A Conversation with Artistic Director Jonathan Berry

Why did you pick Clarkston to open PTC’s 49th Season?

The 49th PTC season is my first here so I wanted it to serve, in some ways, as an introduction – an opportunity for me to meet this community and for the community to meet me. So I chose a playwright and a play that I had a very special connection to and also that, in some significant ways, felt representative of my artistic aesthetic. It’s a beautiful play about our struggle to connect and how complicated human relationships can be. But at its core, it’s also a hopeful play about, despite the challenges, how necessary that connection actually is to our well-being. I see theater as a community builder, and this play centers that in, what I find, to be a profound and moving way.

In Clarkston, Jake is fairly certain that he’s a descendant of Clark. What influence does that have on his character and the action of the play?

The American mythology is, I think, a strong influence on our nation – the notion of independent and intrepid explorers achieving over remarkable odds. It has been lifted up as our nation’s founding, as well as Clark’s. Jake – along with a lot of Americans – carry the pressure of the belief that this level of remarkable individual achievement is not just possible, but expected. And rarely do we talk about either the assistance that these “remarkable individuals” received, nor the systemic hurdles that exist now that hamper individual achievement. Jake feels the pressure of this legacy and struggles to understand why he can’t achieve in the same way, and it pushes him to a crisis where he finally has to ask for help.

You’ve directed Pocatello & The Harvest both by Samuel D. Hunter – What is it that draws you back to his work?

Samuel has an incredible ear for and understanding of the working class – everyday people who are trying to live their lives and who have modest wants and who yearn for connections and community. He writes about towns left behind by progress and the people who remain there, connected to what they know to be their home, and yet increasingly unable to find community because the things that make a town unique and special are being replaced by generic stores that strip away anything personal or unique. I am a bit of an old soul and share those concerns. And I find his writing incredibly funny and poignant and he writes relationships that are incredibly complex but, at the end, he always lands with hope. And that hope, for me, feels incredibly important- particularly these days.

What are the challenges of directing a play on the Opera House stage? What are the perks?

I am learning about directing in this space as we go! But I’m so excited to have a space that has so much history – I think theater spaces are sort of sacred that way, in that the space holds all of the work of the past, and the energy of the past audiences. It feels almost ritualistic, and the Opera House has that kind of charm and quirks to spare – I think an audience feels that walking in and the story you tell on that stage, then, gets elevated because it joins such a long standing history. The challenges are that, we want more of an intimate connection between the audience and the production, and this is a space originally designed for giant spectacle – so how do you get an audience the kind of intimate access that best serves the play. It’s a challenge, but the designers on the production have already done some smart work to pull the production down and get it closer and more intimately connected to the audience.

What do you hope audiences will take away from this show or experience during the show?

I’m a believer that art is meant to be interpreted by the audience and the things that I can control is the specificity of the storytelling and being clear, between myself and the actors and the designers, about the reason WE are coming together to tell this particular story right now. And I hope that, through that specificity, we create opportunities for an audience to connect on their own level. I hope that everyone sees something that, for them, is recognizable in their own experience and I hope that everyone sees something, maybe a little outside of their experience and walks away with a bit more understanding or empathy towards someone who is maybe outside of their immediate understanding. But as to a takeawy, I hope to leave that to each individual – like a theatrical Rorschach test.

How do you pick a play/musical to be a part of PTC’s Season?

There are so many factors that go into choosing a play or musical for our season! I think I start with the incredibly subjective condition that I have to think that the play is “good” – literally, is it well written, does it seem to achieve what it sets out to do, and is it impactful. After that, I really try to think about our community and the nation and the world and our current state of affairs and, if a play is an opportunity for dialogue, what are the conversations we want to be in this year? What questions or ideas feel important to engage with? And then who are the voices that are represented on our season (playwrights, directors, actors) and how does this play speak to that and create opportunity for community building and for audiences to see themselves represented in the work? And then I look at our remarkable artist community – designers and actors in our Artist Council and in our region and think about opportunities to feature their voices and their work. And then making sure that there is, across the season, a diversity of tone – are there comedies in with the dramas? Is their joy as well as heartbreak? I want each experience, walking through PTC’s doors to be unique and special and I want to keep the audience engaging on a bunch of differerent levels. But I want, at its core, for every production to be handled with passion and care and an eye towards connection. And I hope that people feel that, no matter the material.

How do you feel about living in Bangor/Maine?

I’ve loved experiencing Bangor! It’s a shift from Chicago, to be sure, but I’ve loved the space, and the slightly slower pace (though the theater for sure has me running!) and I look forward to exploring more of the surrounding area and the coast. I’ve felt remarkably welcomed and I can’t wait to be in conversation with this audience and these remarkable plays.