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James Ricks on pushing the envelope…

Right now in Richmond Virginia at the Firehouse Theatre, audience are being treated to night after night of Privacy. Torture. Love. Gluttony. Truth. War. Hunger. Flatulance. It is all part of Director James Ricks’ vision of merging George Orwell’s dystopian fiction 1984 with Alfred Jarry’s absurdist Ubu Roi in the world premiere of Ubu 84. The show is a commentary on power, corruption, and the 2016 presidential election. It will be running until October 22nd.

This is an interview with the director and writer of Ubu 84 – James Ricks. How did he come to this piece? Where does he think Richmond theatre is right now, and where it could we be headed?  


When/how did you first come to the idea of adapting a piece of theatre for the Firehouse?

The idea came after pitching titles to the artistic director. I pitched both ‘1984’ and ‘Ubu Roi.’  Neither of us were feeling very satisfied with either title. I was kind of pushing for 84 and he was pushing for Ubu. I can’t remember exactly, but I am pretty sure it was my scenic designer who half jokingly said, ‘what if you combined the two’? This made me perk up a bit… Two completely opposite depictions of corrupted power in one show. All my Brechtian sensibilities started to tingle. Creating a theatre dialectic through dichotomy? Yes, please.

Why did you choose the Firehouse Theatre for this project?

I feel like the new artistic director’s vision for the company is a little more experimental and edgy than most of the company’s in town. He is turning that theatre into an open space where musicians, comedians, performance artists, dancers, etc can come and have a place to work (TheatreLab is also doing stuff like that). The Firehouse’s artistic director’s sensibilities are also very entrenched in the kind of work the Wooster Group in NY does. He worked there for many years and has brought that sensibility to Richmond. We connected immediately.

What was your first exposure to Ubu?

I remember reading Ubu in college and watching some old footage of some productions produced in the 60’s. I have never seen it on stage. It pops up every once in a while somewhere in the country and I am always interested to see what they did with it, as it is such a bold production.   

Is this the first thing you’ve ever adapted? Did you have a dramaturg?

I have adapted other pieces in the past. I have done a production of Salome and Enemy of the People and am currently working on a couple new ones. I am my own dramaturg. That’s the part I like best. I usually can’t bear to give that job to someone else, although, I imagine I probably will have to at some point in the future.

You have said that you didn’t want Ubu to be thought of as a Trump-like-figure and yet the piece is in conversation with this upcoming presidential election. What parallels would you like audiences to take away?

Well, I wanted to draw parallels for sure to the current situation. I just didn’t want to get ‘cute’ with it, if that makes any sense. Our Ubu is not an orange guy with a toupee. He has his own voice. We do, however, use a bit of Trump’s language at one point in the show, just for fun.  It generally gets a big response, but I have been feeling guilty about that lately. I may cut it and let audiences draw their own conclusions, to avoid looking like I am steering them too much.

The parallel that I want people to take away is that there is this very serious conversation happening in the country about the future of its leadership, but there is also this loud distraction that is impossible to ignore. [Ubu] is so entertaining that when we go back to the sober conversation of ‘84 it’s kind of disappointing and ‘boring’. It is my hope that people identify this pattern and then remember their history. Generally, countries that have found themselves in economic turmoil and political divisiveness have been ripe pickings for an authoritarian voice or a dictatorial personality. They can make use of catch phrase policies that are appealing to people who are not as inclined to apply reason to their politics, but rather ‘gut responses’.

It seems to me that the Richmond theatre scene has been departing from traditional Aristotelian and even linear structures (thinkin of Ubu and TheatreLAB’s recent production of Mr. Burns). What do you think makes Richmonders ready to embrace this change now?

I don’t think Richmond has departed from that kind of theatre very much. There have been productions that pop up every now and again, but by and large Richmond likes its theatre safe and anesthetic, in my opinion. It’s slowly changing, I think, but it has a very long way to go.  Our presale numbers for Ubu are pretty low while 1776 which opens next week is almost practically sold out for its first week.  The math doesn’t lie.  Of course, Virginia Repertory Theatre is a bigger company with more resources, but the Firehouse Theatre has been around for a good long while, it is centrally located, and 1984 has a pretty good amount of name recognition.

I don’t think most people want theatre that challenges them. I think people will be surprised when they come to see our production how funny it is, but getting them in the door is the hard part. What TheatreLab is doing is awesome. I love Mr. Burns and most of the shows they produce, but that is a 50 seat theatre with a four weekend run. I doubt they sold out every night. Again, just talking numbers here. So is ‘Richmond’ ready? Who can say? But we’ll never be able to invoke change unless we try. And try we shall.  🙂

You said in another interview, “I don’t think that [the play] will incite riots or anything, because I don’t think theater has that power anymore,” Where do you think theatre’s power lies?

What a question. It’s unfortunate because theatre is no longer the dominant medium. If you trace theatre back to Elizabethan times, it’s where many people got their information, never mind entertainment. Over the centuries it had only literature to contend with. This all changed in the 20th century, of course. Theatre subsequently became something associated with the elite,  especially with regards to Shakespeare and other classical mediums like opera and ballet. (There is a wonderful book called Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America by William Massey that I highly recommend. It touches on this, at least as how it manifests in the U.S.)  

When Ubu premiered in 1896 it incited a riot and was shut down that night. Can you imagine a play doing that today? Of course not. The people that are attending the theatre are mostly the converted. Some companies are successful in bringing in school groups and special interest groups, which is terrific., but your average theatre goer is probably pretty culturally savvy. The high cost of most company’s theatre tickets are also not making things any easier for converting people.  

So, where does theatre’s power lie? Well, I always think of Arthur Miller when someone asks that. He had a great quote.

“In the theatre you can sense the reaction of your fellow citizens along with your own reactions. You may learn something about yourself, but sharing it with others brings a certain relief — the feeling that you are not alone, you’re part of the human race. I think that’s what theatre is about and why it will never be finished.” – Arthur Miller 

I think what people share in a theatre is something entirely different than what happens at the movies. Building on Miller, I think theatre is infinitely more visceral and a little more uncertain. Anything can happen at the theatre, after all. And the energy you receive from live actors on a stage is potent one. I think that that specific dynamic combined with a play that asks its audience serious questions or guides them towards an idea to think about in real time or even on the ride home, is just about as exciting as it gets. Entertainment value is, of course, always something that needs to be there.  But we have so much to choose from in that regard, especially with technology being what it is today.  

Theatre has a lot to contend with. It’s how we get those people into the seats to appreciate what’s special about theatre. There has been a trend of new plays being developed into films in the last 10 years or so which is comforting in a way, because it allows people to create a reversed reference point, which is fine. We’ll take what we can get.  


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