Monday, February 17, 2014

The Juggler Interviews, #13: Bonnie Duncan

Bonnie Duncan and I have known each other more than ten years, and I've long been an admirer of her work as a dancer, actress, and all-around creative person and storyteller.  Her husband, Dan Milstein, directed my play, Pieces of Whitey, for Rough & Tumble way back in 2005 in Boston. Bonnie makes up half of the creative performance duo, They Gotta Be Secret Agents, along with Tim Gallagher. They about to bring their show, Poste Restante, back to the Charlestown Working Theater in Boston, February 20-23, which is very exciting--it's one of the most memorable pieces of theatre I've seen in Boston. In addition to be a busy creative performing artist, Bonnie is also the mother of three (delightful) children under the age of five. So I was glad she was able to find some time (after performing in NYC last weekend) to answer some questions.

Hi, Bonnie.  Thanks for appearing on the blog, in my revival of the Juggler Interviews.  Which seems sort of appropriate given your show, Poste Restante, which has a certain magic theatricality to it (though no juggling). 

Can you explain a little bit about the creative process that you and Tim used to create the show?  You'd worked together extensively before, right?  Do you write down a storyline and images, or are you creating a lot of what happens in rehearsal?
Tim and I performed together for 6 years with Snappy Dance Theater (a collaborative dance company based in Boston from 1998-2007) and we naturally gravitated towards each other when developing new work.  Physically, our bodies worked well together and creatively, our minds melded well.  We toured a lot with Snappy so Tim and I became travel friends--we rented a tiny car and sped around the south of France and Italy.  It was amazing!  Once Snappy closed its doors in 2007, we decided we still wanted to work together and started to make new work, not knowing where it would lead us.  Three years, one baby, and a move to Philadelphia later, we finished Poste Restante.

But, let me back up a bit about our process...we usually start a piece with an image or a theme or idea.  We approach the work as dancers first, playing around with movement in rehearsal--videotaping & writing things down, and then we turn to our theatrical sides to shape the phrases and images.  For example, the first piece we made for Poste Restante, "Return to Sender," started out as a very slow, dark love story until one day we met for rehearsal at the Southeast Corridor park by Stony Brook T stop (free rehearsal space!) and Tim was carrying a box.  He simply said, "I want to figure out how to get you in this box."  The piece came together in about 45 minutes because it just clicked with the movement we had.  Here's a video clip of one of our first performances (filmed at HONK! with Emperor Norton's Stationary Marching Band):

When we decided to make a full-length piece, we explored many themes until we hit upon the Dead Letter Office, an office operated by the US Postal Service to deal with undeliverable mail.  We were so intrigued with what could be held at this office that we focused our work mail from then on.  Each section was developed differently:  there are some stop-motion films that Tim shot in Philadelphia and posted to flickr.  I then edited the film from Boston.  Another section was inspired by a desk lamp in my office; another section was inspired by Tim's design of a hat with shadow screens hanging on it.  Because we took our time developing the show and we did not see each other regularly, we were able to explore a lot of things and find exactly the right theatrical touch for each moment of the piece.  
If anyone out there is interested more in how we make our work, join us for our workshop this Saturday, 2-4 pm @ Charlestown Working Theater---Mission: Demystifying the Creation of Physical Theatre.

So, you guys started They Gotta Be Secret Agents before you had kids, right?  Where does this show fit in the timeline of  you becoming a mother, with the arrival of your first son, and then later with your twins?

Yes, we started the Secret Agents before I had kids.  Tim lived down the street from me at the time.  We made about 20 minutes of the show (9 of which we kept!) and then I got pregnant and Tim moved to Philadelphia.  Needless to say, we took about 13 months off and just mailed each other ideas.  We then met on the weekends in Philly or Boston (working on sections solo in-between rehearsals) until we had our first version of Poste Restante.  My son was 8 months old when we performed at the San Francisco Fringe Festival.  Making the show with a baby was super simple (I can say that now, of course!) because he was not very mobile and slept a lot.  Once he could crawl, my work time was crushed and the grandparents were called upon to help out.  A lot.   We then reworked the show and toured it to Europe the following year, taking my son with us.  It was such an adventure.  People's response to the show was so amazing during that tour--we were invited to perform at festivals all over--but our lives got in the way of pursuing those opportunities immediately:  Tim got accepted to medical school at NYU and I found out I was having twins.  These changes were shocking for both of us.  

But, Tim and I still corresponded a lot and we started a shared Pinterest board that we keep: 

When the twins were six months old, we were invited to perform out in Austin, TX so we packed everyone up (plus a grandparent!) and headed out.  We both missed the show terribly so it was a joy to be back on the road together.  The tour wasn't our usual because Tim was studying between shows and I was cooing at the babies---it was surreal for us!

