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BWW Interview: Bree Bridger Talks Directing Mamet's DUCK VARIATIONS for Firecracker Productions

Bree Bridger directs a gender-swapped version of
THE DUCK VARIATIONS for Firecracker Productions
Photo by Michi McMahon,
courtesy of

THE DUCK VARIATIONS' Emil and George spend their time watching birds--ducks--and making conversation that is often for the very same birds. The two characters talk, unintelligently, about the ways of ducks and, intelligently, about life.

Producing this play is a victory for Firecracker Productions for three reasons. One, it is a David Mamet (GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS and OLEANNA) play. Second, the company has filled Mamet's predictably testosterone play, originally intended for male actors, and filled it with the virtues, flaws, dreams, and musings--both full of meaning and full of it--of two women (and two female actors). Third, the famously cantankerous Mamet agreed wholeheartedly with the changes.

BroadwayWorld talks to Bree Bridger who directs Tasha Gorel (Emil) and Karen Schlag (George) in the now estrogen-driven play, and Firecracker Productions founder and Executive Director Sammy McManus chimes in.

What are the benefits of changing the two characters to women? Is it an artistic choice or, since male characters are sometimes given more nuance and range, a way to provide an acting opportunity for women?

Bree Bridger: The impetus was to provide an opportunity to talented women actors to work with a David Mamet text, in a way not often available to them. Mamet's writing carries with it the reputation of providing limited archetypes for women performers, that they are either reliant on the male protagonist, or their agency is primarily sexual in nature. This particular script has very little of those particular politics, but is still rife with Mamet's trademark language, humor, and philosophizing. It's a task any talented performer should have the opportunity to tackle.

It was not difficult to conceive that these conversations could--and do--happen between women, but we couldn't pretend the subtext would be identical. We have done a lot of dramaturgical work and analysis to determine how certain exchanges read coming from men as opposed to women, so it has been an engaging artistic process as well. We want to do honor to the script while recognizing these differences. We have committed not to change a single gendered pronoun or generic 'he' in the script. It is Mamet after all.

I think people familiar with the script will be moved by how our actors, Karen Schlag and Tasha Gorel, have built powerful drives and nuanced anxieties into their performances. It's valuable to consider the issues that women stare at the sky or into reflective surfaces and ponder. They have smartly taken the characters as written and found a way to live in them as women without compromising the heart of the story.

David Mamet's plays are often very testosterone driven. Very concerned with maleness, the culture of men, and the male perspective. Presumably, that's a conscious decision on his part. How did obtaining permission from him to change the gender of the characters go? How did he respond to the request?

Sammy McManus: When Bree and I discussed the idea of changing genders, I don't think either of us actually expected to be granted permission. Mamet has condemned gender swapping in his plays on multiple occasions. In response to a Vegas production of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS that featured female actors, he said "I am reminded of [Constantin] Stanislavski's statement: Any director who does something 'interesting' with the script doesn't understand the text."

I wish there was more of a story to tell here, but I asked if we could examine how the conversation would differ if it were women, and 48 hours later he gave us the green light as long as we didn't change any text. It was a pleasant surprise!

BroadwayWorld: Speaking of Mamet's focus on maleness, even THE DUCK VARIATIONS seem very much part of the culture of masculinity. It's about two characters pontificating about ducks and making much deeper conclusions. However, neither character knows anything about ducks. And both have a strong investment in appearing that they do. This is a very male characteristic. (The millennial generation even has a name for it--mansplaining.) How did this translate to women characters?

The way women compete with each other does tend to read differently than the way men do, but it happens. We have avoided stereotypes as much as we can. In our presentation, generational differences and the Internet era come into play too. The dynamic of who's one-upped whom is always shifting. Not giving much away of what becomes of these characters' friendship, I think the text was able to lead us somewhere that feels natural for our characters as they are, without us having to force anything onto it.

BroadwayWorld: Two characters talking about ducks. Yes, it goes deeper than that, but the audience will still see two characters on stage. How do you keep that interesting? Are your plans to keep the actors talking around each other rapid speed à la THE GILMORE GIRLS? Or will it be a nice easy pace à la THE HATEFUL EIGHT?

Bree Bridger: I still need to see THE HATEFUL EIGHT--I know! We took our cues from the title and structure of the script and thought about this piece musically. In each variation, they are playing on the same theme, but changes in tempo, pace, melody and rhythm occur throughout. Sometimes the actors as instruments find harmony, sometimes cacophony, sometimes it's a solo piece, and sometimes they're in perfect unity.

In treating the piece with reverence, we must treat it with theatricality. Written in the early '70s, when Mamet was borrowing heavily from [Harold] Pinter and [Bertolt] Brecht, we felt free to build to a thunderous crescendo and take a few moments further than people in the natural world might do.

BroadwayWorld: What will the set, costumes, light and sound be like? What were your choices there?

Bree Bridger: This script doesn't demand a lot more than intelligent actors and a willingness to play. That said, we've developed a prop heavy show. We wondered in rehearsal--what brought each of them here? How did they plan to pass the time at the park all damn day before happening upon the other? How can we take that idea and push it further?

We want to allow the text and their performance to take focus, and for the audience to picture themselves where the characters start. The humor and absurdity build out over time, carrying everyone along, and the design supports that.

BroadwayWorld: What about the play excites you that you think will excite the audiences as well?

Bree Bridger: While it's not the first time Mamet (by far), or THE DUCK VARIATIONS, has been produced in Houston, it is the first time the city will get to see it in this interpretation. With recent Mamet productions notoriously getting the C&D [cease and desist] due to gender identity explorations, Firecracker Productions is excited to be trusted to present that kind of exploration to our community. Beyond that, it's just a fun show overall, and the anxieties the characters talk around are relatable to all types.

Sometimes we find it easier to tell strangers our troubles than people we know very well. The saying is that theater should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. DUCK VARIATIONS is not an extreme experience, but we do hope some audiences leave with their baggage a little lighter, feeling a kinship with George and/or Emil at the end of the night.

Speaking for myself, the chance to work with some of Mamet's earliest theatrical writing, at a time where he was developing his now iconic style and voice, in a new time and place is what excites me. I feel like a playwright's personality comes through clearest in their rougher years. Our actors are excited to have the opportunity to do this kind of character and dialogue study, building a complex vision from a minimalist text.

THE DUCK VARIATIONS. March 11-26. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Frenetic Theater, 5102 Navigation Blvd. $10-$40

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