BTD Skyped in with Teenage Dick director Brian Balcom to talk about what it took just to get the play produced, why the story is personal to him, and how streaming options helped give the show a run that almost didn’t happen.
Tell me about your experience directing Teenage Dick, how that came about, and where you first heard about or read the play.
It was actually sitting in my script pile for maybe a year or two before I actually got to it. As sensational as the title is, I am not a Shakespeare fan. I knew it was an adaptation of Richard III, and that allowed it to fall by the wayside and be passed over for other plays. Someone then mentioned I should check out this play about disability: it’s called Teenage Dick, and I thought, “Oh I have that.” So I immediately read it, and I thought it was fantastic.
I thought the playwright’s name, Mike Lew, sounded familiar. I met a Mike Lew about 15 years ago in New York. We were both interviewing for the Drama League Director Fellowship. But that Mike Lew was a director. It would be weird if there were two Mike Lews in theater, but this one was a director. So I emailed Mike Lew the playwright, and I said, “Hi my name is Brian. I’m a director. I have a disability. I read your play. It’s great. Is there a more recent draft I can read?” And he said, “Hey Brian, we’ve met before.” Because I wanted to see the play, and because we have that history, I went out to New York to see the world premiere at Ma-Yi Theatre Company, and we sat down for dinner beforehand to talk about ourselves, the play, etc.
I started looking for places to pitch it. I reached out to my friend at American Theater Company and started conversations, and we decided to do it. It was set to be produced in the season after they closed their doors. This was a play obviously very important to me, so it was disappointing to have lost that production.
I’m pretty sure Jeremy Wechsler at Theater Wit was aware of Teenage Dick before I started talking to him about it. We were at the TCG conference, and someone suggested to Jeremy Theater Wit should pick up the production. Finally, Jeremy and I got in the same room and talked about the play, and we decided it’s a great play, and it’s a story that needs to be told, and so that’s how it came to be produced at Theater Wit. Finally. Thankfully.
What did it mean to you to direct this play and present it to Chicago audiences?
It means a lot to me for a couple reasons. One because it’s a play I identify with very personally, not only because I have a disability, but also because it wrestles with a lot of issues that I had conversations with myself about for a long time. The conflict in the play is within Richard himself. Is he able to accept who he is? Is he able to love himself? Can he love someone else if he doesn’t love himself first? Throughout his entire life, he has been told people with disabilities are invalid.
It was within my lifetime invalid homes were actually a thing. They aren’t worth the time in a sitcom or a movie. They aren’t worth the time or energy or resources to put into a well-crafted, dramatic, empathetic leading role. So not seeing yourself reflected in the images that “represent society,” was incredibly difficult. It sort of suggests you don’t count, that you are not a part of humanity, America, etc.
For a long time, whenever there were characters with disabilities, they were sympathetic. They were there to serve some purpose for the main character. They were a teaching moment. So it was incredibly important for me that this is a story with disabled protagonists who are treated with empathy, who have needs and wants which are universal and tug at the core of what it means to be human and not what it means to be specifically disabled. It had characters with a clear arc who were treated with respect and care who you cheer for and want to succeed.
Two: I was injured when I was 13, so my whole dating life was a disability which was challenging in a lot of ways. Richard’s questions of worth – what am I worth as a partner? What can I bring to the table? Why would someone be with me rather than someone who is “normal.” Why do I deserve to be loved? Everyone asks “why do I deserve to be loved,” but I imagine it can be more difficult if there is something more obviously different about you. How could someone ever see me as valid and beautiful, etc? I wrestled with that quite a bit through my teenage years, and even into my late 20s, and so it was a story I immediately identified with and was drawn to.
Third: The conversation about disability in the play is really fascinating to me. There are two characters, Richard and Buck, who have polar opposite world views about who they are, how they fit in society, what their role is, what happiness means to them, what they deserve, what they don’t deserve, and it’s not veiled in any sort of nicety or decorum. They have honest, frank, direct conversations with each other about what it means to be disabled and how to achieve happiness within disability and with your disability. And that frank, honest, curt conversation was refreshing to me.
Talk about the decision to move Teenage Dick to a streaming option and how you felt about it going into it vs how it turned out. Congratulations again on the mention in the New York Times and CBS Evening News!
