2015 Best Director of a Musical Nominee: Stacey Stephens for Fiddlehead Theatre Company's "Jesus Christ Superstar"

Before we announce our 2015 ArtsImpulse Award Winners, we are proud to present our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series. 

NOPTE: If you were nominated for a 2015 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series, please email us at brian@artsimpulse.com.

Photo Credit:   Bryce Cutler

Photo Credit: Bryce Cutler

Stacey Stephens is a renowned director and costumer, boasting an impressive list of credits and talent. However, it is Stacey's daring presence and interpretations of classic shows that made him stand above the rest in his inspired production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar. As divisive as it was calculated, this production boasted a transgender Mary Magdalene, a Jesus who topped the TIMES magazine for "Person of the Year," and a set that brought us back to the rumble of post-9/11 New York City.  In his Interview, Stacey explains his concept for this production; some of his hobbies; and his advice for actors, directors, and audience members. 

Stacey, thank you for joining us for a 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview.  Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I currently work as the Associate Producing Artistic Director of Fiddlehead Theatre Company where I have directed and designed costumes for their productions of The Wiz, #JCSuperstar, West Side Story, Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and, currently, a twentieth anniversary production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent.  I have also worked on the Broadway productions of Les Miserables (both original and current revival), Miss Saigon, Newsies, After Midnight, and Five Guys Named Moe

I toured extensively with The Lion King, Wicked, Les Miserables, and, most recently, with Memphis. I previously directed, designed, and created costumes for Fiddlehead Theatre Company’s productions of Funny Girl, Odd Couple, Fiddler on the Roof, Crazy for You, Into the Woods, Gypsy, The King and I, A Christmas Carol, Barefoot in the Park, Singin’ in the Rain, My Fair Lady, and Steel Magnolias, as well as Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston’s critically-acclaimed Into the Woods, staring Rachel York. 

In the Boston area, he has also designed costumes for SpeakEasy Stage Company’s productions of The Wild Party, Saturday Night, A New Brain, and Parade; Wheelock Family Theatre’s The Little Mermaid and The Secret Garden; Stoneham Theatre’s My Fair Lady and The Dinosaur Musical; and The Boston Conservatory's productions of Candide, On the Town and Kurt Weill’s One Touch of Venus (which he also directed). Stacey is a six-time Independent Reviewers of New England Award (“IRNE”) winner for both his stage direction and costume design.  He has designed and staged performances for Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, including Misbehavin’ with Nell Carter. I am also a 1987 graduate of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy.

Talk to us about your production of Jesus Christ Superstar.  How did you develop the concept and production?  What made you choose to produce and direct this musical?  What was different?  What was the same (or similar) to other productions?

Now that’s a question . . . We chose the show because we wanted to do a show that would speak to a lot of people on many different levels.  We also wanted to do a show that we could rethink and bring a new perspective to.  Looking at the show itself and in research, the authors, both Lloyd Webber and Rice, talked about how they wanted to tell the story of Jesus as a real, ordinary man who did extraordinary things.  They also wanted to examine how media and hype could not only bring fame to someone, but also condemn them.

Fiddlehead Theatre Company's  Jesus Christ Superstar  (Photo Credit:   Matt McKee  ).

Fiddlehead Theatre Company's Jesus Christ Superstar (Photo Credit: Matt McKee).

I found so many parallels to our present world, and how media and the internet have made “instant fame” so attainable.  How the selfie generation has changed the world.  I thought what if Jesus was that everyman who was proclaimed a savior from a major world event?  Even though I was criticized for using the 9/11 tragedy to add “gravitas” to the play, that was not the point at all.  I wanted a milestone that everyone could relate to, that everyone could immediately understand the place of unrest the world was in.  As we worked in rehearsal, the show and the story of Jesus became even more current with lyrics like “What’s the buzz,/ tell me what is happening,” and news stories about how more people would video tape a crime or attack then actually step in to help the victim. 

I was careful to make the biblical accounts accurate in our retelling.  I didn’t want people to not understand what the Bible told us about Jesus, I just wanted to make it current.  One thing we did was play with gender reversal.  I decided that in today’s world Jesus’s twelve apostles would be an all-inclusive group, both male, female, gay, straight, and transgender.  I chose to illustrate how Jesus would have grown in fame in today’s world, writing a book, and then pushed toward a political career before the world condemned him to his death. 

