A Chat with Dean Drieberg, director of StageArt’s Bare: The Musical
Every generation, our youths start to face a plethora of issues which may not have existed for their predecessors. But in the 21st century, these are coming to a point of climax, and the voices of these youths are finally starting to be heard.
2017 saw the long-awaited legalisation of Marriage Equality in Australia. It cost the country hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, a ridiculously long amount of rallying and advocating, and finally a vote and plebiscite. Yet despite this, homophobia and transphobia in Australia and across the globe are continuing their steady dominance of society. In the United States, LGBTI*-phobic violence is the tragic cause of an unfair amount of deaths. Since 2010 there have been over 50 incidents in the U.S. of LGBTI* murders, abuses, and attacks – the largest attack being the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting. Although we have progressed towards a more equal and accepting world, there is still much out there for youths to fear, be it gun violence, assault, or even simply judgement.
Bare: The Musical follows the journey of two young men and an exploration of sexuality under the roof of a Catholic boarding school. Although the focus of the show is not that of violence, the subjugation of LGBTI* people is an issue that has endured for decades, especially within a more religious environment. One of the main reasons bare resonates with its audiences is its honesty – the issues tackled by the characters are very real and relevant things that most of us have come across in some capacity during our lives. Additionally, it has been quite a cornerstone to the LGBTI* community, humanising gay characters and their issues rather than exploiting their sexuality like some other musicals do. The show is a true depiction of humanity and an exploration of issues that we all face, regardless of colour, shape, size, religion or sexuality.
Thus, the second of StageArt’s season for this year is the subversive bare, what is truly a lesser known show amongst the typical Broadway blockbusters. Starting off as a Pop Opera, the show is a sung-through rock musical tackling issues of youth and religion, with music by Damon Intrabartolo, lyrics by Jon Hartmere and book collaborated on by the pair. Since its 2000 premiere in Los Angeles, the show has undergone multiple rewrites, including a change of format into a more traditional ‘book musical’ rather than an opera. I had the opportunity to discuss the show and its themes with the show’s director Dean Drieberg, as well as his own personal experiences which aided him in some of his decisions for the show.
What made you start wanting to direct?
So I started and trained as a performer way back when, and I used to perform in music theatre. But when the work became very inconsistent, I decided to pursue a career behind the scenes. I started off in production, working for a touring theatre company as an associate producer, and I’ve done company management and production management, but the whole time what I’ve wanted to do was direct theatre. I have worked with so many brilliant directors and really learned so much from them. I was actually able to direct my first show only last year, which was Memphis: The Musical, which StageArt produced, and it was an incredible experience. So they offered for me to direct this production of bare because they thought I would do something interesting with it. Even though this is only my second production I feel very comfortable in the position. This is probably about my 11th production working with StageArt, but only the second as a director.
Why do you think that it is important for a show like bare to be performed in the current social climate?
I think it’s really relevant. The show’s set in the early 2000s, and obviously we’ve progressed quite far with many topics since then, but I still think that the ongoing message through the show is still really clear – these kids are saying “hear my voice, hear my voice” and are asking to be heard, and when they ask the adults around them for advice, these adults tell them “just be quiet, just follow the teachings of the church, don’t think too much or say anything and you’ll be fine,” and it has quite a destructive result. And this is something that is definitely still happening. Religion aside, if we have a look at what is happening in America at the moment with the gun laws, there are all these students that are speaking out against the government, speaking out against the gun laws, and there’s all these people out there that are saying “oh, these children don’t know anything, they need to shut up,” and I think that’s why this is really great timing for this production. It sort of shows kids that they can have a voice, and that they should have a voice, and the negative results of if they are silenced. And it also shows adults that sometimes you need to stop and have a listen to what they younger generation have to say.
Having attended a Catholic school, did you have similar experiences to the characters?
I went to a Catholic co-ed school, just like the kids in the show, and it was a really interesting experience growing up. Of course, there are lots of great values that you take on from that experience, but it was also challenging in some ways. You’re being told that there’s only one way that the world works, and that there’s one set of rules. But as you get older, you start questioning those rules and it becomes a struggle, because everything you’ve been told since you can remember has been one way, but you sort of feel like there’s more out there, and that some rules can be broken. It was interesting to sit down and read the script of bare, because I kept on thinking about people I was in high school with that had struggles and how a lot of the times they weren’t being heard, or they felt like they couldn’t approach someone because they would be outcasts or punished. It really resonated with me. I’d actually seen the show before, about ten years ago, but it’s only when I sort of sat down with it last year before starting to pull it apart as a director that I started seeing a lot more in the text, and that’s where my vision came to me.
