Interview with Bruce R. Coleman Director of Theatre Three's Assassins
By Mary L Clark, Associate Theatre Critic for John Garcia’s THE COLUMN
THE COLUMN (TC): Early interest in Assassins – how far did that go back?
BRUCE COLEMAN (BC): All the way to the release of the original cast album which was in ‘91 I believe. I had been somewhat of a Sondheim fan, especially Sweeny Todd. I had loved Into the Woods, and then Assassins kinda came out of nowhere. Nobody had really heard about it, nobody really knew about, so I picked it up, listened to it, and listened to it nonstop for two years. I mean I could not hear it enough, get it enough, shared it with everybody I knew. And one of the things I loved so much about the recording was that it included so much of the dialogue. The whole Oswald and Booth scene, later on in the play, scene 16, is in that original recording. And I said this to Jac Alder the other day, for as much as people revere Sondheim and his contribution to this, which is considerable, I love John Weidman’s book for this. All of the dialogue scenes, the monologues he contributed, I think, have absolutely equal weight to whatever Sondheim has contributed to make it a really powerful evening.
TC: Obviously, you’ve seen this before.
BC: I saw just one time – I saw it when Theatre Three did their production twenty years ago. I remember very, very little about it, but that’s the only time I’ve ever seen it. Until recently, people haven’t been doing it, you know, and now it’s cropping up here and there.
TC: I wonder why that is – I mean. . . too soon? (laugh)
BC: Well, I really think it is, when they did the revival – I’m not quite sure what the reasoning was behind that – that all the little local theatres that are doing it now, I’m sure, has everything to do with the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination.
TC: You think more than what’s happening in our country?
BC: Well, I mean, it certainly reflects what’s going on in our country. I think the easiest thing to do is to tie it into the anniversary. We’ve been really careful about that too because we want it to be an observation, we want it to be a contemplation – we don’t want it to be a celebration. We want to think about this in the context of the place that we’re in, and with our own history and things like that. You know, I was sitting here last night listening to it, and just how relevant, how these words, unfortunately, resonate twenty years later after they were written.
TC: And the piece is written without an intermission, which you have included. But it works and I congratulate you. When the lights went up, I went, ‘What?!’
BC: Well, here at Theatre Three, the reality is we have to pee. And I don’t think it interrupts the flow of it. When Theate Three did it 20 years ago, they also had included an intermission and John Weidman had said that he thought it worked pretty well.
TC: I thought it did because it comes back up with the brightness of “Another National Anthem” and then, Boom.
BC: Yea, well you know, so many of the words have been discussed and discussed in our rehearsal process, and last night I was listening to Sam Byck’s second monologue, and it especially hit home last night with the government shutdown occurring even as we were sitting here when he was talking about who do you trust, there’s nobody for you to trust. The Republicans say they’re going to fix everything, the Democrats say they’re going to fix everything. So what do they do, they hold an election. Great. That’s not going to fix anything; we can’t trust anybody, everybody’s lying to us. And, you know, that paranoia coming out of that character, and then really thinking about what’s going on under our feet right now, I thought, (laugh) Good Lord.
TC: Well that’s why it resonates with me, because I have abhorrence to guns . . .
BC: Same here . . .
TC: . . . and when they’re onstage anywhere it just unnerves me. Did you have a definite direction from the beginning or was it found in rehearsal?
BC: Well, pretty much . . . my rehearsal process is: I conceptualize the show, I try to put inside an atmosphere, a context, and things like that. And then once we get into rehearsal and establish blocking and everything, characters start to grow, and out of that things change, things get added. I call it a semi-organic experience because some things are very deliberate. I need you to move over here on this line, I need you to move over there on that line. Because working in the round, you know, you have to be in certain places at a certain time for there to be full communication with your audience. But then, we get in there and we start running something, and somebody says, “You know, I have this idea” and I’ll say, ‘Great, let’s give it a shot.’ So . . . conceptually, yes that was in place when we came in. And the skeleton of it, the movement of it was in place. But then, you know, character development and things like that. The perfect example is the character of The Proprietor and the character of The Balladeer. They are written as ideas, they are written as concepts . . . well go and try to play that (laugh). ‘Go try and play a concept.’ So, you know, I sat down in the first two or three rehearsals with Jason Kane, who is playing The Proprietor, and with Chris, who is The Balladeer, and I was like, ‘Who the hell are you? And who the hell are you to each other, and why are you there specifically in some songs and not there in some other songs?’ And that was very, very exciting and very rewarding because you just can’t play an idea as it becomes nonessential and boring. But now they know who they are, they know the story they are telling, they know who they are to each other, there is a moral pull and tug between the two of them and, you know, if the audience perceives, great, and if they don’t that’ s ok too. They have a reason to be here now other than just to sing some great songs and move on.
