Interview with Lear deBessonet

Director Lear deBessonet dazzled audiences and critics with her direction of the Foundry Theatre’s production of Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan first presented at the Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa and then remounted last fall at The Public Theater, and the production of The Tempest which launched The Public Theater’s Public Works initiative. In a field that rarely comes to consensus over what makes great theatre, deBessonet has us all nodding our heads in agreement. A former major in Political and Social Thought with a focus on Human Rights and Peace Studies, deBessonet’s work strives for expansiveness and inclusivity, while seeking to include elements of the theatricality of church, Mardi Gras, and football.

P. Carl: I would love to start from the beginning. I know you’re from Louisiana; talk a little bit about your background, where you came from, how that impacted your sense of what theatre looks like.

Lear deBessonet: I’m from Baton Rouge, which is about an hour away from New Orleans. In some ways I feel like Baton Rouge is more like East Texas than New Orleans; it doesn’t have quite the same carnival culture and it doesn’t have the same artistic vibrancy. But certainly Mardi Gras and church—to some extent church was even more present in my life growing up—influenced me greatly. The third thing that I identify as providing my earliest exposure to theatre is football games. It’s just been in the last couple of years that I’ve been acknowledging and reckoning with how all three of those—Mardi Gras, church, and football—are events that everyone in the community participated in together to a certain extent. They all share a multigenerational aspect, and depending partly on the church, profess an ethos of welcome to the larger community. It’s really deep in there for me in terms of what I want from theatre. As a result, when I moved to New York and started to experience the professional theatre world, I felt confused by just the degree of demographic-specific separation that happens; and I felt discontent with that. I didn’t want to be making theatre or even watching theatre exclusively from people that looked like they were from the same place as me and from the same background as me. It just feels like there is this largeness that I really hunger for and that I’ve been on a journey to figure out how theatre—and since I live in New York, how theatre in New York—can fulfill those sort of elemental roles of church, Mardi Gras, and football games.

Now I think I was at the age between childhood and adulthood; between very adult emotions and concerns, but also hanging on to the possibility for wonder and magic

Lear deBessonet looking at the camera
Lear deBessonet. Photo by Crain's New York Business.

Carl: Let’s talk a little bit more about that church piece. You bring a kind of religiosity to your work. I just wonder if maybe that’s a tad unusual in the theatre. Can you talk a little bit about how that still influences your work? Where it comes in, is it in your daily life? How do you get up in the morning and deal with those questions?

Lear: Those questions are certainly in the center of my practice. I do feel that because religion, Christianity specifically—although to some extent any organized religion—has caused so many people so much pain, talking about it can be a divisive thing. In a way even the discussion treads on tricky vocabulary. I grew up in an evangelical context and beyond that being the cultural tapestry, I personally had a very intense conversion experience when I was ten, a result of which I considered myself sort of a Joan of Arc: I was married to God, I wore a wedding ring. I considered my whole life to be devoted to the work of God as I understood it as a ten-year-old, whatever that meant. Now I think I was at the age between childhood and adulthood; between very adult emotions and concerns, but also hanging on to the possibility for wonder and magic. I also don’t take it for granted that there was a lot of misogyny around me and, a sort of unarticulated feminism worked it’s way in as well; that by taking this other path, my life is not going to be about trying to get a husband or whatever the thing. It was enormously freeing.

Obviously, my understanding and my beliefs have pretty radically shifted since I was ten and certainly, I do not currently identify as an evangelical Christian. But I do still think about the work that I do through a spiritual lens.

Carl: I think that there is a difference between a spiritual lens and a purely creative lens. What is that difference and how is that different for you?

