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BWW Interview: Tim Bond of SIMPLE GIFTS at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Celebrates Our Common Humanity

The Artistic Director of the Tony-winning theatre company crafts a new holiday show for all of us

BWW Interview: Tim Bond of SIMPLE GIFTS at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Celebrates Our Common Humanity
Tim Bond, Artistic Director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
(Photo by Hillary Jeanne Photography)

If there's any truth to the notion that names can become our destiny, then I can't think of a more apt name for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's new Artistic Director than Tim Bond. As an artist, as a leader and as a person, he is all about finding and honoring those things that can bring us all together. The latest case-in-point is Simple Gifts, the brand-new holiday show he has crafted to ring in the season. Simple Gifts is a joyful, multicultural celebration of beloved holiday songs and traditions from many diverse backgrounds. Conceived and directed by Bond, the show features a cast of Bay Area theater veterans who share beautiful music, meaningful memories, and take audiences on a journey through a variety of winter celebrations, including Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Bodhi Day, Noche Buena, Diwali, Las Posadas, Winter Solstice, as well as exploring Christmas traditions from around the world. Presented as part of TheatreWorks from Home, Simple Gifts will be livestreamed at set times Thursdays to Sundays through December 27, 2020, with on-demand streaming available December 28, 2020 - January 1, 2021. Live post-show conversations with members of the cast will follow every performance. For additional information, and to gain streaming access to Simple Gifts, visit TheatreWorks.org.

I spoke with Bond by phone this week about how he came up with the idea for the show and went about putting it all together in the time of Covid. We also talked about what the winter holidays mean to him and his own traditions and memories. He is effortlessly engaging and very easy to talk to, sort of like that interesting person you happen to meet at a party and suddenly find yourself chatting away with about any number of things. And it seems that any conversation with Bond ultimately comes around to his passion for using the arts to bring people together. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you come up with the idea for Simple Gifts?

Well, we couldn't do a live performance this holiday season like so many theater companies right now, and I had in my pocket a concept from a theater that I first started at, coming right out of grad school. A show called, at that time, Voices of Christmas that my mentor, Rubén Sierra, created one year. He was just like "You know, there's all these holiday shows, but I don't see them being inclusive of many cultures and actors from diverse backgrounds, and the different holidays that happen outside of Christmas, and even within Christmas, all the different holiday celebrations throughout the world." So he gathered a cast and did the show in the lobby of the theater. The show ran 8 days, and it packed out the entire time. He extended it another week, and word got out there was this really beautiful show about connecting to folks.

That show ended up being done for 15 years straight and sold out every year in Seattle, and I directed it a couple times. So I have a long history with that show, but that was a long time ago and so when I got here and this situation came up, I felt like given everything going on in the world, this might be a really nice gesture, a gift to actors that are out of work, a gift to our audience who haven't been able to come and see anything for a while, and a way to engage our staff and sort of give back in a way this holiday season.

Once you'd settled on the concept for the show, how did you go about putting it together?

It was about seeing who I could find in the community, performers who could sing and who also might have an interesting experience to share from their winter holidays, whether it be cultural, different traditions, or some event that occurred to them during the holiday season that ended up becoming a special gift to them. Not an actual, physical gift, but something that you carry with you through memory and in your heart for the rest of your life, that was transformational for them. So I interviewed dozens of actors, which was also a great way to start to get to know a number of actors here in the Bay Area. And they were singing, but also instead of doing a monolog or something from a play, they were telling their own personal story. It was a very special way to get to know people, and people were so generous and giving of some very personal parts of their lives and their families and their particular cultures or religions or traditions.

From that, I culled down to a smaller group and did callbacks, and just tried to flesh out some of their stories and then finally selected 11 really wonderful, generous actors from a number of different cultural backgrounds - people from Israel but living here in the Bay Area now who were celebrating Hannukah, someone who's Japanese-American and half Jewish, someone who is half Italian and half Mexican, someone who was Filipino-American. I mean I could go on... It's just an interesting group with such amazing stories to tell.

And then I started talking to them about winter solstice, and about the Buddhist holiday Bodhi Day, and about Las Posadas which comes out of Mexico but is celebrated throughout the United States and at Christmas time for seven days, and Kwanzaa. Michelle Jordan, who's an amazing performer, singer and person was really interested in talking about Kwanzaa and had a song for that. We wanted to celebrate all these different cultures. I then got together with them on Zoom and did a workshop with each individual person, taking their monologs and their holidays and fleshing them out and editing and working them through.

Billy Liberatore, our music director, was with me the whole time as well, and he would talk to them about their song and come up with an arrangement. Sometimes they became more choral with other people in the cast and sometimes they were solos. He had to create a whole score of music and both charts as well as a music track that he recorded that they could rehearse to. And then he recorded a conductor track of him for more complex pieces so that when the actors came in to record, they could see their intros and cutoffs in the complex choral singing that's in the piece, with an earbud feeding them the music track they were singing to. Then we had to film them all individually, which was really the hard part. They had to come in by themselves and film, knowing they were going to be blending with a group of other singers, which was an incredible challenge, but also a big experiment for us.

