I first interviewed Billy Mitchell in 2009 when he directed "Bartholomew Fair, N.J." in the Midtown International Theatre Festival. Since that time he has gone on to direct productions of "The Pillowman" and "The Rocky Horror Show" (which he also starred in). Billy also designed the art work for the theatrical release of "Company," directed by Lonny Price and the film "40 West" featuring Wayne Newton.
Now, Billy's new show, "Blood & Oil," will be playing at the Attic Ensemble Theatre in Jersey City, NJ from April 20-29. Click here for tickets! (this show is not suitable for children).
For more on Billy be sure to visit http://www.bybilly.com!
1. Last we spoke, you were premiering your play "Bartholomew Fair, NJ." Since that time, you've directed productions of "The Pillowman" and "Rocky Horror" (which you also starred in). What attracted you to directing these two shows and starring in "Rocky Horror"? "The Pillowman" is one of my favorite, fairly recent, Broadway plays. I love Martin McDonagh's writing style and his dark, unpredictable take on relationships and the consequences of choices. When we picked that season for the Attic we had a comedy, a Pulitzer-winning drama, and a musical - and "The Pillowman" seemed like it would help round out the season with an intense, theatrical piece.
"The Rocky Horror Show" was part of The Theater Company's season (in Hoboken), and I was excited just to direct it. A few people commented that they would enjoy seeing me play Frankenfurter, and when Dave (Producing Artistic Director of TTC) also suggested it, I decided to take a leap and give it a try. It turned out to be a fun, ridiculous, incredibly enjoyable experience. Audiences had a great time at the show and seemed to unanimously enjoy our 'spin' on such a well-known cult hit.
2. Since our last interview, you became the president of the Attic Ensemble Board, where you direct many shows and many of your shows have premiered. What made you want to get more involved with the Attic Ensemble Theatre? The Attic Ensemble just celebrated its 40th anniversary of producing theater in Jersey City, and I've been involved with them for six or seven years. It's a creative, dedicated group of people who just really love creating theater, and that's an environment I find positive and productive.
3. Now, you are directing a new play, which you also wrote, "Blood & Oil," a wicked tale of a family's unraveling secrets and the choices that haunt them. How did you come up with the idea for "Blood & Oil"? What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing the show? "Blood & Oil" has been percolating in my head for a long time, and it has gone through a long, winding evolution. It's really the culmination of a couple of different ideas I've had over the years - but they never quite came together enough for me to write them down. There's a lot of humor in the play, but there are also some darker, more sinister events, and I hope to keep the audience engaged and surprised as the story is unraveled in front of them.
4. What do you get from directing that you don't get from performing? What is it like to direct a play you wrote? How are you able to separate yourself? Directing can be an amazing challenge, because I want to create a theatrical experience that's unique for the cast, the audience, and myself. I like to find new points-of-view in well-known scripts, but I also like developing and nurturing new material. As a performer I find myself able to be much more selfish with my time and energy - I get to focus on my character and my character's relationships with the characters he interacts with. Both are clearly important for the play to be successful, but they are different uses of creative energy. Directing a script I've written is a bit of a double-edged sword because of the danger of not effectively troubleshooting flaws in the writing or being blind to inconsistencies or problem spots. What I've done with this script is work through it scene by scene with the cast and ask them for honest criticisms: do the characters make sense, is the dialogue believable, do the facts add up, have I missed an opportunity to make a character or scene more dynamic, does anything confuse them or seem out of place. And I then detach myself from the words and watch/listen/experience the scenes as a director, asking myself the same questions as well as the question I ask myself in many situations: how can I make this better? ("Better" is a placeholder for any number of adjectives (more believable, surprising, authentic, shocking, etc.) The process of separating myself as playwright vs. director is made infinitely easier with a cast I trust, respect and admire - more on them in question #6!
5. What's your favorite part of the creative process in writing a play and in the rehearsal/preview period in a show? Where is your favorite place to write/rehearse on your own? Okay, I could write pages and pages in an attempt to answer these questions thoroughly, so I'll spare you that and go for concise answers as they apply to "Blood & Oil." My favorite part of writing is when I have a full vision of the story and I just write it the way I want it, without considering whatever might complicate the staging. There's always time to edit, revise, cut, etc., but I want the first draft to everything I think I need to tell they story. My favorite writing location, this time around, was actually my dining room table, listening to an all-Mozart web radio station.
6. What excites you about this cast, who will help bring your show to life? I LOVE MY CAST. The thing that excites me the most is that I have absolute, 100% faith that they are as committed to making this whole production the best experience it can be. They are talented, generous, focused, experienced, and - honestly - their creativity spoils me. The cast features Erin Flanagan Lind and Hank Morris as the fraternal twin sisters at the middle of the action, Art Delo as their father, Judith Moss as self-proclaimed pychic Miss Daja, and Broadway veteran Leah Greenhaus as fourteen-year-old runaway Camille. I am also incredibly lucky to have George Seylaz as my stage manager and a posse of other Attic folks onboard to bring the technical aspects of the play to life: set, sound, lighting, video effects, etc.
7. Who haven't you worked with that you would like to? Oh that's a complicated question. My professional theater work has been fairly limited in scope, so there's a whole catalog of people I wish I could work with! Oh, but one that comes to mind is multiple Tony-winning lighting designer Donald Holder who is also an alumni of the University of Maine.
8. What have you learned about yourself from being a director, writer, and performer? I have learned there is no limit to the number of ways creative expression can be produced, communicated, executed and enjoyed.
9. What's the best advice you've given, but not taken for yourself? Trust your instincts and believe in your vision.
10. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? It's a tie between time travel and teleportation.