Directing Brunch to ‘Chicago’ and Beyond

director Walter Bobbie

My blog has profiled enough stage directors that those pieces are starting to look like a series. As a basis for these profiles I often use interviews conducted by New York producer Ken Davenport and posted as podcasts on his blog The Producer’s Perspective.

I pay attention to directors because they are the central nervous system of the theatre organism; every aspect of a stage production connects to them in some way. Any light cast on them tends to be revealing because they perform their magic in the private sanctuary of a rehearsal room. And then there is the fact that no two directors go about their work the same way. In order to get a fuller understanding of their craft one needs to examine the processes of many directors.

Veteran director Walter Bobbie was interviewed by Davenport a few weeks ago. Bobbie’s roots are in Scranton, PA with a heritage of Polish coal miners. He began his career as an actor in New York, where he moved to in the late 1960s after college. He rented a cheap apartment on the lower East Side (at a time when rents really were cheap) and started looking for work on stage. Within six months he landed his first gig. Two early productions, Frank Merriwell and Drat!, closed after one performance. Although he was getting cast in flops he kept getting hired. That cycle of performing in abbreviated runs continued until 1972 when he was cast in the original Broadway company of Grease.

During those early years as an actor he gradually developed an interest in directing. “I found I was more interested in hanging out with the writer and designers instead of going for a beer with the cast. I liked seeing the entire story being told rather than just one actor’s part of the story,” he told Davenport. He had the benefit of having worked with many good directors whom he closely observed.

He directed a few little industrial shows but was finding it hard to get traction as a director. “It’s very hard to redefine who you are in this business,” he says. “You can have a hundred Broadway [acting] credits and know everybody in town but when you say gee I’d like to direct people respond with, ‘Well there’s no evidence that that’s a good idea.’” As an aspiring director he was getting turned down a lot, even just to do [script] readings with people he’d worked with. “When friends wanted to prepare for auditions I would tell them to come over and let me help.”

Frustrated, he then did something which comes up often in the journeys of successful theatre people, particularly directors and writers. Bobbie told himself, “I guess I’m going to have to make my own work. And I need to figure out how this all works.” He knew a writer who had a 40-minute three-character play titled Meet for Lunch. He brazenly approached a restaurant on the upper West Side and asked if he could present this play at brunch on Sundays for a month. “And they said yes!” He put together a budget of a thousand dollars. Instead of putting up his own scarce money he got five friends to each invest $200. The tiny advertising budget went for postcards. All the actors got paid. He thinks he paid himself $27 as the director/producer. “I paid back each investor $186 so everybody lost $14. I learned a lot doing that,” he says, “including don’t wait for someone to hire you. If you haven’t done it before you have to hire yourself. So that’s how I did it.”

A friend told him if you know what to with a dollar you’ll know what to do with a million dollars. He recalls, “I didn’t study directing, I didn’t study producing. I didn’t study management. I was an actor. I stopped trying to get people to hire me and I started hiring myself.”

That little show at brunch led to more work. He was offered a small production of Something Happened On the way To the Forum at St. Mark’s Place downtown. Then the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization invited him to direct a three-week revue of R&H songs. Only problem was he had a great job on Broadway performing the role of Nicely-Nicely in Guys and Dolls. He went to his director Jerry Zaks and asked for a three-week leave of absence. Zaks agreed. To Bobbie’s surprise the mainstream critics came to the R&H show and gave it great reviews. So now he was “a director.”

He started getting asked to direct other things, which eventually led to an offer of the artistic directorship of Encores!, a then new initiative to revive mothballed musicals in polished workshop productions to see if there was any life left in them. He felt ready for Encores! because of all he had learned mounting his own productions. “When that Encores! opportunity came up and I went for it I knew that was the direction I wanted my career to go in,” he says.

Davenport asked Bobbie about his rehearsal process. He explains that his work begins long before rehearsals. “I love to work with the writer. I want to believe in what we will read that first day [of rehearsal] because there’s going to be much more to discover later on. So I like working with the writers for a long time before that first day of rehearsal.” When rehearsals do arrive, he begins with table readings. “At first I just want to hear the play. I want the actors to hear the play. I always hope that I have cast it well enough so that the text will be illuminated by the people who are in the room. When you have the right cast they demand that the play get better by their very presence. They set such a high bar that the writer is eager to rewrite, and you’re informed by what they’re bringing into the room.”

Bobbie is perhaps best known as the director of the revival of the musical Chicago, which became a mega-hit, won many awards, has now been running for 20 years, and brought him financial security.

A major recent project was directing Bright Star, a new musical written by Edie Brickell and Steve Martin. The experience was satisfying artistically but, for the producers, a bust. He worked with Brickell and Martin and the rest of the creative team for four years before opening on Broadway in March 2016. Despite fairly good reviews, the show closed after two months, having lost all its $11.5 million capitalization. (Some of that loss is now being recouped with a national touring production.)

Like many in the industry Bobbie is concerned about the economics of Broadway, both the stratospheric ticket prices and the high operating expenses. “I’m very aware that Bright Star cost $500,000 a week to run and ticket sales were $500,000 a week. The fact that you can’t run when you’re making $500,000 a week is a painful financial model.”

As for what advice Bobbie would offer young directors starting out, he urges “Go make a job for yourself. No one is going to hire you. You have to do something that allows you to be noticed. At least actors can go on an audition but directors can’t do that.” One might even be wise to even keep an eye out for opportunities at brunch.

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