Lear: One of the ideas that I was the most in love with about Christianity was this idea about the kingdom of heaven; the kingdom of heaven is here, the kingdom of heaven is in you, is among you. I think that the translation of that word “among” is important, like the kingdom of God is to be found among people. I don’t believe that my life is for myself or that anyone’s life is for themselves. I think that for everyone, or at least for me, the pathway to joy and to living the fullest, the most fully realized life is to be found in community. It’s that sort of idea that you gain your life by giving it away. That sort of social justice vein that can be found in the Bible, that message that there is no one outside of the love of God, that there is an underpinning in this mysterious and often dark universe which is deeply loving and deeply good and the search for that goodness and the struggle to hold on to it is the great adventure of being alive. Theatre is a place to be deeply together. The collaborative nature of theatre and the fact that it is not for yourself, it is for others, and you are performing for an audience, you are giving a gift and every single person in the project is not exclusively for themselves. The whole team, the wardrobe people, the electricians, everyone is giving to something bigger than themselves. There is a holiness about that just inherent in the doing of it.

Carl: I just came from a conversation with a group of students a couple hours ago and we were talking about our personal mission statements and, of course, I don’t think of one mission...but I realized as we were talking that my mission has always been that it’s my responsibility to change the world in some way for the better. That’s always been what has gotten me up in the morning. It has never been I have to make theatre at any cost. I’ve always brought that social justice mindset to theatre. Am I contributing in a way that makes the world better or am I making a good piece of theatre? And I would say that comes from a deep place for me; I have a masters degree in peace studies and you have a degree in peace studies, I think, so talk a little about that social justice bent for you and how that influences your theatre-making.

Lear: My degree technically is called political and social thought, but it was sort of a human rights program or a peace studies program. My learning in that program influences everything I do and how I think about what I do and to some extent it tortures me a bit in terms of holding me responsible to really work to understand the social forces that have created the society that we are living in.

Carl: A while back you started your own nonprofit, you started working at The Public Theater, another nonprofit. I’ve always thought of the not-for-profit frame as an ethical frame for work.

Lear: Yes! It is!

I just felt like theatre is relational and not transactional, in the same way that a friendship is not just calling that friend once a month when you need something.

Carl: And I just wonder your thoughts about that, because I realize it’s a far more controversial thought than I originally realized when I started talking about it that way.

Lear: I believe that so strongly. Even by calling yourself a nonprofit you are placing yourself in the category of a public good; meaning you are asking for funds in part based on that. It’s like a road: something that none of us can afford individually, but is going to benefit the whole community. I think that that’s really essential and although the Tickets for the People Program wasn’t an independent nonprofit, it was program housed by The Culture Project, a nonprofit, and was one of the crucial turning points in my way of thinking about community-based practice.

That program was designed to cultivate access for nontraditional audiences and was very focused on trying to bring people to the theatre through community partnerships. But in working on that in a daily way, I found it to be unsatisfying and not nearly enough. I started to feel like my experience often times was highlighting feelings of alienation by bringing people into a context where they really weren’t welcome and really didn’t belong and where they really weren’t comfortable. This piece wasn’t for them or wasn’t speaking to them and it made me think a lot about content and how a discussion about audience cannot be divorced from a discussion about content. I just felt like theatre is relational and not transactional, in the same way that a friendship is not just calling that friend once a month when you need something. It is knowing each other and living your lives in some sort of synchronicity. So, for me, Public Works is the great gift of my life. Public Works is trying to organize a really holistic way to organize community and theatre and who has a stake in the work, the ways it’s done, what is the work that is done, and trying to expand the definition and notion of audience engagement and development.

Carl: I feel like you are getting at something about the difference between running a charity and building a community.

Lear: Yes! Yes, and one of the problems with running a charity is that it’s a one way interaction. In a relationship, both parties are giving and receiving and that is certainly true of Public Works. I think that we, at the Public, are receiving so much from the gifts and the presence of these people in our lives; Oskar [Eustis] and I talk about that a lot.

Carl: That leads me to the next question, because I think we’re in a crisis moment in the theatre in terms of who the theatre belongs to. It feels like we went through a period when it belonged to artists and now there’s a question about whether or not it really belongs to the audience and how does it belong to both? I just wonder if you have thoughts about that, because I feel like those are some of the most energizing conversations happening right now. There is a moving away from funding and supporting art for art’s sake and thinking about art as a function of what happens in a community that comes to see the work.