TC: Yes, I was excited to see The Proprietor and his reactions to, or playing with, the audience. Because we’re going to the carnival just as much as the people onstage.
TC: And I made sure to watch him, and he played it all the way out the exit.
BC: And they both do a lot of watching, they do a lot of watching, and that instigates what their next move is. And I don’t mean to disparage it because it’s really, really good writing as far as those characters go. It’s just that, what is the meat of it, what are you hanging that character on?
TC: The more I’ve read on Assassins, the more it seems that Sondheim and Weidman just put it out there to see what people would do with it.
BC: Oh yea.
TC: Here’s our idea. . . what do you think? I mean. . . .
BC: Yea, well, you know, it led to some things like. . . The Balladeer, he reports. There’s a big history that goes back to the murder ballad. When something big happened, when someone was killed, a song was written and that’s how the information was recorded – it was reportage. And the question becomes, ‘So, ok, why is he only reporting on Guiteau and on Czolgosz and on Booth?’ And for us it was like, reportage changes and FDR, suddenly there’s radio so the people can speak for themselves. And from Lee Harvey Oswald on there’s television, and then the idea that this balladeer is telling these people’s story for them until they can’t take it anymore and they have to wrench their story back from him to tell their own story. And just the discovery of that and the conversation of that gave Chris a really, really exciting arc to play, which then plays out I think in our approach to “Another National Anthem” where the assassins really turn on him and dispose of him so they can be in control of their own destinies.
TC: I like that – moving away from the way things were told, from the town crier to the microphone to the TV. I like that. I also like the use of the one hand and face for each President, as if. . . .
BC: It’s just the same clown (laugh).
TC: A lot of people miss that up there, on that side, another part of the carnival. I’ve only seen three productions, this the third, of Assassins and this had a much higher comedic value placed on it than the other ones.
BC: To me it was super important to get the comedy out, because otherwise it’s too much, it’s too difficult, you can’t get through it. You need that release of the comedy. And all the people that I cast in the roles, other than being really great singers, which they are, and good actors, they really had to be funny. And what you get with that too, is you get an actor like Terry Dobson who is so inventive – just looking at him is funny, you know what I mean? And just listening to him talk is funny. And then when it goes dark, it’s like . . . it can be heartbreaking because there’s that funny man but underneath all that comedy is all that darkness . . .
TC: All that disintegration, that’s what I saw. . . .
BC: Disintegration, absolutely. That’s a great word, great word, great word. And I kept telling the cast over and over again, I said, ‘Remember, at the heart of this, this is a comedy, this is a comedy. And I feel that they’ve been successful in mining . . . . again, going back to this book, it’s so beautifully written that you can get all that comedy and then get to just how tragic their lives are, and then you ask yourself, “Why am I sympathizing with this person?” So that kind of moral ambiguity . . . you know, I got so many messages from people this morning going, “I can’t shake this, I’m still thinking about this, I can’t shake it, I still have questions about this. And it’s like ‘Great. Goal’ (laugh).
TC: Absolutely. It’s a definite thinker. And I thank you for bringing the comedic level up for the rest of them because in other productions, Guiteau is always the buffoon, a high buffoon, the only comedic one in the show, while the others are just dark, dark, dark, making it way off balance. This has a nice balance.
BC: Good, good.
TC: And nothing went over the top, and nothing was like, ‘Oh, this really is not funny’.
