When Alex Timbers was 12 years old, he and an elementary school buddy had their own public access cable show in Manhattan. “It was sketch comedy, very irreverent and strange,” Timbers reports. His favorite segment was called “Pyro Time.” “We’d buy fireworks and explosives in Chinatown and blow things up—like a giant cod. We’d explode it and then play it back several times in slow motion and play ’Carmina Burana’ [on the soundtrack].” Timbers explains that at the time he was going to a straight-laced “coat-and-tie” all-boys school, and the cable show was a way of letting off steam. “So there was an anarchic side waiting to get out.” Now at age 32, Timbers is letting some of his anarchy loose on Broadway. He’s making his debut on the Great White Way directing two productions you wouldn’t think of as typical Broadway fare: Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, a rock musical he co-wrote with composer Michael Friedman, which opens at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on October 13, and The Pee-wee Herman Show, a new version of an early 1980s comedy show created by and starring Paul Ruebens, which begins performances at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on October 26.
Timbers is the artistic director of Les Freres Corbusier, a downtown theater company with a mission statement that promises “aggressively visceral theater combining historical revisionism, multimedia excess, found texts, sophomoric humor, and rigorous academic research.” As an undergraduate at Yale, Timbers had already experimented with bold theatrical styles, directing a Brechtian version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in which everyone was pregnant and the window washer was actually an ape in a cage. “It was very intense, but it allowed me to better define my love of comedy and really aggressive theater,” he explains. He returned to New York after college to pursue a theater career and formed his company in 2003. “How do you as a young director get to direct Chekhov? Well, you don’t really get to as a young person, so I felt it important to start a company,” he says. Seeking to make his own specific mark, he remembered an experimental dance piece he created at Yale in 2001, about the story of mathematics as it related to the history of mankind, told in a style that both celebrated and lampooned academia and avant-garde theater—and thus Les Freres Corbusier was born.
Recent Corbusier productions include Heddatron, an irreverent version of the Ibsen classic which involved fully functional robots; A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, a controversial take on the actual writings of L. Ron Hubbard; and Hellhouse, a subversively straight rendition of an Evangelical church morality text. Now comes this offbeat portrait of America’s populist seventh president employing a popular rock music idiom associated with over-the-top emotionalism.
You’ve been working on Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson for several years now. How did it all begin?
We’ve been working on it for six years. In June of 2005, Michael Freidman, the composer, and I were put on this creative blind date by Kurt Deutsch who runs Sh-k-boom Records, which is releasing the album. We both ran these downtown theater companies; mine does work about historical figures, his, the Civilians, does this sort of documentary theater/cabaret kind of things. I was saying to him that I was really interested in emo culture, and emo music as an idiom and he said, ’Isn’t Andrew Jackson kind of the ultimate emo President?’ And that was literally how the show was born. So we did a developmental production at Williamstown in 2006 and then a production at the Center Theater in Los Angeles in January 2008. In May 2009, we did it in the Public Theater’s LAB series in New York and then, in March 2010, a production in the Newman Theater at the Public.
What do you mean by “ultimate emo president”?
Well, he is the embodiment of arrested adolescence in a way. He was the kind of guy who was the frontiersman in this world of political elites (which is sort of like being bullied and shoved in a locker), but he had his way in the end. And there is a metaphorical level of bleeding the country, since he was also a “cutter” in real life.
You’ve talked about juxtaposing the sophomoric with rigorous research. What do you say when people react against the show’s frat-house kind of humor?
I think there are two responses: one, yeah, that’s in our mission statement so then we are succeeding on some level; the other thing that I’d say is there’s always something deeper and more intellectual going on. I think there’s a way to find the humor not to be your taste. Actually, the reviewer in Slant didn’t enjoy our approach. But the thing I always forget is that when you are intentionally trying to create divisive work, some people are going to be like this is their favorite thing ever, and others are going to hate it. And you are really surprised when you actually do piss people off. During the run at the Public, there was a group of people who really responded to the piece and then there was a smaller group who were really angry about it. There’s also a version where you can create something that everyone will be just fine with, but no one will be in love with.
And that’s not the kind of work you are interested in?
I don’t know. That’s not what you spend your youth on, at least…
You’ve also said that you want to reach a different type of theatergoer…
I wouldn’t be the first person to say that the typical sound on Broadway is not the sound you hear on the radio—that’s a decades-long struggle. But what is even less championed as a cause is the gulf between the type of comedy happening in theater and the type of comedy happening in TV and film. There is a certain humor in contemporary pop culture that is just not reflected at all on the stage. So, if you are an average person who doesn’t frequent the theater and exists in this world of America today, and you go to see a comedy on Broadway, you are like, “This has no relationship to my life.” And so while the show is definitely trying to look a little at the clothes and the music that people are more interested in right now, it is also looking at the way people enjoy storytelling—in short spurts with different angles, with a dose of comedy as well as some sincerity as well.
