Q&A: Brian Robertson

Illustration by Pablo

Stage Director Brian Robertson faced a multitude of challenges in creating Cincinnati Opera’s new production of John Adams’s most recent opera, A Flowering Tree. The man is no stranger to challenges. For 10 years, he worked behind the scenes in Hollywood on films with Tim Robbins, John Cusack, Bruce Willis, and Jean-Claude Van Damme. But transforming soprano Jessica Rivera into a tree five times onstage pushed his creativity to new heights.

How do you get into film? Did the theater bug bite you in high school? Actually, before. My mother worked as a stage manager in a professional summer stock theater in West Virginia in the ’70s. I often would hang around theater and was that kid who became enamored of the actors and all the theatrical drama of making a show happen. We also lived in a big farmhouse and a lot of the actors who came in from New York would stay with us. It was fascinating to me around the age of 13 to see these actors in the house as regular people and then watch them onstage become someone else.

You wanted to be an actor back then? I had a few walk-on roles, but I officially became connected with the theater when I got an apprentice contract as an electrician when I was 16.

You majored in drama in college, right? I got cold feet when I got to college. In listening to those actors talk at the farmhouse, I realized that they often didn’t know where or when their next job was going to be. My father was a social worker, so I majored in social work.

But after graduation you went back to theater, your first love? No, I was a social worker for seven years and worked in a number of residential treatment programs as a therapist and counselor. The clients were teenagers.

Has that experience helped you as a director? It’s helped immensely. I got a chance to be involved as an observer in the drama of people’s lives. As a director, I’m still an observer, but now the drama is working with actors or singers to express their characters.

Let’s back up. How in the world did you go from social work to Hollywood? After seven years, the arts part of my world was really calling to me. I initially enrolled in Virginia Tech as a way to learn more about film. Then I lied my way onto the set of _Dirty Dancing when it came through Virginia during filming.

What was the lie? Although I had enrolled at Virginia Tech, I never attended a single class once I heard the production folks on the film were hiring tech students to fill out their production crew. I told them I was a student, and they hired me.

Did you and Patrick Swayze hang out? On a film you do have a lot of interaction with actors because their work is entirely supported by technical people who literally surround them during filming. I was actually considered for his stand-in because I was the same height and had a similar build and hairstyle back then, but I declined. You just become a set piece for lighting and working out things. It can be very boring.

And you still wouldn’t have gotten to spend time with Jennifer Grey. Exactly.

Did you ever get back to Virginia Tech? No, when filming wrapped up in Virginia and everyone went back to L.A., I got a call from the camera and lighting folks I’d worked with. They invited me to come out and join them on the next film. I spent the next 10 years working in film and TV production.

On what shows and films? I did the first season of Beverly Hills, 90210; action films, like The Jackal with Bruce Willis, Universal Soldier with Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lungren; Money Talks with Charlie Sheen, Chris Tucker, and Heather Locklear. I had constant work from 1988 to 1998.

Did you direct films? No, I was usually the grip.

Exactly what does a grip do? Everything. I usually worked with the camera or the lighting crew. If the director of photography wanted a scene to look like daylight in the morning, I had to figure out where to put the cameras.

As an all-purpose crew guy, you must have been asked to do some unusual things. Early on I was working on a film off the coast of Costa Rica. It called for a lot of filming in the water and one of the actresses was terrified of sharks. One day the director of photography told me to get into my swim trunks and get into the water with her just out of frame during shooting.

You were shark bait? There really were no sharks there, but we couldn’t convince her. During the shooting of Tapeheads—that was a big breakthrough movie for John Cusack and Tim Robbins—Mary Crosby, Bing’s daughter, was supposed to climb a ladder to the top of a building. She actually sat on my shoulders and held onto a rung during filming.

Any close calls while working on action films? Once I didn’t get out of the way fast enough when a mobile home was blown up. It was a horror film called Memorial Valley Massacre. I was responsible for turning on the camera closest to the mobile home. The concussion from the explosion knocked me down. Luckily, nothing hit me.

Sounds as if the Hollywood years were pretty successful. Why did you give it up? Several reasons. It had been a very stable and fulfilling, but I wasn’t involved in shaping the storytelling at the level that I wanted to be. I looked at graduate schools where I could immerse myself in drama, musical theater and opera. Opera had always been on the horizon as something I was curious about. I came to Cincinnati in the fall of ’92 to attend CCM [College-Conservatory of Music] and got a Masters in directing. I still continued to work in film during breaks and for about three years after I got the degree. Then I got a call from Nic Muni at Cincinnati Opera.

Your career path has taken some pretty sharp turns. I enjoy new places and new experiences. I worked with the opera education department for five years and became a staff director, assisting the main stage directors on all the productions. Around 2004, I also began teaching full-time at NKU in the Department of Theater and Dance and directing operas elsewhere.

How did you get the job of directing A Flowering Tree this summer? [Cincinnati Opera Artistic Director] Evans Mirageas wanted a new production and believed there was enough talent locally to create it.

What is the story about? The core story is based on an ancient Indian—as in India—folktale about a peasant girl who transforms herself into a flowering tree and a prince who sees one of the transformations and has to possess her. It’s provocative but finding the pulse of the story was challenging because there aren’t a lot of details provided in the storytelling.

Did that mean that as the director you had a lot of fill in? Yes. There aren’t a lot of scenes where the characters actually deal with each other. That is often how we [the audience] connect to the story by seeing them working things out. In this production, the chorus and a group of dancers have a lot more responsibility for the narrative than usual.

Meaning? Well, there are several important characters that aren’t portrayed by individual singers, they are portrayed by the chorus and dancers.

Where did you get your inspiration for telling the story? The music. It’s very powerful and expressive and the images onstage just accent what you can hear in the music.

The sets must help, too. The scenery isn’t traditional in terms of objects and architecture. It’s more about using shapes to suggest surfaces and combining live imagery with projections. The media team from Crossroads Church in Oakley designed interactive surfaces that will be much more than images projected on a screen behind the singers and dancers.

So, how do you turn a soprano into a tree? I don’t want to give too much away, but some of the transformations are more abstract and some more fully realized. In the end, everyone onstage becomes part of the final transformation. It will be amazing.

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