BC: Well, it’s a really masterful cast and they understand, and we made a pretty good team because we all come to the table with our own sense of timing and comedy and stuff.
TC: It’s a really good ensemble, from the child on up to Gregory. . .
BC: And the child is the child of our Music Director, Mason. And he’s just wonderful . . .
TC: He just nailed it, everything he did.
BC: And he’s a sweet, kind of quiet kid, very smart . . .
TC: Yea, you could tell, you could see his wheels turning . . .
BC: But not precocious, which is interesting. And when we were working on the scene with Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme, that temper tantrum was there. And his mom sat there with her mouth open, “I’ve never seen this in him before”. And the more comfortable he got with it, the more he took up space with it, and . . . .
TC: I’m sure he’s seen it in the classroom . . . .
BC: I’m sure, somewhere, someone to base it on. . . but you know, he’s ten.
TC: I enjoyed watching him as he walked away from one of the characters, staring at him. Oh, it was Leon.
BC: Czolgosz, yea. In fact he . . .I didn’t just show a spotlight on this but . . . the boy is present for every assassination and assassination attempt, he’s watching, he’s watching. So that when they start to turn to him at the end, you know, he’s been there for all of that, he’s gotten all of that. So he’s sitting up there at the top of the opening number and he’s sitting on the box when Garfield gets killed, and he’s sitting there on the floor when McKinley gets shot, because that’s what we do, we pass it on.
TC: He‘s the child. And I thank you so much for passing the gun to him at the end. That one movement said everything that’s going on now.
BC: It made perfect sense to me.
TC: It made perfect sense.
BC: And it’s exactly where I am right now. Because I also abhor guns. I absolutely support people’s rights to have them, but I think there are sensible, sensible, sensible things that we can be doing that we’re not doing because there are very wealthy lobbyists who are in people’s back pockets that are perpetuating an atmosphere of violence in America, and it doesn’t make sense to me. I think it’s evil. I mean, you should absolutely have your hunting rifle and hunt if that’s what you’re so inclined to do. You should not have an automatic weapon with a clip that can shoot thirty bullets in two seconds. Nobody needs that.
TC: No military weapons whatsoever.
BC: No, none. None. And to me it’s so simple, it makes so much sense but the. . . I’m on my soapbox now, but it’s this horrifying lie, it’s a horrifying lie. And when the New Town tragedy happened, the response from the NRA was so inhuman, where they were literally saying that the people who’d lost their child, their grief was not sincere – they actually said that.
TC: I know.
BC: It’s crazy, and I go back to getting a chill in The Ballad of Booth when The Balladeer says, “Angry men don’t write the rules and guns don’t right the wrong. It hurts a little while but then the country’s back where it belongs”. It’s a huge lie, it’s a huge lie. It always hurts, we will always be in pain, the country never goes back to where it’s supposed to be as long as somebody can just walk into a store and pick up an automatic weapon and shoot a clip full of thirty bullets.
TC: We will never go back to where we were – and this is my soapbox – but we tend to move on to the next . . .
BC: Move on to the next one, yea.
TC: . . . without realizing that we’re changed, yet one more time.
BC: And it is actually work, it is actually work to hang on to your outrage sometimes. And we’ve got to remain outraged. I have so much respect for the New Town parents who continue, I mean, they’re just, they won’t . . . people are expecting them to just sort of give up and go home and they’re not doing it and I applaud them wholeheartedly. I hate that they have to do this, I hate that they have to do this, but they have to do it to give their child’s death meaning. . .
TC: To give their future meaning, they have to.
BC: So that image at the end, it was in place right from the beginning . . . that’s it’s just another generation. You see the violence, we’re going to give you this power. Here it is, here it is. And I’ve had a lot of really great, positive feedback about that . . .
TC: I’m glad they noticed.
BC: . . . that it’s a clear and powerful. . .
TC: Oh, [the passing of the gun] it says volumes. I mean it almost says the whole musical.
BC: Well, I think so too. You know, it’s funny that when we were in rehearsal, the first night Jac came to see a rehearsal, and that moment happened . . . and he actually screamed. He went “Uhhhh!!!!” (laugh).
