#Changemakers: Jill Bergeron & Free Spirit Theatre

Jill Stapleton Bergeron is no stranger to the theatre scene, and boasts over three decades of experience as an actor, director, playwright, and college instructor. Most recently she founded Free Spirit Theatre, a new company whose first production is fast approaching. A few weeks ago we sat down with Jill and the actors preparing for The Lesson to learn more about their upcoming show, and what makes them unique for Knoxville.

Why this play, now?
Well, my original play was Beyond Therapy by Christopher Durang, whom I love, but it requires five actors. I didn’t have that many audition. I had three people who were interested and committed, so I went in search of a play to fit them. I looked at plays that I like, and I’ve always loved Eugene Ionesco and The Lesson. Ionesco is not only recognized all over the world of theatre as a master of the absurdist movement, he was also very anti-Nazi because of his experiences during the war. His ability to combine humor with tragedy and a marvelous fascination with language amazes me.

That’s sort of an atypical approach, right? Usually it starts with the play, and then you hold auditions, and you fill those roles.
Most theatre companies have an idea who is available and interested in their mission, so it is always a consideration in play choice. Unless you can pay people, you can’t pick a play without considering if you’ll have the cast. That was the position I was in since this is our first show. When I was the Director of Theatre at Maryville College, I knew which actors would be available, so I selected the plays with that in mind. Hopefully as we grow, and people get to know us, I’ll have a more dependable idea of who’s interested. Also, I underestimated how much goes on in October. Everybody’s doing a show right now. Tiger Lily just finished Fat Pig, Theatre Knoxville is doing Mousetrap, and Tennessee Stage is doing Philadelphia Story — there’s just so much going on. In the end, I have to say that I’m very happy with what I’ve got.

As an actress, having something picked that suited you guys, how did that compare with what you’re used to with the normal audition process?
Freddie Birdwell: Well it was a lot easier.
Emma Wright: I think it’s very interesting exploring the script as a group, because we didn’t get the script before the first rehearsal. We showed up and then found out what play we were doing. So that was a really different process.

What made you start Free Spirit Theatre?
I’ve been a director for a long time, but when I left Maryville I didn’t direct or do much theatre for a while. My kids were in middle and then high school, and my focus was mainly on them. I was the Artistic Director for The Trail of the Lonesome Pine Outdoor Drama up in Virginia for four years during the summer and my whole family was involved in that. When my son and daughter were in college and wanted to go to their first general audition in Atlanta, I went with them and got a job. I was shocked! I did about 10 years of shows during the summer when I wasn’t teaching, all across the eastern part of the country. I got to perform in professional theatres in Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Michigan, and Missouri. I really enjoyed that, but I don’t really enjoy acting that much. It can be fun, but I’m always thinking how I would do it differently. There wasn’t a lot of directing opportunities here in Knoxville, and it was kind of driving me crazy because that’s what I really, really love to do, so I just said, “I’m going to start a theatre and see what happens!”

This is your first production. Can you tell me a little about what you hope will be the result of this first performance?
Well, first of all, I hope it introduces us to the Knoxville theatre community and theatre lovers. When I had auditions, very few people even knew who I was, so I think once they get to know us, we’ll be a much more integral part of the theatre scene.

Do you have any trepidation about competing, because there are so many, in starting a new one, do you ever worry about the fact that there are so many companies? Or do you say, let’s go forward and give it a shot?
At first, I was a little worried about getting a cast, because there’s so much going on. Not so much competing like I win, you lose, or anything like that, but just having enough resources. That’s why Modern Studio is such a blessing to those of us who want to do theatre. I’ve lived in this area for 25 years, and this is the first shared performance space that is reasonably priced and accessible. Actually, I think that because there’s so much more theatre than there was before, even five years ago, in Knoxville, is inspiring more theatre. I think all of us are developing an audience here in Knoxville that we didn’t have ten years ago. Tom Parkhill has done amazing things with Tennessee Stage and developed it into a natural part of summer in Knoxville. Theatre Knoxville Downtown, Carpetbag, and the Word Players are also well-established along with a few others. It’s gratifying these days to go see a play with a full house. That says something about theatre in Knoxville that we couldn’t say ten years ago, so I think it’s an opportunity rather than a downside. I look forward to maybe even collaborating with other groups.

You mentioned that you’re a writer as well. Playwright or novels?
I write everything pretty much. I have a novel that’s coming out in November (called Truth or Dare using my nom de plume, Anne Denmark), and I’m just now finishing up the proofing for that. I’ve written a lot of plays, some of them have been picked up by theaters, some haven’t.

Will you be producing any of your own work?
Probably not.

Why not?
Well, I want to stay with really good, tested literature. A lot of companies here use original scripts, which is wonderful because new playwrights need to get their work out there. But I think it’s best not to direct my own plays. A different director can show me where the holes are, and I would love to work in development with someone. One thing about theatre is that it’s the most collaborative art. Playwrights need directors and actors and vice versa. But my favorite thing is working on a really, really good play that I can sink my teeth into with a group of actors. We did script work for two weeks before we got on our feet with this one.

What do you do during that process? Walk me through what you guys did.
We did read-throughs first, just to get familiar with the script. We talked about the characters, there are a lot of terms in this play that I had to research to find out what they meant so we talked about that. We talked about Ionesco and the kind of writing he does, and what motivated him to write. He’s a French playwright from the Absurdist movement in the 1950s and early 60s. He endured WWII in Romania and he was very anti-Nazi, anti-Fascism, anti-indoctrination, which I think fits in with our current American situation just fine right now. The play was written in 1950, but it’s just a timely as if he wrote it yesterday.

