Q&A with Director Jason Bowcutt: “A Total Full-Circle Moment” with “[title of show]” Writer Hunter Bell

Director Jason Bowcutt and Alexandra Harbold recently met up at Salt Lake’s Cafe on 1st to talk about Utah Rep’s upcoming production of “[title of show].”

Alexandra Harbold:  Could you speak about your connection with the show?  You have such a strong, evident one.

bowcutt3Jason Bowcutt:  Hunter Bell, who wrote the book of “[title of show],” is a friend of mine.  Hunter and Lyricist Jeff Bowen started working on this show at the same time I was in New York creating an organization called the New York Innovative Theatre Awards.  The IT Awards’ very first ceremony actually featured Jeff, Hunter, and Susan, who wrote and performed the opening number.  So three months ago, when I told Hunter I was directing this, he said, “This is a total full-circle moment.”

Hunter and I’d been friends for a long time.  We met while both acting at the Rep Theatre of St. Louis.  Then in New York, he got me hooked up with a job where he was working and we continued our friendship.  I knew Hunter’s desire to succeed, and it matched the desire I had – to want to create something more.  To know you have these talents and this ability – knowing the passion you have for the field and your work – but feeling like you were slowly getting eaten up by New York and that you were always fighting being lost in New York…

Jeff and Hunter had previously written the first act of a version of “9 to 5,” which I got to see.  Ultimately, they had to stop because the rights didn’t work out, but I remember when I saw that thinking, “My God, they are really talented.”

I’ve seen every incarnation of “[title of show]” in New York, from when it was first at The New York Musical Theatre Festival, to the small producer showing, to their run at the Vineyard, and finally when they went to Broadway.  From the first time I saw it, I knew exactly what they were saying – and the passion with which it was being said.  Of course, I identified with it because I knew Hunter, and I knew Jeff, and I knew Susan.   But then to see them and their ability to be so honest with and about themselves and also to be able to have the conversation about their desire in such an honest and funny way was really mind-blowing.

Alexandra: Had you thought of directing [title of show] prior to connecting with Utah Rep?

Jason: I’ve thought about producing this show in Salt Lake a number of times.  When I got the call from Blair Howell from Utah Rep, and they said they wanted to have a conversation with me about the show, I jumped on it as fast I as could.  (Laughing)  I couldn’t imagine someone else directing this show here in Salt Lake for the first time and it not being me!  I think I would have had a fit of some sort.   So meeting Johnny Hebda, Utah Rep’s artistic director, and Blair, the company manager, was really exciting, and it became clear that this was going to work as a good relationship.   I was familiar with Utah Rep, but I wasn’t tremendously familiar with their work.  I feel like they are becoming a significant company in the city.  In every conversation that I have had with them, they have been terrific.  They really listen to me.  They respect what I need from it.  And I’ve been able to surround myself with people I love and who have talent.

Alexandra: Have you worked with anyone in your company prior to “[title of show]?  

Jason: I have worked with Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin before – when she found out I was directing “[title of show],” she sent me a Facebook message, “I see you’re directing this, so I’m auditioning, and I don’t even know what it is.”  And that made me really happy, but it’s also the way I feel about Dee-Dee.  If I can work with her, I’ll work with her.  And in my head, I had her pinned for the role of Heidi, but then she came in and sang “Die, Vampire, Die” for the role of Susan.  It’s a funny thing about the show, because I know the people who created it so well that I feel like I have to be careful of a trap where I’m trying to recreate those people I know.  As soon as I saw Dee-Dee sing Susan, I thought, “That’s so completely different, and so terrific, and so unique.” It reframed it all quickly in my mind, and it created an “in” for me into the character that I didn’t even know I needed.

