Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Interview - Luke Leonard of "Bum Phillips," an opera based on the life of the former Oilers coach

By Byrne Harrison

Luke Leonard (center) with
Bum and Debbie Phillips
Luke Leonard is a director and artist living in New York. He is a founding member and the Producing Artistic Director of Monk Parrots, a nonprofit, vanguard theatre company. His stage productions have been described as "taking creditable gambles... outstanding" by The New York Times, "bold and experimental... a clear vision... pure theatrical experience" by, and "visually arresting" by Austin American-Statesman. In 2011, compared Monk Parrots to "young artist revolutionaries."

After hearing that he is working on an opera based on the life of former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips, I spoke with Luke about the opera and its upcoming premiere.

Having grown up in Houston in the '70s, I know how much of an influence former Oilers coach Bum Phillips was in Texas, and even around the country.  That said, he doesn't seem to be the typical subject for an opera.  What inspired you to create an opera based on his life?

I was interested in doing a project about happiness, or being in/capturing a moment.  I was also reflecting on the effect that playing football growing up has had on my aesthetic and leadership skills.  I was looking for books written by coaches to learn more about coaching methods.  The name, Bum Phillips, came to mind and I was instantly filled with nostalgia.  Coincidentally, Bum published an autobiography in 2010, so I ordered it right away and after I read it, I knew that I wanted to make a new work based on his life.  It fit perfectly with the ideas that I was interested in exploring.

Houston was a very special place in the late 1970s and it was due in large part to Bum Phillips and the Houston Oilers.  The fans embraced the team and their coach in a citywide phenomenon called "Luv Ya Blue".  It was as if everyone could bleed the same shade of light blue.  The city was joined by the sense of family that Bum Phillips instilled in his players.  I was only a child, but the devotion that my parents (and their friends) had for the Oilers, the Astros, the Astrodome, the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, etc., rubbed off on me, inspired me... it was the culture, and it can only be described as a magical time.

The story of Bum Phillips and the Houston Oilers is the perfect vehicle to explore the concept of happiness and living in the moment, but it is also a chance to look at what happens when the party is over.  Undoubtedly, Bum left a mark on the NFL and Houston, but his tenure with the Oilers was stripped away by owner Bud Adams, robbing the city of its leader.  In over 30 years, Houston has never experienced another bond quite like "Luv Ya Blue" and the present condition of the Astrodome, arguably, symbolizes a neglect of heritage.  Despite its current state, the Astrodome is a container for wonderful memories and dreams.  Bum Phillips is really a universal story about courage and healing.

Why an opera?  Well, I have been pursuing a career directing opera ever since returning to New York in 2010 after receiving a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Texas at Austin.  I also lead Monk Parrots, a nonprofit, experimental theater company that devises new works and embraces alternative approaches to making theatre.  We're always looking for bridges that bring people together.  Football is epic and opera is epic, so a Bum Phillips opera seemed to make perfect sense.  Opera is music-driven versus a musical, which is more narrative/text-driven.  A Bum Phillips musical seemed too obvious or gimmicky, and it didn't seem to match the scale and emotion of American football.  We call it an opera because the piece is all sung, but composer Peter Stopschinski's approach is modern and accessible, so it does teeter between what people consider an opera and a musical.  I would like to see it on Broadway someday!

Reaction on the internet runs from bemusement to snark.  What would you say to your doubters?

That's a great question that hasn't been asked.  Funny because I just started reading a book written by Andy Warhol called "Popism" and he talks about how everyone laughed at his early coke bottle paintings, and at Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg (also a native Texan), Frank Stella, Jasper's just natural to criticize something new that isn't easily understood.  I actually think the snarky comments are funny, but they can sting if you let them because you're investing an enormous amount of time and hard work, and you're trying to do something personal and with good intentions.  I don't know.  I think for the most part people are supportive.

I understand you met with Mr. Phillips about this project.  What did he think about it?  Was he an opera or theatre fan to begin with?

Peter, Bum and Luke
We drove to Goliad on Sunday, March 10, 2012 to meet Bum and Debbie at their ranch.  Peter was with me as well as my parents.  We took the Phillips' a pecan pie from Goode Company.  I think this was before much of the score and book had been written, so it's funny that "pie" made it's way into the first scene called, "Picnic".  Bum seemed to really like the idea, but he didn't know if it would work in New York.  I tried to reassure him that it would and expressed my desire for a Texas presentation, too.  I found him to be very accepting of all things.  He told us that Lawrence Harris used to play for the Oilers and became a professional opera singer.  I don't remember asking Bum if he was a fan of opera or theatre, but he likes music and he's a big fan of John Wayne movies.  My mother sent me a John Wayne compilation DVD that includes The Searchers, which is one of Bum's favorites.

In his... well, I hesitate to say retirement, since he seems to be more active than ever... but in recent years, Phillips has been more known for his charity work and Christian ministry.  Will that be included in the opera, or will it focus more on his early life and coaching career?

