Lear deBessonet’s passion for her work is infectious. Just listen to the 37-year-old director speak and you can sense how she’s been able to harness the disparate energies of 200-strong mixed casts of professional and non-professional performers for her vibrant community theater projects. The Louisiana native has also garnered acclaim for her Obie Award-winning production of Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan, starring a transcendent Taylor Mac in the gender-shifting lead role, and this past spring, her exuberant revival of Suzan-Lori Park’s thought-provoking Venus at the Signature Theatre.
I recently sat down with deBessonet at the Public Theater to chat about her journey as a director and her latest project, the Shakespeare in the Park production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starring, among others, Phylicia Rashad, Richard Poe, De’Adre Aziza, Annaleigh Ashford, and Danny Burstein.
I’m curious about what first drew you to the theater.
I’ve been drawn to theater from the time I was a little kid, even though there wasn’t really a professional theater in Baton Rouge, where I grew up. Most of the theater I did was just in my own backyard with other kids in the neighborhood, with my sister and our dog. The path of a director is mysterious no matter what, especially coming from where I was from. I didn’t know anybody that had followed anything like that path. I didn’t know how somebody would even begin to accumulate the resources to be a director. I moved to New York when I was 21 because I had what I think of as a kind of magical encounter with the director Anne Bogart in an airport. She said she would allow me to be her assistant, so I moved here to do that. I felt like the universe said a big “yes” to me in that moment with Anne. And I felt like I needed to walk through that door when it opened.
What did you learn from Anne?
I worked with Anne on just one production, on the play bobrauschenbergamerica. She was very clear from the beginning that the only way to train to be a director is to direct. Being an assistant director isn’t a good simulation, because so much of directing involves managing the stress that’s part of being ultimately responsible, and also the ability to articulate a vision and shape all of the elements towards that vision. This is something for which there’s no proxy. She said you need to make your own work and you can assist again after you have made some progress. So I assisted a couple of times—Martha Clarke and Bartlett Sher—but this was over a period during which I was always making my own work.
I had no resources so it was about begging, borrowing, and stealing and persuading. I did all my work in those first couple of years in non-traditional spaces, on rooftops and church basements. The biggest coup of my early years was that I had persuaded the Bennigan’s in Times Square to let me do a site-specific production of this original piece of mine in there. Then basically a month before rehearsals started, I walked by the restaurant and there was a notice saying that they had closed, so I had to come up with a whole other plan. There was a lot of absurdity and ridiculousness involved in those first couple of years, but I’m very grateful for it. And I had a couple of mentors that came in at key moments who really helped me.
In making your own work, how did you come to focus primarily on social issues and mix professional and non-professional actors?
My job the Public began [in 2013] with the creation of this program called Public Works. It was about creating what we call ambitious works of community theater that were a combination of Broadway actors and community actors from all five boroughs. But even before I came to the Public I was focused on work that could bring together people from many different backgrounds in the telling of stories. For me, there was a definitive moment, I guess it happened four years into my time in New York, because before that point the work was very departmentalized. I had my artistic work directing projects, and there was the social justice and advocacy work that I was involved in. The turning point was when I realized I wanted them to coexist. What had been tricky for me, or puzzling, before that moment was that I wanted the quality of the art to be sincerely transporting, incandescent, and magical. The revelation for me was that you can make work that involves actors who aren’t necessarily professional but who have their own beauty, expertise, and humor—and all of those gifts can be harnessed in the service of making something that is truly radiant.
Did you find it challenging to work with actors not trained in the classics, especially when the language isn’t contemporary?
I think a guiding principle for me is the belief that Shakespeare is writing about human experiences that everyone can identify with. When you look at the language and really analyze it, you realize how accessible it is. And the experience that I’ve had is that people from every possible different walk of life are able to find things in his text that they connect to, that express experiences and feelings and frustrations and joys that we all have.
Do you approach these community-based theater projects differently from productions like Venus and Good Person of Szechwan?
I don’t even really see them as different because. I’m always interested in shaking the dust off the classics and finding ways for them to feel really vibrant, and I’m chasing after a kind of live-wire relationship with the audience. Those interests translate across the pieces. The one thing I would differentiate is, I think for me, the Public Works shows are political in form but not in content. That isn’t to say that Shakespeare can’t be political, but in those cases the politics are in the very form of the piece. And then the work that I’ve done with, you know, less than 200 people and in a more professional context—like Good Person and Venus—the content of the play has been more overtly about looking at questions of justice and equity.
That brings us to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is your first Shakespeare in the Park production, as opposed to your Public Works productions of The Tempest and A Winter’s Tale, which featured hundreds in the cast.
Right! The Public Works shows by their nature can only run, really, for a weekend. You’re holding back the forces of the universe to make it possible for all these people to come together and, therefore, the runs are inherently short. Midsummer has a small cast of 26, and it will get to have a nice run at the Delacorte Theater. I’ve loved this play forever. I think it is Shakespeare’s most perfect comedy, and part of what makes the comic dimensions of it pop is that it has a girding of darkness. Within the play you see humans experiencing the full range of emotion, including great anguish, confusion, and fear—all these things that are part of our experience as people. There are four storylines in the play. I think each of the four couples is a mirror that refracts the other relationships in the play. And in our production, we actually have four generations of actors on stage together. There’s something about seeing those four stories in concert with one another that paints a bigger picture of what it is to be mortal. And the play manages to weave them all together, to use the language of the play, into a fond pageant: “Shall we their fond pageant see? Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
Is there a special vibe about Shakespeare in the Park?
Yeah, definitely. I think the Delacorte Theater has a naturally festival culture to it. There’s something about it that puts the audience and the actors in what I think is a much more intimate relationship than an indoor theater, where you’re in the dark. Even literally, at the beginning of the show, we don’t have darkness yet, so there’s a part of the play where the audience and the actors are still both in the light of day. More than anything there’s a unique complicity between actor and audience in that space that I want to make sure the production takes advantage of.
Could you describe the look and feel and your production of Midsummer?
I think of it being a kind of fairy-tale version of Louisiana, a fairy-tale New Orleans. The original music is situated in American roots, I guess I should say funk and soul. We very purposefully wanted to create our own imaginary world, so it’s not supposed to be set in a specific year in a specific city, but I think you will feel the influences even in the moss in the trees and the sound of that music. Some of the influences from my childhood are there because when I think of things that are magical, that’s just what I think of.
You said you’ve loved A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a long time. How do you feel about the play now? And what would you most want to convey to the audience with this production?
I think the play is just a gift. My appreciation for the perfection and beauty of its structure, also the really specific delights of its language—all those things only intensify as I work on it. The more I work on the play, the more I realize that it’s already perfect. I understand why it’s been able to sustain so many different interpretations and why so many different people have been able to find their own inspiration within in. What would I like most for the audience? I want them to feel a joyful sense of connection with all other humanity, because we’re all in the same predicament.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs through August 13.