BWW Interviews: TUTS' Bruce Lumpkin and Michelle Gaudette Talk MAN OF LA MANCHA

BWW Interviews: TUTS' Bruce Lumpkin and Michelle Gaudette Talk MAN OF LA MANCHAAs February gallops to an end, Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) is hard at work, preparing a local production of the classic musical THE MAN OF LA MANCHA. With a score by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion, and a book by Dale Wasserman, the acclaimed musical is inspired by Dale Wasserman's teleplay I, Don Quixote and Miguel de Cervantes classic novel Don Quixote. Last week, I got to sit down with Bruce Lumpkin, TUTS' new Artistic Director and director of MAN OF LA MANCHA, and his wife Michelle Gaudette, choreographer of MAN OF LA MANCHA, to discuss their upcoming production.

Me: You were named Artistic Director of Theatre Under the Stars in July 2011. What was that like for you?

Bruce Lumpkin: First of all, I grew up in Houston. I was born and raised here, and this theatre was the very first theatre I worked at as a young actor and as a young director before I moved to New York City. So, to come back here, to go full circle, life was pretty cool. I'm not going to lie. It's a really great feeling to come back to my hometown and take what I learned here from Frank Young and this wonderful organization, then took it to New York City, and spent 25 years there-almost 25 years-and then bring that knowledge back home and help this theatre grown to the 21st century. I mean it's a dream come true. I'm very excited to be here.

Me: MAN OF LA MANCHA is your first time to direct at TUTS after being named Artistic Director. You're also getting to share the spotlight with your wife, Michelle Gaudette, who is choreographing the show. What is the experience like for both of you?

Bruce Lumpkin: Well, it's not the first time we've worked together. We've been doing this together for many years. Before we got married and since we've been married. [Looks at Michelle Gaudette] I want to share this with you. What's this like for you? For you to be here choreographing, with me in a new position, do you find a different kind of feeling for you? Or is the same mode?

Michelle Gaudette: It's different and the same. It's different in the way that Bruce has so many more responsibilities other than just his director hat, so that plays a factor in here because there's other aspects of the production that he's a part of as well as what we're doing on the stage. I think it's the same in that we have been working together as team in this respect for seven, eight years now.

Bruce Lumpkin: About eight years, yeah.

Michelle Gaudette: Yeah. So, we've grown in such a way of how we work. It's almost like one in the same. Our work blends together a lot, so it's kind of like a well-oiled machine now. We both worked together on some stuff, but then we also work separately, but then we also intertwine everything together, so it moves smoothly. We're really big on the story telling. That's one of our bigger things.

Bruce Lumpkin: It's also very exciting to get a chance in this business to work with your life partner too because it doesn't happen all the time. You know, many times she'll have jobs other places and I'll have jobs other places, and we'll come together for opening night. To actually get to experience the whole thing together, again, we're very lucky we get to do that quite a lot in our careers.

Me: You worked together on MAN OF LA MANCHA at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre. How does doing the show for TUTS compare to your previous experience?

Bruce Lumpkin: It's pretty much like starting over again. We didn't even really realize that until we got into the process last week. We have a different set. We have a different set of actors. Some of them are the same as we worked with before. But, when we do a show together, we like to go for the truth of the piece. First and foremost, what is going to make it honest and truthful? And just because we know the show-we've done it before-we're not going in trying to recreate what we did at Walnut Street. We're coming here to reintroduce ourselves to and re-experience the material with the group of people we have as actors. So far, it's been pretty rewarding, I think.

Michelle Gaudette: Bruce and I are different in the respect that, you know, we've done many of the Jerome Robins shows. We've done many of the Agnes De Mille and Rogers and Hammerstein like shows and things, where there's a lot of strict rules that go with each of those shows. When we get to a piece where there's nothing attached to it other than what we want to do, I don't think we ever recreate the same show twice. We always add. Maybe we discovered something at the end, the last time we did it, and we're like, "Ok. Well, now this is a great chance. We get to try something new." And then, depending on The Players involved, like this cast-some of The Players are the same, but there's a lot of the cast that's different. So they bring a different energy as well as a different set of talents. We start working, but then, you know, we're like, "Oh, wouldn't that be really great because, you know, we have that talent." We work on our feet a lot in this capacity with a show like this.

