Jacqueline Lawton: What was the first play that you ever directed? What did you learn from that experience that remains with you today?
Lise Bruneau: Apart from my unparalleled triumph as director of my Senior Review at Bishop O'Dowd High School; my (and Taffety Punk's) first full production was Gwydion Suilebhan's Let X at Flashpoint/ CuDC. I smile as I write this - as an actor who does a great deal of Classical work, I'm accustomed to having little understanding or inspiration on the first read of a play I'm unfamiliar with. After several reads, the play yields up to me what it needs from my character, and thus my performance. It seemed too magical to be true that directing would work the same way for me; in fact, every time I walk into directing a play I don't know well with some "idea" about what I'll do with it, a few reads usually enlighten me that my preconceptions have nothing to do with what the play is about! Let X was a wonderful experience of seeing that directing new plays, old plays, current plays --- they will all tell you exactly what they need in order for their stories to be told.
JL: Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
LB: I had a surge of pragmatism that hit me Sophomore year of High School and I almost got out, but it didn't stick. From my real intro to theatre at 14, it's been clear to me that resistance is futile. Annette Bening's Titania taught me to love the human voice, Richard ET White and Edward Bond taught me to hunger for theatre that was kind of scary, and an involvement in dance and choreography made me love the extreme gesture onstage. And the existence of Angels in America in the world will keep me a sucker for the theatre forever.
JL: What kind of work do you do to pay the bills? How do you balance this work with your work as a director?
LB: I'm still primarily an actor, and actually the scheduling is very similar. One challenge I have found is performing a show as an actor and simultaneously prepping two or more shows as a director is reeaaaally hard. As an actor, I am used to the luxury of being able to immerse myself in one thing at a time.
JL: In DC, we have the Capital Fringe Festival, the Intersections Festival, the Source Festival, the Kennedy Center's Page-to-Stage Festival, the Black Theater Festival, and the Hip Hop Theatre Festival. We also have the Mead Lab at Flashpoint Theater Lab Program. Have you participated in any of these? If so, can you speak about your experience?
LB: I love the DC Weird Theatre Junkies! I know more people that hit all of the experimental festivals in DC - it's just wonderful. And I love that these festivals empower theatre artists to pursue absolutely anything they find of interest, without having to worry about marketability and box office return. I myself have Fringed and Flashpointed and Page-to-Staged. I love the openness of the audiences and their willingness to roll the dice and despite having NO IDEA where they're going, to let us take them there. I do wish that theatre folk would take more advantage of this willingness on the audiences' part to really blow their minds. As far as the experience, it's kind of unfair to compare Fringe to the Kennedy Center - I guess I'd say that the facilities and support have differed significantly.
JL: How many plays have you directed in the DC area? How many of them were written by women? By playwrights of color? How conscious are you selecting plays by women or people of color when deciding your season?
LB: Of my 15 DC productions, (and to be fair, 5 of them - although requiring ridiculously more prep than normal - were Bootleg Shakespeares: rehearsed and performed in one day), 3 of them were written by women. Owl Moon was a World Premiere of a play by Taffety Punk company member Liz Maestri, and the two I directed for Pinky Swear were by Carson Kreitzer. Owl Moon was a script that our company straight up loved, and though we always want to take care of our company members I can say with confidence that there was no nepotism in play at all! The three DC full rehearsal Shakespeares were with our Riot Grrrl wing of Taffety Punk, and were performed with a 100% female cast. As Taffety Punk has a distinct focus on Classical work, we tend to have fewer opportunities to work with writers of color, but casting-wise, we love expanding our options as wide as we can.
JL: How do you feel the DC theatre community has addressed the issues of race and gender parity? How has this particular issue impacted you and your ability to work?
