The brilliant, brief candle that was U.K. theater director Mary Ann “Buzz” Goodbody — the first woman to direct at Royal Shakespeare Company — reignites in the world premiere production of Susan Ferrara’s highly theatrical Buzz Sept. 4-15, 2019, in a unique venue within Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s complex in Montgomery. Carrie Preston directs Tony Award nominee Elizabeth A. Davis (Once) as the groundbreaking and troubled theatermaker who believed in multicultural casting, theater for the masses, quirky performance spaces and more.
In 1975, Buzz (her nickname) famously directed a young Ben Kingsley in the title role of Hamlet at the RSC. Four days later, she was dead at age 28. Sounds like an intriguing idea for a play. And playwright Ferrara tells it with originality, fracturing time and space and filling her characters with theatrical caffeine, illustrating the passion and ambition with which Buzz challenged the RSC patriarchy.
Susan Ferrara told me, “Buzz is a play about who we’re allowed to remember; about what it can be like for a woman to navigate space and time in a man’s world; about the glass ceiling and — more than anything — about the creative process: how we can become absorbed and altered by our passions and obsessions. I think audiences will be surprised by how funny it is. We’re not attempting a history play. It’s a meditation on what it might have been like for Buzz in a theatrical world.”
Among the fresh ideas of Buzz Goodbody, Ferrara explains, “She converted a tin storage shed into a theatre [called The Other Place]. When they first opened Hamlet, she had audiences sit on mattresses, then on hard wooden benches. I was told that people waited hours after each show to talk to the actors. The story of Hamlet was told with the audience not to the audience. For her, Hamlet wasn’t a story about princes and kings but about fathers and sons.”
It’s worth mentioning that ASF is concurrently presenting Bedlam Theatre’s inventive four-actor version of Hamlet under the same roof, but on the Octagon Stage, Sept. 5-Oct. 6. Get details here. Bedlam’s four-actor Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw joins the Octagon rep on Sept. 12.
For Buzz, director Carrie Preston adopted the idea of a found space that mimics the rough magic of that tin shed in Stratford-Upon-Avon: The play is staged in Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s industrial-style scene shop, with cement, cinderblock walls, pipes, loading gates, hydraulic lifts and the scuffed floor in full view and integrated and transformed to tell the story. (A raised platform is in the center of the playing area for those who need a semblance of a stage.) It’s a handcrafted indie-spirited production that urges the audience to use its imagination to fill in the blanks (as Shakespeare did, of course).
This is likely the first time many ASF theatergoers will experience up-close Off-Broadway-style theater. The seating capacity is 116. This is not about snubbing the gorgeous 768-seat Festival Stage or the 258-seat three-quarter thrust Octagon Stage — it’s meant to complement those auditoriums. And the makeshift venue reflects the rebellious invention of Buzz herself.
The Buzz company includes Zuhdi Boueri (Hamlet), Zack Calhoon (Leonard), Tony Award nominee Elizabeth A. Davis (Buzz), Tarah Flanagan (Miss Soft), Christopher Gerson (Mr. Babble), Greta Lambert (Ms. Cut), Robert Emmet Lunney (Mentor), Sam McMurray (Sidney) and Spencer Davis Milford (Mr. Right). Read their bios on the ASF website.
The Buzz production team includes assistant director Christopher Gerson, scenic and costume designer Leslie Taylor, lighting designer Cat Tate Starmer, sound designer Melanie Chen Cole, stage manager Victoria Broyles, production assistant Madison J. Rutledge.
Playwright and actress Susan Ferrara answered a slew of my questions from Montgomery, in the days leading up to the play’s launch.
I’m always interested in origins of play ideas. How did you come across the story of Mary Ann “Buzz” Goodbody? And when or why did you say: “There’s a play here.”
Susan Ferrara: I was an actor studying in London and one of my teachers said: “Buzz Goodbody directed Ben Kingsley in the title role of Hamlet and four days after the first performance, she was found dead in her flat.” And, like that, it began. I took the train from London to Stratford to visit the archives at the RSC and, on the train, had this image of soldiers at the back of the house with lanterns. When I got to the archives, I discovered that’s how Buzz opened her Hamlet. The idea of a play started on the train. It took months before the play took shape and years to finish it. Had I already known who Buzz was and had it not been Hamlet — I might not have written a word.
What about her and her brief career fascinated you? What did you admire in her, or what — for lack of a better word — scared you about her?
Susan Ferrara: I was fascinated by my own lack of knowledge. She was the first woman to direct at the RSC and one of only three or five women directing theatre in all of the UK in the 70s, and I’d never heard her name. I wasn’t afraid of what little I was learning about her, I was furious. We don’t talk enough about lineage in theatre; about who has come before us. We should be able to see ourselves in our own history.
I admired her ability to pin point what an actor needed to make great leaps in rehearsal. She was caring, empathetic and focused. In her own words, “Directing is as much handling people as having significant ideas about the theater. You should have a talent for both.”