Bruce Lumpkin: Believe it or not, recreating a show to us is a lot harder that creating one on the spot. Because recreating, you have to remember what you did before and try to do it the same way. And it's never is the same. It then becomes sort of a hollow shell of what you did the first time. But with this, we have a different set, you know, which is an amazing set. It's actually the original set. And the actors don't remember anymore than we do, unless they have it written down some place. They don't remember what they did before, and they're playing off of a different actor than when they did the role before, so they're going on different thoughts and feelings in them. If you give the actors the permission to explore, and they're really good actors, then you're going to come up with something new and fresh, which is what we hope we're doing with this.

Michelle Gaudette: We have a grouping of actors on our stage right now-we just finished doing a scene with them in the show, and I sat there and it really kind of threw me back for a second because I was going, "Oh my gosh, these same men were in groupings of three in three or four other shows and the camaraderie between them on top of the relationship we have with each one of them is really quite a special moment in the show that we didn't have the first time." So we have that collaboration in there with a level of trust and a level of respect that is, I hate to use the word, quite special.

Bruce Lumpkin: Very special, yeah.

Me: In each of your individual opinions, what makes MAN OF LA MANCHA such an enduring and endearing classical piece of musical theatre?

Michelle Gaudette: Hope. [Pauses] The word hope. It's throughout the whole [show]. No matter what the subject matter goes to, it's really about hope. I think in today's society, today's world, with what we've all been through, where our country is today, we're all looking for a little bit of hope.

Bruce Lumpkin: A great way to put it. This show is a very timely piece of theatre. What happened in the Spanish Inquisition, unfortunately, has happened time and time again in our world. I mean, it's not strictly what happened in Nazi Germany or what happened in Jonestown or other places like that. Or even the McCarthy era, where people were thrown in jail because they were communists. Some were and some weren't, but was it a jail offence or a life-ruining offence? No. It's a witch hunt, basically. The point of it is, throughout time, we, as human beings, seem to repeat history over and over again. The thing that makes it come out is the fact that there is hope for a better world. There is hope for that impossible dream to be fulfilled, and that's what this show says to people-to everybody.

We did a thing in New York about a year ago, where they were doing a TV special for the season, and they were in Times Square. Channel 13, they interviewed people, [asking] "Do you know the song 'The Impossible Dream?'" These people from around the world, they were French, they were Spanish people, they were Italians, they were Americans, and everyone knows the song. They can sing part of "To Dream the Impossible Dream." Everyone can do that. It makes you go, "Wow!" They might not have ever seen the show, but there's something about the lyric to that song that gives people, as Michelle said, hope. Hope for a better world. Hope for a better day. Hope for better weather. You know, hope. And that's a great thing.

Me: I can agree. That's the extent of my knowledge of the show, that one song. I have never seen it before and I'm really looking forward to it.

Bruce Lumpkin: Good to hear.

Me: As a choreographer, what unique challenges does MAN OF LA MANCHA present in designing dances and movement for the show?

Answer: I think the first time I ever saw MAN OF LA MANCHA was when I went to Lincoln Center to do research on it. I was watching amazing talent on the stage that was filmed, but my problem with the piece was there was all this contemporary style of dancing that would have never happened in a prison, so I had to first start with the music and just listen to the music. It's very Spanish. It's very Flamenco, which brings on a whole different passion and a whole different type of movement into play. I think too the challenges is creating [Pauses] an artistry that would be correct in the period but also correct in the style without it being too showbiz because it's not a showbiz type. It's not a musical comedy. It's not a musical where you're doing tap dancing for, you know, [Pauses] 24 songs and stuff. It's within the piece and it still has to be part of the story. It has to be able to progress with the story and not be a showcase number, so that's probably where my largest challenge happened.

