Director’s Corner: Bill Barksdale talks about “Legends!” at WCT 4/18/19 – 5/4/19

Director’s Corner

We recently spent a quick moment with the very busy Bill Barksdale a couple weeks before the opening of his play “Legends!” There have been the usual challenges, the cast changes and last-minute set design alterations and all the other unforeseen snafus that come with putting a genuine pulse into live theater.


Using hand gestures frequently to punctuate his ideas, Barksdale wants us to literally grasp the emotion of what he and his cast go through bringing a play to life. And life is particularly what this play is about, where two aging actresses come to terms with their fading professional lives and find a way to persevere.


Barksdale says of his process, “It’s a like a rollercoaster. It’s survival. The play itself is about survival, about two older women determined to go on in life despite the obstacles, and it’s the same experience putting the play together. It’s all about tenacity and making sure we go on.


  1. Why this play?
  2. I read the play, and it was really funny. Then I start digging into the characters, deeper and deeper into the levels, and I saw there were many levels, in the humor and its ability to draw the audience in and move the audience to understand about survival.


  1. Explain the importance of moving the audience?
  2. Every play is about the emotional life of the characters. The emotion is the river that flows under everything and ties it together. When the play’s done right, the emotion takes the audience into a real life moment, where you can’t anticipate what’s going to happen next. But it’s what you live for.


  1. How does that process come into being when you work with the actors?
  2. When I see an actor, and he or she knows what their lines are, and they start reacting before they should, then we go to work. It’s not about acting. It’s more about reacting. This is the stuff of life. Most of what we’re about in life is how we react to what happens.


  1. Isn’t there a considerable backstory to this play?
  2. It was originally written for Mary Martin and Carol Channing, two of Broadway’s biggest stars, and they actually did it for a year on tour. In the story itself, the two women are Hollywood legends and Oscar-winners. But they are past their prime and trying to hold on. So it contains a lot about what it takes in life to keep moving.


  1. Give us the setting.
  2. It all takes place in this elegant New York City penthouse. There’s been this feud built up by the Hollywood publicity machine that makes these two women hate each other. They’ve had to live the feud in order to sell tickets to their films.


  1. So the beginning of the play introduces them in this context?
  2. Yes. Then this hotshot young Broadway producer approaches them to star in his play. So now they have to figure out how to work together. The play is about how they get past their feud and survive.


  1. It’s foremost a comedy?
  2. It’s what we consider broad, high comedy. It’s hilarious in a lot of ways. For instance, the producer offers the two women one thing, so they will work with him, and then he comes with something else in the contract and they get their revenge on him.


  1. Wow, it sounds zany?
  2. It’s like a speed-trip through hell. I know I shouldn’t say that, but all the same stuff happens every time we’re putting together any of our shows.


  1. You’re talking about putting the show together and not the show itself?
  2. Both. Believe me, making theatre is a rocky road. It’s a roller coaster ride, with everything you have to accomplish and overcome.


  1. Tell us more.
  2. There’s always the crazy stuff that happens, the ups and down. For example, I’ve been freaking out about the set, as I always do, because it’s my nature. I want it to be perfect. I want the show to be flowing. I don’t want any bumps and grinds. And then last night, the show just clicked. We were going through it, and suddenly—we had a show. It just happens that way.


  1. Can you give us an example of the particular set challenge?
  2. In my productions, I design my own sets because I view the set as another character. It has to say something about the play. This is a passionate play that explores issues about growing older, about two stars going from the height of being Oscar-winning actresses to–I can’t get a job! It happens all the time in theatre and film—with the sexism toward age and beauty.


  1. So what needed to happen with the set design?
  2. The tree had to be right.


  1. The tree?
  2. Yes, there’s a mural of a wind-swept tree on the set. It’s a metaphor for perseverance, for blooming and renewal. The mural had to look like it had been swept by the elements. And the set had to be a certain color red because the play is about blood and survival. There’s also a red couch.


  1. How in the world did you ever find a red couch?
  2. I didn’t. It’s a secret how it got red.


  1. So all this attention to detail goes into helping the audience feel and experience the central theme of the play?
  2. Yes. The story is about how I’m going to survive no matter what happens. It’s my attitude as well in directing the show through all its challenges. Either I give up, or I just say, life goes on and I’m going with it. That’s what this play is about. It’s about tenacity.


  1. Tell us about your cast?
  2. Kathy De Bane plays one of the two actresses. She’s so good, she just grabs onto a role. She’s like on fire, somebody’s lit a fuse. She’s on the edge of exploding all the time. It’s wonderful. Gretchen Anderson plays the other actress and she takes more time to understand her character and then she just goes with it, like she’s on a train. They’re both veterans and they’re amazing when it comes to comedy.


  1. You also have a central character played by Christopher Martineau?
  2. Christopher is the young producer who’s got the off-Broadway show and he’s decided if he can get these two women to star in it, his show will be a hit. This is the third play I have done with him and he is superb, so versatile. He’s always trying on different things with his character. He takes what I suggest to him and he runs with it and creates a real nugget of gold out of it all. He’s a brilliant comedian.


  1. Christopher was the nerd in The Nerd?
  2. Yes, perfectly hilarious.


  1. What about your supporting characters?
  2. The maid is played by Mary Burns. Mary takes a long time to build a character, and then she gets it and there’s nothing else like it. In her role, she doesn’t take any guff from anybody. She puts these ladies in their place and when they get down, she gets on them and insists, ‘If you don’t do this play, you’re two of the stupidest women I know.’ I also have Moises Torres and Anthony Sylstra. It’s a great cast.


  1. So the message you can imagine your audience taking from this show?
  2. How am I going to survive? It’s a message people want to hear. When it’s all falling apart, how will I carry on. Get up, survive, re-invent myself, start my life over. It doesn’t matter what gets thrown at me, it’s my decision to survive or not, and it’s not somebody else’s decision. If I try—like these two women—I will survive.

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Willits Community Theatre is located at 37 W. Van Lane (behind Shanachie Pub).

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