Yes, for a man approaching 90 he is sharp as a whip and has a ton of stamina.  He is certainly active and it's very impressive.  His strength and endurance reminds me of Ellen Stewart, the Founder/Artistic Director of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (where we will present the world premiere).  You couldn't keep Ellen down, even in her 80s.  She was a firecracker, an amazing woman, and she left behind a inimitable legacy, which is now under the artistic leadership of Mia Yoo.

The primary source material for the opera is the autobiography, Bum Phillips: Cowboy, Coach, Christian.  It includes moments throughout his entire life and it is structured like a football game.  Act I focuses on the early parts of his life; such as, the myth surrounding the source of his nickname, his relationship with his father, his time as a Marine Raider in WWII, and concludes with a football game from the 1979 season.  Act 2 includes scenes about retirement, divorce, the prison ministry, and of course, more football games.  It's ambitious and it will be challenging to stage, but that's what I'm all about, a challenge.

Who are your collaborators on this project?

Kirk Lynn
Kirk Lynn is the librettist and Peter Stopschinski is the composer.  I met Kirk at UT-Austin when I was a MFA student.  He is a professor at UT and I took a class with him called New Play Dramaturgy.  Kirk and Peter are both members of the nationally-renowned theatre collective, Rude Mechs.  Kirk is a founding member and Co-Producing Artistic Director of the Rudes.  Peter is Co-Artistic Director with composer Graham Reynolds of the nonprofit, Golden Hornet Project.  Kirk has been a mentor to me in many ways and very generous about sharing information and helping me with grant writing.  Peter and I are both from Houston and grew up during the "Luv Ya Blue" era.  We both have strong affections for that time.  We're all native Texans, which is really cool.  There are a lot of Texans in New York and we have several in our company, Monk Parrots.  Joey LePage is the Co-Producing Artistic Director of Monk Parrots, who I also met and worked with at UT-Austin.  Joey and I have been working together since 2008.  He has assisted me on several productions and is the assistant director of the Bum Phillips opera.  The costume designer is Alison Heryer.  Alison and I started working together in 2007.  She designed the most extraordinary costumes for a contemporary opera that I directed in 2010 called The Difficulty of Crossing a Field by David Lang and Mac Wellman.  I also invited Marie Yokoyama to join the creative team as Co-Designer.  Marie and I collaborated on Monk Parrots' 2013 production, After an Earlier Incident: A Dyschronic Romeo & Juliet, which premiered at La MaMa.  We'll be adding more amazing artists to the roster, too.

When are you planning to bring it to the stage?

The world premiere is booked for March 13-30, 2014 in the Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York.  We will present a benefit performance at Dixon Place on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013.  In July-August, we will work on the production designs during our Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Swing Space Artist Residency, and we might begin the casting process during the residency, as well.  We're looking for a Texas-based presenter to partner with to take it to the Lone Star State.
Tell me a little bit about your theatre company, Monk Parrots.

Monk Parrots, formerly DUMBO Theater eXchange a/k/a DTX, incorporated in New York in 2001 to present new plays by emerging artists. DTX managed a space in Brooklyn where 30 productions were produced, including plays at the 4th and 5th Annual DUMBO Arts Festival. In 2007, DTX changed its name to reflect a departure from DUMBO and a commitment to collaboration and devised theatre.
In 2011-2013, Monk Parrots produced 4 premieres, 3 public readings, 3 workshop performances, and a European premiere. Awards include 2013 and 2011 Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Swing Space Artist Residencies, a 2012 Foundation for Contemporary Arts Emergency Grant, and a 2012 USA Projects grant to commission Bum Phillips, An Opera.

What sort of works has the company produced?

Monk Parrots produce and tour concept-driven live performances that cross artistic boundaries.  In 2011, we created Gay Rodeo By-Laws, an abstract play about assumptions associated with being American that was loosely inspired by James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  Additionally, we remounted our performance work, The Art of Depicting Nature As It Is Seen By Toads, a structured improvisation based on Sanford Meisner's Word Repetition Game, and staged a site-specific performance of Barry Gifford's Hotel Room Trilogy at the Roger Smith Hotel.  In 2012, we premiered Here I Go at 59E59 Theaters, a piece about a sixty-something widow and Dolly Parton fan who whips up a banana pudding and contemplates suicide, which also premiered in Italy at the 2012 La MaMa Spoleto Open.  This year, we premiered a new work at La MaMa called After an Earlier Incident: A Dyschronic Romeo & Juliet, which was our second collaboration with playwright David Todd (Here I Go).  We aren't limited to one form (performance art, site-specific, theatre, musical/opera), but all of our works share the same core ambitions: to attempt the impossible and advance the art of theatre.

If you could say anything to your prospective audience, what would it be?

Be prepared to be surprised. You don't have to like opera or football. You're going to like this!

I understand you're crowdfunding to raise capital for the show.  If people want to donate, how should they go about it?

The deadline to support the Bum Phillips opera is Sunday, July 21, 2013.  Tax-deductible donations can be made by visiting the USAProjects website.

Thank you for taking time to talk about your show.  I can't wait to see how it turns out.


Unknown said...

Nice read. Interested in seeing how it works out for you, Luke!

Luke Leonard said...

Thanks again, Byrne! Really appreciate the support.