TC: That sounds like Jac !! (laugh)
BC: And then he started cursing! I won’t say all the words . . . “This is blanking brilliant. This blanking . . . says everything, this blanking, blanking end!” And I turned to my cast and said, ‘That’s what we’re going for!’ (laugh)
TC: Rehearsals over. . .
BC: That’s right. A bombshell, but not just an empty thrill, something that means something I hope. I hope people get that.
TC: The ones who are supposed to get it will, the ones who aren’t, won’t. And I believe I know the answer, but did you use the comedy to soften the subject matter? No, you did it to heighten it.
BC: Yes, yes. That’s correct. Nothing softens this. If anything else, it puts you off guard, you know what I mean. It maybe lulls you into a false sense of something, and then literally “Bang”, you know.
TC: And it’s weird because I’ve been in places where the audience did nothing, like they were afraid.
BC: Really? We’ve had laughs all weekend and Jac called it, and he was really right, that at the end of the opening number when they introduce Abraham Lincoln and Booth turns around and smiles and says, “Excuse me for a moment”. If you can get a laugh there, you’re good (laugh). And we’ve had people laugh at that.
TC: And that’s so unusual for me because, as I said, the other audiences did not. And we’ve already picked up on the level of awareness with what’s going on in our country and gun violence, etc. Did you feel a responsibility to pass on or make a statement?
BC: No, usually my responsibility lies to the material and to myself, being true to myself. If I have a particular artistic vision, to stick with it. Sometimes it works for people, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s always my voice. I’ve been to many, many productions where people try to really duplicate what’s gone before, and they may be terribly successful at that but it ends up being a really empty experience for me. I try my best to honor the material and also to stay true to what I have to say. And then I think people come to you, I think that then people come to the story and then people get interested in what’s going on. (Laugh) You know what I chose as my aesthetic for this show? Rob Zombie movies (laugh). House of a 1000 Corpses, etc. because there’s something so decayed in that, and lurid. And the material is lurid but it’s based in humanity, broken humanity but humanity none the less. So I think that seeing the flashing lights and the colors and these bizarre characters in these interesting costumes, and all of that stuff, it all works to bring people in. So, the best thing I can do as far as an audience goes is to not treat them like they’re not smart. I always try to treat the audience as if they are smart people.
TC: That they come in with some kind of intelligence.
BC: Exactly, exactly.
TC: Who was the hardest character to bring to life? When I surveyed the audience, Byck was the one no one had a clue as to who that person was and what he was doing. “Why was he in that Santa outfit and why was he tape recording. . . “
BC: Well, and this is a conversation we’ve had many times. All we ever knew about Sam Byck is from this musical, Assassins. Now I was alive, I was thirteen years old. Jac was around, lots of people were around . . . and nobody heard about this. And the best thing I can come up with, and this is very conspiratorial (laugh), but everything in the Nixon administration was so hushed up – everything, everything – that I think this was just one more example. They found out what was going to happen, they buried it so that it would not communicate to the rest of country that even the thought of an act like this was possible. Even the possibility that someone could do what Sam Byck was trying to do. Now, Sam Byck’s recordings are out there, they’re on YouTube, you can listen to them.
TC: Wow !
BC: Yea! (laugh) But that’s what I think that was, is that he just didn’t make it into the history books because he was sort of erased and eradicated. But who was the hardest character to bring . . . they were all pretty well drawn out. They were given their motivations pretty clearly, given pretty good back stories, even if it’s just a line or two. One of the characters who I’ve really grown attached to – and part of it has to do with the actor playing him – is Leon Czolgosz because there’s so much about his story that I can relate to. I would never pick up a gun and do what he did as the punctuation mark on the way I was feeling about something, but I feel a lot of sympathy for him, you know, I empathize with him. In some respect and in some ways, maybe all of them. (laugh) Maybe Squeaky not so much. For some reason she seems really comfortable with what she’s doing.
TC: It’s true, it’s true. Squeaky and Sara Jane seem the most comfortable, though Sara Jane didn’t have a clue.
