Catching up with Dexter Bullard

February 17, 2011

Dexter Bullard admits he’s been “overbusy” for several months. Two of his productions are closing soon: the eerie, gut-twisting world premiere of Brett Neveu’s “Odradek” at the House Theatre and, off-Broadway, Craig Wright’s “Mistakes Were Made,” featuring Michael Shannon. American Theater Company has already extended Bullard’s debut of Dan LeFranc’s “The Big Meal,” and Victory Gardens opens his staging of Annie Baker’s award-winning “Circle Mirror Transformation” late this month. In mid-March, the Museum of Contemporary Art restages his Link’s Hall brainchild, “The Dialogues,” in conjunction with the exhibit “Without You I’m Nothing.”

When I talked to Bullard, 45, he was in LA auditioning students for the Theatre School at DePaul, where he’s head of graduate acting. No rest for the weary, not when they’re this talented.

The self-effacing backstage star takes little or no credit. “I follow a simple rule: work with great writing, great performers, great designers,” he says. “There’s a saying that directing is 90 percent good casting. I’d say it’s 90 percent great collaborators.” His main collaborator, he says, is Tif Bullard, his wife and an “awesome” costume designer.

Bullard articulates a well-defined approach to directing. He studied dance in high school and college—he earned a theater degree at Northwestern—and took t’ai chi, yoga, and contact improv. “I’m not a text-based director,” he says. “I move quickly from the page to the stage, to action in space. I believe in the writings of Artaud—though everyone else thinks he’s crazy. I believe that the actor is an athlete of the heart. Every project is another example of active sculpture, a different way of applying the same tools: rhythm, structure, motion, intention, a 360-world, a 360-degree sonic world…”

“Genre has never been a big issue for me. It’s like people who play piano: they may play jazz, classical, improvisational. There are the same fundamental challenges no matter what the style.”

Bullard—who’s artistic director of Plasticene, an experimental physical theater ensemble—does gravitate toward new works. “Since 1994, I’ve only done three plays that weren’t written by the cast or by a new playwright. I’m always making something for the present ensemble—I won’t do Shakespeare. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a brilliant play. But ultimately Shakespeare doesn’t need my help. And when there’s too much of a canon, it’s a museum, not an art form.”

Bullard identifies four strands in his work: “the physical, plain old theater (I teach a lot of acting classes, more than directing), experimental theater and performance art, and improv. I wouldn’t have been able to refine what I do in Plasticene without literacy in Second City. Working with an acting class on Sam Shepard helps on a play being written today. All these scenes are alive and well in Chicago today—Chicago as a city forced me to explore. It supports actors asking good questions.”

Bullard’s task, as he sees it, is to “shape the energy and goal for a given show.” He describes “Odradek” as a fairy tale and “The Big Meal” as “a contraption, an algorithm, a device.” Filled with many rapidly played scenes, “it’s a flipbook,” he says, with a paradoxat its heart. “It can move the audience in two directions at once: it can be comic, fresh, and it can move them to deep, Beckett- like contemplation. It’s trying to speak about all Americans AND explore idiosyncrasies.”

“Circle Mirror Transformation,” set in a community acting class, “tells a story from the missing pieces, from the inside out,” Bullard says. “You know everything about these people, but it’s all unsaid. Chekhov is usually the example for this kind of theater— but these people explore their lives even less! You need to sense beneath the words—there are deep tectonic shifts in what’s going on between people.”

“Also, I’ve been teaching acting for 15, 16 years and asking myself, ‘What the hell are these people doing in this room?’ This
play calls their bluff.”

“Chicago and its arts programs really do feed the city,” says Bullard, “to produce a concrete and workable Big Shoulders result. Chicago turns intellect into muscle. It’s not a financially rewarding town for artists—but that’s what makes it lovely, that amount of sacrifice. Ain’t nobody conning anybody. It’s not a snake-oil kind of town.”