Dallas — Now in its fourth season in North Texas, Jason Leyva's L.I.P. Service has become one of the more interesting smaller theater companies. This year, it has ramped up with more shows in various spaces, bringing more artists into the fold. One of those is Alexandra Bonifield, who most North Texans know as a theater critic with her own blog, CriticalRant, and who has contributed to TheaterJones, The Dallas Morning News, and American Theatre magazine. Before before her life as a critic, she was an actress and director, and in the coming months, steps back into those waters. First, she's directing Conor McPherson's one-man play The Good Thief as L.I.P. Service's entry into the Festival of Independent Theatres (starring Andrew Aguilar), and soon, she'll play Martha in Onstage in Bedford's production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? TheaterJones talked to her about this new direction in her life, or rather returning there; and we include a question to Aguilar. The Good Thief is the final show to debut at FIT, in the second slot in the performance block on Saturday night.
TheaterJones: Since you've been back in Dallas, in the last decade or so, you've been known as a critic. But you were a playwright/director/actor before that. Tell me about your theater background? I think I remember you said that your father was a playwright, too. Where did you grow up? Where did you study?
I’m a Dallas native, a Hockaday graduate, the only child of educated, progressive parents who moved here from Washington, D.C. after World War II. My mother was a regional award-winning playwright in the early 1950’s who went on to an executive career with Neiman Marcus. My father was an accountant, an excellent set builder, enamored of all sorts of theater and music. I grew up in a home reverberating with opera, symphony, musical theatre, jazz, blues and folk music…and non-stop, avid discussion of the arts.
At an early age I developed a critical eye and ear, studied and performed, read voraciously, wrote, painted, drew. I attended Rice University in Houston and earned a degree in theater arts from University of Texas at Dallas. I created and taught the first summer drama program for Garland Civic Theatre and performed at a range of companies in the DFW region, from Plano to spooky decommissioned church venues downtown, to Dallas Repertory Theatre in its old NorthPark location. I have found myself engaged at different times across my life’s span as an actor, a singer, a stage director and producer, a drama coach and program instructor, a marketing director and press agent, a radio personality, a fundraiser, box office manager, grant writer and event producer and most recently an arts journalist and advocate. I am one of a handful of arts journalists in the US who are both National Endowment for the Arts/ Annenberg Fellows in theater criticism and O’Neill Theatre Critics Institute Fellows.
I moved to California to pursue a career in the equestrian world, but I continued performing, directing and teaching theatre in the Sacramento/ Sierra Foothills region. I created and ran a unique, nationally recognized arts and equestrian camp for girls on my horse farm that had a major performance art component. At one point I created my own small theater company mounting edgy work and originals. I performed Shakespeare to Steel Magnolias to interactive murder mysteries on Sacramento Riverboat Cruises while directing Charter High School students in Tom Stoppard’s work. I wrote features and reviews for regional arts publications and was a major feature writer for a California Arts Council affiliate’s quarterly advocacy journal, focused on performing arts. I was well known as a regional radio personality promoting the arts and a prominent activist in the peace and social justice movement, coordinating public events and concerts in support of environmental and pro-peace causes and candidates. I returned to Dallas in 2005 after my mother passed on.
Tell me about your interest in becoming involved with Jason Leyva and L.I.P. Service.
I first saw Jason Leyva act a number of years back, performing in a One Thirty Productions show at the Bath House. I found him a compelling, fascinating actor, not easily forgotten. I am drawn to smaller companies that perform unconventional, riskier work that can take an audience out of its comfort zone. I saw L.I.P. Service’s production of [Tracy Letts’] Killer Joe in Fort Worth. It was a brave, bold production, worthy in its intention. Again, Jason Leyva’s performance was outstanding. He is clearly the “real deal.” I interviewed him at The Firehouse Theatre in Farmers Branch where he works as Technical Director and resonated with his goals and aspirations for the company and theater in general.
I saw the company’s [Stephen Adly-Guirgis’] The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and reviewed the L.I.P. Service-associated Theatre of North Texas’ production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and L.I.P. Service’s Streamers by David Rabe. Then came Sam Hunter’s The Whale, with a tour-de-force performance by Jason Leyva. None were “perfect” productions, but all were honest to the bone with amazing dramatic moments sustained and character arcs beautifully defined. Worthy art, off the beaten path. I could get excited about this sort of theater. I had been mulling over the idea of getting back into the arts producing side of things since I attended the O’Neill Critics Institute in June 2015. What was I waiting for? After The Whale, L.I.P. Service associate and advocate R. Andrew Aguilar invited me to attend a company collective meeting with him and dive in. I did, so here I am. Delighted to be part of this crazy, committed, diverse collective of devoted thespians, with Jason Leyva as our visionary leader, tech wizard, taskmaster, inspiration, second pair of eyes and kind shoulder to lean on. #itsallabouttheart
Why did you pick this play? Were you looking for a one-actor play, or something by Conor, or both? What about it spoke to you and to Andrew playing the role?