BC: Well exactly. But you know Squeaky’s back story - she gets that really great monologue about how she first meets Charlie Manson on the beach, and she was a lost girl and he was going to save her. And I’m sure a lot of people can relate to that. It’s just that next step; either you’re going to make that next step or you’re not going to make it, and that’s who you are as a human being.
TC: Sara Jane is probably the hardest character for me to identify with because we . . .
BC: She’s such a mixed bag. And you know, she’s out on parole. 2009 she got out of prison and her last parole hearing and several interviews she’s done since then, they’re all on YouTube if you want to go look at them. And she’s just as confused as anybody. She says, and you believe her, that what she did was really, really wrong and she was just in a really fucked up place in her life. And what’s interesting too is the approach to it, she’s saying, “Did I really have five husbands, did I really work for the FBI? If I’ve got four kids, where are they? (laugh) That was one little thing that we changed because in the script it’s three children but she actually had four children, and we can’t figure out what that is. So, yea, she’s kind of an enigmatic, definitely.
TC: Definitely. Her motivation to do that rather than have a beer and take a nap . . . . And you had said the cast was sensitive to, that you were highly sensitive to the issue. What did they bring to that?
BC: Sensitive to . . . .
TC: Sensitive to the whole subject matter.
BC: What they brought to it is that they were incredibly brave, courageous, and jumped right into it, right into it. They didn’t hesitate about anything. They were anxious and eager to explore these people and find as much humanity as they could in them. And find the humor, and find the heart, and find the different ways that each one of them is just a broken person. There was no hesitation, they just jumped right in. They’re excited, “Let’s go, let’s do it”.
TC: I like that . . .
BC: I hate to say they’re so brave and so courageous because that’s a pretentious Oscar speech right there! (laugh) ‘I applaud their courageousness’ . . .
TC: “This award is for you . . . “ (laugh)
BC: You know, they’re a ballsy group. They’re just a ballsy group of people, every single one of them. And they were an ensemble from the word ‘go’, from the word ‘go’. And I have to also compliment my ensemble of six that were there to play all the smaller parts and support and everything, but what a great, great group of people.
TC: I found them less an ensemble and more a major part of the production.
BC: Well, and we shot for that, we shot for that. I mean, there are many times they’re standing around watching and reacting to what’s going on. One of my favorite things that Ashlie Kirkpatrick and Suzanna Fox, they’re the two women in the ensemble, my favorite thing they do is when you have the transition from Sam Byck’s second act monologue into “Another National Anthem”, all the ensemble people are still present to watch the disintegration. And for the assassins’ moment when they turn to The Balladeer and they wrench their stories away from him, and they decide they’re just going to go for it. And Suzanna and Ashlie stay out on stage a lot, they walk very slowly over to the edge of the stage and somebody next to them says something and they jump, they get startled. And that’s how we are when that kind of crazy starts to speak, we get scared, you know, and I love that. It’s a small thing but it’s a big thing.
TC: I loved Suzanna singing up there during “Something Broke”. It was just beautiful.
BC: She’s fantastic. She’s brand new to town and that song, you know, is not in the original production.
TC: And I love it. But I’ve always heard it as sung all together, but it’s broken up on this one.
BC: Well, it’s broken up in the script as well, which is weird. It was written for the original ’91 production but then cut at the very last minute. And for me, it really coalesces the evening, and what it also does is that it then turns the focus right back to us. Because we are the bystanders, we are the ones watching all of this happen, have watched all of this happen, and we haven’t had a voice all evening, and now suddenly we have a voice – “I remember where I was, I remember what I was doing, and this is how I felt about it and this is how it changed everything”.
You can’t have that scene, especially right here but I think anywhere; everyone knows this whether you live in Dallas or not. You can’t have it without being able to have your voice.
TC: I would hope so. I didn’t realize it was ’91. I thought it wasn’t added until London.
BC: They actually didn’t put it in until the recent revival and I don’t know why.
TC: Because it does make so much sense.
BC: And well, you never know, did they think that it just made the evening long? Did they feel like it interrupted the momentum getting to the finale? I mean, who knows, who knows? I haven’t really found anything written about it.
