BWW Interview: Director Mark Hisler Contextualizes TERRA NOVA at The Vortex

The next show in the Vortex Theater will be Terra Nova, by Ted Tally. Opening March 25 and running until April 17, the play covers the last leg of the ill-fated 1912 Terra Nova South Pole expedition, led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Co-directed by Mark Hisler (left, in below image) and Aaron Worley (right), this show is a cunning balance between a thoughtful social commentary and a visceral human trial. Mark Hisler and I met to discuss this balance, and the history behind it:

What's the background of this expedition?

The play takes place just prior to the beginning of World War I. And it was a very, as I understand it, Romantic period in England-with a capital "R." And part of that Romance was the Age of Exploration. The British were continuing to put their footprint all over the world--anywhere they could plant their flag for queen and country.

No one had gone to the South Pole. Scott had made an expedition to the South pole once before, but he had turned back. So this was his second and final attempt to reach the pole.

He had a rival, didn't he? Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer?

Both Scott and Amundsen spent a lot of time raising money speaking in front of Geographical Societies-this is way before Kickstarter.

Amundsen had been given money to go to the North Pole, but he took the money that he had been given to go north, and went south. He kept that a secret for quite a while. It's not portrayed exactly this way in the play, but he sent Scott a telegram informing him that he was going to South, as Scott was. Scott thought he was going to be unchallenged, but then it became a race.

And one of the devices of the play is that Amundsen haunts Scott throughout.

The dramatic question that the play asks in our production, is "Will Captain Robert Falcon Scott betray his values and his nationalism, his idea of English manhood, in order to save the people that he loves?" That's what Amundsen, this ghost of Amundsen that wanders through the play, is trying to get him to do.

Do you sympathize with Scott, or do you think he's a fool?

I'd say equal measures for me. I don't think pride in and of itself is a bad thing; and it sort of branches out from love of self, love of family, and then heritage, and nationality...

The Vortex has a talkback on April 3, and I look forward to finding out what the audience thinks.

There are a lot of foils to Scott, characters who challenge his idealism.

First, there is Amundsen. Then there is Kathleen Scott, his wife. She's a woman ahead of her time. She was against anything that betrayed independent thinkers. This is not mentioned in the play, but she was disgusted by the suffragettes of that period, because they just seemed like lemmings to her. A mob is a mob, she would have said, whether it's a liberal mob or conservative. So she was disgusted by any kind of conformity and she gave Scott hell about that over the course of her marriage.

These two foils exist in two worlds: One in the wild tundra, one in British civilization. The play is set between those two worlds. Does the play have a center?

It's off center. Not in the dramatic structure; it's a well made play. But it's our intention for the audience to be uneasy over the course of the play. It sets no precedent for when or what the next shift (between worlds) is going to be.

Scott is almost like a time traveller caught between those worlds. Something I referenced with (Brennan Foster, who plays Scott) is Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, which is about Billy Pilgrim, a character unstuck from time, who has no control over where or when he travels.

You mentioned the blurb on the website that you like this play because you want to see how the characters develop in this circumstance-

How their relationships develop. Not so much about how the characters develop-that's interesting but I'm always more interested in how they are in relationship with each other.

The play is very well written in that any one of the crew members will have a very specific view about how he feels about Scott, how he feels about Evans, how he feels about Oates...a trap you can fall into when you do a play, even a play as well written as this, is that (the group) becomes generic-you see it in bad sports movies, movies about a musical band...There is the leader, and then there's the group. And they're not much different from each other, besides particular quirks. (In Terra Nova), these men are really bouncing off each other, and their relationships are changing. What sparks that change is the unexpected and extreme adverse events that happen over the course of their journey.

Would it be a leap to say their perspectives represent their values, and the play is almost like a dialogue to see which values come out on top?

Yes, there's a Socratic quality to the play. Yet it still manages to be very alive. I could see this as a very dead piece as far as the Socratic dialogues that happen in the play. But every character questions his own values, and changes, because of real need.

Scott is the most resistant to change, I think. He is the greatest warrior on behalf of his own beliefs, and what he sees as the British cause, even while facing extreme adversity.

What makes it difficult for him to change?

That's both nature and nurture. He is insanely ambitious; there's an emptiness that needs to be filled. I guess it's not surprising that he is someone who does not have the best people skills. You think of-I'm not sure how apt the comparison is, but Steve Jobs comes to mind as someone who is sort of singular and driven.

How have you helped the actors have develop the characters, and the characters' values?

Well, I really enjoy co-directing and working with Aaron Worley, who has a lot of experience directing. But it's almost always better to ask an actor a question than to give him your perspective. I'm not sitting back in the house with a pipe and saying, "alright actors, I have all the answers." These actors are fantastic and they can't help but to fall into their characters. So they are developing their ideas. It's fascinating to find where they go. That happens without a lot of predetermination.

This is the first time Terra Nova has been produced in Albuquerque, if I'm not mistaken.

Yes, I believe so. There are wonderful revivals that directors in theater companies do, and I feel it's my role to balance that with plays that are little-seen.

You like to add variety and some level of obscurity to the scene.

The gentleman who is playing Amundsen, his name is Malcolm June. He last did a play about twenty years ago, but he's a rock musician--in our director's brother's band, Full Speed Veronica. So far, he's working as hard or harder than anyone--and doing great. I hope he'll continue to do theater. With a small pool of actors in Albuquerque, given how much theater is going on, it's always good to see new faces.

I love seeing new faces, because we'll watch T.V., and we'll be like, "That's the guy from--" and there's always that baggage. I'm not saying it's good or bad, but that (baggage is) what draws tourists to see Broadway shows, especially: He's a fabulous actor, but Benedict Cumberbatch is performing Hamlet--with so many young people having crushes on him, people won't stop taking pictures during the performance! They have to make announcements saying, "Please, keep it together, we're trying to do a play here." Celebrity does that.

The explorers in Terra Nova were celebrities as well, right?

They were already rockstars by the time they left. These four men (in Scott's team) were chosen from thousands of applicants and people that were being considered. And so I think the play is very timely in that it says a lot about celebrity and insatiability. The addictive quality of celebrity.

And what's strange is, their failure makes them even more famous.

If these mistakes hadn't happened and they'd come back fit as a fiddle, they wouldn't have been as admired by the British people. I'm not an expert on the British people, or the American people for that matter, but that's fascinating.

What does that admiration say about these societies?

Not too long ago, just weeks ago, a British army man tried to go cross Antarctica all by himself, pulling his own sled. The South Pole had been conquered, but no one had ever crossed the continent by himself. He didn't write into a journal (like Scott did); he talked into an electronic device. But he did haul that sled by himself.

He ended up calling for help. They helicoptered in, and they picked him up, and he ended up dying of organ failure. If he'd called a week earlier, two weeks earlier, he may have survived. So here, it's really history repeating itself.

Out of respect for the dead--and I'm not saying this--but no one is saying "what a foolish man." No one seems to be saying that. He was good friends with Prince Harry.

Is the next thing some one's gonna do it on a unicycle? It hasn't been done, and a Brit is gonna do it first. I don't claim to understand it, and I'm not fixing to explain it. Does this play justify it? Yes and no.

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From This Author Devon Hoffman

Devon began performing musicals in Albuquerque when he was in Elementary school. He kept with theater even as his voice-change knocked him out of the (read more...)

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