LB: I honestly feel, and I'm sure I'm insulting every exception to this, that DC companies could be more courageous as far as dealing with complex issues and casting against type, race, or gender. It's actually interesting what kind of kudos and attention a company can get for going outside the box in regards to anything ! Yet I see that the safe choice is often made in this regard. I mentioned the DC Weird Theatre Junkies - there are lots of them! And lots of "Traditional" theatergoers that are totally ready to see something real. And weird. And maybe a little scary. I also have to say, and this slightly supports our "whiney" whiner, that as far as Playwrights go, any brilliant play written by a woman or a minority is a gold mine for a theatre - the issue arises when we aren't sure whether it's a brilliant play. Sadly, that's where the personal tastes of the (sorry Molly!), largely White males in power need to make the call. And even more sadly, I do think that different things appeal to different types according to life experience. I wish I didn't think that, but I do.
I'll also recount a funny conversation I had once, and have no idea if it's any more interesting than a story, but I was chatting with a friend about why I wasn't getting more attention as a director - she said, "Do you think it's because you're a woman?" I laughed outright and said "Oh please, how 1970's!!!!" Then I stopped laughing and started wondering.
JL: If you could be direct at any theatre in DC, which would it be and why?
LB: I will direct the bejesus out of anything for anybody if they give me $10,000. And in spite of my Shoestring Budget reputation, I DO like to spend a lot of money if I'm allowed to!
JL: DC audiences are ...
LB: Thrillingly open and adventurous! And more receptive to new work than any city I've encountered! I do feel that they are sometimes apt to do what they're told. I think more Blarguments are the answer!
JL: DC actors and designers are ...
LB: Amazing. Please see "courageous" section in answer to Question 6 - they are soooo capable of going further into awesome weirdland!! And I feel like they aren't often allowed.
JL: DC playwrights are ..
LB: See above!
JL: DC critics are ...
LB: OK, sorry, they've always been very good to me, and I hate to look a gift review in the mouth… but I do feel that nationwide, there is a very low bar of knowledge for the theatre critic. There's a feeling that Joe Everydude should have as valid an opinion as Ariane Mnouchkine, and I just don't agree with that - in fact, I feel like audiences are done an incredible disservice with this. There is an "acquired taste" element in art that really cannot be denied. I don't expect my 5 year old to like bleu cheese or Cabernet, but after he's been at the dinner table for 15 years, I would hope we've gotten beyond cheese pizza. Ultimately, theatre should give each participant something thrilling and beautiful, but if I didn't know to look beyond the color in a Picasso, and got freaked out because I didn't understand why he was messing with the shapes, I'd miss the whole point. It's our job to train audiences, too, but I feel that critics desperately need to be clear about one thing primarily, and I know it's hard! You have to know, whether you feel a show is weak or strong, if you blame or credit the author, the director, the performances, or the realization (or production): or what combination of these. If we allow our personal biases to get in the way of any objectivity about these things, it's doom for the theatre and nothing short of it.
JL: What advice do you have for an up and coming DC based director or a director who has just moved to D.C.?
LB: Make sure you don't whine! But actually, I do believe in being pro-active, and must credit my wonderful partner for giving me this. As we sat on our back porch with me whining up a storm about the injustice of Shakespeare Theatre doing an all male R&J (which ended up being exactly the all male production I'd always hoped for - actually doing the whole show as an Elizabethan audience would have seen it - at last!!), Marcus suggested that we do an all female R&J at the same time and thus hurl the gauntlet. It was absolutely great, and empowering, and fun, and a thrilling production! Now we try to give grrrls a shot at the great roles every year, and it's awesome. So maybe whining isn't always such a bad thing…
JL: What's next for you as a director? Where can we keep up with your work?
LB: That depends on who read my $10,000 offer above! OK, well Taffety Punk is remounting Oxygen this April, and I'm excited that more folks will get the opportunity to see this fantastic show - Mark Krawczyk and Esther Williamson are electric! And I'm slated to either direct or appear in Titus Androgynous - this year's Riot Grrrl offering. And yes, "Titus Androgynous" is our own joke - it will as usual be a straightforward telling of the play, with 100% more women. And my dear IT guy (Marcus Kyd) keeps me current at lisebruneau.com.
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!