BWW Interview: Cast and Creatives of CityRep's MR. BURNS Discuss the 'Average, Everyday, Post-Apocalyptic, Mind-Bending' Oklahoma Premiere Production

BWW Interview: Cast and Creatives of CityRep's MR. BURNS Discuss the 'Average, Everyday, Post-Apocalyptic, Mind-Bending' Oklahoma Premiere Production

CityRep presents the Oklahoma premiere of the Off-Broadway hit Mr. Burns, A POST ELECTRIC PLAY. Members of the cast (Bob Hess, Kris Schinske, and Paul T. Taylor) and creative team (Donald Jordan and Daniel Leeman Smith) sat down with BroadwayWorld to discuss the relevance and delightful absurdity of their upcoming show, opening this week and running through March 5th. Click here for tickets.

BWW Interview: Cast and Creatives of CityRep's MR. BURNS Discuss the 'Average, Everyday, Post-Apocalyptic, Mind-Bending' Oklahoma Premiere Production

I've seen some of your marketing which includes The Simpsons, but I know nothing about this show. Tell me about it...why should I come see this production?

JORDAN:

From the Artistic Director's perspective, this is one of the five most-produced plays in American regional theater right now; we picked it precisely because it's a significant part of the national theater discussion. It was a huge hit Off-Broadway a few years ago, and we are presenting the Oklahoma premiere. It is a mind-bending, experimental kind of a play. But ultimately, at its core, it's a love letter to the theatre: it talks about the fundamental importance of storytelling to human beings. In the beginning of the play, it starts with some people sitting a campfire trying to remember an episode of The Simpsons. We're basically sent back to the stone age - you see primitive storytelling around the fire. By Act Three, almost a century in the future, you see how storytelling has once again gained a critical piece of importance as a ritualistic way of sharing the collective memory of humanity and society, carrying the memories and lessons of the past into the future.

SMITH:

Act One is seven months after a nuclear meltdown, then we jump forward seven years in Act Two. And by Act Three, it's 75 years the future. So what starts as trying to remember an episode turns into to a full-blown Brechtian opera.

JORDAN:

The first time I saw it, I just sat there and went "Oh, this is impossible...we won't even be able to sell tickets...I'm not sure we can do it...we gotta do this play!" It reminds me a bit of Angels In America. You go to describe it: "Angels In America is just like...no other play ever!" It's sprawling and epic and it should be a mess and a disaster, but it's brilliant. It breaks all the rules: you can't possibly have a play like that, except you did, and it worked.

Do you need to be familiar with The Simpsons already to enjoy this?

JORDAN:

No. In fact, when Anne Washburn wrote it, she considered making it about Seinfeld, but ultimately went with The Simpsons.

What makes you want to bring it here to Oklahoma City audiences, who are known for being a little more conservative in their tastes?

JORDAN:

That's actually part of our mission. We pick the plays for our season and think "There's a segment of the population that comes to theatre at all, and then there's a smaller segment that comes to any theatre that's not Cats. (laughter) Then there's an even smaller segment that comes to theatre that's slightly challenging...and then there's the five of us and three other people that want to come see this play because it's just all that." But if you don't leave this play exhausted and exhilarated and confused and thinking, then we haven't delivered all the groceries.

SCHINSKE:

And although it is wild and experimental, it's something that everyone can identify with.

SMITH:

I think the real entry point for people is that it does the same thing that all these post-apocalyptic stories right now do. Like The Walking Dead: it uses a particular circumstance to tell a story about people. The fact that it's The Simpsons, or zombies, is really irrelevant, because it's actually just giving you a frame, a lens, through which to view human behavior.

JORDAN:

I think it speaks to people who have a great love of the theatre and an understanding of storytelling. That's who this play for.

SMITH:

When they were considering the play, Don asked me if I thought it would resonate with young audiences? And I said absolutely, especially because it's something that so part of the zeitgeist right now. Particularly as it relates to The Walking Dead, that experience that everybody in America is tapping into - that's the universal thing. Any lighting designer will tell you, the properties of light: you cannot perceive light without darkness. It doesn't exist. Otherwise you would not be able to see and perceive light if there was no darkness. And for me the story is about survival, but it's also about that light and dark thing - what we are afraid of and what is actually scary in the world are not these outside circumstances, but it's really you and me...that's the thing to be afraid of.

BWW Interview: Cast and Creatives of CityRep's MR. BURNS Discuss the 'Average, Everyday, Post-Apocalyptic, Mind-Bending' Oklahoma Premiere Production

I know this is a co-production with Oklahoma City University. What's it like for you as professional artists coming in and working with the students?

