As Duke City Repertory Theatre prepares to open John Buchan’s The 39 Steps by Patrick Barlow, there’s much anticipation behind the scenes. The company is eager to see what guest director Vincent Carlson-Brown has brought to the artistic table, as this is not only his first time working with DCRT, but his directorial debut in the southwest. Director of Media & Marketing Lauren Myers interviewed Carlson-Brown, discussing everything from film noir to shakespeare to southwestern cultural infusion.
Lauren Myers: I did a lot of research about you online, and almost everything that popped up was related to Nebraska Shakespeare. You currently serve as their Artistic Director—how did you get involved with them, and what’s made you decide to stick around?
Vincent Carlson-Brown: I got my Bachelor’s degree in acting and directing from University of Nebraksa in Omaha, which happens to be attached to Nebraska Shakespeare (NS) in the sense that professors, faculty, and students from the school were all its founders. This summer is my sixteenth year as a company member, and in those sixteen years I’ve done everything from carpentry, sound design, acting, directing, producing, etc. NS produces two Shakespeare plays every summer as well as a fall education tour, and then some artistic programming throughout the year.
LM: What do you like most about working with NS?
VCB: One. It’s Shakespeare! I can find no other playwright that has the depth of material and infinite interpretability in a single body of work. It’s so expansive and there’s so much to discover—you can work a lifetime with his work and never be exhausted—which is part of my plan!
Two. Shakespeare’s popular but he’s also a challenge for a lot of people, and I’m interested in unlocking the keys as to why and how we’re still performing Shakespeare and why it’s so meaningful, especially to myself, our community, and society.
LM: How did you come to find out about Duke City Repertory Theatre?
VCB: John Hardy was my first experience with anyone connected to DCRT. I saw his production of The Borrower’s in Omaha at the Rose Theatre and was really impressed (it also featured DCRT Company Member Katie Becker Colón). Hardy is a professional director who travels all over the U.S. with his work, and I wanted to talk to him and interview him for NS. When I found out he was also an actor, I hired him to play Marcus in Titus Andronicus and Malvolio in Twelfth Night.
I really enjoyed working with Hardy because in all his years of experience and professionalism, he’s still famously a learner and he’s always taking everything in, always learning and using everyone’s knowledge around him to get better himself.
Eventually Hardy put my name in front of DCRT, so I talked to Amelia and we connected on process and style and professionalism. After hiring me, I kind of walked in as a mercenary director—which is fun!
As another connection, I hired Frank Green to play Othello this summer at NS, which Hardy will be directing!
LM: What attracted you to The 39 Steps?
VCB: I had seen the film and had heard of the play and read it but never seen it. I’d also read the novel on which the movie was based—so then I re-watched movie and re-read the script. For me, The 39 Steps is a great telling and re-telling of the original story. It’s a lot like Shakespeare because everything in our modern day culture is infused with the flavor of his work in a lot of different ways, and there are some plays and material that are straight out of Shakespeare. So for me this play was valuable because I’d been a fan of Hitchcock and his films, and obviously this is a telling, a parody, and a re-telling of Hitchcock’s work. I like stories that use previously-sourced material and look at them in a different way. My wife and I ran a devised theatre company a few years ago, and we acted, directed, and wrote our material using scripts and turning them on their sides in order to look at them in a new way.
I also like the play because it’s NOT Shakespeare! I almost work exclusively with Shakespeare, and while I’ve directed a handful of non-Shakes plays, I’m better served as an artist and director by expanding the material in the repertoire in which I work. So I think my work on The 39 Steps will make me a better Shakespeare director and vice versa. They’re vastly different—this is an American film noir parody, the material is different, and I’m drawn to it. This is my first directing job outside of Nebraska, and I was excited to work with artists I’d never worked with before and I’m expanding my circle.
LM: Now that you’ve been able to spend some time in the Southwest, what do you think of Albuquerque?
VCB: The weather in Albuquerque is more consistently nice down here. I’ll get calls from my wife back in Omaha where she says, “It’s snowing today!” or “Our gutters broke because there’s a downpour,” and here I just say, “Well, I’m gonna go sit on my porch and read.”
