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Jo Bonney, Direct

Cusi Cram speaks with Jo Bonney about directing Bogosian and giving new work direction. logo
Jo Bonney
Jo Bonney is cool. Really cool. She even seems too cool to be an Obie award-winning director. She looks like she should be in a band, as if she is a distant, perhaps less hard-living, cousin to Chrissy Hynde of The Pretenders. She has a mysterious accent that lives somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, but is also peppered with a definitive New Yorkese.

Bonney has already been at the helm of two productions this season, a revival of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger at the Classic Stage Company and Anna Deavere Smith's House Arrest at The Public. Her third effort is Eric Bogosian's upcoming one-man show, Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, at the Jane Street Theater. But Bonney is more than familiar with Bogosian's fast paced, scathing, one-man rants; she has already done three shows with him, and is also his wife of 18 years.

As per usual, Bogosian's latest effort will look at the broad landscape of American culture, through his very unique lens. Pop culture, the media, our fears and desires will all be examined through a variety of characters and the delectably angry "character" of Bogosian himself. For the uninitiated to his work, there is simply nothing quite like it. In some ways, Bogosian is the creator of the modern rant. His energy and intelligence are unparalleled in the world of solo performance. And he has picked up several Obies for his shows, including, Pounding Nails into the Floor With My Forehead; Sex, Drugs, & Rock and Roll; and Drinking in America.

"This show is a little different from the others," says Bonney. "It is more stream of consciousness. The characters are more free flowing, more energetic, and there are lots of opportunities for improvisation." The audience will get to "enter into Eric's head and sort of see how he thinks," adds Bonney with a smile. Her smile is a little wicked, a little knowing, and is perhaps the best advertisement for Bogosian's show yet.

The Bonney/Bogosian collaboration was something that "evolved naturally" according to Bonney. She came to New York over twenty years ago by way of Australia and England and what she mysteriously describes as "ten years of traveling". Bonney did not set out to become a theater director. Her first years in New York were taken up with experimental film work, which Bonney sums up as part of the whole punk era. After she met and later married Bogosian, she began consulting Bogosian on his plays (he was initially a playwright). When Bogosian began writing solo work, Bonney continued to offer advice, and in her words, "One thing lead to another, and it just seemed right that I should direct his work."

Several shows, a myriad of awards, two children, and many years later, the two have mastered a working relationship where they somehow manage to keep their "day jobs" from interfering in their family life. The difficulties she may have with Bogosian are the same difficulties any director might have with the precarious job of directing a solo performer. Generally, one of the most important and often sensitive jobs a director has is to communicate between the playwright and the actors. When the actor and playwright are one in the same, it can prove extremely challenging "I never quite know who I'm talking to on any given day in rehearsal," says Bonney. "Eric the playwright or Eric the actor. It depends on who is in denial."

Bonney is perhaps best known for directing solo performance. In addition to Bogosian's work, she has directed two critically acclaimed shows for Danny Hoch, and just finished up Anna Deveare Smith's latest. Bonney is particularly, although not exclusively, drawn to this form because she is "interested in the development of ideas and in creating stories, which you do very intensely with solo work." In discussing the development of new work, Bonney's face lights up. She is obviously a director who likes working with living, breathing writers. In an earlier foray this season where she tackled a modern classic, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, she at times felt frustrated that she couldn't turn to the playwright and ask, "What do you mean here, exactly?"

Bonney is asking that very question to several other writers at the moment. She is continuing to develop with several young writers a poetry piece called Universes that incorporates spoken word poetry, rap, rhythm, and music (which had a brief run at P.S. 122 in the fall). She is also directing an upcoming workshop of a new play by José Rivera in Minneapolis called References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, which she first worked on in the Public Theater's New Work Now! festival.

Amidst all these projects, and with tech for Wake Up and Smell the Coffee a few days away, Bonney seems remarkably calm. Her TriBeCa office is tidy and peaceful, with walls covered with pictures of smiling Buddhas. When asked what she likes most about developing new work, she looks very much like one of the icons surrounding her. "When I work with a writer on a new piece, I can influence its development. There's always a part of me in it, no matter who goes on to perform or direct it in the future," she explains. "The play belongs, of course, to the playwright, but I'm also a part of it forever."


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