SCHINSKE:

I love it. They work hard, they do their best, they're gracious. Not being a musical theater person myself - I generally do straight plays - my understudy is actually helping me quite a lot. They seem like old souls. I was just thinking last night how grateful I am to be around the students that are having the opportunity that was not afforded me when I was a young girl. They don't seem to take it for granted, and that encourages me and gives me hope. This production is about hope, and the future, and I'm just happy with what I see in them and I'm enjoying it a lot.

JORDAN:

That's part of the dream of CityRep. The founders of CityRep, when we went to school in the 1970s, there was no regional theater in Oklahoma City. You had to leave if you wanted to go pursue a career. All of the kids in this show, for most of them it's their first Equity production, many of them are starting the EMC Equity Membership Candidacy program, starting to earn their card. That's a really big step forward for people. We have three collegiate training programs in this town that in any other city would be the preeminent theatrical training program - probably for the state. And we've given kids from all three schools their Equity cards, and all of those kids who have worked with us from each of those schools have gone on to Broadway and television and things like that. That was part of the dream in starting the theater... That's how (cast member) Bob (Hess) and I met. The Dallas Theater Center had a program that works like that: a graduate program where you were a student for 4 hours a day, and for the other 18 hours a day you were a working member of a major regional theater. There was no experience like it - for really setting your standards, being with people on stage and learning from them, learning the mechanics of how regional theatre would work. It was an extraordinary experience.

TAYLOR:

-and I'm a kid at heart so I fit right in.

BWW Interview: Cast and Creatives of CityRep's MR. BURNS Discuss the 'Average, Everyday, Post-Apocalyptic, Mind-Bending' Oklahoma Premiere Production

Paul, you've been in a production of this play before. How is it revisiting a piece? Is it a very different production? Do you find lots of similarities?

TAYLOR:

The process has been different. I think because it's a co-production with OCU we've been very organic...lots of exploration. The fact that I already did a production of it - and it was very well-received production and I felt proud of it - it was very strong, structured, and stuck to the script. To have that knowledge and then sort of go "back to school" ...I could refer to the script and decide "Okay, I could do what I already did, or what could I do instead?" I could go out there and just try to do exactly what I did at before, but that would be lazy and not as much fun as what we are creating here.

What about this play, specifically, excites you?

SCHINSKE:

I liked that it would be a big challenge for me. Although it does tie together very well, it is a bit like taking on three different plays. And I thought "Fantastic! Sometimes I only get to do one play a year, so this is like getting to do three!"

HESS:

That's what the appeal of it was. It bends the time continuum, the character continuum, and is also very pithy - socially - and relevant in our current climate. Because we are in a deluge right now, with a strong voice saying "Here are old legends and we must adhere to them! Here are the lessons we've learned from this story that was written 4,000 years ago, and we need to take them literally!" And this play says "Well, let's take a look at the root of what the story actually was, and you'll see it's kind of silly if you take that as something to live by, because that wasn't actually what happened." The motives behind those things-

JORDAN:

Storytelling is fundamental to us as human beings. It is essential if we take it as food for thought, but when you start to use it as ammunition against your fellow human beings, it becomes a whole different and dangerous side of humanity.

TAYLOR:

The story to me is, when we get down to it, it's about Good and Evil. The character of Mr. Burns, he has this nuclear power plant, he's the reason for this apocalypse. This greed and trying to bend nature...basically destroying the world and killing all of these people. It's terrifying! And that certainly does resonate today with what's going on. It's just scary, how relevant it is.

JORDAN:

But for your typical, average, everyday, post-apocalyptic, futuristic, mindbending play (laughter) ...it's actually - ultimately - optimistic. It's helpful. As in human history, we take two steps forward and sometimes one big step back, but ultimately things endure.

TAYLOR:

Nature takes care of itself.

JORDAN:

Exactly. And even at the end, they debate, "Is evil gone?"

TAYLOR:

And it never is. It never dies -

JORDAN:

-but progress continues.

TAYLOR:

That is the ultimate truth of the play I think. Hope can win, temporarily...ultimately I hope that's what does win - love.

CityRep's Mr. Burns, A POST ELECTRIC PLAY opens this week, and runs Friday February 24th -Sunday March 5th, 2017 in the CitySpace Theatre at the Civic Center Music Hall. For tickets, call 405-297-2264, or CLICK HERE to buy online.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

BWW Interview: Cast and Creatives of CityRep's MR. BURNS Discuss the 'Average, Everyday, Post-Apocalyptic, Mind-Bending' Oklahoma Premiere Production

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