There are quite a few versions and rewrites of bare – which are you going with?
The show has had so many iterations since it was first performed, I mean there’s been bare: a pop opera, Bare: The Musical, bare: The Rock Musical, bare: The Rock Opera, bare: In Concert – there are SO MANY versions of it! I’ve done a lot of research into the history of the show and the production that we are doing is closest to the original, so it’s more the bare: a pop opera that people know. It’s pretty much exactly what is on the recording which everyone loves. It’s mostly the fact that the licensors have decided that the show is going to be known as Bare: The Musical from now on, so we’ve been getting a lot of questions about that because everyone loved the Pop Opera version, whereas the Musical version was not very well received.
Have you been influenced at all by the other versions of the show in your direction?
I’ve read a synopsis of the Musical version but I’ve avoided looking at it just so I haven’t been influenced by it at all. It’s actually really interesting to me, the story of the show. bare is Damon [Intrabartolo]’s story as a teenager, it’s his baby. And when that Off-Broadway ‘Musical’ production happened, he wasn’t involved, and they actually brought on another composer who rewrote a whole lot of the songs. Damon actually sadly and suddenly passed away not long after that, so I can imagine it must have been very heartbreaking for him to see because it’s his story being told in that way. I certainly feel very proud that we’re presenting a production that is much closer to his vision and his message, the original show.
Do you have a particular scene or song in the show that you love?
There are so many! I could sit and listen to this cast sing at me all day. It’s hard to pick out one because they’re all such beautiful people and they all just suit their characters so well. But the final song, “No Voice,” is both incredibly moving and a call for action, it’s quite motivating, and I feel like every time I hear that song it makes me want to run out onto the street and join a rally or sign a petition! It really brings the activist in me out.
Do any of the characters speak to you on a personal level?
I think there’s a bit of me in everyone! I understand everyone’s role – there’s Peter who’s the guy who wants to be out there and himself, but he feels that because of the Church’s rules that he can’t be himself despite proactively trying to come out to his mother and his friends; and then there’s Jason who’s just so terrified and doesn’t quite understand where he sits and doesn’t want to say anything out loud. Every character in the show has a secret desire or issue that they aren’t ready to confront, and that even comes down to the smaller roles in the ensemble, that’s something I’ve worked on very strongly with my cast, making sure they have a strong understanding of “what is your secret?” and “what are you hiding?” And that’s what’s universal about all of these characters – they all struggle with something, they’re all at the end of their high-schooling and about to go out into the world and go to university, but they feel like they’re not quite ready yet because they’re holding onto these secrets and issues.
bare is a very niche selection in terms of Musicals – how have you felt about being able to direct a show which will be new to most viewers?
I think even though it isn’t performed enough I’m also glad it isn’t overperformed. I think sometimes things can be done too much, and then the message gets lost. It’s better that once in a while we get a really great production of something. That’s why I’m really happy to be working on this production. And the standard of shows with this company [StageArt], we’ve got resources, we have an incredible cast, we have an amazing creative team. There’s only 15 in the cast but every individual is a vocal powerhouse. So those 15 voices together… it’s chilling.
How does performing the show in an old chapel (Chapel off Chapel) change the context for you?
To perform bare in an actual Chapel… that alone will just bring a whole other level to the show. Having the cast perform in front of the stained glass windows. I’m sure audience members will really feel that when they walk inside the theatre. Doing [bare] in there made it easier too because, well… there’s my set! Working on the show, it’s quite a simple one, I’m not using a lot in terms of set. We’re really taking advantage of where we are. And the show speaks for itself without needing to be overproduced because you want to focus on the story, the lyrics and the characters. We don’t need special effects or people flying around the stage, there’s enough vocal theatrics to engage people especially in a real Chapel.
How are you planning to create a more contemporary interpretation of the text?
When I sat down with this I just thought “what am I going to do? The show has been done before, it’s not the first time, so I have to make this fresh and put something in this that’s relevant.” I’ve really tried to mirror that aspect of what’s happening in America with the kids speaking out, even though this was written well before [the recent events]. I did a lot of research about these kids protesting and rallying and I thought that this is really interesting and powerful and tried to thread that through the show. There’s a very strong message in the show in the text about children not being heard, I’ve worked on it with a different visual style for the show, quite stylistic blocking rather than as natural as some other shows, which will make it quite interesting. There might be some surprises and shocks in there, but I’ll let people come see for themselves, I don’t want to give anything away!