A talk with Trip to Bountiful director Timothy Douglas

In early January, I spoke with Timothy Douglas, director of The Trip to Bountiful, which is being produced by Round House in collaboration with Cleveland Play House. After performances in Cleveland during February, the production comes to Round House Theatre Bethesda from March 16 – April 3, 2011.

Jacqueline Lawton: To begin, can you tell me how long have you been directing? What was the first play that you ever directed? What did you learn from that experience that remains with you today?
Timothy Douglas:
I directed my first play in 1993, and my first professional production in 1995. Technically, the first play I ever directed was while on faculty at University of Southern California, where I replaced a director on a project that was already in rehearsal. I had only ten days to finish the rehearsal and tech process, and get it open. My first full play experience was also at USC, directing the MFA acting students in a production of A Raisin in the Sun. What I learned on both of these projects was that the process seemed to come very naturally to me …. I suppose as a result of my many years as an actor and instructor of theatre – combined with good ol’-fashioned instinct.

JL: Why did you decide to get into theater? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
Early in my life the Theatre became a sanctuary for me, which provided an essential buffer from an unrelenting series of events as part of a ‘dramatic’ childhood. I operated in survival-mode during most of my growing up, and it was my theatre work – through its language – that provided me a fundamental voice and outlet. I knew I wanted to be a practitioner of the theatre after seeing my first Broadway show – The Wiz – when I was in the eighth grade. That production validated me on many levels all at once – by way of an iconic story I’d grown up with, peopled by a company of singing and dancing actors all of whom ‘looked like me’ (I started out as a musical theatre performer), and it was a production that clearly mattered to white people. I knew then that this was something I wanted to be a part of!

JL: What excited you about directing the co-production of The Trip to Bountiful at Cleveland Play House and Round House Theatre? What made you say yes?
Actually, it was an idea I first brought to my frequent and beloved collaborator Blake Robison, (Producing Artistic Director at Round House). I was inspired by my previous work with Lizan Mitchell. She is a marvelous, mature and strong black actress of great depth and resource with whom I wanted to continue to work. However, I found that as I searched for compelling vehicles for her the compelling options seemed fewer and far between. Horton Foote’s seminal play has been a favorite of mine for some time, and while bemoaning the fact that I would have to miss the 2007 Signature Theatre [NYC] revival with Lois Smith because of my out-of-town commitments, it struck me what a perfect role Carrie Watts would be for the formidable Ms. Mitchell and her gifts as an artist. The wheels in my creative brain began to spin, and as I reread the script the culturally-specific pieces fell in all the right places. In a seemingly unrelated move, Michael Bloom called me to ask if I’d consider directing a production at the Cleveland Play House for this season. Of course I wanted to, but informed him I had a scheduling conflict with The Trip to Bountiful at Round House – and would have to decline. Well, my great good fortune would have it that Michael was so taken with my idea for this production that he arranged with Blake to join in our unique adventure. I was already sure of the integrity of my vision for this masterpiece, but the unbridled enthusiasm for the journey by both of these artistic directors and thriving theaters caused my excitement to soar.

JL: The Trip to Bountiful is Horton Foote’s beautifully written story of Carrie Watts, a widow who dreams of escaping the tiny apartment she lives in with her henpecked son and controlling daughter-in-law. She longs to return to her home in the small Texas Gulf Coast town of Bountiful. The play is set in Houston, Texas, 1947, just after World War II. Why do you feel this story remains relevant still today?
More than the literal story described in your question, I feel the journey is primarily one of a coming-of-age. Even for someone at Carrie’s age, the journey toward self-actualization never gets old. Her connection to Bountiful and the land are inextricably linked to her formative years and the life values she holds so dear. Our protagonist thrives in an environment of a faith-based life, of the tilling and living off of the land, and her visceral participation in the cycle-of-life…all of these things severely choked by her life in that stifling Houston apartment. Carrie’s connection to the natural order of things senses the end is near for her mortal existence, and naturally gravitates toward ‘home’ to complete the journey.

JL: In this production of The Trip to Bountiful, the Watts family is cast as African- American. Recently, the Washington City Paper ran an article titled, “Color Theory: Racial Stunt-Casting on D.C. Stages, or Is It Just ‘Nontraditional?’” In it, Edward Albee is quoted as questioning the idea of nontraditional cast. Specifically, he asks “What, you think black people and white people are interchangeable?” While I don’t believe that people are interchangeable, I do believe that certain experiences are universal, which allows for “colorblind” or nontraditional casting to take place in provocative and enlightening ways. What are your thoughts on this?
A well-constructed play is a well-constructed play, and the more evolved of these are often described as being ‘universal’. While I believe that the overuse of that term may have diluted its impact, the truth of its truism is still pretty compelling. While, for the purposes of this interview, I won’t take on the bigger discussion provoked by the esteemed Mr. Albee, I’ll say again that this production of The Trip to Bountiful, was first and foremost inspired as a project for the specific talents of Lizan Mitchell. However, this Horton Foote classic has universal richness and depth to spare, so that channeling its timeless coming-of-age journey through the black-American experience – along with all the social relevance and challenges that accompanies it – such an event teases even deeper layers of nuance out of the play, which adds meaningful impact while still confidently contained within the boundaries of the playwright’s original intent. During the chronic, perception-driven racially sensitive times still prevalent in America, it can be a confounding dilemma for the Theatre to successfully experiment with colorblind casting, as it rarely gets past the collective audiences’ biases. However, smart and conscious non-traditional casting can brilliantly illuminate (often) dormant layers embedded within a good play. And simply by virtue of the fact that the visual is ‘different,’ such unexpected forces invite the ear to hear the play in an augmented way.

JL: If there is one thing you want audiences to walk away knowing or thinking about after experiencing The Trip to Bountiful, what would that be?
I’m often asked this question about plays I direct, and I never have an answer…other than hoping that there’s something compelling about the production that inspires a conversation during the ride home from the theater – and beyond.

JL: In July of 2011, you will assume the role of Artistic Director at Remy Bumppo Theatre Company. What excites you most about this position? What should Chicago audiences expect from you? And what do you think your greatest challenge will be?
After 15 years of almost exclusively being a gun-for-hire as an itinerant freelance director, I’m most excited about having an artistic home of my own. In addition, Remy Bumppo has built its reputation on language-driven and thought provoking productions, which has earned them the moniker of ‘ThinkTheatre’. I look forward to building upon this legacy by significantly expanding the company’s commitment to non-traditional casting wherever possible, as well as expanding the canon of its playwrights to include more women and authors of color.

JL: What’s next for you as a director?
I have a production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet currently running at Studio Theatre in DC. After its closing performance in Cleveland, I transfer our production of The Trip to Bountiful to Round House, after which I will head out to Los Angeles to direct Hamlet with the LA Womens Shakespeare Company featuring Charlayne Woodard as Gertrude.

- Jacqueline Lawton

Jacqueline Lawton, a member of Round House’s Artists’ Roundtable, is Dramaturg for this production of The Trip to Bountiful.

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