BWW Interview: Director Hunter Bird Talks of Schooling, Being Fellowed & His BRONCO BILLY Connections
Skylight Theatre Company's first world premiere musical, BRONCO BILLY - THE MUSICAL, will be helmed by director Hunter Bird. Based on the 1980 Warner Bros. film Bronco Billy starring Clint Eastwood, this rousing MUSICAL centering on a travelling Wild West show (circa 1979), has already begun previews. Hunter managed to rest his cowboy-booted feet up for a few to answer my inquiring questions.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Hunter! Glad Gary Grossman introduced us at ROTTERDAM's opening night at BLOCK PARTY 2019.
So how did you first connect with Gary, the Skylight and BRONCO BILLY?
I first met the BRONCO BILLY team last year, when my incredible colleague and friend Kristin Hanggi brought me to Los Angeles as her associate director on a 29-hour reading of the show. It was there I met the writers and connected to the show's story of two people challenging one another to become more vulnerable and open-hearted. And when Kristin became busy working on the recent Off-Broadway production of CLUELESS, she generously encouraged us to continue moving forward with the project. Meanwhile, Gary Grossman was at the 29-hour reading and had already been mentoring the writers. Once he and I connected, I knew I couldn't find a theatre producer more game and ready to take on the challenge of shepherding a big new musical in a 99-seat theater.
Have you seen the Clint Eastwood film version since/before you became involved with this world premiere?
Of course! Once I got onboard, I saw the film and was taken by the delightfully odd genre mash up of an old 1950s style cowboy trying to perform to audiences in 1979.
What can the Skylight audiences expect to experience with your cast of fourteen singer/dancers? Can you give us a sneak peek? Or Cliff Notes?
We have certainly put everything you can possibly put into this production. I don't want to give away too much, but let's say we did our best to bring as much of the vivid life of a touring tent show into this small theater.
Has this version changed or tweaked much since its workshop reading at the Matrix you were also involved in with Kristin Hanggi?
It's changed from beginning to end. Literally, there is a completely new beginning and ending, and about fourteen new songs in the show. We've spent a year of development honing the script and finding how best to bring this story to a 2019 audience. I'm excited to show audiences what the show has become.
No! And that's such a joy, to find new creative collaborators and create a unique language that all of us can use to create a cohesive production.
You earned your double BA in theatre at UCLA, and took a Summer Directing Intensive at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in Directing. Did you find a noticeable difference in attitude/tenor between the two education institutions?
UCLA was absolutely the best place for me as an undergraduate. The program gave me the flexibility not only to work in a number of different areas of theater, but also gave space to self-produced projects, which has been an invaluable skill I learned in college. Meanwhile, RADA was such a formidable institution. I won't ever forget showing up to work on HAMLET, and as I walked into the theater, Alan Rickman was coming out and gave us all well wishes as we dove into that text. I'd say RADA was certainly more serious, and I appreciated my time there, but UCLA has a special place in my heart for the people and the teachers.
Your directing resume seems to favor world premieres, rather than established shows. Are you the go-to guy for developing new theatre?
I love developing new works. The thrill of being in a rehearsal room with a creative team and cast discovering things as a company is such an exciting process. I always find it more rewarding when you have the great privilege of telling a particular story for the first time.
What aspects of BRONCO BILLY enticed you to contribute your creative talents?
I think the message - that you have the ability to decide who you want to be, and not what other people dictate you should be based on what you look like or where you're from; and the tone - a madcap homage to Mel Brooks with a love story thrown in - is a challenge; but has been a complete riot to play with in rehearsals.
I've had a very deep collaborative relationship with MTC's Artistic Director Lynne Meadow, having served as her associate director on four productions on and off Broadway. And Gil Cates was the first director I ever assisted. We worked together on NIGHTMARE ALLEY, a musical that also happened to be the last show that he directed before he passed away. Both taught me that true artistic leadership isn't about having all the answers, but instead encouraging space and dialogue with colleagues you admire to find the answer as a company. And that humbleness combined with the fearless belief in the people we surround ourselves with is how I like to work.
For those not in the know, please tell us what a Fellowship is (financial support, institution support, award, recognition).
Directing Fellowships primarily are awards and recognitions honoring young directors who are in the early stages of their careers. There's no financial component, unfortunately!
You've worked in theatre communities on both coasts. Do you find you need to emphasize different aspects of your productions for either audience to 'get' your ideas better?
Not particularly. I'm a director who likes to serve the play first and foremost. So, generally in my work, I don't leave "director fingerprints" all over the production. Instead, I let the play speak for itself. I'm usually not thinking of creating moments so the audience can be aware of my direction. Instead, I try to create the moments the play asks for, and I hope those make the impact on the audience.
What emotions of the Skylight audiences would you like to be accentuated after BRONCO BILLY's curtain call?
We just set it two days ago, and I can say for certain that it's going to be a hell of a lot of fun. Come visit us to find out for yourself!
Thank you again, Hunter! I do look forward to checking out your BILLY BRONCO-ing!
For BRONCO BILLY - THE MUSICAL ticket availability and schedule through June 30, 2019: log onto www.skylighttheatre.org