Roundabout Theatre Company’s Underground theatre currently looks like a cornfield in Nebraska. Well, not quite. But the walls are filled from floor to ceiling with corn, and the black box space, which is typically configured as a standard proscenium, has been completely transformed for an in-the-round staging of Alex Lubischer’s Bobbie Clearly. The play is difficult to categorize: not a straight comedy and not quite a tragedy, though it does tell the story of a boy who shoots a girl in the middle of a cornfield. Bobbie Clearly, played out like the filming of a documentary, looks at how a small Nebraskan town—from the cop and the nurse, to the co-captains of the dance team—metabolize this traumatic event over a number of years, eventually becoming a part of who they are and shaping who they will become.
Playbill spoke with director Will Davis about the play, his process, and why theatre is particularly exciting right now.
What was it about the script that hooked you?
Will Davis: It ticked off an important box for me: the impossible box. I’m very interested in seeing how we can manifest things onstage that seem impossible. As opposed to giving you exactly what’s on the page, I’m looking to give you an expanded, slightly abstracted heart of what the thing is.
What seemed impossible about Bobbie Clearly?
It’s a three-act play that is primarily direct address, that says it’s a documentary film. And there’s a “film crew” and we’ll never see them! There are a lot of nice traps in it, places where a theatre audience could disengage if those things were done in an un-theatrical way.
Your production is highly theatrical—it’s very immersive, and you’ve completely transformed the Underground theatre. Talk to me about your staging.
What I wanted to do was create a sense of something beyond the audience—a mythic space—which was the idea behind the 360 degrees of corn that surround the audience. It’s also about feeling like we’re always in the cornfield and in this moment when the traumatic event occurred. Once we’d decided that, it became clear that the audience needed to be able to see not only the corn, but each other. I decided on fluorescent lights (taking advantage of Underground’s low ceilings) for the first act to provide an almost town-hall type of space and the feeling that the audience and the actors are ‘all in this together.’ When we get rid of the fluorescent lights and focus the lights theatrically, the second act begins to feel like a spectacle. In the end, we’re transported to this other place.
There’s a wonderful dance scene in the production which has to be seen rather than described. How fun was it to choreograph?
The most fun! I come to the theatre through dance so I always think about the way a play moves first. I’ve developed a system of how to make dance for actors—it’s not necessarily about technique, it’s about feeling. Another thing that I’ve found with creating dance for actors is to make the moves a story. With the dance in Bobbie Clearly, we decided it would be an expression of the five stages of grief.
What do you think Bobbie Clearly says about the human experience?
A good way to distill it is through the song that is referenced in the play: a church hymn called “There is a Wideness in God’s Mercy.” I think the play pivots in looking at that as a statement and as a question. The piece is asking: What is mercy and what are the qualities of mercy? To forgive someone does not mean that the pain leaves you. To forgive someone is, in it’s own way, torture.
You work on new plays a lot. What excites you about that process of building from the ground up?
The foundation of my directing process and practice is the phrase: ‘How curious.’ That in any given scenario, whether we think something is going well or badly, we say ‘how curious,’ which takes it off the binary of success and failure. That is one of the reasons I love working with playwrights, because we can sit in wonderment and process with something, and respond to each other. It’s an exchange that’s live in the moment.
What kind of theatre is lighting you up right now?
When I go and see a show that feels like there’s a little bit of punk-rock in it, I get really excited. What I mean by that is that there’s some anarchy threaded through the middle of it. There’s something that doesn’t feel polished and buttoned up—there’s an aliveness or impishness inside the work. When I see that, I’m seeing something that only live performance can do.
Another thing that excites me is that I’m starting to see the wheels turning in terms of representation onstage. As a vocally trans person, I think about that a lot. Whether the fiction of a play is political or not, the stage is a political place. I'm excited by theatre that is part of an expansive vision.
Bobbie Clearly is running through May 6 at Roundabout Theatre Company.