BWW Interview: Tim Bond of SIMPLE GIFTS at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Celebrates Our Common Humanity
(L to R) Maya Greenberg, Michael Gene Sullivan, Velina Brown, David Crane and Amy Lizardo
in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's presentation of Simple Gifts
(Photo courtesy of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley)

You're initially offering the stream at a set time each day. What was the thinking behind that decision?

We found out through our Marketing department speaking with other theaters around the Bay Area and nationally that if you just leave it wide open like Netflix, you can get it anytime you want, it doesn't motivate theatergoers to see things. They would be like "Oh, I wanna see that." and then 20 other things come by, and eventually they go "Oh, god, I waited too long! I missed it." When they have a set time, it's more like theater. It's like "Oh, I have my ticket for next Thursday at 7:00." and they put it on their calendar and they do it. So that's the reason we're experimenting this time with that format. But the last week of the run between Christmas and New Year's, or put another way, during Kwanzaa, it will be available any time. So if somebody's like "I can't pick a set time." or whatever, they can choose during that week to see it. So there's both options available.

For me personally, the holiday season was always my favorite time of year when I was a kid, although as an adult I've come to realize that for a lot of people it's a little more complicated. Do you have any special holiday memories from your childhood?

Yes, I do. Many of them are really good, and some of them are hard, as happens in families, and some of them are sad, in losing people, but you know I've come at this point in my life to appreciate the memories and to try to carry them and honor them in my heart. And actually this show really reminds me of that, and I'm hoping it will remind many people of their memories and their traditions, of those little special things. Like the feeling of you wake up and you go [breathlessly], "Did Santa come?!" or whatever your tradition is. There's something special and magical and kind of mystical about these holidays.

I have a great memory of my oldest brother. I was right at the age when I was about to stop believing in Santa Claus [laughs] and they actually climbed out their window in the middle of a snowstorm when we lived in Bowling Green, Ohio. I was probably 10 or 11 years old, and I think they'd overheard me saying that I was kind of questioning whether there really was a Santa that year. So they went out on the roof late at night. I was just about to fall asleep and I hear this sound on the roof and then these jingle bells, and I'm like "Omigod! It's Santa!" and then I'm scared to get out of my bed and I don't know what to do and I eventually go downstairs to where the Christmas tree is. We had a chimney in that house, and our stockings are hung up and right as I'm about to get to the tree, I hear jingle bells again outside so I run to this window in our little dining room. I can see out on the lawn someone in a Santa suit just for like maybe two seconds running through the snow, and there's the sound of these jingle bells, and then they're gone. And I thought "Omigod, I saw Santa as he was going from our house to the next house!"

It was so exciting I could barely sleep after that. I went back upstairs and got into bed and I was just so smiley and happy. The next morning my brother says, "So did anybody hear any sounds up on the roof last night? Cause I sure did." [laughs] And I go "I did, I did!" I'll never forget that. It was such a gift to me. And I'm torn about it because you know you're pulling kids' legs, but it was meant as "Let's keep the magic alive one more year for him." The next year I was like "Nah, there's no Santa." and we laughed about it and it was fine.

But we did have a lot of traditions - you know, the Christmas pickle in the tree, we put out cookies... Every year I still do all that stuff, and I try to celebrate a little piece of all of these different holidays, which is the gift I've gotten from this show. I mark the days and I light a candle or have a moment of connection for all the other people in the world that are celebrating their own traditions, and I love that.

This is an unorthodox holiday season for all of us, and obviously a lot of people are hurting right now. That being said, what are you personally most looking forward to this season?

It's gonna be very, very different for most of us, particularly for all of us who are trying to be safe and looking out for everyone else. I think it's just knowing that we can still gather and connect in other ways. I'll be making more Zoom calls and phone calls to friends and dropping emails to folks than I might normally, knowing how isolated we all are. I'm looking forward to catching up with old friends and just giving a lot of thanks for them and for our health and for getting through 2020. I mean, what a tough year to get through, for so many reasons. So I just have an incredible feeling of gratitude.

I'm hoping this show brings some joy and triggers some good memories for folks. One of the main ideas of this show is the really simple idea of it's better to give than to receive. It's really rich when you can give something to someone and know that it makes a difference in their life, whether it's a physical thing or it's a gesture of goodwill or kindness. I think we need a lot of that right now in this world.

We focus very much on that in the show, but really it came from the actors. And the thing that binds all their different stories and the different holidays is the idea of light overcoming darkness, which is what the winter holidays have always been about. On the darkest days of winter, you know the sun is coming back. Winter solstice and Diwali and Bodhi Day and Christmas and Hanukkah, which is the festival of lights, Kwanzaa - they're all about being thankful for the harvest and for each other and values that we have towards each other, and then knowing that the light is coming back. Candles and light pervade all of those holidays, and they bond us together across cultures, across religions, across all sorts of traditions. It's a very simple, wonderful thing to know that all of humanity is connecting through that month. We wait til the end of the Gregorian calendar year to do it, but if you can carry that all year around, how great would it be?


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From This Author Jim Munson