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Interview

Robert Brock on Liz’s Circus Story

Robert Brock has been artistic director of Horse Cave Theatre since 2001. After several years as a stage actor in New York, he first came to the Southcentral Kentucky regional theater as an actor and education director in 1998. Then-Artistic Director Warren Hammack chose Brock to direct Liz’s Circus Story at Horse Cave, and Brock assisted with the restaging of the play for KET’s television production.

What was your original approach to Liz’s Circus Story?

BrockThat was my job as director: to bring the play visually to life. We needed to give the audience a circus; we needed to give them a whole world. So we started thinking in terms of puppets. And there were different ways to go to all the places Liz talked about in the play through sound effects and lighting. The set was pretty minimal. With most scripts, you have some sense of how it’s going to go from beginning to end. This was different, because it’s a one-person play, with Liz narrating and playing all the different characters. She started out just telling the story, and had not really come up with how it would be told visually. That’s what we had to invent as we were doing it.

As an example, she could tell us about the tigers, or we could have puppets to represent them as she told it. Watching the play, you’re at a circus, so we decided to have “found objects” that Liz could pick up and use, props that were taking her from one place to another. And a lot was done with lighting different areas of the stage.

What is the performance space like at Horse Cave Theatre, and how did you use it for this play?

The proscenium thrust stage at Horse Cave was perfect for something like this. It’s very intimate, with the audience on three sides. Liz is just talking straight to the audience, and they’re three feet from her. So we didn’t have to get big in terms of spectacle.

What role did you play in the adaptation of the play for TV? How does the stage production compare with the TV version?

At first, my big role was to give TV director Vince Spoelker background on how we had conceived the play. Once he began to really visualize how this would be presented on TV, I pulled back and became Liz’s coach. I didn’t know much about TV.

The main differences between the stage and TV versions are in the transitions within the play. On stage, we had to take the audience with us through a transition, pulling stuff out of props boxes. On TV, they had to move the story along a lot faster. They can do a quick cut from one scene to the next and move the story along. It would have been very abrupt to try it that way on stage.

I think both versions work really well. The story’s more streamlined for TV; Liz had to cut a lot. I had sort of an emotional attachment to some of the parts that were cut, but I could see they weren’t really necessary to tell the story. The story doesn’t miss them too much. One thing that was cut was that Liz used poetry in the stage version of the play, something by Emily Dickinson. And there were these scenes with her grandfather, who had given her a book of poetry. On her long travels, she would recite poems to herself. I missed those parts, but the play did fine without them. I felt it added depth to her character, but there was no time for it in the TV version.

What was your working relationship with Liz as playwright and actor during this production?

This was very collaborative. I had to rely on Liz’s experiences in the circus. I would ask her, “What does this mean?” And I think because she didn’t have a sense of visually how this story would be told, she was relying on me to see that for her. It was very different from most things I’ve directed. I can’t think of a play I’ve directed where we’ve had to create so much as we went. For example, instead of bringing on a telephone, we would say, “What are we going to use as a ‘telephone’?” We decided on a horse grooming brush that was already on the stage.

There was a lot of “play” in this production. Generally with a script, there’s a tradition behind it, a structure; the playwright has really conceived of how it should be done. With this, the story came with it, and that was about it.

What I told Liz about her acting was that the main thing was to trust the story. Just tell it, and it’ll all be fine. She had a tendency to really want to point up this and that, or wondered, “Is the audience going to get this?” and that was slowing things down. With a one-person show, you’ve just got to keep going. You’ve got to trust what you’ve written.

What advice would you give to playwrights working with directors?

If the playwright has a sense of how they want the audience to see the story, it helps the director a lot. And the director has to get as much background on the story as possible. I learned an awful lot about the circus working on this play. I did my own research, and Liz also gave me a ton of information. I would go to meetings about the play with the theater’s technical staff. We had a lot of fun doing this.

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