Me: From a directorial standpoint, does MAN OF LA MANCHA present any unique challenges?

Bruce Lumpkin: Unique challenges-I think every show has unique challenges of it's own, but I'd have to say, "yes." One of the most is trying to be consistent with telling the truth in a musical theatre piece that is designed to not always have to tell the truth. And what I mean by that is, this is a piece that is set in prison, so there are certain things-and the man, Don Quixote (Cervantes) is thrown in this prison holding room, with his trunk full of props because he's an actor. So, everything either has to be in the prison or come from his trunk.

Well, that's a challenge in itself, when you're trying to make things happen that aren't really there. We have to do a number about a barber, and part of the barber's costume was this razor, and I said, "Well, you can't have that." He said, "Why?" And I said, "Well, if you're in prison, in a holding room, and you've been accused of a crime and you're waiting to be sentenced, and you have a weapon, and you are a murderer, you might want to kill somebody with this. They're going to take that away from you before they let you down here. They're not going to give you a razor in prison." So it's little things like that. It presents a lot of challenges to be true. To be true to the story, to be true to the atmosphere, to be true to what you're trying to create.

Me: Yeah. I had heard that you guys were really exploring the idea of truth, especially when compared to other productions that typically use things like gigantic headdresses for horses...

Bruce Lumpkin: Well, where would they come from?

Me:...and stuff that we won't see in this production because they wouldn't exist within a prison.

Bruce Lumpkin: We do it in a different way, but I think it's just as effective.

Me: As a husband and wife duo that is directing and choreographing, where do your creative energies and duties overlap? [Bruce Lumpkin Laughs] What are your creative meetings like?

Bruce Lumpkin: [Laughs Again] It's over dinner, over a glass of wine, or after we put the baby to sleep sitting in the living room, or driving the car. We don't conventionally sit down. We do when we have production meetings with the rest of our staff and creative staff-the musical director and such like that. We'll sit in here or we'll sit in the conference room, something like that. Usually, we have a tendency to, when we're working on a show-because we really love to cook-is we love to go into our kitchen and put a CD on of the music to the show we're working on, pour a glass of wine, make dinner, and create. We create numbers and ideas and do what we do. [To Michelle Gaudette] That's where we do it the most, isn't it?

Michelle Gaudette: Yeah, the kitchen. Then there's other times where, you know, I'll be in the shower or Bruce will be in the shower and...

Bruce Lumpkin: That's true too.

Michelle Gaudette:...you zone out. We zone out into our show world, and the next thing you know one of us is coming out going, "If we did this here, would that work?" And then we won't talk about it again for hours or days, and stuff like that. We'll have a lot of sporadic moments like that.

Bruce Lumpkin: This morning, as a perfect example, I was getting ready and our little one was asleep. So, Michelle was in the bathroom taking a shower. We do a lot of Palmas, which is the hand stuff [Claps Rhythmically to Illustrate] during the show. It's part of the choreography of the show. And all of a sudden, I hear from the bathroom, and I know she's in the shower, and what I hear is [Claps In a Different Rhythm Than Before] coming from the shower. She walks out and said, "I'm going to change that opening." So, I mean, that's how it happens.

Michelle Gaudette: When your work is on the creative side, I think anything can hit you at any moment wherever you're at. I can be in the car driving and I'll either have seen something or heard something, and it triggers me into something else. I'm going, "that might be a really good thing right here."

Bruce Lumpkin: Yeah, it's all important. It's art imitates life, life imitates art, whatever the saying is. It's all true. All is one. We might see somebody at an airport get off of a plane that's a character we want to use sometime. Their body language may have something to it. So, it's all intertwined.

Michelle Gaudette: And we've had a lot of shows where a lot of our work crosses over on stage, so I think we've gotten really good about that bleeding over, that crossover, so it's seamless. So, there's no dead stop with the work. One goes right into the other into the other. It keeps the momentum going.

Me: What are your favorite aspects of MAN OF LA MANCHA?