How has being a mother affected your creative process? Time and energy can be at a real premium when you have small kids around  How are you managing to juggle, not just creating a show, but also performing and touring?
Pat, I have to say that you have been a role model of how I want to juggle creating work and being a parent!  Naps and early bedtimes are the short answers to how to how I've made it work.  The longer answer involves erasing how I used to work and redefining my process.  Because I have such regimented time periods these days, I feel like I work to focus my attention within a short block of time as best as I can.  I struggle with it because sometimes I just have to goof off in order to get to the good ideas.  I often feel most days like everything is half-finished.

I made Squirrel Stole My Underpants with only six hours of childcare a week.  My husband (Dan Milstein, director of Rough & Tumble Theatre) and I rehearsed late into the night in our dining room and I would spend weekends building set pieces.  There would be weeks when the kids were sick when we got nothing accomplished.  It was one of the hardest artistic processes I've ever had because just when I would get momentum, someone would get a fever or a babysitter would cancel.  

Once Squirrel was finished, I've been able to schedule performances around family obligations.  One goal for me in touring this show is to go on family adventures.  This past summer my oldest son toured with me to Long Island--he sold popcorn and watched the show each day.  He had his first hotel stay!  For other tours and performances, I've gone alone (woot!) and Dan has held down the house.  Those are all of the good parts of touring with small children.  The hard and exhausting parts are arranging travel plans.  We performed in New York City this past weekend and it was as total nightmare of logistics.  Between the snow storm Thursday, grandparents' travel plans, our need of getting our set back to Boston, a car breaking down, and three babysitters/friends helping out, it felt like a Secret Mission gone awry.  But, we don't make theater to be boring so it's the adventures along the way that make it all worth while.  

Do you use your kids as a captive audience, now that you've been working on shows for younger kids, like Squirrel Stole My Underpants
I definitely test material and aesthetics on my kids right now.  I have to admit that I've used rehearsal as a bribe incentive---"if you can get ready for bed then you can see a new scene" sort of thing.  The kids are coming to see Poste Restante for our Sunday matinee with a babysitter.  Dan runs our lights and I'm on stage so what could possibly go wrong?!!  :)

One of the great things about your work, in Poste Restante as well as in your other shows, is the inclusion of theatrical transformations, shifting the embodiment of a character from a real-live human to a puppet or some other object.  For kids, this sort of imaginative fluidity comes naturally. Is this something you've always been interested in seeing on stage?
I've always loved breaking up stage reality so that the audience has to work a bit.  Snappy worked with transformations a lot---moving between theater and dance.  I love performing Poste Restante because our stage magic surprises and delights adult audiences.  We take care of them so that people don't have to worry where they are in the narrative while we play with how we tell the story.

You've toured Poste Restante internationally--any good stories or moments from those shows you can share?  What happened to allow you to bring the show back now?  (I'm glad folks in Boston will have another chance to see it.)
When went through customs in the Czech Republic, we had to explain what was in all of the boxes we carried with us.  We tried to pantomime that we had cardboard and paper in our cardboard boxes.  We pantomimed dancing.  We smiled a lot.  The customs officials were perplexed.  Then, I found one of our show postcards and they nodded their heads, "Ahh, ac-TORS," and we were on our way.

In Prague, we performed in a basement theatre.  And, basement in Prague equals an arched stone tunnel that used to be part of holding cell for prisoners of Prague Castle.  We had the stage measurements but when we got there, things were a lot smaller than we expected.  We barely fit on the stage and had 10 minutes to set up and break down--it felt crazy but when we finished the first performance, the crowd exploded with excitement.  It was the moment when we knew we had something very special.  Here's a video of our walk to the theatre each day:

Tim cooked up this tour after he found out he had the month of February off of medical school.  It has been a joy performing the show again and sharing it with new audiences.  The folks at Charlestown Working Theater are wonderful.  They've supported us for years and it means a lot to be part of their community of artists and audiences.  This is probably our last performances of the show in Boston so it's especially wonderful to be there.

What's up next?
Tim starts his residency in Emergency Medicine in June so we'll continue to mail each other ideas.  We'll slowly work on a new show, probably finishing in 4-5 years.  Meanwhile, I'm keeping busy with a new show I am developing for families that will premiere next January at Puppet Showplace Theatre.

Thanks for the taking the time, Bonnie.  And break a leg this week in Boston!

Thanks for having me, Pat!  And, if readers buy tickets for Thursday's show, they can mention the code "secret" (be sure to use lowercase letters) and get half-price tickets.

Poste Restante in Boston, FEB 20-23 from Bonnie Duncan on Vimeo.

Tim and Bonnie.  Photo by Kathy Moloney

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