TC: Going into www.sondheim.com, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, there’s a director list, and I don’t remember the woman’s name, but she has it down to a tee what you need to produce Assassins.
BC: Oh wow.
TC: And there is page upon page on the types of guns you use, the types of bullets you use depending on what space you’re in.
TC: And when I saw another production just recently, I commented on the use of recorded guns and how badly it worked for them. Here, it worked. Number one, I think it’s better recordings, the actors are better attuned to when the sound is coming so they can make the movements coordinate. I was wondering why you also made that choice, to use recorded gun effects?
BC: And that was one of the very first choices that I made, and there was no argument, I said we’re going to use these recorded. On a basic level, sometimes the gun doesn’t fire and there goes your moment.
TC: I’ve had that happen onstage . . .
BC: The last time we did Assassins at Theatre Three, it was all live, it was all live. And they were back there packin’ blanks for hours and hours, getting everything set and ready to go. I didn’t want to deal with that, I think it takes you out of the play, you know, to suddenly have a live . . .
TC: The actor out of the play?
BC: The action of firing a live gun onstage takes the audience out of the play, and then it takes them awhile to get back to it, and I don’t wanna – I don’t know if you noticed this at all, but in my work I don’t ever do blackouts inside an act because I feel like blackouts interrupt your thought and it takes a moment to get back to a play. Well, live gunshot does the same thing. We were doing Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo earlier this year, and one of my jobs as stage manager was to stand in the shop and fire a live gun. Well, after one performance Jeff Schmidt, the director, said, “You know, we really can’t do this anymore”, and I agreed with him because it was just so loud and so violent and so close that the audience couldn’t get back to the play. So that was my decision. I think we can be plenty loud on the recording, we have more control of it, and we don’t have to deal with tons and tons of safety issues and all of that stuff.
TC: I would think if nothing else, the reverberation in this space . . .
BC: It’s too loud, it’s just too loud. And even with the smallest little cap, or whatever. So, it’s practical things but it’s also interrupts the flow of the play. I’m very, very fortunate because a friend of mine, Joanne Hall, who does lots of props around town, she found this site that rents you the “Assassins Package”. So every gun we have is an identical replica of the gun that person . . .
TC: Especially Oswald because everyone, if you care to know, knows the type of rifle.
BC: Oh yea, exactly. And you know, the gun that he pulls out of his lunchbox to kill himself is appropriate for that time. And it ended up not costing too much either, which is a really good thing. That was a great, huge relief to be able to get all of that stuff historically accurate. And we all laughed about Sam Byck’s gun because it’s like - this big! (laugh).
TC: Bigger than Booth’s !
BC: Yea, but that’s what he had.
TC: And in your “spare” time, get on the Sondheim site and look at the page upon page of information.
BC: I will, and we lived a little of that ourselves because Sara Jane Moore is drinking Tab, which was very popular in 1974, right? Well, you know . . .
TC: The same thing with the Kentucky Fried Chicken . . .
BC: Yea, we had to do a lot of searching on eBay to get two cans of Tab (laugh), which one is open and one is not.
TC: Are the Coke bottles the 70’s ones they’re supposed to be? I mean, there are collectors out there.
BC: Plus, you know, they recycle every ten years or so, they bring back the classic style.
TC: The director online talks about a breakaway bottle, to break it, not to break it, but you broke it offstage with the glass effect. I believe I have one more thing here . . . . your opinion of Sondheim and Weidman’s original intent. We talked about it a little bit, but did they have an original intent? What do you think it was?
BC: Well, it was written in the middle of the Gulf War, it was produced in the middle of the Gulf War. I think . . . I’ve read a few things, I’ve read how the idea came about and all of that. I just think they got really interested in the characters and interested in the idea . . . it’s celebrity. You know, we’re addicted to celebrity in America. It’s celebrity sickness and it’s like, how do you make a name for yourself, how do you cement your place in history, how do you make sure you’re going to live forever. And you know, some people work real hard to become an Olympic ice skater and some people pick up a gun and try to kill a President. Sondheim’s musicals have always been so interested in psychology of characters and character motivations. And I’m sure that he and Weidman were talking about this array of characters and how different they all are from each other but still wanting to obtain the same goal. I mean, he [Sondheim] had just written a musical all full of fairytale characters that all are very, very different but all wanted the same thing. So this is kind of the same thing; it’s just such a great, varied group of people. So, original intention? I think they just got interested in the psychology of it and there was something in the atmosphere at the time, you know, and . . . .