Did the show change over the years?
We’ve learned a lot. When this show started at Williamstown, it was a play with songs. It had six or seven songs in it. The action would suddenly stop and you would get a song and it would continue. It is still not a show that has a lot of songs that forward the narrative (that’s not the type of musical it is), but there are more songs, and they have become much better integrated. Another thing that changed was when we went to Los Angeles there was early commercial interest in the show. So we had this idea of what we thought a commercial musical should be. We tried to make it sentimental and make you cry at the end. We really lost our way a little bit and betrayed the integrity of what it was. What is interesting is the more specific we made it—the more weird and less commercial and palatable—the more commercial it has become. The other big lesson was we had this incredibly beautiful design in Los Angeles, but Oskar [Eustis, Public Theater artistic director] really encouraged us when we came to New York to make it much more anarchic and downtown and thrifty. And that was important, because not only did it change the look and the feel, but the anarchy in the set allowed the dramaturgy to play more anarchically. In Los Angeles, because the set was so beautiful, there was this distance. But here, once the set was crappy and wonderful, it allowed the show to be kind of crappy and wonderful.
It’s easy to find modern parallels to Andrew Jackson, but the connections are to people from all over the political spectrum, and people who are not compatible with each other.
That’s cool, I’m glad you saw that. I feel like when we started out we had a more facile, sort of a reductive idea that it was about Bush or it was a little about Clinton. And then—I credit this less to my skill as a dramatist and more to Andrew Jackson—as we have been doing it every time, it has reflected the people in office. When we were out in L.A. it felt like it was about Huckabee and Edwards. Then it felt it was about Obama when were in the Public Lab, and then, this spring, it felt like it was definitely about Sarah Palin. So, one of the reasons we really pushed to do it this fall was because we felt it would be really important for it to be going on while the election is happening, and maybe we can be in dialogue with that. Our hope is that in October, as the issues are heating up, people might find more reflections of that in the show, in ways that I’m sure will surprise us all.
What is it like working on The Pee-wee Herman Show?
It’s a completely different experience. On Andrew Jackson, I’m the auteur. On Pee-wee, Paul [Ruebens] is the auteur. I’m in service to his vision. I have my take to a certain extent on the Pee-wee Playhouse world and how we theatricalize and update that, along with the designers, but he’s the creator and the star of this, and the writer.
What is your take on the show?
My pitch to him was that I think that this show has to be even more visually exquisite than the TV show, which had an incredibly high bar. It can’t feel like you are just plopping the TV show down on stage, it has got to be incredibly theatrical. I think it has got to feel a little raucous and anarchic in a way that feels visceral and rock n’ roll. And it needs to be even funnier than the original show. What I was really interested in was how we can make the puppet characters even more interactive.
So puppets are a large part of the show?
You see, when he did the HBO special, he didn’t have Chairry or Globey, or all these characters that have become iconic. This is really the first time for people to be in the same room as these characters. And there are all these different surprises—puppets dropping down from the ceiling, popping out everywhere. Certain characters that have never walked before or moved, like Chairry, are animated. They are all based on the original puppets, but the miracle of the TV show is that you had cutaways. So you’d have the Pterodactyl that flew and you had a Pterodactyl that talked and you had a different Pterodactyl that walked. Here you have to have one that does all that stuff and does it perfectly every time.
One of the most fun things to me is watching the puppets talk to each other. To see the puppets fighting with each other, or dialoguing with each other, it’s sweet but also very strange. I think with The Pee-wee Herman Show, just like in Andrew Jackson, you have never actually seen something quite like this on stage before. It’s a little bit its own kind of genre. And it is also like Andrew Jackson in that it has its roots in alternative comedy. So there’s a freshness about it that’s exciting for me.
Were you a Pee-wee fan before you started work on this show?
Absolutely. It’s a real thrill to get to interact with all those iconic characters. I think what has been surprising about this show is that it has an emotionality to it. There’s almost—and this might sound silly—a Chekhovian quality to the Pee-wee character toward the end. And I’ve got to say that Paul hasn’t been in any way set in his ways in terms of this is how the character is done. It’s been a wonderful relationship. He’s been very open and collaborative toward trying different things. And that’s all you can hope for in a situation like this—to have one of the great comic actors trying and experimenting in a room with you. That’s really cool.