Lear: I agree that that conversation is really live right now and interesting and important; and I feel like the fact that that conversation is needing to take place is pointing to such an elemental disconnect. Because I don’t see artists and audiences as opposing factions wrestling for resources, but I think that is how it spins out in conversations and in practical decision making. I don’t even know that I can speak beyond myself, but for me as an artist, it seems that in the very DNA of the impulse to make theatre is the act of sharing, of wanting to communicate, needing the other person, wanting to not just be alone with your own thoughts and feelings, and so to that extent how could it not be about the audience? I have found it so life-giving and freeing to hold in my head when I am thinking about a new project to be thinking about who I picture in the audience and who is receiving it. Michelle Hensley has been a terrific mentor to me in that regard. Realizing the way that wanting as many people as possible to be able to connect with the work and locate themselves within it makes the work better. I have found that it makes my work better. I feel attracted to stories that are large enough for everyone to find themselves in. I think that there are lots of different ways of taking the audience into consideration, but I just don’t see that as a burden saddled upon artists. Ideally, theatre is community and artists are speaking to their community. There are kind of concentric circles of who is their community and the largest circle is like the human family—every human being is part of their community, but I understand that sometimes an artist is trying to wrestle with something or has something deep in them that they need to explore, which is really for their most immediate community. It might just be the people who have had similar experiences.

Carl: You mentioned our mutual friend Michelle Hensley, and she and I have argued about what is a big story, what is a big enough story, and in Michelle’s case, what is a big enough story to invite people who are in prisons and in homeless shelters into a dialogue. We’ve talked about if we’re telling big enough stories now and particularly whether new work that’s being developed in this country is telling big enough stories. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Lear: Yes. One of the things I noticed while I was doing Tickets for the People and bringing more diverse groups to see Off-Broadway plays is that very often the audience would reveal the play a bit. There were pieces I brought the audience to see that until I was sitting there with them, I didn’t realize that, for example, in order to have an entry point into this piece you have to be a wealthy person. I started to notice that just based on sitting in the audience night after night with different groups of people. In the choice of the three stories that I have done large, participatory work with—The Tempest for Public Works, and then The Odyssey and Don Quixote that I did in Philly with the Broad Street Ministry, which is a homeless shelter there—in all three of those cases, the epic structure of those classics was fantastic for so many reasons. First of all, not every play wants two hundred people performing in it, so finding stories that have something in their structure that demands or wants that kind of expansion; but also I feel like because those pieces are all set in another place and another time, no one person is the authority. We can imagine together what the island of The Tempest might be and there’s not any one person who has more of a right to know what that is, we’re all going to make it together. At least for the process of making those shows, I have found that really helpful.

Carl: I want to talk a little bit about your Good Person production, because I saw that production when the Foundry was doing it at La MaMa and it wasn’t one of these big participatory pieces, but it was such an invitation to me as an audience member—

Lear: Oh good!

Carl: —into a play that I think is my favorite play. I have high standards for how I want to experience it and it’s rare as a theatremaker to go and be lost in a theatre production and be truly swept away from your own preoccupations of what you think of the piece yourself. And you really succeeded in doing that. I thought it was a courageous take on Brecht and I just wondered if you would talk a little bit about your inspiration for that and how that fits into the kind of pieces that you’ve been making.

Lear: Something that Oskar [Eustis] pointed out to me about the connection between that piece and Public Works, which I wouldn’t have thought to say, but when he said it I so agreed, was that the values of the play were translated onto the stage, the heart of the intent was present in, was palpable, was felt, in what ended up being the final product. I was so honored by that idea. Good Person is one of my favorite plays and I knew that I wanted to do it before I had specific production ideas about how to do it. So, for me, that kind of visceral core love of the way reading the play made me feel, it was almost like I was then trying to translate that feeling into what I hoped could be the feeling of the audience watching it. For me, I found the play so devastating; intensely, stripping down to the core the questions that bother me the most in the whole world, the questions that make it hard for me to sleep at night. There was an unlocking of those questions and also I felt like there was a sort of sharp humor and theatricality that kept me off balance enough that I was open enough to even receive that question when it came. And so, all of the specific choices filtered down from wanting to preserve the raw animal of the play.

