A Conversation with Scott Bartelson

This Fall, Director Scott Bartelson will embark on a very exciting, very new project for Slant of Light.  With an intimate cast of 3-4 actors, Bartelson and the ensemble will journey out into the Bridgeport community, searching for those effected by the recent economic hardship.  With pen and paper, tape recorders and an empathetic ear, this cast will produce a piece of drama out of the verbatim interviews they collect throughout the coming months.  I sat down with Scott to find out more about this premiere production, which kicks off the Rail Against the Headlines 2011-2012 Season.

Vinny Mraz: Can you tell us a little bit about where the idea for the project came from?

Scott Bartelson: The idea for the project came about when we decided to scratch an already published work that we had been highly considering.  I was really interested in devising work, that’s where my history is, I’ve done a lot of devising work and I’m also really passionate about two things: movement and community.  At the time I was reading a book called the “The Optimism Bias” and “The Optimism Bias” is a book written by a woman named Tali Sharot and she’s a neuropsychologist and it basically says that we as a people are innately opptismistic and it’s in our genes to be optimistic and through a series of our evolution we weeded out people who were negative and became optimistic by nature because in order to survive we had to be optimistic about what we were working on, so it was literally like a survival technique.

So from that we were discussing optimism and people and how even in the roughest times people  are still optimistic and I’ve always been fascinated by the American nature.  I have lots of relatives in Italy and they’re always really impressed with America and their perception of America is that we can do anything and that’s really interesting to me and I don’t understand why because I think that about them more than they think that about us.  So basically I wanted to explore stories of optimism and the American individual.  The economy being what it is right now, we came up with this idea of doing an interview based theater project where we go out into the community and interview people.  The target audience right now is gonna be people who have been recently unemployed and finding from them stories of hope and triumph and optimism.

VM: Who will conduct the interviews?

SB: The interviews will be conducted by a group of 3 or 4 actors. I want to be able to generate questions with the actors first.  We will do some practice interviews within rehearsal first and then we’ll go out into the community and the actors and myself and anyone who may find a person, that’s fine, if you want to take a recorder and interview them and ask some questions, that’s totally cool.

VM: What is going to be the primary way you find the people who will be your interview subjects?

SB: I want to just take one day and walk around this community and I think that that will yield some really great interviews, but also I want to get everyone from the Mayor of the city or you know, a town official, to the homeless guy down the street so that wide spectrum will be really amazing.  I think it was a Pinter quote, but it was something like people make theater, and this is not a direct quote, but it was some people make theater with a moral objective and they lead everything toward that moral objective that they want to put on everybody, but I want to do theater that says these things are and thats what they do. That’s what I’m hoping to do, to showcase who the community is, what the community is because people are most inspiring.

VM: How do you foresee directing this? What is the approach you want to take? Are you looking for a character replica or are you looking for a bit more exploration in making it a wider character study?

SB: I want the specificity.  It’s very important to me that we are speaking the interviews verbatim and exactly as they are.  I do have an idea of interspersing some interviews, so there may be two interviews going on at one time but that’s still to be explored and I want to hear from the actors and their opinions as well.  But verbatim, that’s very important to me because I don’t want to explore a character that isn’t there, I just want the character to be heard through the text.  The language is very important to me.  That’s where you can tap into something really interesting, through that consistent structure that you have.

VM: Are you going to look for the actors to latch on to character traits? Do you want a physical representation as well?

SB:  Yes.  I think it’s impossible to be physically precise with someone, espeically since we wont be able to transcribe physicality but I think that the person who interviews the individual, they will be able to talk about the physicality of the person they interviewed, or if they’re the ones portraying the person they interviewed then they will know that physicality and a bit of a generalization there is okay with me.

VM: How do you foresee the editing process? Will it be as a group or will you make final calls on shaping this?

SB: What I’m imagining right now is very ensemble based transitions.  I picture a lot of movement and music in between each piece. I hope to add some flourishes of air by the transitions.  Maybe weird sounds and random musical instruments will help tie together the pieces following a theme, and so in between those interviews there will be some kind of movement, ensemble based movement, and then transition into another interview. For the overall editing, I hope to see about 8-10 minutes from each interview, then transition, then straight into another interview. You get to know a character and then you get to know another character. You hear there words and then someone else’s. Once we have all of the interviews collected, I will be the prime editor of the order and structure.

