Steve Bakunas is a man of many talents. He's an artist, an actor, a painter, a musician, and a designer. In 2007, Steve and his wife, Tony and Golden Globe award winner Linda Lavin, opened the Red Barn Theatre Company in Wilmington, NC. The theatre has presented 15 productions over five seasons, including "Driving Miss Daisy," "Doubt," "I Am My Own Wife," "Boston Marriage," "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," "Lobby Hero," God of Carnage," "Rabbit Hole," "and "Collected Stories." Steve has directed Red Barn's productions of "God of Carnage," "Lobby Hero," "The Tale of The Allergist's Wife," and "Collected Stories."
Now Steve will be making his New York directorial debut with the Red Barn Theatre's first New York transfer, Owen Dunne's "Positions" at the Roy Arias Theatre. "Positions" is an entertaining and provocative look at sexual dysfunction in a marriage: when Leo and Hilary's union begins to fail in the bedroom, Leo suggests they re-engage by trying "52 positions" -- a different one each week of the year. What transpires is both playful and menacing as tables are turned in a clash between romance and desire.
"Positions" plays at the Roy Arias Theatre in NYC (300 West 43rd Street, between 8th and 9th Avenue) from October 10-21. Click here for tickets!
1. Who or what inspired you to become a director/drummer? I've been acting for about 25 years and I studied directing when I went to an acting conservatory and always thought I would direct, but was just waiting for the right opportunity and play. So for all the years that I acted, I paid attention to the directing and all the plays that I've seen, I thought about how I would direct it and compared my thoughts to what actually happened. When Linda (Lavin) and I opened the Red Barn Theatre about six years ago, she wanted to do "Collective Stories" and she wanted me to direct it. I had directed a few plays prior to that, but working with a professional, such as Linda, and a very challenging script was really cutting my teeth. I found that I have the capacity and communication skills to direct and it was a good experience. I got "Best Director" award for "Collective Stories," so that was a big encouragement for me. Going forward, whenever I found a play that I liked, I would take it on.
I'm a drummer because I can do it. I was in a garage band in the 80s for a couple of years, playing rock n' roll music and then about nine years ago, Linda started doing her cabaret act and she would hire drummers in whatever town she played in and I would go and listen. After a while, I felt as though I could play that music. I took some jazz lessons from a really good drummer for a couple of months, and then auditioned for her musical director, and he said, "Yeah, you can do this." So, we had a two-week booking at The Colony hotel in Palm Beach, FL, which was my introduction to jazz drumming for Linda. I can't read music, but I play pretty much by ear, so I listen to the song a couple of times and then put my own take on it.
Directing and drumming are just two of the many things I do; they were not life long dreams. I'm an actor, painter, designer, and builder too. I do many things. I've had a varied life, living all around the country, from traveling with the circus to selling used cars in Hollywood to being a limo driver for The Grateful Dead to working in hotels/motels to having an auto upholstery business to sales jobs. It's been a very colorful life.
Through all of this, I've learned I have good sensibility and common sense and if I apply myself to anything with that attitude and a lot of optimism and encouragement, I can make things happen for myself. I don't think I'm great at any one thing, I think I'm good at many things. It satisfies me because I have a short attention span and I get bored easily. I like my life in that I might play drums at a cabaret show and then direct a play. I just had an art opening last month at a gallery in Wilmington, NC and sold 13 paintings. So, it works well for me for where I am at in my life. I've crafted an existence that really suits my personality and capacities. I feel very lucky.
2. Who haven't you worked with that you would like to? Directing with talented actors is a real joy. There are a lot of stage actors I would love the opportunity to work with. Sarah Paulson has said she would like to have me direct a play with her and Linda in it, so if we could find one, we'd do it.
3. What made you want to direct "Positions"? What do you identify most with about the show? Since we opened the Red Barn Theatre, we've basically just done Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning plays, people have sent scripts all the time, but they usually need a lot of work, and last January Owen Dunne sent us this play, and I couldn't put it down. I felt like he was a talented writer who wrote good dialogue, even though I had some issues with the style of writing. I told him, I'd like to do a reading of the play, we got some actors, and I listened to the play and I wanted to change this and add this and I want to do the show. We reworked it over the summer and now it's the retooled version.
The thing that drew me to the show was the dialogue and content of the play. "Positions" is about sexual dysfunction in a marriage and the differences between men and women in a sexual nature. He draws that comparison about how men are just driven more physically and women are driven more emotionally. He really juxtaposes the two so that you can really see the affect each one has on the other and the consequences. The leading character makes a choice that really affects his marriage and their relationship. It exposes how those issues affect our lives.