You mentioned that you like doing plays that are “well tested” — from a directing and acting standpoint, what does it mean for a play to be “well tested” in your opinion?
A play that survives its own period for one thing. You know, there are thousands of plays from any period in history. Time passage is kind of sieve that keeps moving. A few works will fall through and last, and the rest will get tossed out because they weren’t that great or they were too topical, too dated. There were a lot of people writing plays during Shakespeare’s time, but how many can you name?

This particular play is about a professor and student — give me the premise of the play.
This student has come for private lessons with this professor, who has a big reputation in town because he used to teach at the university. She comes because in two weeks she wants to take her doctor’s orals, and all she has is a high school diploma. And of course, the absurdity part is that she’s here to prepare for her “super total doctorate” and they’re doing math that is 1 + 1 is 2. But she can’t do subtraction, which upsets him quite a bit. So they move on to comparative linguistics where he kind of loses himself and which she can’t do either. I won’t reveal the ending, but it’s very surprising. I love this play!

Are you already thinking about your next production, or are you waiting to get through this one first?
Yeah, I’m already starting to think about other plays. I really like Strindberg’s Miss Julie; I’m looking at a couple of other plays, one called Love, Loss, and What I Wore, it’s funny but poignant. I’m really drawn to Sara Ruhl’s plays. There are so many I want to do!

So you taught at Maryville College?
I was the Director of Theatre at Maryville College. We did one main stage show each semester. I was one of the founding members of the now extinct Knoxville Area Theatre Coalition. I loved getting to know other theatre artists in town—maybe we should revive it!

Comparing this to your time at Maryville College, in what ways have you had to be resourceful?
Finding rehearsal space is a big deal. Right now I’m footing the bill for everything, because it’s my dream so I need to pay for it. I’m hoping we at least make enough money to pay me back and get ready for the next one, that’s all I care about. If we get 100 people, we could cover the costs and have enough to rent the space again for January. It’s really just the financial stuff. I enjoy doing the program, set & costume design along with directing, but it would be nice to have more help.

So how else can people help you?
Right now, donations would be amazing! But just supporting us and coming to see what we do is great. I hope we can get more people involved on and off stage. This production is a long one-act, about an hour and a half. After Thursday’s performance, we’ll have a talk-back so the audience can ask questions, because it’s a play that you’re not going to see very often in this area. On Friday and Saturday evenings we will have an open coffeehouse with a dance floor for people to hang out after the show—drink coffee and eat desserts.

Why wouldn’t it be seen in Knoxville? Is it too topical, or not the personality of the local audience?
I think a lot of people just don’t know who Ionesco is, I mean, I know who he is because I had to read a lot of play in grad school. But a lot of people aren’t exposed to that, and if you don’t know it, how can you do it? That’s one of my goals—to introduce our community to a wide variety of good theatre without worrying about being overly commercial. Contemporary material is a little easier in terms of design, but I love good plays regardless of when they were written. I really liked what Amy Hubbard did with Actors Co-Op; she took a lot of risks with play choices and enjoyed success. I hope we can do something similar.

I like that the name of your company, indicates more of a free spirit obviously, but you’re more of a purist, which I like.
Yeah, I guess I’m a theatre purist, you could say that. But, although I am sort of a theatre purist I do not consider myself a traditionalist. I examine a script in depth and look for new and creative ways to present the material without regard to how it’s been done before.

Did you mean for there to be a dissonance between the company name and your style?
Actually, I thought of free spirit as not being bound by having to make a lot of money or cater to popular trends. I just don’t want to do anything predictable. If we do an old standard, it will have a spin on it. I want to do Pinter, Hellman, Moliere. . .

How would you like to see the theatre scene in Knoxville grow in the next five years?
I’d like to see more places like Modern Studio, where we can have a place to do what we want to do. I would just like to see this growth continue, and thrive, and audiences learn to expect good theatre here with a lot of variety. The theatre community here is alive and has a lot to offer.
What have each of you enjoyed most about the production?
Sam Waycaster: For me, the most enjoyable thing, is working with Jill again. When we worked together last, we said it wouldn’t be the last time. I’m very glad that she contacted me and asked if I’d come along for the ride.
Emma Wright: I think the best part is learning how to do absurdist theatre. I graduated from UT two years ago, and I’ve taken classes in New York and London about it, but this is my first time working on it. Most of my experience has been with Shakespeare, or modern classic plays. Earlier this year I did Grease, but this is my first time doing something like this which has been really fun.
Freddie Birdwell: I’ve never done absurdist theatre either, and it’s exciting to me to be doing something that is really making a statement about our social and civic life, and the same statement from 1950 can still be made today. That, and I haven’t known these two as long as Sam has, but we worked together a few years ago and it was fun. Jill said, “Do you want to?” And I said, “Okay!” We were at Modern Studio, and we didn’t know what we were doing yet, but we said okay.
Was it at Moving Theatre or Cindy & Ella?
It was at Cindy & Ella.
Which was not that long ago! Wow.
Yeah! (Laughter.)

The Lesson runs Thursday, November 9 through Saturday, November 11 at 7:30 pm at Modern Studio. Tickets can be purchased here.

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