I wish I could claim any sort of responsibility for the streaming, but it was all Jeremy Wechsler and his foresight. I don’t think he imagined we would be in a complete, Shelter In Place, quarantine, lock down situation. The idea was to offer people the option of streaming at home. So if you felt comfortable going out and being in a small room with 50 people, you could do that and experience the show live, or you could sit at home and watch it from the comfort of your living room. So the plan was to sell 50 tickets live in person tickets, which is half the house, and have the other half available for streaming so the other half could spread out in the space.
Jeremy ordered the equipment, and things started happening very quickly in terms of mandates and gathering sizes and things like that. We were sort of under the gun as far as things starting to close in. Will we be able to open? Will we have a show? Will the equipment arrive in time? What do we need to do? Etc. The equipment was scheduled to arrive on Monday, and we scheduled an additional performance that day. On Friday, we learned no gatherings over 10 people would be allowed, so we had to film on Monday or else the show would close before it opened. Everything arrived in the morning. There were people in the theater at 8 AM setting everything up, the microphones, the cabling. We had an actor who decided to self-isolate, so we had to put in an understudy on Monday morning as well. So there was a lot going on, but we were able to get a small house in for it. As the lights went down, as the show began, it was a huge relief.
Someone asked in a post-show discussion (which we’re doing online after the at-home viewing), so people can join from their living rooms. One of the questions asked was, “What was your favorite part about the process or the play?” We went around and mine was the recording of it because I knew in that moment the show wold have a run, people would be able to see it, it could live on past our rehearsal and preview process, it would open, we would be able to share this story with the world, with Chicago. So it was a huge relief and my favorite moment knowing it would be able to be seen.
Was there anything you changed staging-wise for the taped version?
Very, very, very little. Jeremy and I agreed we didn’t want to make a TV show out of this. We wanted it to be a theatrical experience. We wanted that uniqueness of it to remain even though we were working with two cameras. The performance is staged in an alley seating format. Instead of splitting Richard’s attention 50/50 between the two sides, we did a 65/35 to face the camera, but that was pretty much it, other than bringing people out from the walls a bit to fit in the frame and adjusting vocal volume so the microphone could pick it up. If we tried to make it more like a sit-com with 3 cameras, I don’t know if it would have worked very well.
What is your dream play/project?
Teenage Dick was it for a long time, so I don’t really know what to do with myself anymore! I’d like to do the show again and share the story with more audiences in different areas and use different actors. One of the other tertiary things that excited me about the show was to be able to elevate artists with disabilities. Like any minority group in the arts or at least in theater, there is always a chicken and an egg question: How do we tell these stories without the right people, but how do we put the right people on stage if they don’t have the right experience? Having this opportunity to give actors with disabilities opportunities to grow and learn and gain more skills and the confidence to go out and audition and be that entertaining actor on stage is really exciting. That’s another reason why I’d love to keep doing this show. There’s all sorts of plays in my pitch queue, but none of them were as exciting or invigorating as this one.
Eventually, we’ll be doing live theater again. Has this experience of social distancing and remote viewing changed how you’ll approach directing a play in the future?
It may be shortsighted to say this, but I hope not. It’s clear nothing will ever be the same again. But I do hope art continues unafraid of whatever will happen next, that we will still be able to make bold and courageous choices about what we put on stage both artistically and financially. I hope theaters don’t say, “We have to scale down our budgets in case we have to cancel a production again because we don’t want it to so negatively affect our bottom line.”
Recording Teenage Dick did allow us to share this show with an audience who normally would not have been able to see it. And that also means with people who live out of town. I believe there were a good number of tickets purchased from outside the state of Illinois. There are also people who, under normal circumstances, are unable to or find it very difficult to leave their homes, for whatever reason, if they are living with disabilities themselves or otherwise have difficulty leaving their home. Hopefully this situation will create more opportunities like this. People will have this experience under their belts to say, “We can offer this to people if you’re unable to attend.” As far as infrastructure and practicality goes, I’m excited for those changes. Artistically, I hope we continue unhindered in our ability.
Teenage Dick is available to stream through May 24, 2020.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.