I admired how strongly she felt about casting the right person in the role: Ben Kingsley in Hamlet, a 40-year-old Eileen Atkins as Rosalind. Kingsley was unique to all the Hamlets that came before him and, given what we now know about him, she must have seen in him what we all see in him now: a brilliant actor. That ability to truly see someone and their potential is a gift in any person, let alone a director.
Share a little bit about the characters and texture of Buzz? As they say at the top of Hamlet, “Who’s there?”
Susan Ferrara: Our play has nine characters. Each, with the exception of Buzz, play multiple roles: those in the play Buzz and those in the play Hamlet. Her story follows, in a sense, the arc of the play Hamlet, and the characters in Buzz are people you’d find in a traditional theatre: the artistic director (the Mentor), the young, overly confident director (Mr. Right), the costumer (Ms. Cut), scenic designer (Mr. Babble) and one of the many members of the company (Miss Soft). Their names suggest how they move through space. And of course, there’s Buzz and Hamlet — which I find to be a sort of creative love story and heart of our play. Two outsiders, one of whom can’t imagine himself being cast as Hamlet because of his background and one who, as a woman, begins her career at one of the largest theatres in the world as a 20-year-old just out of university thinking she can come to the theatre and immediately begin directing. The realization that they were both wrong drives the story.
Carrie, our brilliant Buzz director, talks plainly about her experience playing Ophelia twice (first here at Alabama Shakespeare and later in Manhattan). How the play acts on you, pushes you into deep and dark places. It’s so beautifully written, so emotionally true that, when you do the work, the play can truly bury you. Which leads us to the Gravediggers — Sidney and Leonard — who dig Buzz’s grave as her story is being told and ruminate about theatrical history and memory. Their job is to bury all the stories. They’re archivists who’ve stood in that graveyard for thousands of years. The gravediggers were born of my fascination with characters you meet for a moment (it seems) and then they’re gone: Hamlet‘s Gravediggers, the Porter in “the Scottish Play.” They’re so curious and well-drawn, I honestly think it would be more fun to eavesdrop on one of their conversations than, say, a conversation between a cardinal and a prince in King John. They, literally, know the bones of people; what made them. The gravediggers in Buzz give us a laugh and also remind us that there are slews of folks who have come before us. When we say their names, we remember them and they are with us again.
What else was special about Buzz as a theatermaker? What made her groundbreaking?
Susan Ferrara: What made her truly groundbreaking was her ability to see the extraordinary in what others perceived as ordinary. That ability to see beyond the superficial and activate her ideas outside traditional modes was what made her special. She cast Ben Kingsley as Hamlet before he was Gandhi; before he was the great and famous actor we know. I remember researching Hamlets throughout history, seeing their pictures and they were mostly, invariably, white men with blondish hair. Even Olivier dyed his hair blonde! But Buzz saw Hamlet in this brilliant, short, dark-haired man. He was different than the rest. He was her Hamlet. She cast the right person for the role. She gave us an opportunity to look beyond the superficial.
I think that it can be very easy to embrace traditional modes of storytelling, which can be beautiful. When someone like Buzz is able to turn our attention in such a way that we see ourselves in something so lofty as Shakespeare, that’s a gift.
Do you see yourself in Buzz? How are you alike or different?
Susan Ferrara: I see myself in Buzz only in so much as I become obsessed with whatever I’m doing. When I think about Buzz, I think more about our director Carrie Preston. I’ve not seen anyone so beautifully embrace what we know about Buzz as a director as Carrie has throughout this process. She’s caring, gifted and just plain hilarious. The work that everyone in the room is doing — all of us — is a product of the environment she creates. The process is suffused with her love of story and her love and care for the actors and everyone involved in telling the story. She makes the play better — in every way.
I love the title of the play. Can you talk about her nickname? Why Buzz?
Susan Ferrara: Buzz was a nickname she was given as a child who was “always moving.” Because we travel very quickly from beginning to end, the title seemed apt and it also borrows from Hamlet’s conversation with Polonius.
One of the things I love about the play is its fractured and expressionistic form. We learn about Buzz’s career trajectory — and her demise — in flashes of scenes. What prompted you to tell the story in that way?
Susan Ferrara: It’s fractured and impressionist because I believe that’s how memory works. We’re all known in bits and pieces by the people around us and our stories are told, after we’re gone, in those bits. The fact that Buzz was directing Hamlet at the time of her death, helped me to blend what I imagined she might have experienced in her own world with that of the world of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
What was your research process like? Is there a biography, are there news clippings, did you speak to friends and colleagues?
Susan Ferrara: My first bit of research took me right to the RSC’s archives. There were a few articles. While there, I asked for five documents or articles for them to pull. The archivist slipped me a sixth document marked “not for public consumption.” It appeared to be a manifesto — something that looked as though it was very hastily typed — lots of typos. It was something Buzz had written and I was struck by her passion. Something like, “This is what I demand we do and this is how I demand we do it.” It was pretty damned fantastic.
