BWW Interview: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at Theatre Baton Rouge
It's common knowledge that Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, is a timeless classic which has been read and loved by millions. Many of us have read the book because our middle school English teacher required it, but we discovered we couldn't put it down.
Lee tells her story through the eyes of 6-year-old Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, who lives with her widowed father, Atticus, and her older brother, Jem. Atticus, a lawyer, is assigned to defend Tom Robinson, a black man charged with the rape of a young white woman in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, in 1935. As the children follow their father's work, they grow to understand and respect their him, while at the same time becoming more disillusioned with the town that is not as idyllic as it seems.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was timely when it came out in 1960 in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and it is still relevant today. Now, Theatre Baton Rouge provides a warm, welcoming environment for audiences to experience this thought-provoking, and transforming tale. Broadway World.com spoke with co-directors Jenny Ballard and Zac Thriffiley about using theatre for social change, and the importance of seeing this story brought to life.
Can you share some of the reasoning why "To Kill A Mockingbird" was selected for the season?
Ballard: Absolutely! Well, you know when I submitted my initial directing proposal when I was applying for this job, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was one of the shows on that list. I've always really loved the book; I've always really loved the movie. My father is a huge fan of the book and has always lived by the principles of Atticus Finch, and I thought that it seemed like it was the perfect time to do this play with all of the racial tension we have been experiencing here in Baton Rouge as well as across the country. We certainly seem to be having a national crisis of no empathy happening, and of course, Atticus Finch is all about learning to understand where someone else is coming from and what makes them tick and trying to be more empathetic and sympathetic to those around him. So, this just seemed to be an important play to do right now. I feel like our community, and our world needs it.
Thriffiley: I know for me, I was part of the play-reading committee whenever the play was chosen, and once the season was finalized I must have been emailing Jenny every other week wanting to be involved in the show. Eventually, she got back to me and asked how about if we co-direct. It's a big show, and we haven't opened a season with a show of this magnitude, so it required two perspectives to come in but also be on the same page. As Jenny said, it's a story that everyone seems to know and love, but at the same time, we forget the messages of it so easily. We would rather cast judgment than show compassion. We'd rather point the finger than reach out a helping hand. I think it's an important story to tell, and I'm honored to be a part of it.
Do you have any thoughts on using theatre as an outlet for activism?
Ballard: I think the arts, in general, are our best chance of getting positive messages out there, and both being an activist and advocating for the things that we want to see the world in which we live. I think theatre is especially effective because it forces you to walk in someone else's shoes for two hours. You have to open your mind a little bit when you're watching a play or watching a musical. And I think storytelling, in general, gives us the ability to step back a little bit and try to understand having to walk that walk. So it's a gentle easing into trying to be a more understanding and empathetic person and trying to be an activist and change the world in which we live. I certainly think shows like this one have the best potential of doing this just because they attack such important things so honestly and candidly. And this show specifically is gentle and beautiful and does a nice job of combating all of the themes within it with good people. And I think this is the kind of show that makes people want to take a stand and want to speak up when they see some injustice and want to try to change the minds of people around them or look at their situations and question their belief systems. I am personally a huge advocate for social change being brought about through theatre and the arts, and I think that is one of the big reasons we are all trying so hard to take this direction with the theatre, to try to do more shows that raise social awareness and do better work within our world.
It's such a beloved story, and it is so much better for people to hear this story as it deals with themes of racism, sexism, elitism that still prevail today.
Ballard: I agree, and there is something about seeing it through the eyes of children that makes it that much more heart-wrenching and that much more disturbing and yet that much more effective. It's a very gentle way of telling the story and getting under your skin without realizing it's happening.
Thriffiley: I think community theatre, in particular, is in a unique position when it comes to activism through arts because as opposed to when you go see a show on Broadway, it's the job of these performers to tell these stories, to convey these messages. Here in Baton Rouge and at Theatre Baton Rouge, we're telling these stories, and we're also an integral part of the community around us. So when you see Tom Robinson, he's not just an actor playing Tom Robinson, this is a friend in the community who is a student at LSU and who teaches dance classes. When you see people up there who are part of the mob or part of the jury they're school teachers, and they're police officers, and they're members of the community you see outside the theatre every day. So I think it not only enables us to tell this story through this art form, but it also puts us in a position to have these conversations outside the theatre as well. I think it can start a city-wide conversation about these issues in a way that puts a very human face to it.
What are some of the main differences with the script compared to the book?
Ballard: Zac and I have talked a lot about how this adaptation does a great job of capturing the spirit of the book. A major difference between the script and the book is that the script is narrated by an adult Jean Louise who's looking back on her childhood and trying to fully understand exactly what it was that Atticus was trying to teach her. So Jean Louise, who is played by Ally Guay, serves as the narrator who uses a lot of the exposition within Harper Lee's book within her narrative paragraphs. Christopher Circle who adapted it was smart in choosing that as kind of the device with which he was going to include a lot of Harper Lee's wonderful imagery and settings and style of writing. So that is captured well within the script.
Thriffiley: I think it is very streamlined. This show is maybe two hours long tops, so it clips along nicely, and I think the effect of that is when the big dramatic scenes come, they come, and they hit hard, and they hit fast. It shows the town's transition from this nice, happy town into this town that is very divided over the issue of the trial of Tom Robinson. Which does it at such a quick pace that the audience can't help but be pulled into the story. And when they're pulled into the courtroom, and those testimonies are coming, it's coming one after another after another, so it's also a very visceral experience for the audience. It's tough not to feel like you're onstage with the characters sometimes.
Ballard: Yes it does. That is what he's created, a memory play, and one thing we've been working on is how do we make this memory play and make it fully active at all times. And Ally is doing a great job of moving the story along and turning that exposition into dramatic action. It's been cool to watch. We're trying to get this effect where we feel like we're turning a page and we're in a different scene. And then she talks to us and turns a page, and we're in a different scene.
What were some of the challenges of bringing the script to life?
Thriffiley: People are expecting certain moments in the play, so obviously we have to include the moment where Scout is on her daddy's lap, and he's telling her hey, don't shit on a Mockingbird, make sure you know to walk around in someone else's shoes before judging them. So we included moments like that. But I think the other challenge was taking a story that is familiar to nearly everyone but to also make these scenes new and fresh and that when you find out Tom is guilty at the end of the trial it's like a band-aid being ripped off over and over again. We tried hard to add a layer of originality and freshness to it to keep the play new and very much rooted in the period in which it was written, but also keeps it rooted in how those civil rights issues are still being manifested today.
Ballard: One of the big challenges for me, and for Zac and the cast is a lot of the language and words that are used within the play that set the scene in 1930 Maycomb. We've had a lot of conversations about how this language is incredibly offensive. We're very uncomfortable hearing it used, we're very uncomfortable asking people to use it, and it's very important to keep it within the confines of the story that we are telling. But we decided that it was very important to maintain the text as it was written because, without that understanding of what this world was, we can't understand how far we came and what work we still need to do. It's been tough, we've had a lot of very intense, honest conversations. It's a very hard world to step into. We need to be doing everything we can to make sure we never return to something like that.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD runs through October 8, 2017. Performances will
be Thursday-Saturday night (7:30 p.m.) and Sunday afternoons (2 p.m.), with an
additional matinee on Sunday, October 1st at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 with student tickets available for $20, and are on sale now! TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is rated "PG." To purchase tickets or for more information, please visit theatrebr.org.