Last week, Top Girls’ director, Richard Barber, sat down with the show’s dramaturg, Kate Bishop, for a chat about Churchill’s play and its upcoming FPCT production.
KATE BISHOP: Thanks so much for talking with me. We've collaborated on several shows at FPCT, and I'm a great admirer of how your directing style, comprehensive production vision, and artistic choices come together to create challenging, critically acclaimed work. Can you tell me what factors go into choosing the works you decide to bring to life on stage?
RICHARD BARBER: Well, thank you for the compliments. You make me sound smarter than I may actually be. (Laughs.) I think it's hard to pinpoint what makes a given work resonate with a given person. For actors, there's that connection between oneself and the character. It can be deeply personal and emotional, even private. For a director, I think it's more about wanting to tell a certain story and connect with an audience in a certain way. I'd like to think that the texts I've chosen to tackle reflect my desire to communicate with audiences. I do tend toward plays which explore that tenuous relationship between the personal and the political. That's important to me.
KB: What's your vision for Top Girls? What kind of choices did you make about every element --movement, music, set, lighting, casting, costumes -- that especially serve the unity of the piece?
RB: Wow! Big question! What I find compelling about Top Girls (and Churchill's work in general) is twofold. I'm drawn to the play's inherent politicality and anger and honesty, but I'm also intrigued by just how difficult this play is to realize on stage. Churchill essentially gives us 3 plays in one, and she wants a small cast of actors to play multiple roles, and both of these factors are quite challenging for a director and moreover for an audience. My "vision" for any piece I'm working on is to make it accessible and engaging for the audience. They are always foremost in my mind. How can I get them to be as excited about this text and these ideas as I am? In the case of Top Girls, I've decided to keep the visual/physical environment as simple and stark as possible. I want the focus to be on the actors, the characters. I don't want anything to get in the way of those voices and those interactions.
KB: What do you hope audiences find most compelling in seeing the show? What do you hope people might leave with?
RB: Part of me thinks it's none of my business what an audience finds compelling. I really do want each individual person to delve into it as he or she sees fit. But, then again, another part of me wants the audience to leave with the same indignation and brio I feel about the topics Churchill explores. I'm not in this game to change hearts and minds per se, but I do want people leaving the theatre pondering the big questions.
KB: What's been your favorite moment in getting this piece on its feet so far?
RB: That's a tough question. I'm so deep in it right now that everything is so crazy and fun and scary, and everything feels amazing. I guess my favorite part of working on any show is that experience of collaborating with the actors and seeing them explore and learn and create. I really love working with actors. Building and developing those relationships is always the best part.
KB: I know you deliberately favor work that centers on the experiences of women. Can you talk about why producing pieces by, for, and about women is important to you?
RB: I was raised by a gaggle of women: my mom, my aunts, my grandmother, my mother's cousins. My mother and her sister and their cousins all had kids around my age, and they all treated us as if we were their own. You never knew who was going to slap you on the back of your head and tell you to behave. Grown men were somehow largely absent from my upbringing, and as I grew up, I was just astonished at how women and women's voices weren't prioritized in our culture. It just didn't make sense. From where I was standing, it was women who were holding the very fabric of society together. So, I guess when it comes to telling stories on stage, it's women's stories that appeal to me. I love seeing women on stage talk to other women. This is the 3rd all-female play in a row that I've directed, and each one has taught me so much and has hopefully exposed audiences to conversations and ideas that might go unnoticed and underappreciated in the larger culture.
KB: How would you describe your style as a Director?
RB: Oh, geez. (Laughs.) I've come a long way on this front. When I was younger, I was such a control freak. Every line, every costume, every color had to be exactly what I envisioned. Over time, I've come to embrace the truly collaborative nature of theatre, and I really try to let go of the specifics and stay focused on the big picture. That takes a lot of trust, but I've come to embrace and enjoy that process. I always look at the talents and the limitations of the fellow artists I work with, and I try to maximize the good. A given actor may not be able to give the kind of performance I was imagining, but I've learned to let go. Every actor has a different way into a part, and it then becomes my job to incorporate that work into the piece as a whole. It's that kind of challenge that I now find more interesting and more productive.
KB: What has helped you develop as a theater artist?
RB: Curiosity. A director needs to be a good storyteller, and a good storyteller needs an affinity for details and minutiae. I think a good director needs to be curious and needs to consume all of the information and stories and experiences he can. I was lucky enough to get a liberal arts education, and I am a firm believer in the power of that experience. It trained me to be a sharper thinker and a better communicator. It prized curiosity above all things, and I'm a better person for it.
KB: What annoys you most about working in this medium?
RB: There are so many pieces to the puzzle! Lights, sound, costumes, actors, props, publicity. Sometimes it feels like it'll never all come together.
KB: When do you feel most satisfied with what you've worked to create?
RB: I'm not sure I'm ever satisfied. Happy. Proud maybe. Satisfaction is an emotion I'm not familiar with. Maybe someday. (Laughs.)
KB: What's your next project?
RB: I really don't know. I'm going to do some travelling this summer. Seattle, Asheville, Pittsburgh. I'm going to do some more hiking on the Appalachian Trail, which is an ongoing project for me. It's usually when I'm in travel mode that projects come to me. So, I guess we'll see what happens.