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Flea-Bitten

Director Jim Simpson on his work with the Bat Theater Company and the troupe's exciting summer season.

By New York City

Jim Simpson
Jim Simpson
"We're doing a pretty ambitious thing," says the Bat Theater Company's artistic director, Jim Simpson. He's in the midst of planning an exciting summer season at the Flea, the company's Tribeca-based home. The season is already under way, in fact, with revival productions of Mac Wellman's Cleveland, as well as the world premiere of Alice Tuan's Ajax (all are currently playing at the Flea). And Simpson has more plays and projects in the works: "I'm trying to develop a lot of short pieces for a potential late night repertory as part of our acting company," he says.

That acting company, known as The Bats, is made up entirely of young actors. Simpson chooses plays that he thinks can be done well by a young troupe. "You're not going to be seeing me do any Chekhov," he states. "Stretching is great, but I'm trying to deal with the real world."

Simpson began his theatrical career as a child actor in Honolulu; he even guest starred on episodes of Hawaii 5-0. He moved to the mainland to attend college, and holds degrees from Boston University and the Yale School of Drama. The artist also made a pilgrimage to Poland in 1976 to study with the highly influential experimental director Jerzy Grotowski. "It was an important part of my development as both an actor/performer and as a person in the theater," he says. "But, finally it revealed itself to be very specific to a particular culture. It was very interesting but, for me, not the end all."

Over the last several years, Simpson has carved his own niche. He's directed a number of shows at the Flea, demonstrating an innovative sensibility through bold stylistic choices. His credits include the Obie Award-winning production of Benten Kozo, Karen Finley's Return of the Chocolate Smeared Woman, Bertolt Brecht's Baal, and last season's sleeper hit, The Light Outside. Of the latter, Simpson says, "It's a terrific play, and it was never going to get done at any other theater because of its subject matter [dealing with incest and dysfunctional families] and how raw it is. Subscribers would raise an outcry. So, I felt I had to do it as a producer and as a director."

Productions like this have made the Flea one of the most exciting theatrical venues in New York City. Finley's piece, for example, was chosen to coincide with the Supreme Court hearing regarding standards of decency in awarding NEA grants; the performance artist was the lead plaintiff in a case against the NEA for denying grants to herself and three other artists (Tim Miller, Holly Hughes, and John Fleck) due to the sexual nature of their work. On the night that the verdict came down against her, Finley staged a mini press conference as part of the show, decrying the state of arts funding and censorship.

Outside of theater circles, Simpson is probably best known for being the husband of film star Sigourney Weaver. Although he has directed his wife, he maintains that their relationship is successful because it is not tied to their professional careers. "We like to go home and complain about who we're working with to each other," he says. "When we're working with each other, we're not allowed that option, and we don't get to decompress."

Simpson's current directing project is Ajax, a new play by L.A.-based playwright Alice Tuan. "It's quite frankly sexual, extremely explicit, and very contemporary," according to Simpson. "A lot of it is right on the edge of truly appalling. The play is about the pornography of behavior and sexual activity. Alice told me she was interested in women characters in porno movies. 'The actors?' I asked. 'No, the characters,' she said. That's sort of the starting point. It's been very challenging to make that happen onstage."

Ajax is being performed, along with the two Mac Wellman revivals, through the end of May. In fact, it's possible to see all three pieces in one night. "It's a little hallucinatory to get them all in one sitting," says Simpson. "Some people do, but they look a little other-worldly by the end of it."

Simpson hopes for these plays and one other to become part of the rotating repertory of late night shows he's planning for the summer. "I'm going to really push the envelope on what it is to be in a rep company," says Simpson. "Some people will be doing six different plays a week. The actors in the company this year are extremely lucky, because it's a very unusual opportunity."

In addition to the rotating roster of short plays, the Bat Theatre Company is mounting two 19th century American works: Billy the Kid, by Walter Woods and No Mother to Guide Her, by Lillian Mortimer. "They're really wild," says Simpson. "They're violent, funny, and blatantly theatrical in an American style. Everyone says [these early American works] aren't great literature but, even if they're not, they just might make for good theater."


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