When I saw Andrew play Chief Bromden in Theatre of North Texas’ One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in June 2015, we had not spoken in three years. We had been close friends, but I had written him off. I first saw him in 2009, playing the title role in Sundown Collaborative Theatre’s Othello in Denton. For someone under the age of 25 who had not yet completed college, he showed a sophisticated grasp of the motivations of these complex characters, genuine facility with the Bard’s language and exuded the style and charisma to play the roles most effectively. We became friends.
When I shattered my ankle in 2011, Andrew was one of my best friends willing to pack up my wheelchair and take me to the theater. When his father passed away suddenly, devastating him, I was there for him and attended his father’s memorial service in full support. I kept a copy of the eloquent eulogy he wrote. (He doesn’t just act.) But he began to behave peculiarly. It was upsetting. Something felt very “wrong,” so I pushed him out of my life. I had not reviewed him as an actor again until I saw him in Cuckoo’s Nest last June. I wrote my review of Cuckoo’s Nest incommunicado but praised his performance, and left for the O’Neill Theatre Critics Institute in Connecticut, anticipating an intense cerebral experience. By Day 2 of the Institute, I found the intellectual rigor rewarding as expected. To my total amazement, I found myself going through a complete personal transformation of a significant spiritual and emotional nature.
Unexpectedly, I found I could forgive myself for the tragedies that ended my chosen life in California. I felt 10 years younger, overnight, like a huge weight just lifted off my shoulders. I experienced more joy than I had known in a decade, as if a gushing wellspring of love poured through me. That’s when I received a surprise Facebook message from Andrew, thanking me for the generous review of Cuckoo’s Nest and asking sincerely, openly, if possibly, maybe, could I please, please forgive him if he explained what had taken place three years ago? Who was I to not forgive him, given the Hell of a Decade of Recrimination I had just released myself from? I don’t remember who first suggested, “Let’s talk.” I do remember lengthy, energized conversations lasting into the night, with me seated on a tree stump in a Connecticut meadow, as that was the only place to get decent phone reception at The O’Neill. Andrew wanted to attempt to make amends for his past wrongs and asked me what he could do to make it right. It occurred to me after mulling it over, keeping him in suspense for a week or so, that it that it might be cool to direct him in a solo show. He immediately agreed, stating emphatically that he would accept no payment for performing it. Amazingly, just over one year later, we are here with The Good Thief.
We began to look for the “right” solo work. I don’t do things halfway, and neither does Andrew. Perfectionists aligned in blessed obsessiveness. It had to be the perfect storm of a show. I wanted to capitalize on his 6’3, 265 lb., decidedly masculine, powerhouse frame. I wanted a play that would showcase his splendid eloquence and diction; an accent would be loverly. I wanted a work that would allow him to explore his orchestral depth of emotions with precision and nuance. I wanted a show that would soar with his charisma and stage presence.
Brad McEntire suggested we should check out an older Conor McPherson script about some down-and-out Irish hit man in search of redemption. I found The Good Thief, McPherson’s 1994 solo work that won the distinguished Stewart Parker Trust Award, an annual Irish award for best Irish debut play, named in honor of playwright/poet Stewart Parker, who some consider the Van Morrison of Irish playwriting. Once I read the opening two pages (“Let’s begin with an incident…I refuse to constrain my personality. I believe that can lead to problems…”) I knew we were in for a wild ride: a suspenseful story, an Irish accent, a big rogue with manic homicidal tendencies and a soft heart, alluring imagery, unexpected soul and a genius arc of transformative redemption. It had everything I wanted to create a showcase amends performance with my talented friend in recovery. Together we approached Jason Leyva with the project, explained its amends genesis and described how the work fit into the vision espoused by L.I.P. Service. He embraced the whole project immediately and included the play in the 2016 L.I.P. Service Studio Series with the idea that we would apply for a Festival production as well. We open on July 16 at FIT 18.
How has this process of rehearsing been for you, to pick up old skills again and get into the flow of directing?
