A bloody, bloody interview with Alex Timbers ’01

“Doing an emo rock musical on Andrew Jackson kind of sounds like the worst idea ever,” writer and director Alex Timbers ’01 said of his emo rock musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” which begins Broadway previews on September 20 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. But if anyone could weave together lowbrow emo rock with highbrow historical analysis, it would be Alex Timbers.

Timbers is the artistic director of the theater company Les Freres Corbusier, which he started with two other Yale alumni (Aaron Lemon-Strauss ’04 and Jennifer Rogien ’00) only two years after graduation. The group is known for their comedic approach to intellectual and historical topics. Shows such as “A Very Merry Unauthorized Scientology Pageant” and “Hoover,” a musical about Herbert Hoover, have won the company praise, fans and notoriety. Their mission statement reads, “Les Freres Corbusier creates aggressively visceral theater combining historical revisionism, multimedia excess, found texts, sophomoric humor, and rigorous academic research.”

While getting “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” ready for the Great White Way, Timbers is also preparing to direct “The Pee-Wee Herman Show” for a Broadway debut in October. In between rehearsals, Timbers made time for a phone interview:

Q You started the company Les Freres Corbusier in 2003 with two other Yale alums. How and when did you come up with the idea for the company?

A When I graduated from Yale, I interned at Manhattan Theatre Club and I was looking around at different directors who were successful out there. It became clear that theater doesn’t really value youth and that the people who were getting to direct Chekhov and Williams were all much older. There’s an adage that you have to have grey hair to direct. So I thought to myself, “Well, people aren’t going to hand me opportunities. I have to create them myself.” I thought the best way to get out there and define your voice was to start a company dedicated to your own personal aesthetic. It was great because the company’s done well and because of the company I’ve been able to get other freelance directing opportunities. I haven’t had to wait for grey hair.

Q Are you getting any grey hair now, in the midst of putting “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “The Pee-Wee Herman Show” up on Broadway?

A No, not yet. We’re just in our first week for “Andrew Jackson.” Check back in with me in two and a half months.

Q You’ve written and directed a number of historical musicals. Are you trying to teach historical lessons with your pieces? Do you think about their being educational in their purpose?

A Yeah, well, the company is directly devoted to doing work about historical and academic subject matters. It actually came out of a piece I created with three friends during my senior year in the Off-Broadway Theater up in New Haven. It was a comedic experimental dance piece talking about higher mathematics. It was a very silly, deadpan dance piece that used the minimalist music of Steve Reich … to tell the story of math. It was completely impenetrable. We were all wearing wife-beaters with sherbert-colored pants and no socks. You wouldn’t understand the piece unless you’d read the course packet you were given beforehand and the actual reading period for the course packet was longer than the actual piece. You had outlines with footnotes, primary sources, and a place on the back for you to take your own notes. And it was really ridiculous; it was a real big hit within the context of the undergraduate theater scene. And it created this idea for us of lampooning academia while celebrating it and lampooning avant-garde theater while also celebrating it. “Andrew Jackson” is very clearly a continuation in that line. I think a lot about “School House Rock” — that idea of making learning really fun.

Q Time Out described Les Freres Corbusier as “goofy brainiacs.” Do you think it is necessary to invoke pop culture and “goofiness” in order to communicate a highbrow message to a mainstream audience?

A I definitely think that there are examples of “highbrow” theater work all the time that are not funny at all. It’s clearly a popular mode.

But for me the question is always: “How do you take this subject matter that’s inherently not fun, or at least perceived as being not fun, and make it really enjoyable?” The number one thing we’re looking at is “How do you make this stuff digestible and exciting?”