Carl: I love that idea. And strangely that made it more fun and more disturbing at the same time…

Lear: Good!

Carl: There is one other thing I want to circle around to in this question of the actual work that you are making, especially around the participatory work you are doing at The Public Theater. There’s this big question—we struggle with it here at HowlRound—we want HowlRound to be an invitation to anyone to participate and of course what circles around that is always the excellence question. What does participation really mean in the theatre? Is it that the audience gets to go to a talkback after the show? Is it really including the amateur into our profession? I just wonder how you struggle with the excellence question as you do these participatory pieces.

Lear: The pursuit of artistic excellence is one of the core values of Public Works. I know those words get tossed around a lot and so their meaning is a little bit diminished, but I strongly believe that it is not an either/or, that it is not either inclusion and community or making something good. The widening of the invitation does not negate a respect for skill and expertise. What I mean when I describe the 360 degree approach to participation, is the five community partners—Domestic Workers United, DreamYard, the Children’s Aid Society, senior citizens at Brownsville Recreation Center, and Fortune Society which is a prison re-entry slash alternative to incarceration program—and the artists really are creating this program together. The production at the Delacorte was the most visible, the most professionalized aspect of what we do. Basically, these five partners have been involved from the beginning in envisioning what this program is. Last year we each worked all year, devised what we wanted to do together, and in each case that was a little bit different. With the Domestic Workers United they wanted to do a play reading group, so we did that. On Saturdays we’d gather, eat lunch, read a play, and discuss it. The seniors wanted to do a dance class. I taught acting at Fortune Society, and so on. The production was the first time that all five of those groups came together, sharing a space and we did this 200-person production of The Tempest, right? Now, post-production we always knew that the relational commitments were multi-year commitments that were not project specific. Our relationships weren’t based just on this production of The Tempest. So first of all we figure out what we want to do for this next year, which we are now in, in terms of classes and workshops and that kind of stuff. But also, we now have this kind of body of citizen artists that are activated and who are the owners of Public Works. With that body, we have monthly potluck dinners, where the group gathers at The Public and we share food, which functions like a town hall community meeting, three different people perform or do sharings; but then we also have these affinity groups that come out of it. We have a newsletter committee, a hospitality committee, all of these things that are now very inter-generational and where the group is shaping it’s own path. When one of those people who is part of Public Works comes as an audience member to see a show at The Public that’s part of the regular season, that is one of fifty points of connection that a person has to the theatre.

Community ensemble members in "The Tempest" at the Public Theater in 2013, directed by Lear deBessonet (photo by Joan Marcus)

Carl: That’s different than a ticketing program.

Lear: Very.

Carl: It’s interesting to consider the limitations of providing ticketing access and providing a space where people gather.

Lear: Back to the question of excellence for a moment: One of the things I should say is that the multiplicity of those points of connection is what I’m excited about in terms of audience development and access. One of the things I was thinking about a lot with The Tempest and The Odyssey was that I wanted everyone to be featured doing something that they were sincerely excellent at doing. I did not want a person in the audience to be thinking or saying “good for you! That was so sweet that you guys did that.” And I wanted it to be a sincerely thrilling experience for the audience, not just the people making it. Part of what that means is that in The Tempest we had 106 people that were drawn from those five community partners, and then we had another hundred people that were part of cameo groups. And the cameo groups—that’s just the word we used for them—for the moments of magic we created within The Tempest. We were working with organizations from around the city that have something they do excellently, ferociously: Calpulli Mexican Dance Company, Eliot Felds Ballet Tech, Kaoru Watanabe Taiko Ensemble, the Middle Church Jerriese Johnson Gospel Choir, and others. What we were trying to do was find a moment in the story that demanded some sort of theatrical realization, right? To do the storm, the play demands that you make some sort of choice about that, right? We were trying to match the brilliance of one of these groups with moments in the story that could be illuminated by their gift, and so we had these taiko drummers for the moment of the storm, for the moment of the sort of magical banquet we had Calpulli Mexican Dance. We had a brass band when Ariel is messing with the clowns, and so in those cases, even though those people were not all necessarily professional artists, they were being featured doing something that they were uniquely gifted at and they were being featured in a way that was in service of the story and the audience’s experience of that story.

