Rochester Civic Theatre Company added Neil Simon's Broadway sitcom, Barefoot in the Park, to their '18-'19 season schedule months before the iconic comedy writer passed away in August of this year. However, RCT's production of Barefoot will be a celebration of Simon's life and career now, more than ever, explains guest director Michael Stebbins.
A Kenosha, WI native, Stebbins has been involved in critically acclaimed productions across the country, either as producer, director or performer. Before becoming Door Shakespeare's artistic director, Stebbins spent eight years as Rep Stage's producing artistic director in Columbia, Maryland. He has also worked with theatres ranging from Mint Theater Company just off Broadway, to Tony Award-winning Berkeley Rep in California. Stebbins is pleased and grateful to make his RCT debut with Barefoot in the Park.
Once Barefoot in the Park had been solidified on RCT's schedule, Kevin Miller knew just the director for the job.
Why did you agree to guest direct Barefoot in the Park?
When RCT's Executive Director, Kevin Miller, called to talk about directing Barefoot in the Park, I was very excited. I am an American theatre history buff, and the impact of Neil Simon on the world of Broadway and beyond cannot be underestimated. There are people who consider theatre "chestnuts" as dated and dusty, but when you look at Barefoot in the Park, it speaks to universal themes that anyone of almost any age can relate to.
What’s your background in directing regional performances?
I have directed musicals, operas, new works from the ground up, and plays both classical and contemporary - on the college level, community theatre level, on the fringes of NYC not-for-profit theatre level, on the summer stock stage, and more. My primary regional theatre directing was at Rep Stage in Columbia, Maryland. I was the producing artistic director there from 2005 - 2013, and directed a range of plays. I love nurturing up-and-coming playwrights, but my old soul does tend to harken back to an earlier time - J. M. Barrie - for example.
What’s the biggest challenge of being a guest director?
There is a period of acclimatization for guest directors. I am not able to speak for others, but I feel that arriving in town and settling in and visiting the space and feeling centered prior to the first rehearsal is very important. If this is the place that I am going to be for well over a month, it is important to unpack and unwind before the process gets underway.
It is also very important to me, as a guest director, to meet the administration and staff. The word "guest" is one that I take to heart, for RCT has opened their doors to me, and every person who works at RCT is caring and kind.
What’s your strategy for connecting with cast and crew that you’ve never worked with before?
I had never met any of the designers. First were introductory emails, then a phone conference, and then there was meeting once I got to Rochester. I tend to listen and observe at early meetings. Again, on the guest director front, I am coming into a theatre that has a group of designers who knows RCT inside-and-out, so there is a lot to glean from them. Those designer/guest director relationships come together quickly. Fortunately, we all have the same task at hand: to honor the world that Neil Simon has provided to us. Neil Simon is our guide on Barefoot in the Park.
Most of the cast I know. I have either worked with them on the stage or followed their work at various venues. However, knowing them is very different than directing them. Before the cast gets on their feet, we spend several days doing table work. Again, this allows us a chance to learn how to dialogue with one another and to understand what it is the character is saying: the "why." By the time we do start moving, there is good chance that much of the text has already sunk in, and all of us have some sense of ownership over the play and the characters in that world.
Have you worked with RCT Executive Director Kevin Miller before?
Yes, but before I worked with Kevin, we were both students in the Professional Theatre Training Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The program, now defunct, was a three-year intensive conservatory. Those students who weren't cut in the early days of the program stuck together, so we have an interesting bond, though we may not see one another for years at a time.
After September 11, 2001, when I was living in NYC and was witness to that day and the days and months after, Kevin called me from Cedarburg, Wisconsin and asked if I would consider acting in a new play at Cedar Creek Rep. Kevin was the artistic director of Cedar Creek Rep, and the play was written by a fellow classmate of ours. The experience was wonderful, and Kevin was as attentive, kind, and professional then as he is now. I value our friendship and I really am thrilled that he is at RCT. He loves what he does, and I think it shows.
What makes this production of Barefoot special?
Barefoot in the Park is sparkling Neil Simon. His early days of writing for live television aided him as he transitioned to writing for theatre. He knew how to write rhythm, he knew how to land a joke, he knew a rolodex of ways to explore the journey of love, and he wrote characters that we could, and can, identify with. I think that the cast and the designers are all working toward putting 1962 on RCT's stage, so costumes will be hip or not (depending on which side of the generation gap you are on), the set will be representative of Neil Simon's vision of NYC at that time, the soundscape will include music and news radio of the period, and - spoiler alert - it snows on stage.
There is always room in the tumultuous world that we live in for love and laughter and happy tears, and Barefoot in the Park delivers on all fronts.
Who should come to see this production?
Well, the language is clean, the pace is refreshing, so I would recommend Barefoot in the Park to anyone. This play was programmed by RCT long before Neil Simon passed away in August of this year, but this is a wonderful way for folks to experience and celebrate this great American writer - a writer for television and film and a writer for the stage and the page.
Barefoot in the Park was produced by RCT in 1967, which is the same year that the somewhat altered movie version of the play was released (starring Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Mildred Natwick and Charles Boyer). Today in the theatre lobby, I met a gentleman who told me that his wife was in that very production. She came into RCT and auditioned for the role of the ingenue, and she ended up being cast, at age 27, as the mother. He took me to look at a production still on the wall of the main stage theatre. It was a special moment.
Barefoot in the Park premiers Friday, October 19th at Rochester Civic Theatre, and lasts until Sunday, November 4th. Click here to find tickets.