I feel simpatico with anyone who went to Sarah Lawrence College when I was there in the mid-late 1990’s, and Barrie Gelles is one of those people. When I met her again making theater downtown in the 2000’s, it was “let’s work together on something immediately” at first sight. She directed for Sticky at Bowery Poetry Club, bringing her own perspectives, and new actors, to the show, and presented a few of my plays in her reading series in Cobble Hill, Bk. I hope she won’t mind my telling you that one of the great things about working with her is that she somehow maintains a positive, collaborative-yet-in-charge attitude, while still projecting a healthy cynicism.
I’m always amazed by how much she’s got going on, and how well she seems to handle it, so I figured I’d talk to her about The Baker’s Wife, a musical she’s directing that just opened at The Gallery Players, and how she keeps it all together.
You’re directing The Baker’s Wife, which is a musical about a difficult marriage. Do you find that your own marriage affects your direction or that the play affects your marriage in some way?
Yes, my work and the way in which I direct the musical is largely impacted by my own experience with marriage. Not just my own partnership, but the marriages that I observe – my parents’ marriage, my grandparents’ marriage, my friends’ marriages. I was never someone who pictured myself married. Some days, I am still surprised to find myself in a life-long partnership. I was always wary of marriage but my spouse has great faith in it and, when you truly love someone, all things seem possible, even an unimaginable commitment to another person. For me, being married is an active state– every day you have to choose this person, this life, this partnership. It is not a permanent state of affairs. Every single day I choose to be married to my spouse. The idea that marriage is a daily action, a constant and continual promise that shifts and changes, has really influenced how I directed the three marriages that are featured in the story of The Baker’s Wife. The idea that marriage is a daily choice allows me to understand the characters’ actions without judging them.
People change over time and, for a marriage to survive, the marriage must also change. It’s as if you have to keep meeting each other over and over, and creating a new marriage that suits your newly evolved selves. I see this in the marriage of one of the couples in The Baker’s Wife. Without a doubt, my marriage and our experience finding each other again and again has helped me to tell this story.
Likewise, working on show that asks difficult questions about marriage has impacted my own partnership. While I have been absent from the house due to rehearsals, this show has made me fiercely present in my marriage. After daily rehearsals in which we explore that dangers of neglect and hazards of communication failures, it has made me much more aware of the aspects of my marriage that I sometimes take for granted. In telling the story of other marriages, I am encouraged to create new stories for mine.
Are you doing what you always wanted to do? Like if your 16 year old self managed to glimpse a bit of your life now, would she think “that’s just what I wanted,” or would she be surprised?
My 16 year old self was spending a lot of energy proving herself so that she would get chosen to direct the high school MainStage show her senior year. So I think my 16 year old self would be quite pleased and not at all surprised – especially since I still wear docs to rehearsal every day. I always wanted to direct. I directed my first show at 18 and, while I still pursued acting for a bit, I always knew that my heart and brain were locked into the role of the director. 16 year old Barrie didn’t dream of a PhD, but that path was, in retrospect, entirely predictable. I wish I had realized that desire sooner so that I could have joined that world earlier in my life.
Was there ever a point where you feared you were going off track?
I always fear that I am going off track. I always worry that I am not doing enough, or that I should be pushing harder, or reaching farther. These days I really feel that concern where the two parts of my professional life tug at each other – being both a theatre scholar and a theatre practitioner is not as convenient as one might think. Though I feel that my practice fuels my studies and that my research strengthens my practice, the two paths compete for my attention. When I am in the rehearsal room, I know I should be working on my dissertation. When I am writing, I feel as though I am neglecting my artistic work. There is often a divide between theory and practice in academia, but I can’t choose one over the other. I am happiest bridging the two worlds.
Brooklyn has for so long played been the silver medal to Manhattan’s gold when it comes to theater presentation. This production of the Bakers Wife seems to be part of a change in that order. Do you think Brooklyn audiences for musicals differ from Manhattan audiences?
I think audiences are mixed. Brooklyn is not so far from Manhattan that we aren’t sharing audiences. I think that the big difference is about the theatre spaces and the manner in which the artists get to work. The Gallery Players has a great big stage in 99-seat house; that is almost unheard of in Manhattan. It is a perfect space for creating full scale musicals in an intimate setting. It allows the musicals to really be explored by an audience that has a more intense experience merely by having the physical proximity. The other issue is the luxury of getting to work on the stage during the rehearsal process. There were many days that we were in a rehearsal room, but we were on the stage a great deal. It really changes the process of creating a show when you can play in the space.
How did you get involved with The Gallery Players?
My don at Sarah Lawrence was Joe Lauinger. He is an incredible teacher and mentor. He had a one-act going up a The Gallery Players. That was probably about fourteen years ago. In that time I was first a spectator at the theatre who was really excited by their unusual choices for revivals and enamored with the unique theatre space. Then I did a few one-acts for them in their Black Box New Play Festival. Three years ago, I created GalleryTalks, a post-show discussion, series for TGP. This year I created the new musical reading series, Overtures, at TGP and am directing The Baker’s Wife. I guess the moral of the story is that if you see theatre you like, find out how you can get involved and help make it thrive.
Here’s the details to go check it out:
The Baker’s Wife
Book by Joseph SteinMusic and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Based on the film La Femme de Boulanger by Marcel Pagnol and Jean Giono
March 7, 2015 – March 29, 2015
Director/Associate Choreographer – Barrie Gelles
Music Director – Jonathon Lynch
Choreographer/Assistant Director – Valerie Wright
Tickets: www.galleryplayers.com or 212-352-3101
Adults – $18, Seniors, Students, & Children 12 and under – $15
Subscribers: 718-595-0547 x1 or firstname.lastname@example.org