The whole company is great.  I’ve not worked with any of the other cast members before.  I’d seen Jonathan Scott McBride on stage before, and I thought he was awesome.  I saw Austin Archer in SLAC’s “Saturday’s Voyeur” this summer and thought he was incredibly funny.  And then Megan Shenefelt came into auditions, and I was awful to her.  (Laughing) She sang at the callback, and I thought, “Oh man, she’s too young.”  But that was when I had a different framework of what I wanted the other roles to look like, and so I went up to her and said, “You know, you are awesome, but you’re just too young.”  And then she left, and then a couple of auditions later, I thought, “Oh my God, I really, really need Megan to come back.”  So I had our Stage Manager, Cylie Hall, call her and ask if she would mind coming back to the callbacks.  And then of course, she luckily got cast, (laughing) and I have apologized many, many times.  But you know how things can get so weird in auditions, you try not to have expectations, but you do have ideas and expectations – and some of those are right for you to have.  And then sometimes you have to be flexible in those ideas.

And then Kevin Mathie is my Music Director.  And I literally stalked him.

Alexandra: As you should.  

Jason: I didn’t know how I could do this without Kevin.  He has the perfect temperament for the show.  He is incredibly talented.  And it also just made me laugh, the thought of him saying lines on stage.  He’s onstage the whole time, and he has lines!  He plays Larry.  He’s awesome.  I was praying to the gods that I could be the one who could get on his schedule.

Ashley Carlson is my Choreographer, and I am in love with her.  (Laughing)  She is the most beautiful person in the world and so incredibly talented.  And gracious.  We had these conversations beforehand, and I told her I hadn’t directed a lot of musicals.  They make me nervous to a certain extent.  And she said, “Yeah, well, get over it.  You’re going to do great.”  And she was so good about clarity of process.  It’s not your typical big dance number show, so what’s been great about the process is that we get to do the scene work and also put a basic blocking down and then Ashley comes in and zhoozhes it up.  And then there are a couple of big musical numbers that are really mostly hers.

I love this show.  I knew it; I’ve seen it many times; I’ve listened to the cast album millions of times.  But hearing it right there in the room in front of you – and these actors!  They sing the hell out of it.  But to also then incorporate the character around the song, and the scene around the song, I’m just so happy.  And it’s so funny!

And you get these people who have these excellent, funny personalities, and I give them free reign to be silly, to say the stupidest things, to act in the most ridiculous ways because I want them to get into that sense of playfulness that these best friends have with each other.  It’s something that we need to have at the heart of this show – that long-term best friend relationship where people say things without saying things.  It’s a look, and you know exactly what that other person is saying with that look – because it’s been said for the last ten years.  That’s the kind of relationship they have.  All that history.  Austin and Jonathan fit so well together, and they’re already into creating that kind of connection.

The cast is spectacular with all of these hidden talents.  For instance, Jonathan plays the piano remarkably well, so I now suddenly have this wonderful director’s moment, where I’m having him play the piano for a song.  Thank God for those little things.

Alexandra: I love that you invite them to come into the rehearsal process playing so much.  It makes me want to be in the room.

Jason: There’s a game that the original cast would play.  Susan Blackwell has this talk show called “Side by Side by Susan Blackwell,” and on one of her shows, she had the original cast of “[title of show]” and they played this game called, Uncle Fritz | Sits | Happily in the Bathtub.  I’ve been having the cast play this game.  You end up creating these sentences, which are usually crass and totally ridiculous, but that everyone laughs at.  What you’re laughing at is this process of creating and trying to crack each other up, and there’s something about that that best friends already have.

Also, I like rituals.  I like having a ritual – just something small – that starts every rehearsal and moves us from the daytime world.  So there’s a ritual that they do in the show where they grab hands with each other, breathe in and breathe out, and say the word, “Enjoyment.”   So we’ve been starting each rehearsal with that, with the idea being, let’s engage in having fun.  There is so much enjoyment to be had in this show.  There is such a naturalism to this show.  It’s just people talking to each other, and that’s what they went for in creating the book and the lyrics. “[title of show”] doesn’t sound like a typical musical theatre show.  It doesn’t sound like a play.  It sounds like you are overhearing friends talking, but everybody is so damned funny.  And then they start singing.

Alexandra: To enjoyment. 

Alexandra assisted Jason as he developed Utah Rep’s production of “[title of show],” functioning as dramaturg.