Bruce Lumpkin: Favorite aspects? [Pauses] Gosh, this is a show that I really do love.

Michelle Gaudette: I think it's the honesty of this piece. The honesty of the act. You know, we've got such top notch talent coming at us from every angle, whether it be our muleteers, the dancers, the voices, or the actors that we have put together. It's just, I think, the collaboration, the creativity, that's happening from everybody. Everybody's there to play. Everybody's not married to anything. We're like, "Ok, that didn't work, let's try this." It's kind of like a bit of a playground right now.

Bruce Lumpkin: Yeah, the whole process is exciting to me.

Michelle Gaudette: It's going to be of those shows where it's going to hold special for this group of people.

Bruce Lumpkin: Yeah, it is. You can feel that already. It doesn't happen all the time. Some shows you crank them out, you have a great experience, and you all go your separate ways. But every once in a while, you step into something and by about half way through it, which is pretty much where we are right now-we did the first act today-you go, "Wow, this is going to be special for us." You know, our feelings, whether it's the best thing we've ever done, who knows. That's for other people to judge. But this is going to special for all of us who are in this room, all 21 of the actors and our creative staff as well.

Me: Why do you think Houston audiences should be excited to see TUTS' production of MAN OF LA MANCHA?

Bruce Lumpkin: Well, I think that what we're going to be offering is unique. I think that this particular production is-you can't say it's original because it's been done for years and years-but it is certainly one that is being molded and inspired by this organization and this place and this group of people at this time, you know. That's something so great about live theatre, every night, when this group of people get together and go out on that stage they're going to be spending an evening with another 2600 people who will never ever be in the same room at the same time ever again in their lives. That's what makes it so special, I think, because it makes theatre so special. Is that every time you do a performance that same thing is recreated, then it is over.

Michelle Gaudette: I think they're going to get a level or talent and camaraderie that doesn't necessarily come with every show. I don't think anybody could not feel the connection between these people-these actors. And the story is quite charming. I mean, there's some difficult moments, but it's charming. There's some witty moments and stuff. But you get a little bit of every emotion.

Me: As artists, what inspires each of you?

Michelle Gaudette: I like that it's a playground for me. It's fun to go into a world that, you know, is not your everyday world and just get to create. I think it inspires me to challenge myself to be new and different and try to bring something to the story, whether it's a new piece or an old piece that I've done before.

Bruce Lumpkin: Yeah, I think I'd agree with all of that. Simply having a kernel of an idea and then watching it come to life and form, it's a pretty cool experience.

Me: If you could offer any advice to young people hoping to forge successful careers in any aspect of theatre, what would it be?

Bruce Lumpkin: Oh. [Laughs]

Michelle Gaudette: Don't say your real answer! [Laughs]

Bruce Lumpkin: It's... you know what, it is my real answer. [Michelle Gaudette Laughs] It is [Pauses] the most rewarding career you could venture out to achieve. It can also be the most exasperating, most heartbreaking. If this is what you're meant to do, then welcome to the club. But if you think you might like to do this, but you also want to be a doctor, go be a doctor. [Laughs]

I can't imagine doing anything else other than this. I just can't imagine it, and we've been blessed and lucky enough to be able to do it, which is great.

Michelle Gaudette: If you're going to do it, then you certainly better have the passion to do it. I mean, yes, all the other stuff that comes with it, yes, but you really have to have the passion to be doing it, to be part of it, to want to do it, because it's not sequins, lights, and parties. It's a lot of hard work. And you especially have to think of people who have to travel with their work, with their families in one place and they're in another place. So, there's a lot of things that go into play. But, I'd have to say that your passion better be pretty strong.

It's less than a week until TUTS' locally produced production MAN OF LA MANCHA opens at The Hobby Center for the Performing Art's Sarofim Hall. The show runs from February 26 to March 10, 2013, and tickets are selling fast. To get more information and yours tickets, ensuring you don't miss this sure to be fantastic and special production, visit http://www.tuts.com/ or call (713) 558 - 8887.

Photo courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars.

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