For me it’s a grab bag of different types of performance; difference types of comedy and reference points — to tell whatever events or facts from history books in the most visceral and surprising way possible. I think more largely in theater, for young people it feels very disconnected from popular culture. The type of comedy and the type of music you find on Broadway has very little relationship to the type of comedy you find in a Ben Stiller movie or a Will Ferrell movie, or the type of music you hear on the radio. It’s like Broadway is having a conversation with itself, without the larger world. You can see why young people feel like its not a place for them, they’re like speaking some sort of foreign language that’s sort of an echo chamber. What I’m really interested in doing is bridging that gap: putting theater in dialogue with popular culture, by using those same styles and reference points and hopefully allowing young people, and those generally disenfranchised with theater, to feel that theater actually has some sort of relationship to their lives.

Q Les Freres’ mission statement says that you are trying to reach out to a “mainstream audience continually ignored by American Theater”; “The Pee-Wee Herman Show” and “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” will be on Broadway at the same time. Do you think this shows a positive shift in the direction of the theater world?

A What these shows share, and what Broadway doesn’t necessarily share historically, is an interest in alternative comedy. I think it’s really unusual for Broadway to have these sort of ill-defined “plays with music” that traffic in [that kind of humor]. It’s an exciting moment, and the shows’ producers are very adventurous. Hopefully there’s an audience for that stuff.

Q How have you come up with the shows that you’ve done?

A When I’m creating something from scratch, it really has to do with the things I’m interested in and the things I want to spend more time learning more about. “Andrew Jackson” was someone I knew nothing about when I started working on the show. And when I did my show about scientology that was something — it wasn’t like scientology was a well-deconstructed thing in popular culture yet; same thing with Urban Planning. (Ed. note: Les Freres’ “Boozy” integrated punk rock with New York urban planning). I was reading “The Power Broker: [Robert Moses and the Fall of New York]” and I was like, “This material feels so un-theatrical that it would be really fun to try to make it a theater piece.” These impossible challenges — you know, doing an emo rock musical on Andrew Jackson, kind of sounds like the worst idea ever. These sorts of challenges are the things that get me really excited. That’s where it starts.

Q Do you ever watch “Glee”?

A You know, I don’t watch “Glee.” I don’t watch “Glee.” [pause] I don’t watch “Glee.”

QDo you have any advice for those doing theater at Yale now?

A I would say the more you can play with all sorts of different genres, [the better]. Maybe take some time when you get out to decide what you like in theater and what you don’t like.

A lot of the relationships, friendships and collaborators I had at Yale ended up being the collaborators I worked with when I first got out. And those are important friendships and relationships that you build in your undergraduate years. My fight choreographer on Broadway is this guy who was a year older than me in the Dramat — just a really cool guy. There are a lot of those Yalies you stay in touch with and work with all the time.

Q Did you have any influential advisors at Yale? I saw that Murray Biggs is on the board of Les Freres?

A There were a bunch of people who were really inspiring when I was an undergrad at Yale — Murray Biggs being one of them. Certainly, David Krasner, who ran the [Theater Studies] program, and Deb Margolin. I felt very lucky to work with the professors.

Yale at the time did not really have a lot of theater. [The university] really prided itself in not being a conservatory for undergrads. So there weren’t a lot of [practitioners’] classes or directing classes. This was good in a sort of ironic way, in that it really made you hungry to put up your own work. That kind of do-it-yourself aesthetic of learning how to self-produce and stuff like that. Hugely influential. If I had gone to one of those programs where they had produced all the musicals and plays for you — and you just showed up to act, direct or design — it wouldn’t have prepared me for what I would have to do in New York.

And one of the cool things, from what I understand of how the undergraduate theater program has changed in terms of what is prioritized amongst the students, is that it feels like playwriting is much more important now than when I was there. Like if you wrote a play when I was an undergraduate, it was kind of looked down on like, “Oh you wouldn’t want to direct that. A student wrote it.” Now it feels like writing a play is something that’s appropriately celebrated as something that’s a cool achievement. In New York, more than 50 percent of the plays are new. It felt very strange that when we graduated a lot of [student] directors were just interested in working on revivals. That’s all we had experienced there. The idea of developing a play from scratch with a playwright was really foreign to us.

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