Bus Stop: The Director’s Cut

My fourth ever acting role was that of the somewhat obnoxious cowboy Bo Decker in William Inge’s “Bus Stop”. At the time I had been acting for a little over a year and really didn’t have much of a clue about what I was doing aside from memorizing dialogue and movement and then spitting it back out with some occasional meaning sprinkled on top of it all. I knew even less about “theater” as an art form, never having been exposed to it in high school nor having ever visited Broadway. I just knew it as something kinda fun I had discovered which I also seemed to be pretty good at. My next role was as Macbeth, which thanks to a number of factors was the point where I began to understand the true essence of acting and which set me on a path that has guided the majority of my life since.

But while my Bo was a pretty pitiful thing given what I could do with it now, “Bus Stop” the show was a significant turning point for me. It was the first time I fell in love with a script and began to understand the difference between good writing and great writing. It was the first show that stuck with me when it was over, the first one that made me want to explore theater as more than just a time-filler and a way to meet girls. It is where I developed an appreciation for the art form. Instead of being just about me and my lines, I started to see the importance of what a good set can add, how costumes can shape a performance, how music and sound can affect the mood and the tone, how everything from the lighting to the props played an integral part in turning a “production” into a “show”.

About a year or so after doing the show, I made my first trip to Broadway and on my very first night in New York I checked out a revival production of “Bus Stop” at the Circle In The Square Theater. Billy Crudup, then a relative nobody, played Bo and I was transformed that night by what I saw. The way he moved, the full-body commitment he gave to the role, it was an eye-opener. Since it was performed in the round (audience on all sides of the stage), I also saw for the first time that what you read in the script doesn’t always have to be what you see on the stage. There is room for all sorts of interpretation, not just in performance but in visual style. I likewise discovered that night how it was possible to be truly affected by a story even when you already know it inside and out. It was strange. I wasn’t blown away by what I saw that night, as there were certainly elements that I didn’t think worked and in the end I felt like they missed something in the telling of the story. But that in and of itself was important, as I was suddenly aware of the fact that I had thoughts about a script that went beyond simply understanding it. I guess you could say that Gordon Ellis the Director was born that night.

Flash forward 15 years. I have since seen a number of local productions of “Bus Stop”, including a recent version at the Huntington Theater which while visually stunning left me flat on an emotional level. I have yet to see the story told the way I see it in my heart when I read the words that Inge has written on the page.

I have also begun my own career as a director, with a number of shows under my belt of which I am very proud. Yet when I began directing, it was with the thought that one day I would get around to tackling my favorite show. I knew I needed to build up some directing experience before I attempted it, honing my style and learning what I could along the way. I also knew it had to be done in the right theater. A space too small or too big wouldn’t work, as to me it is a very intimate story about people with a lot of space between them; for whom emotional closeness seems far out of reach even when physically trapped inside a tiny mid-western diner. Luckily, I got the experience I needed and the right theater decided they wanted the show as part of their season.

In just over 24 hours, Vokes Theater in Wayland, MA will open their doors to a production of “Bus Stop” of which I am extremely proud to be able to attach my name as “Director”. I have been blessed with an incredibly talented and hard-working cast and design crew who – whether they are aware of it or not – have been laboring for several months to not simply stage a show, but to help me fulfill a dream that began many years ago. With any show I direct, there is a considerable amount of change between my initial “vision” and the final product. It’s a natural and exciting part of the creative process. But “Bus Stop” has been, for obvious reasons, a different animal. While I allowed for a certain amount of new discovery along the way, I have to cop to the fact that I have been generally unbending in the way I wanted this show to be staged, at least when compared to my usual, “hell, let’s see what works” attitude. For this show I knew what worked, and more importantly, what didn’t, and since casting took place last November I have been guiding my willing actors directly to the place I wanted them to go. That fact that we got there so easily is a testament to their talents and their willingness to trust me, of which I am eternally grateful.

For the past several nights I have been privileged to sit in the darkness of the theater and watch this wonderful script come alive as I had always hoped it would. It continues to touch me deeply and every night there are moments of heartbreaking beauty that have literally brought tears to my eyes. As a hardened cynic who knows he is being manipulated by a “show” (and who is largely responsible for said manipulation), I relish those tears because they are not easily earned. As I sit here now, I quite simply do not have the words in my arsenal to adequately express my appreciation for all who have had a hand in this project. I am humbled and eternally grateful. Thank you all.

It is my sincere hope that my many theater-loving friends will find the time to trek out to our little theater in Wayland and join us for a few hours at our snowbound Bus Stop. Perhaps the show won’t change your life quite the way it changed mine, but if you are open to it, it will make you laugh, make you smile, and warm your heart just a bit as we ride out these final days of what has indeed been a long, cold winter. At the very least, by filling the seats and giving appreciation to my cast and crew, you will able to say you had a small hand in helping me live out a dream. And really, how often do you get to say that?

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