By ALBERT EVANS, Artistic Associate
I sat down with Bill Berry, Producing Artistic Director of The 5th Avenue Theatre, to discuss his process of directing a new version of Mamma Mia! Here’s what he said.
ALBERT EVANS: What’s new about this show?
BILL BERRY: Well, it’s not a new version of Mamma Mia! It’s a new production—new sets, new costumes. The physical world is going to look different, but it’s still the same script and music.
As an artist, and the leader of a team of artists, I’m not comfortable recreating other people’s work. I don’t think that’s appropriate.
Theater is a living art form. A painting or a sculpture is a product of a moment in time and is frozen. The works of Michelangelo will always be the same as when he created them. They may need to be cleaned or repaired from time to time but his vision never changes—although ours might. Theater must be responsive to the current world and the audience that is coming through the door. The audience that went to Mamma Mia! twenty years ago no longer exists. It may include some of the same people, but as a society we’ve moved on, in response to changes in our world and our outlook. Theater speaks to the world as it currently is.
AE: Thornton Wilder once said that theater is a public art form and to survive it must attract a large audience, the bigger the better. A single person can read a book or look at a painting. But an audience of one can’t support a stage production.
BB: Right. At The 5th, when we do a classic or an established title we always consider how it might play in today’s world. We’re not trying to be politically motivated—we’re just aware that theater is a conversation between the story on stage and the audience watching the show.
At the heart of Mamma Mia! is a story about lost love, about growing older, accepting who we are and making choices for the future.
Donna, a middle-aged woman, is still a sexually vital character. But she has isolated herself. She needs to rediscover her past in order to re-engage and live fully in the present. Her daughter, Sophie, has a different problem. She needs to know who she is, who her father is. This adds a compelling mystery thread to the plot and the audience is just as eager to know the solution as she is.
AE: The name Sophie comes from “sophia,” the Greek word for wisdom. That can’t have been a random choice.
BB: And Donna is Italian for “lady.” Sophie needs facts—Donna needs to embrace her power as a mid-life woman.
AE: Tell us more about the design process. How is The 5th ‘s production different?
BB: We started by asking how best to speak to a present-day Seattle audience. This is not in any way a judgment on the original production—it was beautiful, quite striking. But when you license a show for production, the original designs aren’t included in the package. They belong to the designers.
So instead of trying to do something “the same but different,” we start from scratch and collaborate with contemporary artists to bring a new, never-before-seen vision to our stage.
The set defines the physical world on stage, and can be an important part of the storytelling, along with the words and music. Design determines and enables the movement and rhythm of a piece, which helps us understand the story we’re watching.
AE: Tell us about the set designer.
BB: We’re so lucky to have Jason Sherwood. Jason is a young designer who is quickly establishing himself as the guy to watch among the rising generation. Our audiences saw his very striking sets for Paint Your Wagon in the 2015/16 season.
In one of our first meetings we discussed how Mamma Mia! is structurally similar to a Shakespearian comedy. The characters find themselves outside the everyday world, in a never-never-land where they can experiment with identity in a playful way. In a Shakespeare play, that might be Illyria or the Forest of Arden. Mamma Mia! is set on a fictional Greek island where rules and norms are relaxed and a certain amount of anarchy prevails.
AE: Can you expand on that?
BB: Well, comedy—classical comedy—usually begins with stasis, an unchanging daily routine, then throws in destabilizing elements (like the three potential fathers in Mamma Mia!). And a classical comedy almost always ends in a wedding—which is not simply a “happy ever after” for the protagonists but a signal that the chaos and calamities of the world have been put right and community order is once again restored.
Mamma Mia! leads up to a community celebration, Sophie’s wedding, then adds a couple of modern twists. But the result is the same: healing, renewal and closure.
With that classical model in mind, Jason and I asked ourselves: If we were designing a Shakespeare comedy, would we be literal or conceptual? Conceptual, of course. There was no call to put an elaborately realized Greek island on stage. What’s important is that the island is remote, cut off from the mainland, away from civilization and its confining rules.
I believe that what theater does best is allow audiences to fill in the blanks. We should engage their imaginations and leave room for their own experiences. Everyone will want to escape for a while to this magical place full of possibilities, but it’s not going to look like last year’s vacation photo.
AE: Mamma Mia! was created a quarter of a century ago, when most of the audience had experienced the ABBA era. How does it speak to younger folks who came of age later, who may not even know about ABBA?
BB: If Mamma Mia! depended exclusively on nostalgia for ABBA, it wouldn’t have been the enduring success that it has been. The songs are great and the creators found clever, often very cheeky ways to weave them into the story. And yes, those who remember the ABBA classics as pop hits are delighted to hear them in a dramatic context. But we have no control over that, really. Our job is to tell the story as engagingly as possible. And as we discussed, the bones of the plot go back to Shakespeare—even further, to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
As a director, I’m aware that I’m dealing with an iconic musical. A lot of people will have seen the show before, perhaps multiple times. Others may have seen the movie. People know what Mamma Mia! is. My obligation—the job of The 5th Avenue Theatre when presenting any well-known title—is twofold: to deliver the iconic moments people expect and also surprise and delight them with new ways of experiencing the piece.
It’s also a collaboration with the cast. If you hire strong actors, they’re going to bring their own point of view into the room and demand, as they should, to be part of the process. With their help, and that of the choreographer, the music director, all the designers and the entire theater team, I think we’ve created a spectacular Mamma Mia! for our Seattle audience, here and now.
AE: Any last thoughts?
BB: Yes. Can someone tell me how to get these songs out of my head so I can sleep again?