4. Why did you want to bring this play to New York? Well, Linda and I are moving to New York. Linda's been getting many more opportunities here and I took some studio space to paint more and I've been playing more at Birdland. I liked the play and I felt this was a way I could introduce myself to the community. I'm not really connected. People know me as a drummer, a painter, or Linda's husband, but no one in New York has really seen my work as a director, designer, or actor (except for those that saw me in Broadway's "Hollywood Arms" about 9 years ago, directed by Hal Prince). I felt this was really a calling card for me. Now that I'm going to be living here, this was a good opportunity to show my versatility.
5. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing "Positions"? I hope people see the differences between men and women's sexual nature and how they impact one another. I think for men in particular, I know I identified myself when I read the play, in the past, when I was a younger man; I was driven by my libido. I wasn't as sensitive to women. I used women and I probably abused them emotionally in someway by being driven by just satisfying my sexual desire and not by connecting with the human being. I think it's fascinating that this has been happening since the beginning of time. It's been the fall of empires and the fall of many great men. They've been brought down by their uncontrollable sexual desires. I think that's something that should always be addressed. The motivation for Owen writing the play was Anthony Weiner and Strauss Kahn's escapades. He thought what an experience that was for them and how they brought their wives up on stage and apologized, but were they really sorry they couldn't control their sexual desires or just sorry they got caught.
I also hope the people see the talent of the playwright. A lot of people came to Wilmington to see the show and enjoyed it, but I think a New York audience will appreciate his talent and possibly someone will say, "I'd like to work with him."
6. We've briefly talked about that you are married to Tony and Golden Globe winner Linda Lavin. The two of you started Red Barn Theatre in Wilmington, North Carolina, the company presenting "Positions." What made you want to start your own theatre company? As a painter, there was an abandoned house about 3/4 of a mile from our house on the edge of town and I got it for $30,000. The plan was to gut the house and make it a painting studio. In the process of rebuilding (which I was doing myself with a few friends), all my tools were stolen twice, and the third time I caught a guy stealing them, he punched me in the eye, I got four stitches, and I realized that it was a great price for the house, but it was costing me much more. So, it turned out that there were two crack houses behind us and three other abandoned houses, a good cluster of the neighborhood that was once really beautiful, but it went downhill because it was abandoned. So we ended up buying eight houses, tore them down, and restored them. Right around that time an old repair garage became available and it pretty much anchored all the properties we had purchased and at the time Linda was directing me in the play "Art." We were rehearsing in this little space and since I was designing the set, I thought, why don't I build the set in this garage, which I did and as we rehearsed on it, we thought this was great space. So, we did the play in another building, and then I gutted the garage and built a small 50-seat theatre. Linda and I read "Doubt" and we loved it and we found a director and the show was a big success. Then we just started doing plays on our own. We didn't have a season, we just did them when we wanted had time. "Doubt" got extended for a couple of weeks and then we went to Europe, and Linda said I'd like to do "Collected Stories" and I want you to direct me. In the fall when we came back from Europe, we did "Collected Stories" and then we did "Driving Miss Daisy" which became the longest running play in Wilmington history, it ran for about 3 months. Then Linda directed me in "Speed the Plow." We did about 3-4 plays a year. It was on our own schedule and time. It's a for profit company. We practically ran the place, even cleaning the bathrooms ourselves. We had our own theatre to do what we wanted and the fact that Linda did "Collected Stories" two years later on Broadway, Linda realized she learned a lot while doing it at the barn. The barn is a very intimate space and Linda felt growth as an actor by being in her own little place, playing to the community, and learning about acting through a different presentation. The Red Barn wasn't a big plan. It just evolved on its own. We built the building thinking we would turn it into a grocery store and then the theatre just happened.
7. You have touched upon what the best part about having your own theatre company has been. What has been the most challenging part? It really hasn't been challenging. It's been a grateful experience because we did it because we love theatre. We didn't do it for the money. When you have to do it for the money, that's when it becomes challenging.
If I had to really think about it, one challenge was the community wanted us to do more shows than we did. I guess the other challenge was sometimes finding talent that could rise to the occasion. There was a lot of talented people there and certainly when people worked with Linda or had to act with her, it raised their standards and capabilities. You have to be good if you are going to play opposite her or if you are going to be directed by her, she's really going to challenge you to reach for the best.
But there was really wasn't a negative experience with having Red Barn Theatre. I hope the next job I get could be as enjoyable.
My ideal directing routine would be to rehearse Monday-Friday and have the actors take the weekends off. It's important to take care of yourself and live your life, do your homework. When you come in to rehearse, you need to be prepared and don't screw around.
