Over the past several years, Seth Bockley has been responsible in one way or another for some of the most striking images in Chicago theater: an artificial sunset spinning on an island in Columbus Park (Redmoon’s Twilight Orchard); an enormous pop-up book telling the story of a disastrous fire (Dog & Pony’s The Twins Would Like to Say); and, perhaps most memorably, an open door at the back of the Building Stage, giving a teenager trapped in a consumerist dystopia his first vision of the outside world (Collaboraction’s Jon).
Now the 28-year-old prepares to helm the Chicago premiere of 1001, Jason Grote’s revisionist adaptation of The Arabian Nights. “It’s an actor-driven play in the spirit of a trunk show,” the slim, bespectacled director says, sipping coffee in Logan Square’s Cafe Moustache. “Very often I put a lot of weight on design, and this show will have that, but the engine is the actors. That’s exciting. And it’s also a relief to work on a finished script.”
That’s because Bockley’s often the one finishing the script, though rarely on his own. Ensemble-devised works and literary adaptations have been his chosen métier; Jon began as a short story by MacArthur Fellow George Saunders. “I’m totally uninterested in my own mind and memories and imagination for inspiration in theater,” Bockley explains. “I like source material; I’m kind of a scavenger.”
Following 1001, the Minneapolis native will have lots of opportunity to delve around in sources. In October, New York’s Public Theater will hold a second public reading of the musical February House, which Bockley is developing with a fellow Brown alum, singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane. The musical depicts an unlikely foursome of artists who lived as roommates in 1940s Brooklyn: W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Carson McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee. “We’re looking at how these eccentric visionary artists tried to live together, and it’s also kind of funny and ridiculous. There’s a song about bedbugs,” he says.
Bockley also has a second Saunders adaptation in the works: CommComm, commissioned by the Goodman. (Along with Lisa Dillman, Laura Jacqmin and Rohina Malik, Bockley is an inaugural member of the theater’s just-announced Playwrights Unit, an initiative to support emerging writers.) “It felt like there was a mind meld from the beginning,” Saunders, 51, says on the phone from upstate New York, where he teaches at Syracuse University. “Some of the things he did, like the door opening at the end of Jon, just blew me out of the water. I can’t wait to see what he does with CommComm.”
Saunders cites the writer-director’s commitment to perfecting the final product, an assessment echoed by Frank Maugeri. Redmoon’s Maugeri and Jim Lasko have been crucial influences for Bockley; although his initial training in physical theater came from Double Edge Theatre in Massachusetts, he began working with Redmoon upon moving to Chicago in 2004. Bockley says the “Grotowski-style” Double Edge “had this beautiful barn that we would run around in and create image-based work. The artists at Redmoon challenged me to continue that work.”
The challenges weren’t all artistic; Bockley embraced Redmoon’s urban-scavenger ethos. For one project, he recalls, “I had to get bathtubs. That was my job, and I had no money to get them. And it turns out that you can do that. It involves Craigslist and phone calls and driving to the suburbs in pickup trucks. But you can get bathtubs.”
“He’s a unique young artist,” says Maugeri, who supervised Bockley’s work under a Theater Communications Group grant. “He’s able to ride this wave of outdoor spectacle and then translate that into more traditional shows.” Or as actor Guy Massey, who appeared in Jon and an early reading of CommComm, puts it, “I’m up for any project he suggests. You know it’ll be good and it’ll have something unexpected.”