TC: And he does tend to put people together who would normally never meet in real life to see what happens.
BC: Scene 16 between Oswald and Booth, that is genius. It’s so well written, it’s so very, very well written.
TC: Well, it’s great to bring him (Booth) back because he’s the one every one will remember as being “the first”.
BC: He’s our pioneer! That’s what they say, “Hey, look who’s here. He’s the one who started it all”. And just the fact that he needs to make sure that the next big one happens in order to give all of their lives meaning. ‘Cause like Sara Jane Moore says, “We just end up being footnotes if you don’t do what you doing”. And people romanticize it and it’s almost become a cliché, but it was the death of innocence. And because of the way it was reported, it was in everyone’s living room at the time, and that sort of helped cement that. I have one memory of the incident. I was three, three years old, and I was sitting in the living room - we were in Kansas City at the time - and the news was on. And I remember . . . the image I have is mom and dad sitting in their chairs watching the television and I’m on the floor playing. And my mom is feeding my little brother who is a baby, and my older brother is playing on the floor too. And I remember my father jumping out of the chair and yelling, and running toward the television, and hanging on to the television – and yelling.
BC: That scared me so badly. And it wasn’t until years after that, maybe when I was ten, twelve, thirteen years old, that I brought that up. And I said, ‘I have this memory of something, what was that?’ And it was that they just watched Lee Harvey Oswald get shot on the evening news, on television, LIVE on television (laugh), you know. And I said, ‘Oh, so that’s what happened’
TC: And that really didn’t happen again until 9/11 when we saw it as it was actually happening.
BC: It changed everything. And this is kind of a sidetrack, but the other thing I remember from when I was a little kid growing up in Kansas was my father became obsessed with the book In Cold Blood, Truman Capote. I mean he read it all the time, he talked about it all the time, he saw the movie eight times when it came out. And stuff like that, I never understood that because I was so young, and never really got around to reading the book until about ten years ago. And when I did read the book it finally made sense to me that all that stuff happened thirty miles from where we lived. And we were those people who never locked the door, that slept with the window open . . . and life changed. Life just totally changed.
TC: I was talking to a friend about that, about loving the sound of propeller planes and watching them, as jets were more the norm then. And my home is in the lineup of planes at Love Field enough that they’re low, and whenever they get a little too low, you just click in to the fear. So now planes are never going to be the same for me. And my niece said that at movie theaters, when she takes her children to the theater, she can’t watch the film because she’s constantly looking around. You might want to read the article in the Dallas Morning News by Jacquielynn Floyd about how fast do we desensitize a tragedy before we go numb again – and it’s about a week.
BC: Yea, I think so. I think for some people it’s less but a week is good.
TC: And you think you’re back to normal now, but no, something has changed. You may not perceive it but it has, once again, changed.
I wanted to let you hear some things the audience said during intermission and after the show. Most said they really couldn’t talk about it because they had to go home and think about it.
BC: Yea, I love that. How often does that happen, you know. I mean, a lot of times you leave some kind of popular entertainment and it’s gone before you get in the car.
TC: One young man said that it was strange, but when they pointed the gun right at him, he smiled. He said, “I’ve never had a gun pointed at me before and I found myself smiling”. And I didn’t want to respond to anything they said but let them say what they were going to say.
BC: And what’s interesting about that is we do point the guns out several times in the show, and stressed so much, I stressed so much, ‘Don’t point it and rest it directly on somebody. You can go past them but if you’re going to point out like this, aim for the aisles, aim for the doors, aim above their head, up to the walls.’ And they’ve been really, really good about that, and people still perceive it, they still perceive, “Oh, they’re pointing it right at me”. And that’s great.
TC: And even with the full three sixty, when the gun pointed at me, my skin just crawled, and then it went away . . .
