La MaMa Blogs: 6 Questions: Luke Leonard

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

6 Questions: Luke Leonard

Luke Leonard, director of Bum Phillips All-America Opera answered our 6 Questions about the show, his work and working at La Mama.

1. Where did the idea come from to turn Bum’s story into an opera? 

I knew that I wanted my next work to be music-driven and had been moving in the direction of opera since 2009/2010. The first opera that I directed was David Lang and Mac Wellman’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. I was thinking about happiness as a theme and the sacrifices made for contentment. I was also reflecting on how playing sports influenced my directing, so I was looking for books written by coaches. Bum’s name popped into my head one day and the warmest smile crossed my face. I grew up during his tenure as head coach of the Houston Oilers, so his name is connected to memories of my childhood. Coincidentally, Bum wrote an autobiography in 2010 and after I read it, I felt strongly that he was the perfect anchor to hinge themes associated with happiness and the American Dream. The approach is nontraditional, it isn’t about following a protagonist to experience catharsis. We aren’t trying to manipulate anyone, although, there are plenty of moments that provoke emotional responses. Kirk’s libretto often speaks directly to the audience, so it is inclusive/aware of the entire theatrical event. We have to cast the audience. I feel this work can stimulate discourse about values and Americana. 

2. Are you a football fan? 

I am a fan, but similar to how I am a fan of acting. I prefer to see it live. 

3. How is football like opera/theater? 

Big men, special costumes, tragic tales, epic journeys, loyal fans, skilled performers, large casts, etc. The main similarities that interest me are the lessons learned from participating in these fields: discipline, teamwork/collaboration, respect, honesty, camaraderie, and techniques that condition the body for accomplishing superhuman feats. 

4. What was the most challenging element in making this show? 

I imagine it’s the same answer for most, if not all, nonprofit theatre companies: producing is the most challenging and time consuming element. Fundraising has been extremely difficult and I’ll be honest, for the first time we are in the red. This is the largest production that Monk Parrots has undertaken and (despite getting close) we did not receive the support that was needed to cover artist fees and production costs. Luckily, we raised approximately $20,000 from individual donors, but it is not nearly enough to support a production this size. The struggle to finance my work is so tasking that it makes me wonder how much longer I can endure. I have two families to support after all, my immediate family and my artistic one. And I’ve been at it a long time. My first show was at Theater for the New City in 1997. I only took a three year hiatus for grad school, then came back to New York in 2010 and started producing consistently thanks to the help of organizations like Lower Manhattan Cultural Council via their space grants and the artistic homes that we have nurtured at places like La MaMa, Dixon Place, and 59E59 Theaters. Still, the biggest challenge continues to be financing our shows and operating expenses for office space and salaried positions. Anyone working in the nonprofit sector understands the stresses and uncertainties. It is a full-time commitment. I work 12-13 hours a day on average and 16-17 hours when in production. I don’t mind the work. I only wish we had financial backing that would allow us to do more and become more sustainable. “Nothing without great effort.” 

5. Who has inspired you? 

I have been fortunate to have experienced three renowned directors firsthand: Joseph Chaikin, Anne Bogart, and Robert Wilson. Joe taught me to offer everything. Anne and SITI Company taught me to use everything. Bob taught me to see everything. 

I am inspired by the fine arts and admire art criticism because it seeks appropriate criteria to fairly evaluate artwork. A piece like Bum Phillips requires a new lense. I consider every choice with my company, Monk Parrots, and everything that we put on stage. Kirk and Peter’s approach to the libretto and score is intentional and experimental. It is easy to pass off new work as inconsequential if it does not fit a pre-existing model. You can say it’s not opera, but you can’t say it’s not good. So what is opera and why do we go to the theater? 

There are several highly educated, motivated, and earnest theatre artists creating new work that is sophisticated, current, and connected to theatre/art history. The amount of labor that these people put into their work deserves fair and informed criticism versus opinions solely based on the norm. I appreciate writers that take the time to try and interpret the decisions we have made. I’ve always enjoyed Michael Feingold’s writing. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I’ve joked with Co-Producing Artistic Diretor, Joey LePage, that Monk Parrots doesn’t make theatre art, we make art theatre. 

6. What does working at la mama mean to you? 

The answer to the last question is a good segue. Ellen [Stewart, La MaMa’s Founder] was also interested in making art theatre. The works she directed were about unity. They did not favor one element over another, although, I think it is safe to say that she preferred music, singing, and dance over dialogue. Still, she tried to bring all elements together to create harmony. 

I think my first encounter with Ellen was in 1996 at the Annex (The Ellen Stewart Theatre). She introduced Joseph Chaikin’s Firmament with her signature bell and I was moved to tears because I knew this was a special place. It’s difficult to explain because it’s not intellectual, it’s visceral. Ellen created a holy theatre, a safe place for artists to do what they do best: take risks, inspire ideas, add content to our time, and build community. Her legacy is carried on by the La MaMa family, which begins in New York City and stretches across the world because La MaMa is international. La MaMa is universal and eternal. 

To be working at La MaMa, on the stages graced by theatre Gods and blessed by Ellen et al., is the greatest accolade. My fondest memories in New York and Italy are of my La MaMa family, which include my wife, daughter, and Monk Parrots, and I couldn’t be happier or luckier to be a part of La MaMa’s rich history. Thank you MaMa and thank you Mia for believing in this crazy idea to do a football opera.

La MaMa presents 
Monk Parrots' 

Bum Phillips 

All-American Opera 

Concept, Direction, Production Design by Luke Leonard (Monk Parrots)
Libretto by Kirk Lynn (of Rude Mechs)
Music by Peter Stopschinski (of Rude Mechs)

Commissioned and produced by Monk Parrots (New York) 

March 12 – March 30, 2014 
Thursdays – Fridays – Saturdays @ 7:30pm Sundays @ 2:30pm 

Tickets: $25 Adults; $20 Students/Seniors

A special benefit performance on Thursday, March 20! 

For Tickets and Info: Click Here

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