I did warn the cast that we might anger people in this production, and that we may end up with people walking out.  I am happy to say that was not the case.  I was greeted with comments of praise for the production, some commenting that they could not see how it had been done differently in the past.  One mother, who had attended with her sons, thanked me for telling the story so that her kids “finally got it.”

How do you pick your projects and productions?  Is there any common thread?  How have you evolved as a director?

When we talk about upcoming seasons, Meg Fofonoff (Founding Producing Director for   Fiddlehead Theatre Company) and I consider many things.  We discuss shows that we would like to do, what our audiences want to see, and shows that we can breathe new life into with our productions.  We then look to see how shows might relate to one another.  Usually, we try to find something that ties them together.

I hoped I have evolved as a director.  If I haven’t I should probably stop directing.  As humans age and time teaches.  I would say that is the same as a director.  We learn as we go along.  Using life’s experiences we breathe life into characters on the stage.

Do you have any favorite songs?  Pick a lyric from this song that speaks to you as a person or artist.

Smile by Charlie Chaplin, and especially Judy Garland singing it.  It is so simple in its lyrics, but goes straight to the heart for me.  A career in the arts brings many ups and downs, so: “Smile what’s the use of crying, you’ll find that life is still worthwhile,/ If you just smile.”

What are some of the challenges for producing and directing theatre in Boston?

What do I say without out getting in trouble? 

What are some of your hobbies?  What do you do in your spare time?

Shopping.  Shopping, SHOPPING!  

Can you define spare time?  I don’t think it is in my vocabulary.

Fiddlehead Theatre Company's  Jesus Christ Superstar  (photo Credit:   Matt McKee  ).

Fiddlehead Theatre Company's Jesus Christ Superstar (photo Credit: Matt McKee).

If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?  What would you do?  What are three things that you would bring with you?

Probably anyplace I haven’t been yet.  I love to explore new places.  I have been lucky enough to do a lot of traveling in my life, both for business and pleasure.  The more of the world I see, the more I want to see.  As for the things I’d bring:  I’ll quote Mae West (but it is four things): "A mink in the closet, a Jaguar in the garage, a tiger in the bedroom and a jackass to pay the bills.”  I guess I could forget the Jaguar for now – Oh, and I’d prefer a stable.

What advice would you give to a young actor?  To a young director?  To a young audience member?

To the Actors and Directors:  Follow your dreams, go out on limbs, listen and learn from everyone, and everything.  Experience life, all aspects both good and bad.  Have a life of experience you can draw from when you are creating characters and telling stories.

To the audience:  SEE THEATRE, EVERYTHING you can.  Things you’ve never heard of, by writers and directors you will never hear of again, featuring actors that aren’t your friends and family.

What is one thing that you could never give up?  What is one thing that you wish that you could give up?

Cheese.  I’m a Wisconsin boy – enough said.

Hmm – can’t think of anything – can I get back to you?

In what do you believe? 

“I believe that children are our future, teach them well, and let them lead the way.”

Oh?  That wasn’t a musical cue?

Do you have any upcoming projects?

Up Next:  Showboat – that little show.  Cast of 48, orchestra of 27, a boat, a car, a story spanning 40 years, featuring one of the most beautiful scores ever written.

I’m co-directing with my partner Meg Fofonoff.  I can’t wait to start.

Also still finalizing next season’s line-up.  It looks like it’s gonna be a “not to miss” season.

Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

I’m registered at Tiffany’s and gifts can be sent to me at . . . – I’ve probably shared enough – is anyone still reading this?

2015 Best Projection Design Nominee: Bryce Cutler for Fiddlehead Theatre Company's "Jesus Christ Superstar"

Before we announce our 2015 ArtsImpulse Award Winners, we are proud to present our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series.

NOTE: If you were nominated for a 2015 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series, please email us at brian@artsimpulse.com.