VM: Where did the idea for the movement and music come from?

SB: Music taps into the emotive nature of the audience, so quickly, so much more quickly than a word can.  That’s one reason that I definitely wanted to use music so that we can pull whatever mood seems to be coming form these interviews and take that mood and transistion that from the end of that monologue interview into a music piece and then thread it into the beginnings of another interview.  And then the movement, I’m a very movement based performer, and I think that images…the body can have really great images that can say something as an ensemble, working together, as a team that can just help those transistions.  I think its another way to help the actors form ideas and get to know one another and create an ensemble.

VM: Since you’re touching upon what could be a sensitive subject with some people, and you don’t want to leave these people feeling worse than when you started, what is going to be your process for handling that?

SB: The first thing I have planned, for the first rehearsal, is to interview each other, possibly touching on some deep experiences.  And I think that will give us a lot of insight into what it’s like to be interviewed.  It’s a lot like actor training, right, that you need to touch into those emotions.  I want actors, and people who are sensitive and who know how to communicate.  I mean it’s really just about communication and being clear and being receptive.  Everything comes down to listening. I think if someone is screaming in your face but your objectively listening to them, how you react, makes all the difference.  I hope that our interviewees will be honest with us.  The hardest thing about this is going to be the interviews because when you turn on a device, people immediately change and that’s inauthentic and we don’t want inauthentic, we want authentic.  Those relationships are hard to build but that’s why I want to try and immerse us in the community as much as possible so that we feel apart of it and we feel more comfortable.  I want to try to approach it as something that’s really fun and helpful.  We’re not in this for a greedy reason or we’re not trying to gain power out of this, we’re on the same level and we’re trying to share a story together.

VM: Will you invite these people to come see this?

SB: Totally.  That’s very important to me to get names and phone numbers of the people and to have them experience this show.  I want this show to be for them, more than anybody else.

VM: What would you hope that they get out of seeing their own stories performed in front of themselves and in front of strangers?

SB: I hope that it ignites conversation and discussion and that theres something in somewhere, not even their own monologues but someone elses that they say to themselves, ” Oh that’s an interesting idea” or  “Oh I didn’t think of it that way.”  The most important thing in the theater is being able to create empathy and I think that empathy plays a big role in the theater.  It’s to be able to see something or experience somthing or realize something through the perspective of someone who isn’t yourself.  To me that’s what the theater is about, to be able to step into somebody else’s shoes and see from their perspective so that in your everyday life when something is happening, and I think that’s also tied with listening objectively, is that when something comes up in your everyday life and you get mad or something occurs and you are confused by it, and something is ignited in you, so that you could step into the person who has the opposing views of you and say okay let me think of why they would feel this way or why they would say this.  That’s really powerful to me, that’s what I’m getting at.  If someone walks out of here and says “Maybe I don’t agree with them on everything, but I understand why they feel that way.”

VM: Is there a criteria for what you most want to put in?

SB: Honestly, it depends on the material that we get.  I feel like the hardest part is going to be finding all these people.  I think that it depends on what the interviews are saying and what seems to be consistent in the interviews is probably where we want to go.  Its also how we gear the interviews, too.  I want to talk to the actors and get their opinion about where they think the best road to head is even though they’re all kind of on the same road.  I think it’s going to be more stories of optimism.

VM: Is there anything else you want people to know about this project?

SB: I would like to say that having the fortune to live in New York and go to school in New York and being exposed to so many types of theatrical forms, I am eager for people to understand the numerous types of forms that theater can take, and that it doesn’t have to be in a box, on a proscenium stage in front of you, saying this is morally right. It can be more immersive and different and really evoke something in you.  Not to say that that type of theater is bad, because it’s not, I love it, but realize that there are other types of art forms in theater and they can be just as powerful.

Original interview conducted in August, 2011.