8. We briefly talked about how you play drums with Linda when she sings. What do you enjoy most about getting to work with Linda in this capacity? How is this dynamic different for the two of you? It's really not different. We travel together, we do theatre together, we do music together we design and remodel homes together, we do a lot together. Sometimes we'll be on a big stage, like this summer when we played with the Wilmington Symphony and we always just look at each other and say, "It's just you and me, and in another place." Sometimes we'll be in the barn and we'll look at each other and say, "You know, it's just you and me here," or we'll be on the couch together and just say, "You know it's just you and me here." We have found that comfort with each other. As crazy, complex or scary as things might get, we always just say, "It's just us and we have each other." A lot of it is just being with each other and knowing how to support each other in whatever capacity.
As far as the music, I'm self-taught and can't read music, but here I am playing with Billy Stritch and all these great musicians. I just play with Linda. It's not like I practice all the time, only when I know we have a show coming up. In the beginning I felt very self-conscious and was worried the audience would pick me out as being the least talented. Linda and Billy have always supported me and told me I'm just as good as everyone else and they don't see me as any less talented than anyone else. Now, I'm finally in a place where I feel like one of the boys. It's a real to get to play with Linda. I enjoy being behind her and supporting her in this way and getting to watch her shine.
9. What have you learned about yourself from your varied career? That if I approach whatever I approach with realism and love, I'll be alright. I don't set too high of a standard for myself. Since I have so many varied talents, if I fail as a drummer, I always have my painting to fall back, and if I fail as a painter, I always have my acting and directing, and if I fail at that, I have designing. It's not like everything is put into one pot. I'm realistic to think I try to be the best I can be. While I'm having the experiences I'm having, I try to be as considerate as possible with the people I'm working with. I realize as a director I don't have to have all the answers up front. If the actors do their work and explore their characters then in my mind, this is how I would see these people and I would try to lead the actors in that direction, but if the actors really start mining the depth of these characters, they are going to find things I didn't consider. They are going to introduce me to these people in a deeper way than I could have imagined. So what I have to do is be open to listen and to be generous to them and support them and not come off like "I'm the director and this is the way it's got to be." I have to make sure they understand the process is about exploring and playing and going to the stratosphere and bringing it back home and letting them stretch out as far as they can.
With my painting, when I had my show, I came up with as many paintings as I could. I said, "Don't try too hard, let your inner person just lead you." I find that when you are doing it for yourself, you are not thinking about how good or bad it is, you're just doing it because you love to do it. Once there becomes an audience, that is when you start second guessing yourself and editing yourself. What I'm trying to do as I grow in life is to bring that young, innocent, optimistic young man that I was into my current life and trust myself and just see what happens. It's all an adventure.
10. What's the best advice you've ever received? I traveled with the circus as a prop boss. I used to swing the girl on the trapeze and work with the lions in their cages. After being on the road for four months, they made me superintendent. They said, "Wow, you are a hard worker, talented, smart, and really good at this." So, the following season, we had a whole new act. There was a guy named Senor Antonio and he used to swing on a trapeze and balance upside-down on his head, swinging from end to end. The swing would just be stationary with the rope hanging down and he would climb up the rope and put the rope between his legs and I would take the rope from down below and swing it. I would get him started so he could swing. I would then pull the rope off so I can tie it off and he would swing upside-down and do his act. While he was swinging, he needed me to come back with the rope when he came back into the middle of the swing, he would grab the rope and pull me up and I would help slow him swinging and I would keep the rope really taught and he would climb down. We never practiced this. He just felt I could do it. So, it's opening night with 3000 people in the tent and there he is swinging followed by wild applause and I was so nervous that when I came to pull the rope to stop him, I missed the center of his legs and hit the swing and he swung wildly spinning. I thought to myself, "Oh my god, I'm dead. I'm going to be fired. My life is over." Well, I finally got him stopped and he climbed down the rope and he just looked at me and said, "You'll get it right next time." He walked away. All this time, I was thinking, what am I going to do with my life now that I'm going to get fired, what if he breaks my jaw or kills me. I thought all these negative things because I did something bad. When in reality, he just looked at me and said, "You'll get it right because I believe in you." After that, I always got it right because he instilled that confidence in me instead of tearing me down.
Now I find that when I'm working with people and they screw up, I want to say, "You stupid idiot," but then I always remember Senor Anthony and he always comes to my mind. I find it works really well.
11. If you could dream about anyone while you sleep, who would it be? Freud.
12. Favorite way to spend your day off? Everyday is day off in a way because I love everything I do. I do love it most when I just get to paint all day.
13. Favorite way to stay in shape? Walk.
14. Boxers or Briefs? Briefs.
15. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? Any kind of mind power. I would like to be able to see through walls or floors. I would also like to be able to read people's minds.