Bryce Cutler was one of the designers who brought the static Jesus Christ Superstar into high definition at the historic Strand Theatre. Working under Director Stacey Stephen's insightful design and collaborating with the work of Mac Young, Cutler re-imagined the space and mood for the musical, infusing the production with newsreels, headlines, tweets, and more.  The projection design helped more than perhaps any other visual element to firmly cement the audience in the world of a modern-day Jesus Christ. 

In his Interview, Bryce describes his work, the challenges for projection design, his inspiration, and his upcoming projects!

Photo Credit: Tegan McDuffie

Photo Credit: Tegan McDuffie

Hi, Bryce, and thank you so much for joining us.  Can you please introduce yourself to our readers?

I am a projection and scenic designer based out of New York City.  Selected projection designs include: The Danish Widow, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley; and the world premieres of The Velvet Oratorio and Antigone. I am a founder of the political theater collective Third Space, and a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, and my design for The Lady In Red was chosen for international exhibition at the Prague Quadrennial this past year.

I was pleasantly surprised when I saw Fiddlehead Theatre Company’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar, given its unique adaptation.  How much were you involved in creating this concept?

The concept of the media was built into the idea for the show from the beginning.  I just happened to have joined the team a little later after the set had been designed.  A lot of the process was about taking all these ideas and contemporary mediums that we ingest content thru and finding out how those ideas fit into the story we wanted to tell visually.

What role did your projections play in the overall concept?  Tell us about some of the noteworthy moments where your projections helped tell the story.

Mac Young created a fantastic design for projections and, together, I think we were really able to use the projections to allow the show to travel. The projections acted as architecture as well as a space to showcase the larger world around Jesus.  One of my favorite moments was when Jesus is gathering followers and becomes a leader, and we see contemporary magazine covers, news clippings, Buzzfeed says this, and The NY Times says that.  It made [the production] feel very real and contemporary. 

What are some challenges of projection design?  What is rewarding about a good projection design?

Projections come with a variety of challenges and a lot of them lie in the technology.  Half the time, it’s just getting the equipment to connect and speak the same language.  For this production, heat was one of our biggest challenges because the projectors get so hot.  We must have had 3 or 4 fans blowing on projector thru ought the show hopping it wouldn’t “conk” out. 

A good projection design effortless jumps between media and the action onstage.  When it’s done right and done subtly it can take the show to a whole new level you didn’t think was possible. 

What or who inspires you?  What do you think makes something or someone inspiring?

I’m really inspired by artists who push our expectations like Katrin Brack, Marius von Mayenburg, and Donyale Werle.  Whether it’s design or theater or art, I find people who take risk in their work to be truly inspiring.  That risk can take many forms, but I have tremendous respect for people who stand up against the establishment and put everything on the line to explore alternative ideas from the norm.   

How do you think that religion, politics, and pop culture speak to each other in today’s society?

I think it’s a lot of noise.  A sort of endless loop that constantly feeds on itself.  It’s partially why projection design can get so complicated because we have all these mediums to ingest content thru but how those appear on the stage and in what form becomes the challenge. 

Projections helped narrate the story in Fiddlehead Theatre Company's modern interpretation of  Jesus Christ Superstar  (Photo Credit: Bryce Cutler).

Projections helped narrate the story in Fiddlehead Theatre Company's modern interpretation of Jesus Christ Superstar (Photo Credit: Bryce Cutler).

Do you have a favorite color?  Why?

Neon Orange because it never stops blinding you. 

If you could have any super power, what would it be and why?  What would you do with it?

I would want to see the future because it would not only be useful but it would help me cut out time-wasting activities. 

What was one of the most demanding projects that you have ever designed?  What was it so demanding?

The design for Spring Awakening was one of the most demanding.  The project took place over a year, and we were trying to reimagine a musical that is pretty iconic and recent—so we knew we needed to be different.  We approached it from a place of dance and focused on a space that could accommodate that.  Then, little by little, we began to design a show that became much more expressionistic then and really quite beautiful. 

Do you have any upcoming projects?

I’m designing the set and projections for Orpheus Unsung at the Guthrie Theater, a new play by Dael Orlandersmith; a production of Ragtime; and Third Space is in residency at Abrons Arts Center this spring. 

Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

Check out my website at: www.brycecutler.com, and thanks for reading!