Imelda and is examining the politics of power and the psychology or pathology behind a person that so desperately wanted to be loved and yet was thrown out by her own citizens.

What’s it like working with this particular cast and crew, and with David Byrne and Annie-B Parson?

In terms of the cast (David and the choreographer and the crew), it’s really fantastic, because these are people who I’ve for years looked up to! I had seen Annie-B Parson’s Big Dance Theatre shows for many years.  I’ve been listening to David’s music and reading his writing for years. So to collaborate with these people is phenomenal. And the design team is this great mix of downtown and uptown people – they are downtown theatre artists but they have Broadway experience. There’s a really exciting mix (just as the show is) between a kind of left of center sensibility and a delivery of the great pleasure principles of musical theatre.

How has MASS MoCA and this particular space impacted the development of the piece? Is it different from where you guys have been before?

Absolutely. I’ve been coming to MASS MoCA for about 7 years now, and I’ve always been mesmerized as much by the art at MASS MoCA as by the architectural surroundings of this place. When the idea came up to develop the show outside of New York, one of the questions I had was, “Can we not do it at a place where it will feel like a musical?” (Which it’s not.) So this idea came up to do it at a museum as a sort of art installation. I think that sets up your expectations for the piece better.

I have a long history with Williamstown Theatre Festival, and [artistic director] Jenny Gersten has been an incredible friend and advisor, so the idea of triangulating The Public Theater and WTF and MASS MoCA started to feel like a really exciting convergence of great arts institutions. The thought with the residency at MASS MoCA was that we could really build the piece – it wasn’t that we’d be delivering some sort of finished product, but we would have the space and staff and collaborators here to create a 360 degree art environment.

Every day there have been new songs coming in, we’re changing staging on the fly, and just today before we started talking I saw new choreography for the opening number! We’re assembling it here in a way you couldn’t do with the pressure of New York or you’d go crazy. The space here is unbelievable –  it’s huge! – and there are 2 things we’re examining: how can we make the best possible performance here at MASS MoCA, and how can we honor the spatial limitations Here Lies Love will confront when it eventually moves to New York?

What’s next for Here Lies Love?

After this it will go to The Public Theater in New York, and it starts performances in March 2013 at the Luesther, one of the five theatres of The Public – it’s a downtown space.

That’s exciting.

Yeah, I think it’s pretty cool.

Alex Timbers and David Byrne at opening night of Timbers’ Peter and the Starcatcher

Posted June 18, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under Artist Spotlight, BLOG, Dance, Music, Theater, Uncategorized, Work-in-progress
1 Comment »

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One Comment on “Artist Spotlight: Here Lies Love Director Alex Timbers”

  1. Michelle Driscoll Says:

    As someone who once “flew” at De La Guarda, I’ve always been a fan of immersive artistic experiences- it’s part of why I’m drawn to Mass MoCA’s programming again and again. It was an honor to be part of the audience last night at Here Lies Love and watch the creative process in action. I’ll be excited to catch the show when it is in New York and see how it “grows up!” Thank you to all involved for a truly fantastic theatrical experience.

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