Timothy Douglas is Artistic Director at Remy Bumppo Theatre Company. Following a brief stint as an actor in Chicago in the late 1980s, he moved on to a prolific directing career during which he has worked at many of the most renowned theatres across the country, as well as internationally. CAR Theater Researcher John Carnwath recently spoke with Timothy about his career and return to Chicago.
What is your sense of Chicago as a theatre city compared to the many other cities that you’ve worked in, either on the regional theatre circuit or compared to New York or LA?
For me, it’s apples and oranges comparing Chicago to regional theatres that aren’t in major theatre hubs. But you mention New York and Los Angeles. Well, Los Angeles is a whole other thing, but let’s see, New York, Seattle... The Bay Area is growing. Philadelphia is burgeoning right now. I think Washington DC, at its current level of producing and community, is comparable to Chicago. And I know because I work there a lot. What makes it different there are the audiences because it’s such an international audience and it’s such an itinerant audience, which, ironically, serves its vitality. By comparison, Chicago has a homegrown audience, a consistent audience, a loyal audience, which has its own amazing benefits. But, at the same time, the self-referencing becomes a potential detriment.
One thing I’ve been musing on is that wherever I was doing theatre in America, I was always aware of what was happening nationally. I mean the major stories that were happening on a national level in theatre, including in Chicago. It’s remarkable to me that I find that many of my contemporaries are not really aware or even seemingly interested in what’s happening on a much bigger scale nationally, much less internationally. That’s a broad generalization, absolutely, but I make it based on generalizations I would make sitting in New York or DC or Seattle or Minneapolis.
But, hands down, across the planet, Chicago holds that reputation for being America’s theatre town. Now that I’m here I see it’s because of the prolificness of the way that theatre is produced, or just the amount of theatre that is produced here. The quality absolutely is on par with anywhere else I’ve been. And the community of theatre artists here is unsurpassed in any other community that I’ve been in. So far, I’ve been a great beneficiary of that and building new and expanding ideas based on that collateral.
Could you speak a bit more about the community, because it’s something that is often said of Chicago theatre. In a recent survey, local artists were asked what the best and worst things about working in Chicago were, and among the theatre respondents “community” often came up as one of the great things about Chicago. But, among the negatives, many people said that it was cliquish and hard to get into. That might be the flip side of having tight ensembles that like working together and have their established ways. Have you experienced that flip side as well?
“Community” is a broad and overused word. I don’t know why I even continue to use it. What I mean by that is I’ve benefitted from Chicago’s collective of individual artists, by how supportive and non-competitive it feels to me. There is this sense with all the artists I’ve had contact with—based on their definition of what Chicago theatre is—that it’s very human, it’s very supportive, it is a way of creating bridges.
And yes, I also recognize that other thing you mentioned, the cliquish nature. I can see it through the eyes of those who are not a part of an ensemble or not in a flow of their careers—again, I’m talking about the artists. I absolutely can see how people feel like an outsider and how cliquish the world can seem.
I had that experience when I arrived here the first time in the late 1980s as an actor. What I came to understand is that, at least in my case, there was this perception of this New York actor who’s going to come in and, you know—What? What could I have done? [Laughs] What could the fear have been? I guess it was a protection of what was so dearly prized and revered and loved. I never felt it was an overt effort to keep me out, but I did feel that by the time I adjusted to the energy of what the Chicago theatre community was, in that instant, it was just wide open. And once it cracked, I worked all the time and I was invited to all the reindeer games, and I never felt like an outsider again.
Ironically, I left very quickly after that, because I was very young, and one of the things I knew that I was looking for in my journey was to be influenced by mentors, by that which was new to me. When acceptance [from the Chicago theatre community] came, it came fully, and I was very aware that I wasn’t being pulled, I wasn’t being led. I really felt that ended for me, in my late 20s, once I came to a watermark level of understanding of the Chicago theatre scene. That’s really why I left.
So one of the reasons I wanted to come back was to see if that were still true, if that original perception was even accurate to begin with, and if so, if I could influence it in a positive and affirming way. That’s part of my goal here at Remy Bumppo as well.
Do you have any advice for theatre artists who are in Chicago and are thinking of leaving for L.A., or San Francisco, or DC, or New York?
Go! If people are feeling that pull: go! Experience it. No matter how long or brief it is and whether they choose to return, they can only return fuller, as pollinators, as more expanded beings. Not even just theatre people, and not even just to theatre cities, but anyone who has that urge to travel. That’s how I learned about America, when I traveled abroad.... Travel, moving outside of comfort zones, moving outside of the place of origin can only benefit the whole person. And if it happens to be a theatre artist, it can only benefit the craft as well. Go! [Laughs]
Would your advice be to go and figure things out when you get there, or are there things that Chicago artists should have on their resume, should have done here, gathered in experience, before setting off into the big wide theatre world?
If you’re talking about someone who knows that they’re a career actor, then yes, it behooves everyone to research where they’re planning on going. Find out who the casting directors are, find out what the major theatres are and how they go about casting, what the film production situation is like, and how one breaks into film and television as an actor in those mediums. If one is a director, start checking out the profiles of the theatres in the places you’re thinking about going. If there is an aesthetic, or a body of work that turns them on, then contact that theatre. If there is a particular director that works there regularly, figure out how to track down that director and get in contact with them directly.
If you know what you want to do, if you know where you want to go, there are resources that you can get in place now, before you make that leap. Or you can do it the way I did: you just show up and shit happens! Including, you know, if you end up discovering that maybe it was the worst decision you ever made. But you know so quickly, and then you get the hell out! It depends on the personality, but ultimately there’s no losing. You know, life is—what does Auntie Mame say?—“Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” Even in the times that we live in, that is still true for those who have a personal vision.
Timothy Douglas was born in New York and graduated from the Yale School of Drama with an MFA in acting. After a brief stint as an actor in Chicago, he moved on to serve as Resident Assistant Director at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. This was followed by extended engagements as Resident Director at New Dramatists, NY, and Associate Artistic Director at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, KY. As a freelance director his work has been seen at the American Conservatory Theater, Berkeley Rep, Guthrie Theater, Portland Center Stage, The Public Theater, Round House Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, Utah Shakespeare Festival, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre, as well as at the Downstage and Toi Whakaari theatres in New Zealand, the National Theatre of Norway, and many others. In July 2011, Timothy returned to Chicago to take over the Artistic Directorship at Remy Bumppo Theatre Company.
Interviewed in Fall 2011.