BC: And then there’s a joke, it’s a joke. Everybody pays attention when you have a gun . . . (laugh)
TC: It looked like it was right at me, and it was brief, but I paid close attention to all the pointing . . .
BC: We never rest on somebody. . .
TC: It’s too much, yea. A girl said the noose got to her. I asked what part of the noose, when they put it over his head, and she said no, the dropping of the noose. I thought that was interesting.
BC: That is interesting.
TC: She said it creeped her out. And one young man was really adamant, he said, “I was raised that you just don’t point a gun at anyone. When you’re hunting, when you’re playing with cap guns, out in the yard playing with toy guns - my mother would yell at me if I was pointing my gun at someone, you just don’t do that”.
BC: That’s right.
TC: I found that so interesting to have them watch the musical and have those come from the back of their minds. One man said he’d never been around guns before. Another commented on how the seriousness went to humor, how the use of comedy cancelled the other out.
BC: Did it cancel them out? That’s interesting (laugh).
TC: And one woman said, “I wanted to applaud after the songs and things but I didn’t think it was right to applaud”.
BC: And I’ve heard that a lot, and there’s actually a couple of moments in the play that. You know, I’ve done a zillion musicals in my life, and what you do is you build in a button, the button tells the audience, ‘Now is the time to applaud’. When the lights change, when the music goes “boomp”, when they hit a pose, or something like that. And I actually took a couple of buttons out of this play in the hopes that it would just play straight through to the next thing. And sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t, and the more theatre people are in here that know the score, the more the applause happens. The fewer theatre people in here and it’s just regular people, we just go from one thing to the other without the button because I agree. You’re laughing and smiling and clapping, and what are you laughing and smiling and clapping about? And there’s a moral ambiguity to that which is really interesting and really attractive to me. One thing we instilled into The Balladeer, especially going back to the idea of the murder ballads and stuff like that, is that as the person who is reporting, you have a moral authority, you are the moral center. You report these things and you have a judgment about it. These men are bad, these men are wrong, but that gets taken away. That gets destroyed and taken away so that these people without the moral authority or a moral authority that is broken somehow then take over to tell their own stories. And, you know, that ambiguity I think is, it’s so exciting. I mean, people talking about it this morning at breakfast. People were talking to me about it online. “Hi, I love you, I didn’t sleep last night!” (laugh)
TC: Love you, hate you . . .
BC: One of my dearest friends, and someone I love to work with, is Max Swarner. And we had like a ten minute conversation about it this morning ‘cause he just couldn’t stop thinking about it. And I was like, ‘Great. What do you think about it?’
TC: You’re going to become the moral philosopher for the show I think.
BC: Well maybe. I hope I’m up to it!! (laugh) Because, you know, sometimes I just don’t think there are answers. It can’t be easy . . .
TC: Oh, this is definitely open ended.
BC: It can’t be easy.
TC: There’s no closure on this one.
BC: I won’t say that it’s never easy (laugh), but it’s mostly not easy.
TC: It’s definitely not tied up with a bow like the classic musicals. This one audience member said it was a little unnerving and wondered why they wrote it as a musical and a comedy for this subject matter. A woman said it was upsetting and scary and was hoping against hope that they were not real guns.
BC: Why write it as a musical? Well, you know, music is very powerful and very emotional. And you can get to a certain place in spoken words and dialogue and things like that. When you hit a ceiling there, adding music to it and musicalizing it, for me, elevates the conversation, elevates the emotion. It does things to your body physically, it does things to your brain, your eyes, you know, all of those things that . . . although there’s definitely power in just spoken word, the addition of that music takes it somewhere else and makes it something else. And it’s the psychology of the music I think is what you go for.
TC: Bruce, I think that’s it and I thank you so much.
BC: I hope it was alright.
An All American Assassination: Thoughts on the Sondheim/Wiedman Musical
by Mary L. Clark, Associate Theatre Critic for John Garcia's The Column
Interview with Bruce R. Coleman, Director of Theatre Three's ASSASSINS
by Mary L. Clark, Associate Theatre Critic for John Garcia's The Column