There’s also a strong film culture—we don’t have that in Omaha, which is a theatre town exclusively. So what’s great about Albuquerque is you have a body of artists that are constantly seeking work and actually working fairly consistently in different mediums, and that’s exciting to see.
Omaha and Albuquerque both have those mid-west/southwest vibes—the coasts are interesting. But if I were to choose to work somewhere, Albuquerque would be on that list because the people are nice and they are more aware of themselves and more aware of their general surroundings—you feel like you’re part of the community.
I’ve also done some exploring and I’m excited about the infusion of culture in Albuquerque. I rode my bike down to Old Town and it was fun to see American Indian and Hispanic culture infused into a little community market. I also plan to see the bio park and zoo and to go up to the sandia mountains. The drive from Albuquerque to Santa Fe is also really great. I saw a couple of art films in Santa Fe, so this whole area seems to have a great film, art, and culture scene.
LM: I have to ask: What are your favorite restaurants so far?
VCB: So far I’ve eaten at Farina, The Grove, The Waffleria, Frontier, and Sadie’s—all were great!
LM: What has the rehearsal process been like for The 39 Steps?
VCB: It was initially interesting for me because I walked into rehearsals blind in that I didn’t know anybody other than Amelia and the designers after a couple of phone conversations, and I didn’t know my actors. This isn’t unusual in the professional world, but for me I’d never worked with actors that I did not know, so I had to trust the Artistic Director to provide me a team to do the job. It was actually great not doing a LOT of the work, because I usually do all that for my own company. And it was good to just have a specific job to do, to kind of let go and trust that this company had the people and the team to do what needed to be done. It was great.
We had online production meetings with the designers, and I was pleased with all of them because they listened to what I had to offer but also offered their own ideas, so even before I got here I felt the design team was on top of their game and offering their own artistic impulses.
As far as Alicia Webb goes, I think the best thing about stage managers is that you don’t realize all the work they do until it’s all been done. They don’t get all the recognition, but without them we can’t even rehearse, or get into the room. Alicia’s been great in that you don’t really see the work she’s doing, and I mean that as a compliment!
The actors are fast, professional, funny, and while I’m not surprised by it, I’m still pleased with the cast. I had a chance to tour the performance space and I’m excited to interact with a smaller space—I usually direct in an amphitheater that’s the size of a football field and seats 3,000 to 5,000 people—So I’m looking forward to honing the intimacy of a smaller theatre. I think the play works really well for the performance space, because the smaller, more honest, and intimate things you get in an “Alfred-Hitchcock-film-noir-parody” play really well.
LM: What are some of the challenges that you’ve encountered since coming out here?
VCB: I’m married, and my wife is an actress in Omaha. We usually work together—she’s the Director of Education at NS, and when we travel we usually get hired together. This is really the first job that I’ve been away from home and from her, so that’s been a challenge.
Trying to stay connected to professional life back home is interesting. The day I drive back from Albuquerque is the week before actors arrive for NS’s summer season where we’re producing two full Shakespeare productions, so while I’m here I’m also trying to stay connected to my design team and actors.
And that’s the unique part of working as an artist—you’re trying to find how to fulfill yourself as an artist and work as a professional—and still keep the next job after the current job. We have to constantly “interview” for our new jobs and keep working at what our “work” is—and if we’re too content then it’s like…“well what do I do now?” You have to be constantly working, so I have stay up on my responsibilities.
LM: What are you looking forward to the most with The 39 Steps?
I’m excited for it’s opening. I’m disappointed that I won’t get to see the full run, but I have to get back to Omaha right after the show opens in order to produce our summer season. And that’s new for me, that I just see opening night and say, “see ya!”—but by that time I truly believe it’s the actors show anyway.
Duke City Repertory Theatre’s production of The 39 Steps runs May 7-24, 2015 at The Cell Theatre in Downtown Albuquerque. For more information and tickets, please visit www.dukecityrep.com.