As a kid, Eric Steele would have his friends over, put them in costumes and film them in short films with his parents' Beta camera. "My poor sister was oftentimes the star of these ridiculous films," he says.
Then, in the late '90s, just out of Highland Park High School in Dallas, he and some friends made film called Pouring Summer in a Glass, which he now describes as "the worst movie ever made…we had this terrible script that was 100 pages too long, and with about 50 too many characters," he says. "But it ended up being this wonderful experience. Someone in [film] school said 'you need to make a terrible, terrible film because you get it out of your system and you learn from it.' "
And he did. That experience was just what he needed to get serious about his passion. He studied film and journalism at Oklahoma University, and moved back to Dallas, where he became a partner in Aviation Cinemas. That group renovated the historic Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff, which has been offering "counter programming" since the building—famous as the place where Lee Harvey Oswald was apprehended after he shot John F. Kennedy in 1963—reopened in late 2010. Steele has directed films and is currently producing several locally made films.
Steele had also been involved with theater since high school, and this experience has led to The Midwest Trilogy, an innovative film/theater project that opens this week at Dallas' Second Thought Theatre (the show has been in previews since last week).
The first two parts of The Midwest Trilogy are 15-minute films that Steele directed (Cork's Cattlebaron and Topeka), and the third is the one-man play Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self, which was first seen at last year's Festival of Independent Theatres, presented by Second Thought.
Birdnow won DFW Theater Theater Critics Forum awards for new play and for actor Barry Nash, who reprises the role. It's again directed by Lee Trull.
Cork's Cattlebaron, which features film/TV actor Robert Longstreet, focuses on two businessmen at a lunch meeting in Omaha. In Topeka, the other businessmen are at a diner in that Kansas city. In Birdnow, which Steele will also make into a short film, the title character is a motivational speaker in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Film and video have been incorporated into live theater for decades, and many innovative strides, notably from a design perspective, have been made in recent years. But this is unique in that two actual short films and a one-act play make up one production—and none of them star his sister.
We recently chatted with Steele about the concept.
TheaterJones: How did this idea come about?
Eric Steele: [The producers at] Second Thought approached me. Their focus this season is to merge different elements in performance, and they wanted this to be an exploration in combining film and live theater. After they produced Birdnow, I shared with them the other pieces. They're very cohesive. They're separate stories but are specifically linked. They have a similar tone with these characters at the forefront, each have these tragic flaws.
How do you connect the pieces for a theatrical production?
We wanted to explore having an audience that's walking into a sales conference, with name tags, like you're walking into a Hilton convention center. You sit down and we create this experience as though you're entering into an instructional video [at a business conference]. You see the films and then a man steps in front of that curtain to speak to you. It is such a strange, visceral experience.
You appeared on stage in Kitchen Dog Theater's boom a few years ago, and you've said the films of David Mamet have been an influence. How has acting for the theater and directing for film informed each other for you?
Live theater and film have always informed each other in my experience. Theater teaches you to arrive at conflict immediately and forces you, as a director, to create pictures on stage that are compelling. Also, working with actors at a deep level is something you do constantly in theater but few directors dig in like that in film. Watching Lee Trull work with Barry during the Midwest Trilogy process has been incredibly insightful. Lee is a brilliant director for the stage—his focus on language …has a specific purpose is so pure and full of intent. I've been deeply influenced by that.
Film, on the other hand, teaches you to use the eraser more than the pencil. What I mean by that is, a film is often created in the editing room, so when you are directing film it becomes about getting plenty of options to work with. Also, there is a specificity in film that you rarely see in live theater. Wardrobe—down to the minute details of someone's socks or the cup they use, or the look of the ceiling fan above an actor—it's all specific. No broad strokes in film... that's something that has taught me a great deal.
How has Barry's performance changed from when it was at FIT last year?
Barry's performance has gone from very, very good to simply great. All credit goes to Lee Trull and Barry, who have broken through to understanding Bob Birdnow more than me at this point. Lee has been focused on the language of the piece and encouraging Barry to find the heart of Bob in the text, meaning that he is adhering to every comma, pause, dash, ellipsis... and out of that process, a new musical rhythm has emerged that has colored the character in a different tone and style.
Lee has also opened up the space for Barry, allowing him to explore the room and engage with the audience more. Maddie Lynch's great lighting design also helps to pull the audience in at the right moments and mirror Barry's intensity in the right moments. I can't say enough about the kind of work Barry is doing right now. It's unassuming and natural yet intense, provocative, and unforgettable. The best compliment I can give him is that when I watch him my thoughts drift to thinking about my own life…sad memories or beautiful memories that I haven't thought about in years.
A great performance can make that kind of magic happen and it's been happening to me as I watch Barry in rehearsals.