An Interview with Venus Director Lear deBessonet
As the Public Theater’s Resident Director and Artistic Director of Public Works, Lear deBessonet regularly helms productions where the cast members number in the hundreds. Never one to shy away from spectacle, deBessonet took a few moments before rehearsals began to share her excitement for the design of Venus, the story of Saartjie Baartman, and the wild and wonderful writing of Suzan-Lori Parks.
What was your first encounter with the writings of Suzan-Lori Parks?
I read her work in college and was completely rearranged by it. I read both Venus and The Death of the Last Black Man... within, like, one twenty four-hour period of time. And the fact that, when she’s writing a script, there’s this scoring that is taking into account all theatrical elements. The idea that, a playwright could be creating space within their text for the magic that’s going to happen between actors, for visual images, for movement – creating this densely poetic, funny, strange, musical score of text, while telling a narrative. I didn’t know those things were possible. I remember being really dumbstruck at the time.
What initially drew you to the story of Venus?
What I remember from my first encounter, that’s still true for me of Venus, is the immersion in it feeling mournful and joyful and baffling, which, for me, is a great night at the theatre. You know, Suzan-Lori’s talked about the fact that Venus is a love story, and I think it would be much less complex if that wasn’t true. I, as a director, am very invested in pursuing the most complicated version of the story, because I think that the truth of humanity is incredibly complex and, in the political moment that we live in, fighting for complexity is really a thing worth doing. It’s very easy and tempting for all of us to reduce people, and even reduce works of art to a message, or something that is sort of unilateral. I think the dimensionality of this piece and how many questions it raises, and how much it leaves open for the audience to investigate for themselves, that feels really important right now.
"[I] as a director, am very invested in pursuing the most complicated version of the story, because I think that the truth of humanity is incredibly complex."
What can you tell us about the design of the play?
Structurally, the piece has these really vivid movements of language and literal movements of actors that happen, and then it will lock into a scene that is two or three people and we’re just watching how the characters navigate the challenges they’re up against. I had this impulse that I talked about with Matt Saunders, the designer, which was there are moments of the play that feel like they could take place within an eight foot circle, that have this tremendous intimacy, and then there are these other dimensions that have this really epic sweep. And so, how do we find a design that allows for both of those things, that interfaces with the historical period in a way that’s evocative and interesting but not overly literal, since the piece is not operating in a literal history play genre? Those were the questions we were thinking about. The play has layers of performance within performance within performance, and moments when, actually even in intimate situations, there’s an element of performance, and of masking and unmasking that happens. So, it’s really deep. We wanted, in thinking about the play within the play, for it to have its own space that could sort of erupt into the rest of the playing space and then retract in ways that would feel dynamic and surprising. And, in terms of the clothes, I think there’s fun in it being pushed really far aesthetically, to an extreme place that is garish and beautiful and sort of stunning.
How does music factor into Venus?
I’ll share just a really interesting creative challenge that we navigate regarding music in the show. Because the text itself has a music to it, a real rhythm and life, you want music to lift that. There are many moments in the show that feel like they invite music, but you also never want the audience’s ear to be taken away from the words, because this play is all about the words. It’s all about Suzan-Lori’s gift for unpacking the history of words, even in the way that she turns them on their head over and over again and asks us to rethink what those words mean. So, as a director, I always want to put the language forward and make sure that music is happening in an almost unconscious way that is taking us on the journey, but not detracting from her words.
You’re known for directing productions with huge casts – which makes the eleven people in Venus seem like such a small number! How do you approach the work you create with an ensemble?
Directing the Public Works shows and working with a cast of two hundred multiple times, I think that has pushed me to a place of real discipline in terms of storytelling and clarity of what is being asked in the rehearsal room at any given moment. And I’ve found that the same things apply that always apply in terms of the fundamental act of generosity that happens when we come to the room together. One of the things I love most about theatre is that we have the opportunity, within the confines of the four walls of the rehearsal room and then ultimately with the audience, to create a space that functions in the way that we wish the world functioned, with rigor and humor and gladness, all of these things that make for a really creative, focused room. So I care a lot about the space that the actors are invited into, especially because they’re asked to do very brave things, and in this play that is extra-triple-true. I certainly don’t want anyone to have to go there alone, and it’s really only by holding hands and taking that leap together that you end up uncovering something incredible and deep and real.