BWW Interview: Cathy Kurz of Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company
I recently spoke with the Artistic Director and Founder of the Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre Company in Omaha. The company in its 26th consecutive year has been producing some of the finest classic theatre in the metropolitan area.
Cathy, tell me about your background.
I grew up in Kansas and I went to a small college in Wichita. It's a Quaker chartered school called Friends University. I majored in theater for my bachelor's degree and minored in English. I had planned on going to graduate school in theatre at UT Austin, but the young man that I was dating got accepted into the dental school at Creighton. So I moved here to be with him. I ended up in graduate school at UNO. I got a Master's Degree in Theatre and a second Master's in English.
Do you always do the classics at Brigit Saint Brigit?
It's our focus, and it gives audiences the opportunity to see works they may only have read or heard about. The theatre, like all art, is a living form--if the work is powerful, it exists outside of time--the old informs the new, and vice versa.
I'm constantly reading contemporary plays, as well as reading or revisiting works from all time periods. Sometimes when I've run across a newer work that is especially striking, we've mounted it. For example, in past seasons we've included two full-length plays from The Great Plains Theatre Conference: Distant Music by James McClindon and The Great Goddess Bazaar by David Rush. BSB also featured the Tony-nominated/winning plays The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Testament of Mary, Shining City, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Seafarer, and Doubt, all within the first year after each was published.
Was Doubt the same as the movie?
Yes, the play was first. The film changed a few things, but since it was directed by the playwright, it was mostly the same script.
I'm particularly interested in themes and the spoken word: since theatre has been around for at least 2500 years, and has almost always centered on human relationships, it's hard to imagine any theme that hasn't been explored from many different viewpoints. So, to me, it's the way in which it's explored that makes a play memorable. What's it saying? Is it worth the saying? How well does the playwright say it? And often, yes, how long has it lasted? Why, for example, do audiences still appreciate Romeo and Juliet? The basic story is one that's been told over and over; you could probably find a movie on Lifetime that would echo the plot. So why don't we remember and replay all those? R&J lasts because of its depth, varying perspectives, and the quality of the writing. We can imagine feeling what almost everyone in that play feels or has felt at one time or another (not only the title characters).
So it's like the difference between literature and a Harlequin Romance?
Right. What says it in a way that stirs people the most--invites them into imagining themselves in the given circumstances of different characters. Feeling, then thinking, perhaps even a little differently than before.
You seem to have a strong interest in Irish Theater. Do you have an Irish heritage?
My grandfather immigrated from Scotland, was "Scotch Irish." He died when I was very young, but my mother was his favorite (among 10). He shared a lot of songs and stories with her, and as I was growing up, she passed them on to me. That influenced me, and I am particularly attracted by lyrical speech and imaginative idiom. For example, in plays, novels, and short stories, I was first drawn to the Irish writers and writers of the American South. Though their subjects often reflect the deep turmoil of their history, they don't wallow, and their tragedies aren't dirge-like, don't flatten their voices. Seems like it's just the contrary--they shine somehow--not in a surface, cheery way, but more subtly and so alive. The way they use language makes me feel their stories, and they stay with me.
What's coming up this season?
-----Irish play. I'll be directing Bold Girls opening on February 15, running for 3 weekends, and it will be the cornerstone of our Irish Festival this year. Playwright Rona Munro takes a traditional element of Irish storytelling--the supernatural--and turns its sideways, in a way making three of the four characters psychologically ghostlike, and the obviously-ghostlike character, real.
Since it's not that well-known in the US, here's an idea of what the play's about. Set in a Belfast Catholic ghetto, in 1990, as it opens, we meet three women, neighbors, in the sort of cheerful chaos of hurrying to finish laundry and getting children fed so as to be able to embark on a rare night out. They're all war widows in one way or another (by death or by prison) as a result of Northern Ireland's "Troubles," still raging, but all remain vital, outspoken, filled with humor and energy. At first, it seems a lighthearted tale, and we look forward to spending time with these "bold girls" in their upcoming adventures.
But early on there's just a shimmer of uneasiness--quickly dismissed--when one of them, Marie, half-jokingly confides that she thinks she's being haunted by a ghost. She's repeatedly caught sight of a bedraggled, teenaged girl, in a soaking wet, white dress, standing at the end of walk or outside the window, staring at her. After Marie turns away and back again, the girl is gone. Yes, they all conclude, Marie really needs a night out! Then there's a loud banging at the door. Enter the "ghost," real but strange, a grifter, but not.
From that point on in the play, whether she's present or not, this young woman introduces a sense of volatility, and the evening takes on a sinister hue.
-----Irish Festival Events. Then there are the Festival features, which include two shorter (about an hr) Irish-oriented performance pieces. Each of these will be performed once each week during the weeks of the 18th and the 25th.
Sirens' Songs: The Women of Joyce. This year we're excited to welcome back the talented Laura Leininger-Campbell and LB Buchelt in an original production they created and perform, Sirens' Songs: The Women of Joyce. It's a lyrically beautiful work that weaves James Joyce's fictional female characters with letters to his life-long lover and longtime wife, Nora. Passionate, funny, poignant, it really feels like an intimate encounter with Joyce himself. Laura and LB are just superb.
