A single-parent household with a mythical creature lurking under the stairs; a shifting set of tables around which seven generations of an American family gather for meals; a Vermont dance studio that offers an unlikely home to a set of misfits. Director Dexter Bullard has barreled through some highly diverse settings this winter, staging Brett Neveu’s Odradek, Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal and Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation in quick succession. He’s also brought his production of Mistakes Were Made, starring Michael Shannon, to New York’s Barrow Street and staged an experimental series at Links Hall—all while running DePaul’s graduate acting program.
Just getting all this work onstage would be an accomplishment; with The Big Meal earning universal acclaim and Odradek marking a creepily mature departure for its House Theatre producers, Bullard has pulled off a rare feat. To hear the trim, voluble 44-year-old tell it, though, most of the credit belongs elsewhere: “It’s really about the quality of collaborators,” the Northwestern and SAIC alum insists one recent morning at an Argo Tea near his DePaul office.
But as our conversation ranges associatively from the mental maps of Everglades guides to his advice for Mayor-elect Rahm (rehearsal space for small theaters is high on his list), it becomes clear that Bullard’s unusual curiosity and broad theatrical experience account for a good deal of his success. He cofounded Plasticene, the collaborative physical theater ensemble, in 1995; it’s still going strong, with a new piece debuting in workshop next month at Millennium Park. He’s directed a national touring ensemble at Second City. He even created an opening event for the 2007 national amateur boxing championships at the Chicago Theatre. “Only boxers saw it,” he says, “but it was fabulous fun: a turntable stage, a cast of 70 telling all about Chicago.”
Shannon’s relationship with the director goes back 20 years. “There’s not much he doesn’t know,” Shannon says, calling from New York. Seven years ago, Bullard directed Shannon in Tracy Letts’s Bug, which blazed the same path from A Red Orchid to Barrow Street that Mistakes Were Made has taken. “A lot of directors have aptitude for one aspect of theater,” Shannon says, “but Dexter’s incredibly well-rounded.”
You can see that depth of knowledge in a production like The Big Meal, whose spellbinding transitions owe a debt both to Plasticene’s fluid sense of space and to the Second City blackout sketch. Bullard, who worked with playwright LeFranc for two years, sharpening the premiere, agrees: “I was totally aware at a certain point it felt like a Second City rehearsal: It was all about moving chairs and moving people at a certain speed.”
Spatial relations and personal connections also drew him to Baker’s piece, which won an Obie last year for Best New Play. “I saw a photo in the Times of people lying in a dance space, and I was shocked that this was a play,” he recalls. Reading it, he was hooked by the script’s use of acting exercises such as Explosion Tag, one of the improv games invented by Second City founder Paul Sills’s mother, Viola Spolin. “I used that same game in my demo class for the DePaul job,” Bullard says, tagging me for emphasis.
Bullard’s conversation reflects his immersion in the city’s theater scene, which he credits for teaching him profoundly about theatrical diversity, as he considers one longtime collaborator after another: Shannon, Craig Wright, Neveu, Will Zahrn—above all, perhaps, his wife, Tif Bullard, who designs costumes in addition to her own solo performance work. Enmeshed as he is, Bullard works in the service of his own singular vision. “He’s able to have a large impact without being ostentatious,” Shannon says. “I’d like to see him have the kind of success Mary Zimmerman or David Cromer have had. I think he deserves it.”
Circle Mirror Transformation is in previews at Victory Gardens, opening Saturday 5.