Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A conversation with the star and director of Zao Theatre's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

Tom Koelbe in Zao Theatre's production of
To Kill a Mockingbird
Photo by Sharyn Sheffer
by Gil Benbrook

To Kill a Mockingbird is an American classic. Harper Lee's 1960 semi-autobiographical novel was set in a fictional small town in Alabama during the Great Depression and centers on the lawyer Atticus Finch and his daughter Scout.  Lee's book deals with racial inequality and prejudice as we see through Scout's eyes how her father is appointed and has to deal with an angry town as he defends a black man who has been accused of raping a young, white, local townswoman. The novel was turned in to an Academy Award winning film starring Gregory Peck as Atticus and Lee and the novel have been much in the news the past few months as an earlier draft of "To Kill a Mockingbird," entitled "Go Set a Watchman" was just published in July.

The theatrical version of Lee's novel has found some success as well and Zao Theatre is bringing this classic novel to the stage with a production of the play that opens on Friday and runs through November 14th. Tom Koelbel, who stars as Atticus and Mickey Bryce, who is directing this production, took a break from rehearsals to answer some questions about this production.

Tom Koelbel:

Did you have any concerns in taking on such an iconic role?

"This isn't the first time I've faced this challenge.  I also got to play George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life.  And I feel that it's important to make the role my own, but to keep in mind the audience's preconceived notions of the character.  For instance, as bold a choice as it might be, playing Atticus as a cross between Woody Allen and Charles Nelson Reilly might be too much of  a distraction."

While Scout could be perceived as the emotional anchor of the plot of the show, Atticus truly is the hero in how he takes on racial prejudice and emphasizes tolerance.  How do you prepare for a character that is so beloved?

"I've tried to prepare like I have for any other role by going to the text, noting what is said about my character by anyone in the play, then filling in the missing pieces.  Worrying about the importance of the play and the character, in my view, would not serve me well."

Any other type of research you did for the part?

"I've read the book, of course, and also researched the era and aspects of the law."

the cast of Zao Theatre's To Kill a Mockingbird
Photo by Sharyn Sheffer
What was the rehearsal process like?

"It's been great.  Mickey keeps things very easy going.  And the cast has been fun to work with.  A play like this is one of my favorite things about theatre.  It brings together a large group of people whose paths might not otherwise cross."

Have you ever worked with Mickey before?  

"I haven't, but I know many people who have.  And I decided to audition despite their warnings.  I'm kidding, of course.  Mickey is truly loved in this theatre community and I hope I get the privilege to work with him more in the future."

What is your favorite moment in the show?

"It keeps changing as we go through the rehearsal process.  As everyone keeps growing into their roles I'm finding different scenes hit me each night."

What do you think the most important message of the show is?

"We should judge people on the content of their character, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, and we should also make our own judgments and not rely on others' opinions."

Mickey Bryce
Mickey Bryce:

Since To Kill a Mockingbird is both a classic novel and a classic film, how does the stage version 
compare?

"Of the three, the play is the newest, of course, and so it is judged by the other two.  Each is so iconic that it is difficult to measure up.  I think some of the wonder of Scout’s findings in the tree hole are less than in the movie and book.  On the other hand,  more is given to Jean Louise as a grown-up/narrator."

What experiences did you draw upon in directing this production?

'I grew up in Texas, and I married a New Orleans girl, and I am familiar with Southern culture, both the good and the bad.  So, much of the tone and subtext of the play comes naturally to me.  This is a serious play, and serious plays have to be handled in a serious way.  Conflict and hatred are depicted, and so to avoid parody, the actors must not overact.  My experience as an actor has been helpful in helping other actors to not overact.  My work in ministry has helped me value honesty and develop an ability to listen to others well.  Both of these are critical on the stage.  I think this is key in developing story."

Any concerns with directing a production of such a beloved story?

"I always wonder how my direction will measure up.  But not in the way one might think.  I am not concerned with measuring up to other directors.  I am concerned with measuring up to the story itself.  I am married to a composer, and long ago, Ellen helped me to see the inside of the creation process.  In directing theatre, I have an abiding desire to measure up to the work itself, and to do it justice.  In the arts, there can be many variations of good quality work.  I want to be one of them- for the sake of the art, and for the sake of those who have given two and a half months of their time to create this beloved work again."

What was the audition process like?

'Each person read from the script.  Then each person was asked to do something they were not prepared for.  Something different for each actor.  Maybe a mimicry- maybe another take on their read,  maybe something weird.  I am looking for imagination."

Abraham Anene Ntonya and Tom Koelbe in Zao Theatre's production of
To Kill a Mockingbird
Photo by Sharyn Sheffer
What is your favorite moment in the show?

"I have two-  one is where Walter Cunningham says to Scout, after being confronted in the mob scene, '…ain’t nothin’ the matter, little lady…'  She has diffused the situation, and Walter backs down.  The second is at the end where Jean Louise (grown-up Scout)  looks at Atticus and says, 'You did know…'  She is comforted that her father did know of her need to understand the morality of every situation, aka the killing of a mockingbird."

What do you think the most important message of the show is?

"I think the message of the show is- There are people all around us who are less fortunate than we are. We should take the time and give the effort to protect, nurture, and defend those “mockingbirds” in our  midst.  Of course, the message also includes a stern warning to those who practice racism of any sort.  There is justice, which guides right and wrong, and it is not that hard to see, only sometimes to do.

You also have Godspell coming up in Feburary, what can you tells us about those productions and anything special you have planned for either of them?

"Godspell will be Zao Theatre’s first musical , and we are looking forward to a fresh look to a timeless story.  We have chosen a “steampunk” motif and we promise a delightful and meaningful depiction of the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible.  It is a pleasure to bring my life as a Christian pastor together with the theatre to make this show come alive.  The message of Jesus is one that I never get tired of telling. "

CLICK HERE for more information on To Kill a Mockingbird, Godspell and the other shows in Zao Theatre's 2015 season.

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