An Interview with Jeremy Skidmore, Director of "Mr. Burns"
The guest director of "Mr. Burns, a post-electric play" sat down for a Q&A about his approach to directing the massive production.
Guest artist Jeremy Skidmore, director of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play (Feb. 17-25 at Longstreet Theatre), is well known for being one of Washington, DC’s most in-demand theatre artists. In addition to countless directing credits, Skidmore served for over five years as the Artistic Director of Theatre Alliance, was the Artistic Producer of The Source Festival for two years, and co-founded and led the Capital Talent Agency. Outside of DC, his directing career has taken him to theatres in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, London and Tokyo, among other locales. For twelve years, he’s also been an adjunct faculty member at the North Carolina School for the Arts.
Jeremy’s connection to the University of SC came through another guest artist working on Mr. Burns, scenic designer Tony Cisek. When asked by Artistic Director Robert Richmond for a suggestion on a professional to direct the show, Tony recommended Jeremy, with whom he has been a longtime collaborator. Mr. Burns marks the 15th production the two have worked on together.
Jeremy recently talked with us about his take on Mr. Burns, his plans for the production, and how he “didn’t get” parts of the show when he first saw it in DC.
Tell us about the story. There’s a lot of ground covered in this play.
The first act opens and you have a group of people standing around a fire, trying to remember the lines to a particular Simpsons episode. So, from the audience perspective, at first it seems like it’s just a bunch of friends camping and they’re trying to recall this Simpsons episode, but as the act progresses you realize that the power grid in the US has gone down, and it’s been down for a couple of months, and then the bread crumbs start to lead you to more information as to why. Essentially the first act is about introducing you to this main group of six people, and at this point it seems like the attempt to piece together this particular Simpsons episode is just for fun, and to distract them from all the things that are going on.
When the second act begins, it’s now seven years later, and that same group of people now have carved out a niche for themselves in this post-apocalyptic world where the electric grid is still down, and they are now a traveling group of actors, who go from town to town performing episodes of The Simpsons, including commercials. Mostly, the commercials are invented and tap into a nostalgia for things that they don’t have any more from seven years ago. You find out that there are other groups who do similar things — some doing The Simpsons, others doing Shakespeare. There’s even a brief allusion to another group that does The West Wing. Essentially these groups of people have created a way of making a living for themselves, not only as entertainers — and that’s entertainment in the truest sense of the word because it’s about escapism — but it’s actually their way of life, because they get paid. Information is now currency.
You also start to find out, in a way that’s quite similar actually for anyone who watches The Walking Dead, that the more years go by, the more desperate people are becoming. It’s a world where it’s totally normal for everyone to have a gun. It’s the Wild West. It’s tribal. And, as food is becoming more scarce, those that don’t have enough to eat are becoming more daring and more violent, which comes into play.
When the third act starts, it’s 80 years later, but now we’re in the space of an actual theatre that’s been created, like a national theatre if you will, where The Simpsons are a permanent part of the repertoire of this company. The entire third act is a heavily Gilbert and Sullivan-inspired musical of a particular Simpsons episode that parodies the movie Cape Fear, put together in the way that they know how.
I feel like one of the historic, overarching things that the playwright is tipping her hat to is the way storytelling came into being in the first place. It started with a bunch of cavemen telling stories around a fire, and eventually evolved into traveling bands and gypsies going around, all the way back to Homer, from town to town to town telling stories. Then, it evolved into societies establishing permanent structures in which people could come to hear stories, and you start to see the first theatres being built, like in ancient Greece. So, our third act, from a design perspective, is very much inspired by that ancient Greek aesthetic.
So, in a sense the play is looking at the roots of civilization? It’s saying that civilization starts with communing and storytelling?
Right. It starts with our stories. History was first shared orally. Even this last piece that you see in the third act, if you really pay attention, in a lot of ways it’s their story of mankind from the time the electricity went out 87 years ago to now, but told through the remnants of these iconic characters of The Simpsons.
And I think The Simpsons is an interesting choice. It’s now the longest running television show that’s not a soap opera or a variety show like The Tonight Show, and its impact is indisputable in terms of cultural references. But, I also think it’s important to know that it just as easily could have been something else. She [the playwright] is also saying that we as a culture get to decide what to keep, we decide what’s important, we decide what’s holy. That’s something I keep talking to the actors about, this idea of the holy theatre, and what the theatre represents. Like, Shakespeare we still do because we choose to, and, in this other world, The Simpsons becomes one of those things. The interesting thing, too, is that it’s pieced together in the same way that Shakespeare’s texts are pieced together. Because Shakespeare never gave anybody a full script, a lot of our extant versions of his plays were put together by the actors who did them, often years later, which is why there are so many versions. They go through the same process of trying to piece back together, from memory, a Simpsons episode.
She is also saying that we as a culture get to decide what to keep, we decide what’s important, we decide what’s holy. That’s something I keep talking to the actors about, this idea of the holy theatre, and what the theatre represents.
Is there a sense in the later part of the story that "The Simpsons" has become part of a new mythology?