It’s been a challenging, inspirational, fascinating, sometimes frustrating, always amazing experience. I see the creation of a production as a collaborative process under a unified artistic vision. I think my written criticism shows my respect for actors and hope my directing style does, too. Andrew brings creativity and imagination to the process. He absorbs and integrates every aspect of attitude or nuance I have challenged him with. I call him my Seven Layer Dip actor. We have each other’s backs, 100 percent. Growl, compromise, breathe, listen, shift perspectives, grow, and again…
You're also going to be acting again, in an iconic role. Why the urge to act again, or is it specifically about a bucket list role?
Onstage in Bedford is producing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, directed by the dynamic Derek Whitener. I worked on scenes from this show in workshops in my 20’s, realized I was too young to play Martha, said “someday I will.” That “someday” is now, running Sept. 2-18. At the auditions, I realized my maturity and life experience allowed me to feel like I was channeling a Martha. I’m sure she has something profound to teach me. She’s savage, she’s wounded, she’s intelligent, she’s vulnerable, and she mixes up love with fear and hate. I’m not afraid to go there. I know intimately how all of it feels.
You and I both know there's no money in being a critic in Dallas, and you've had much experience on the other side, where it's often more about the passion and love than the money. What drives you to keep doing both of these passions—being a theater artist, and writing about theater arts.
I can’t imagine a life not immersed in performance art. I can’t imagine not writing about it, advocating for it. Performance art can change lives for the better. I want to see more people involved, as artists, as audience members. Acting again? We’ll see if there’s life beyond Martha. Directing again, oh my, yes. We already have major plans in the works for 2017.
What are your plans for the future? Do you still plan on writing for/running CriticalRant? How to you reconcile mixing the art and the critiquing of said art, as has become more common (again) not just in Dallas, but around the country. It's certainly not a new phenomenon, as we can look to critic/artists like G.B. Shaw, Kenneth Tynan, Robert Schumann and John Lahr.
I’m sure CriticalRant will continue in some form, as the power greater than me will show me. I write occasionally for American Theatre, and I’m writing grant applications for a number of wonderful theatre companies on a regular basis. When it comes to the DFW Theatre Critics Forum, I won’t vote on anything where L.I.P. Service is under consideration. I won’t review performances by major L.I.P. Service players in the region. Still, I can always write features about them. Grow, adapt, breathe, create, love…
Andrew, what has The Good Thief development process and creating his character been like?
When Alexandra first told me about the play I was immediately attracted to it. When the reality sank that we were actually going to do it, panic ensued. I had never done a solo show before and I began to get caught up in all kinds of self-doubt...wondering if I could acquire a consistent accent, memorize all the lines, and manage to hold the audience's attention for 50 minutes.
I had a sense of trepidation in the beginning stages...I wondered if I really knew what the play was about, or if I was just going to play a general attitude throughout the entire show; however, Alexandra had been very patient and encouraging, and together we approached it like we would any other play...and we began to see who the character really was.
This wasn't a play just about an Irish man who gets his rocks off on smoking, drinking, berating, and threatening people...this was the story of a man who yearns for genuine human connection and a place where he belongs, a man who searches everywhere else for something that will fill the proverbial void within him.
A man who longs to be better than he is.
With these discoveries I found the access point I needed, and little by little I felt myself slipping into his skin, and drawing comparisons between my life, both present and past, and his.
I have always been attracted to darker characters...I often wonder at it. If I really had to answer why, I would probably say that I long to find the good in everyone...or the desire to be good. I sympathize with the disenfranchised and the disillusioned, and it is always a joy to discover the human in the seemingly inhuman.
This process has been a joy and a terror...and it has granted me many unique moments for personal reflection and growth. With the coaching of a native Irishman, Billy Abraham from Perkins School of Theology, I found the path into the character’s accent and style of speech.
I am thankful to Alexandra for her perseverance, fortitude and willingness in fostering my idiosyncratic mode of operation and to Jason for his support, guidance and utilization of multi-syllabic words that confound, perplex and inspire.
» See more info about the 2016 Festival of Independent Theatres in our special section here, where you can also learn how to download our FIT app. In that app, you'll see a section for the playbills for each company, which includes cast, creative and director's notes.
See more info about the 2016 Festival of Independent Theatres here.
The Good Thief is performed in the following blocks:
- 8pm Saturday, July 16
- 2pm Sunday, July 17
- 8pm Friday, July 22
- 2pm Saturday, July 23
- 5pm Sunday, July 24
- 8pm Thursday, July 28