Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Talking to Mickey Bryce about bringing decadence and excess to Zao with THE GREAT GATSBY

Ashley Letizia, Mickey Bryce, and Jeff Montgomery in rehearsals for The Great Gatsby
photo by Peter Cunniff
by Gil Benbrook

F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic 1925 novel The Great Gatsby has been adapted close to a dozen times for film, TV and the stage and Zao Theatre is presenting Simon Levy's 2006 stage adaptation, the only authorized by the Fitzgerald estate, in their production which opens this Friday and runs through August 24th.

Like the novel, the stage version explores themes of decadence and excess, while creating a cautionary tale of what can happen when you achieve the American Dream, set against the glitz and glamour of the Roaring Twenties

Mickey Bryce, who is directing this production, has years of experience in the theatre, from directing to acting, set designing and music direction, receiving multiple nominations and wins of the ariZoni Theatre Award of Excellence. Bryce also serves as the pastor of the Centerstage Church which also serves as the venue for Zao's productions.

Zao is now entering it's 6th year of productions and just received 9 Zoni nominations for their productions last year of The Elephant Man and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

In between final rehearsals, I asked Bryce some questions about this play, Zao, and how difficult it is to balance the role of being a full time pastor with the many hats he wears overseeing Zao.

The Great Gatsby is a famous novel that's been adapted into countless film. TV and stage versions. But, for someone whose never heard of it what would you tell them it’s about?

"The Great Gatsby is about a man, a woman, and the era in which they lived- the roaring Twenties.  The man, Gatsby, has become wealthy in an attempt to win the woman, Daisy. He has done so in an elaborate deception of his own identity.  The novel, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a picture of a time of extremes: unprecedented wealth and abject poverty, the free-flow of alcohol in a time of prohibition, and a search for significance amidst superficiality."

The play has already been adapted for film but what makes it translate to a stage play?

"The transition from novel to play is difficult because what is most beautiful about the novel is Fitzgerald’s incisive prose. We have sought to bring this prose to life with staging, vignettes, pictures and media, costumes, and set design as well as the script itself."

Kelly Fulcher, Mickey Bryce, and Ben Tietz
in rehearsals for The Great Gatsby

photo by Peter Cunniff
Why did you choose to present The Great Gatsby?

"Zao Theatre has always sought to add to the discussion of issues that make a difference in people’s lives.  We believe that the questions raised by the work are important to ask, and more importantly, to answer."

You have years of experience working in various roles in theatre and in addition to being the artistic director at Zao you are also the lead pastor for Centerstage Church, where the Zao shows are presented. How difficult is it to balance these two roles and what made you decide to form Zao Theatre? 

"It is always a challenge to balance time and energy.  My work with the church is my full-time job, and I am a volunteer for the theatre like many others.  I do my very best, as do the other staff, to make all of our efforts successful.

My work in theatre brings me in contact with lots of people. And people are a pastor’s work.  Quite often, needs arise in the theatre that I respond to as a pastor.  People seem to appreciate that.
Zao Theatre was begun with a desire to present theatrical excellence, connect people of all walks of life in the beautiful common experience of theatrical arts, and to, as I have said, contribute to the discussion of important issues of our day.  And, I might add, to do so in an entertaining and compelling manner."

As you mentioned, The Great Gatsby is all about extremes, excess and decadence, quite the opposite of what a preacher preaches. How do you take on directing a project that some mights say showcases the opposite of what you preach?

"You are correct that The Great Gatsby is about excess and decadence.  However, if you dig deeper, you will find that the work is an indictment against those very elements of life the play depicts.  We see this in the words of the narrator toward the end of the play.  When the natural outcomes of destructive values are shown to be what they are, rather than glorified or romanticized, a positive contribution is made to our culture.  I find no conflict between this worldview and the one which is articulated in the Bible.  It is actually the very thing I do preach.  I want people to look at their own lives and decide that materialism, hedonism, and gross dishonesty do not deliver on what they seem to promise."

What can you tell us about the casting of the pivotal roles in the play and the actors who were ultimately cast?

"The cast came together quickly, and I have been quite happy with it.  I believe that our cast has done a superb job in developing the nuance of Fitzgerald’s characters.  I have also been pleased with the community aspect of this cast.  They have been very supportive of each other.  This is the goal of each Zao Theatre project."

Ashley Letizia and Kellen Garner in rehearsals for The Great Gatsby
photo by Peter Cunniff
You mentioned one of the difficulties in the stage adaptation is finding a way to bring Fiztzergarld's prose to life. What are some of the other challenges you have found directing The Great Gatsby?

"Concerning Fitzgerald's prose, we have sought to find a way to tackle that and to maintain the forward momentum of live performance.  It is always difficult to present thought-provoking material in an entertaining way.  Real characters emerge when care is given to avoid stereotypes and predictable plot development. The inclusion of a dance chorus performing two large choreographed numbers gives the production the feel of a musical. I am indebted to these dancers and their choreographer, Ashley Harkey."

Zao is going into its 6th year. Congratulations on that! Where did the name Zao come from, and what do you have in store for both this upcoming season and any plans for the future you can share?

"Thank you. We are excited for our progress. The name Zao is actually a Greek word, which means, “to live.”  Jesus Christ used this word right before he raised Lazarus from the dead when he said, “I am the resurrection and the life; He who believes in me will live even if he dies…”  It is my joy to give back because God first gave to me.

The Great Gatsby will showcase the complete overhaul of our lighting system, and installation of LED fixtures and intelligent lighting. Upcoming productions include Beauty and the Beast (November),  Seussical (March 2020), and Little Shop of Horrors (April 2020)."

What do you hope the audience's take away from seeing The Great Gatsby at Zao?

"We hope that audiences will take away a worthwhile and beautiful experience of theatre. Beyond that, we hope that the audience will look at these characters and listen to the play and ask themselves, “Which one of these characters do I want to be like, or not to be like,”  and then go and live their lives accordingly."

CLICK HERE for more information on The Great Gatsby, which runs August 9-August 24

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