Sure. I can’t remember who said it first, but there was a quote from someone that said, “If you have a strong understanding of Greek mythology, a strong understanding of Shakespeare and a strong understanding of The Bible, then you will understand all allusions made in Western literature.” And, The Simpsons is another encapsulation of that because it’s almost 100% comprised of allusions to today, to pop cultural events that are happening now. So, you extrapolate that eighty or a hundred years from now and it becomes mythology.
Had you seen this play before, and, if so, how did what you see influence your approach?
It’s interesting because there are very few things I’ve ever directed that I’ve seen beforehand. A lot of my work has been the second or third production of a new play, so not necessarily something that I would have seen when it first happened in New York or LA or wherever. By coincidence, with this play, the world premiere happened in Washington, DC, which is where I was living at the time, so I did go to see it. My roommate was actually in it. In major ways, this production is heavily influenced in the sense that, as somebody who is not steeped in The Simpsons, when I saw the original production there were a lot of things I didn’t get. As an audience member I actually felt pretty left behind. And, by the time I got to the third act, I felt the original production spent too much energy tying it back into The Simpsons, or trying to recreate that world. One of the things I keep talking about with the designers and the actors is that it could be anything. It just happens to be The Simpsons. So, by the time we get to our third act, the costumes are very Greek-inspired, they’re in very Greek-inspired half masks, but they’re still iconic in shape, so you can still easily recognize Bart Simpson’s head or Marge’s hair. They’ve become more iconic, they’ve taken on a life way beyond The Simpsons, and that’s really what we’re going for.
The other thing that heavily influenced our take is that we’re doing it in the round, which is interesting because the play is definitively written for a proscenium stage. It’s all about television, all about two-dimensionality from the very first moment of the first act all the way through. The fact that we’re doing it in the round means that we had to throw out everything that’s ever been done, and we had to solve a lot of challenges that work beautifully in a proscenium setting, but wouldn’t work at all in the round.
Why do you think the playwright chose to use "The Simpsons" as the vehicle to explore this idea of storytelling being at the root of civilization?
I can’t speak specifically on why she chose The Simpsons, I can only extrapolate. The Simpsons does what this play is doing, filtering its perspective on constant current events. And if you think about it — if you talk about branding, there aren’t a lot of things that as soon as you see an image or a shape it evokes a more complete picture. For example, arguably the most valuable brand in the world is the Coca Cola symbol. There are people who estimate that just that symbol, not the product, not the drink itself, just that symbol is work two to three billion dollars. You see the Coca Cola symbol and it takes you on a journey to all sorts of things, and Coca Cola maximizes on that. It’s the same with the Nike swoosh or the Air Jordan silhouette. So, when you think about The Simpsons, you can just see the outline of Bart’s or Mr. Burns’ head, and immediately know, pretty world wide, what it is, and you can then start piecing together an entire world just based on your own personal experience with that image. If you think about the first act, with the actors piecing together a story for something, The Simpsons is a great choice in terms of engaging the audience in what they’re doing.
For me, it’s fun because it really is like watching three different plays in three different styles.
Why do you think audiences will enjoy this production?
For me, it’s fun because it really is like watching three different plays in three different styles. The first act is actor-driven but very fast talk, and it’s funny and simple — a group of friends drinking beer around a fire, telling good stories. And then the second act is more evocative of being on a movie set, because you’re watching them rehearse their repertoire. It’s fun seeing actors mess up, and there are times when actors forget their lines or a sound cue goes wrong or a costume transition goes horribly awry. It’s more farcical. And, you’re also seeing these commercials they’ve created. There’s a really fun song and dance montage that they put together at the end of the second act, which for me is about the nostalgia of being on a road trip with your family, and they turn the radio on, and then the songs that sort to play are, for us sitting in an audience, popular songs now. The fun is hearing the songs they pick to remember, and the dance moves that go along with those things.
With the third act, there’s a lot of things going on simultaneously. Suddenly you’re watching a musical, so you get two for the price of one as an audience member — you get to see a musical and a play for one low price! If you’re a Simpsons fan, you’re watching fun allusions to The Simpsons, but you’re also watching fun allusions to pop culture in general that have lasted eighty years from now. And the music is a great mashup of all kinds of different musical forms.
How have you enjoyed working in a university environment?
I always try to do one [university] show a year. I feel like it takes an entirely different skill set to work at a university than it does professionally, because you are still actually teaching. But, one of the joys is that you typically get to play wth a larger cast. Most of the professional shows I do, a large cast is seven or eight, and typically you’ve got three or four. In this production, I have 16. What’s interesting about that is that this play is written for a cast of eight, but we’re doing it with 16. It gives you a sense of the town to a much greater degree, because people aren’t doubling up in the same way.
And, one of the cool things about working at a liberal arts school rather than just a conservatory, is that you get students who aren’t majoring in theatre. Some of them are journalism or chemistry majors, and that’s really fun because they often have an entirely different perspective than people who only focus on theatre. So, it’s a unique liberal arts thing that I love. And, for this production, too, it’s a mix of graduate and undergraduate actors, which doesn’t always get to happen.
Mr. Burns, a post-electric play runs February 17-25 at Longstreet Theatre. Tickets can be reserved by calling 803-777-2551. Box office hours are 12:30p - 5:30p, Monday through Friday. Longstreet Theatre is located at 1300 Greene St.