Irish Whiskey-Tasting and Storytelling to Match The other offering will combine Irish whiskey-tasting with lively tales about the background of the old Irish distilleries and first-person accounts of Irish pub adventures. We're really fortunate in the hosts of this: siblings Pegeen Reilly, a certified Irish whiskey sommelier, and brother Hugh Reilly, an author who will share stories from his book, Drinking with My Father's Ghost: A Journey through Ireland's Pubs. Their father, Bob Reilly, a grandson of Ireland, was BSB's first Irish cultural advisor, and for many years was my stalwart and patient educator for many of our Irish productions. Anytime we can feature part of this clan on our stage, it's a great celebration.
-----Incident at Vichy, by Arthur Miller will open in March. Vichy, France, 1942. "Tell me how there can be persons anymore?" Nearly 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz and Birkenau, that question still rings out like a gunshot. Directed by Scott Kurz, the play opens on a group of strangers simmering in the make-shift lobby outside an interrogation room, fresh from being plucked off the streets from their everyday lives. As each is questioned, one-by-one, trivial social connections become lifelines between captive and captor, and personal convictions get weighed beside self-interest. Some of the men are released and some are "relocated." As the thread of tension is pulled tighter, we are given a front row seat to the spectacle of human interaction in times of peril. Arthur Miller highlights the result of apathy and willful disbelief and the vulnerability of immigrant/oppressed peoples to ask questions that are as dangerous today as they were at the time of the play.
-----Assassins, music by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, directed by Eric Salonis, will open in May. Undeniably chilling and irresistibly entertaining at once, this brilliant, darkly satiric musical presents the four assassins and five would-be assassins of US presidents-- from John Wilkes Booth through John Hinkley, Jr. Choosing the setting of an old-time, all-American carnival, with touches of vaudeville and music that begins with the welcoming form of the ballad, the play dares to balance on the high beam horror, comedy, and tragedy, taking on a subject just as taboo now as it was when it premiered in 1990. Nothing is more frightening than a person who is overwhelmingly insecure, yet feels unequivocally entitled. Hence, the opening song: "Everybody Has The Right to Be Happy!"
What have been some of your favorite plays?
Oh, man, that's like asking about your favorite child! I do love the Irish plays--Philadelphia, Here I Come, Shining City, The Playboy of The Western World, Dancing at Lughnasa. All of Chekhov--last season's Uncle Vanya was very special. An Iliad was amazing. And there's a special place in my memory for Streetcar. But with well over a hundred plays in 25 years, there are many more.
What do you think when they take a classic and they adapt it to modern times? For an example, Stupid F***ing Bird as an adaptation of The Seagull?
I don't have one opinion that applies across the board. If the playwright is actually trying to introduce a new idea, a new way of looking at a theme, that can be interesting--though I tend to wonder why the writer doesn't create a wholly new play. In other cases, sometimes it seems that producers, writers, and directors think that the audience isn't smart enough to "get" the original piece, so they alter it to make it contemporary. I don't think one has to pander to people--audiences are smart. Classics are classic, in my opinion, because everyone can "get" it--the needs and emotions of the characters, their confusion and conflicts--we "move in" because we relate. And the expressiveness of the words can be as personal and affective as music--if the speaker means them. The quality of a play has nothing to do with the time in which it was written. The "rub" as Hamlet would say, is not what's being communicated, but how. When directors and actors approach these works with reverence, distancing themselves from the texts as if they're some kind of historical monuments, it's death for the script and tediousness for the poor people who are watching. And I'm afraid that this kind of stilted approach is coming to be confused with, to define, the plays themselves. In contrast, I'm reminded of our recent production of Uncle Vanya in which the actors so fully and personally understood and embraced their characters. It was thrilling, and countless audience members, clearly moved, told me that they were so surprised at how much they loved the play (because they thought maybe they wouldn't "get" Chekhov).
I just saw Julius Caesar down at Nebraska Wesleyan and they made it sound so understandable and relatable.
I love that play. It's so relevant at all times, and I agree, we can really identify with it. The most chilling thing for me is when Brutus is by himself and talks himself into committing murder. When he says that Caesar hasn't really done anything wrong, but, well, he might, so just in case, let's "kill him in the shell," it's horrifying, partly because we can relate to him. Not so much in terms of planning a murder, but watching such a rational and honorable character rationalize away his scruples reminds me that we're so susceptible to doing the same thing--working around our values, to do what we know is wrong. Shakespeare is a hero--all those plays--and such an acute understanding of people. I wish we had more opportunities to see his works, not just here, but nationally. But, again, I do think it's because producers, directors, and actors still hold them a little at arms' length unless they can think of a "new and marketable" approach.
Who is your biggest audience?
I've been surprised in the last few years. We've been producing for 25 years, so of course, we have a large contingent of people who have been attending almost all that time. They are over 40, tend to be readers, and also are well-acquainted with the classics. In the last two or three years, younger people have started coming in significant numbers. I can't say why. They're hard to market to because they're not exactly a community in the sense that they don't share one or two ways of getting their news. Some have come because they have friends in a play or they're reading the play in class. They enjoy it, so they come back and bring others, and this has been happening a lot. The shortened attention span culture that is plaguing us all, and that they were born into, can be a barrier to the idea of younger people coming to live theatre. But in an odd way, I think once they're there, it's a refreshing change--it's the thrill of the immediate--right in front of them--no pause button--no distance as there is when seeing something on a screen. The spectacle is the medium itself. Anything can happen. People can feel the action. They can feel the actor's response to their response. Nothing like it.
Glenn Close said live theatre changes the molecules in a room. I think it does. Even if the actors are doing well, if they're in front of a non-responsive group, the play isn't going to be as exciting as if that audience is engaged. Really it is a circle of energy.