It seems like all theatre, across genre, in very different ways is aspiring toward honesty, right? And I feel like that is something that our ensemble is able to bring.

Carl: So, inserting excellence….

Lear: I think that even with the community ensemble, for many of them this was perhaps their first play, their first theatrical production, and when I talk about featuring everyone doing something that they’re sincerely excellent at, I feel that part of the story and the event involved people bringing their humanity to bear on that story. And bringing a sort of freshness and one of the things that I was looking for was there was this feeling I love in the theatre when you feel like something has happened that wasn’t supposed to happen, right? Suddenly something that was dead goes alive and you’re like ”oh my God, what’s going to happen? This is crazy! Anything could happen!” That, to me, is excellence. The best theatre has that kind of liveness. This ensemble was able to bring that in part because we really didn’t know what was going to happen. We had a group of taxi workers that were in the show; and I think that they entered and exited the show from different points at each of the performances. Not intentionally. I’m in the audience and  “there they are, whoa, okay and there they go!” There’s a sort of organized chaos that, again, I think is sincerely thrilling. It seems like all theatre, across genre, in very different ways is aspiring toward honesty, right? And I feel like that is something that our ensemble is able to bring.

Carl: What a great notion of connecting excellence and honesty. I just have to ask you this one last question. We have a lot of aspiring young readers of HowlRound, do you have any advice for them? I read that you got your first job by introducing yourself to Anne Bogart in the airport and I was wondering if that’s true. But if you had advice to young directors on how to make the theatre they want to make, how to make their way into this world, what would you tell them?

Lear: Part of what has helped me, what has been a compass for me and part of what led me to Anne Bogart and what has led me to so many sort of crucial decisions since, is, I feel like even as a young person, before you have any resources, before you have anyone who’s willing to give you a shot, you have your own gut of what you think is good and what you gravitate toward. I don’t really believe in hedging your bets and trying to get a foot forward in as many aspects of the industry as possible. I say, go for broke. Know, whatever it is that you think is the absolute best work, the most exciting person you can think of as a director, the best actor that you can think of to work on your project. Just go for it. And don’t get distracted by anything, really. It’s sort of a combination of trying to realize that thing you know to be good in your own work to the extent that you can, and again I feel like I was enormously frustrated as a young director by the fact that I am a very visual thinker; I always had design ideas and I had no money, and so it was very frustrating. It was like this wants to be 4,000 feet of snow, but we’ll settle for this paper bag. It’s tough. But I think that all you have is that compass of what you gravitate toward. And so if you lose that, and if you’re not in charge with that sharply enough to know the thing to go for, then you will be lost.

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The questions regarding "excellence" and professional and amateur receive redefinition but no answers. Ditto the issues surrounding a definition of "honesty"--whatever does that mean and in what context? Does all theatre really seek "honesty?"

One of the exciting things about this interview, for me, is how Lear articulates something she is exploring at The Public, and through her community-based approach in general, that is different than how many arts organizations approach engaged and community connected practice. She is in partnership with non-arts organizations, not uncommon these days, but rather than simply build partnerships around constituency or thematic affinities with material she has chosen, she is co-making at many points within these long term relationships. She describes listening to partner needs, and learning about partner assets. Her pursuit of excellence/virtuosity in both the individual moments of her theatre and the dramaturgy of her events directly correlates to her capacity at translation- translating the act of listening and the practice of collaboration into live moments of expression, celebration and transformation. Into theater made not just for, or even by, but with. Over time. With rigor and intention. Thanks for the great conversation.