In Manhattan, I met Mikel Lambert — the only American in Buzz’s Hamlet cast — who played Gertrude. She shared her thoughts about the process as did Chris Saul, who played Guildenstern in her production. Both of them were so gracious in sharing their experience in working with Buzz; that process. I also spoke to Cis Berry, who was in the room with her during rehearsals on Hamlet and who considered her a dear friend. Both Carrie and I have been fortunate in that people have been willing to share their experiences of Buzz and her process. Will be forever grateful for that.
Have you been rewriting and revising in Montgomery?
Susan Ferrara: Absolutely. For a solid week, we had new pages daily and after the first run-through, we cut 14 minutes off the play. To have so many smart and creative brains in the room has been a gift. Everyone dove right in and really helped us, daily, understand the story we’re telling. They’re all amazing. And there isn’t space enough here for me to talk about how much I love working with Carrie and how she inspires me daily. Her creative spark is like lightning in a bottle and it happens daily; hourly; every minute. It’s no surprise that I see Buzz come to life every time I see Carrie talk to an actor. She’s a comet in human for, filled with joy, intelligence, creativity and — most of all — humor and inspiration.
How did the play get to Alabama Shakespeare Festival and artistic director Rick Dildine?
Susan Ferrara: Like most great opportunities — over dinner! Our friend Kevin Earley was in Montgomery at ASF playing the Gentleman Caller in a production of The Glass Menagerie. Rick was looking for plays for the new season and, specifically, in bringing back ASF alums (Carrie being one of them!). Buzz with Carrie as director was the perfect fit. Within a week or so after the dinner, Carrie and I were on the phone with Rick discussing a potential production. His team read the play, liked it and here we are. I couldn’t be more grateful to Rick and his team at ASF. Every one of them has been so supportive and kind. It’s the perfect environment in which to bring to life a new work.
ASF is staging the play in a unique and intimate “found” space in its scene shop, dubbing it The Other Place as homage to Buzz’s staging of Hamlet, in a Stratford shack called The Other Place. Can you share a little bit about how that concept came about?
Susan Ferrara: Rick invited Carrie and I to Montgomery to check out alternate spaces. It was always our plan to pay homage to Buzz by doing our best to transform a space outside a theatre space. We saw many beautiful locations in Montgomery, but the moment we walked into the scene shop, you could literally see the play. Carrie visualized an immediate (and gorgeous) end moment for the play. Her face just lit up. We all had chills. That was it. We’d tell the story right there — in that huge space with all that history in it. Every ASF show was built in that space! And the folks who call the scene shop home have been amazing. We thank them daily. We’re in their space mucking about and they’re super cool about it. We’ve been fortunate, especially with a new play, in that we’re building it in the scene shop and for the scene shop. We were in the scene shop working on the first day of rehearsal. That’s a gift. The story works because the space is filled with history — every set piece; everything built in the scene shop — you can feel it when you sit in the audience.
Can you point to one or two theater experiences or plays that made you say, “This is what I want to do as my living!”?
Susan Ferrara: I don’t recall having a moment but just knowing that storytelling, like listening to my Aunt Rosie tell a story, was just a part of life for as long as I can remember. It was always the women in the kitchen, cooking and baking and telling stories and, because I was a quiet kid, I could sneak into any room and just listen. And that’s what I did. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in theatre or telling a story. It just happened naturally — from listening in the kitchen to standing in the scene shop.
Where do you live now, and can you share a little about your writing routine?
Susan Ferrara: I live in Manhattan just off 97th Street so I do a lot of walking — to midtown and below — and a lot of my writing happens as I walk. At least, that’s where the ideas come. I usually work on two to three pieces at a time so that when I get stuck on one, I can move to another. There’s always one piece, though, that gets my full attention. I’m fortunate in that I know so many brilliant women and men, that I often find myself writing for my friends before I consider writing for myself!
Buzz died from a drug overdose. Was is accidental? Was it suicide?
Susan Ferrara: Her death was reported as a suicide. She called herself a “tortoise without a shell.” I don’t know what contributed to her death. I just know that, with her passing, we lost a truly great artist.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Buzz and her world?
Susan Ferrara: Maybe not so surprising is the sense that very little has changed for women in the theatre since she left us. We’d love for Buzz to play everywhere — we’re working on that! And we hope that when people see the play, that they’ll remember the women in their life.
Award-winning actor-playwright Susan Ferrara is a three-time O’Neill semifinalist and a two-time New Dramatist and Leah Ryan finalist. Her play Buzz won the Hidden River Playwriting Award, Reverie’s Next Generation Playwriting Award and has had developmental readings with Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company and New York Theatre Workshop. Buzz was also a finalist for the Baltic Writing Residency (Brora, Scotland) and received an Honorable Mention for the Jane Chambers Award. Her play The Wonder, her own experience of the morning of 9/11 (writer/performer), won the United Solo International Theatre Festival Best Production/Best of the Festival and was nominated for the William Saroyan Human Rights/Social Justice Award. Her own experience of that morning has been recorded for the archives of the 9/11 Museum in downtown Manhattan.
Read about the upcoming March 2020 Montgomery premiere of Alabama Story by Kenneth Jones, to be directed ASF artistic director Rick Dildine and featuring Greta Lambert and Rodney Clark.