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Broadway Bound Birdy

or the third year in a row, Theater Previews, the professional arm of Duke's drama program, is bringing a Broadway-bound drama to campus. After Kudzu in 1998 and Eleanor last year, it is Birdy-a play by Naomi Wallace based on the novel by William Wharton-which is being produced for a 10-day run by a group of professionals assisted by interning Duke students.

Birdy tells the story of the friendship between two men, the eponymous title character (played by Wallace Acton) and his friend Al (Grant Show). Birdy, who has always been obsessed with things flying, is committed to a mental institution during World War II, and Al joins him there in a last-ditch effort to save him. The play goes back and forth in time between the hospital and the men's boyhood friendship, requiring the casting of different actors to play Al and Birdy as young men (Michael Pitt as Birdy and Bryant Richards as Al) and as children. The other two characters in the six-actor all-male play are Dr. Weiss, Birdy's psychiatrist, and Rinaldi, his nurse.

While Theater Previews' previous two productions headed to Washington, D.C. for four-month runs, Birdy is destined for the Big Apple. Opening a play in Durham, N.C. may seem a bit unusual, but Zannie Voss, managing director of Theater Previews, explains that Duke offers an atmosphere fostering research and development. The text of the play is still developing: Some changes to the 1997 script were made after a June 1999 reading in New York, but others are being added during production. Today, Wallace herself, a recipient of a 1999 MacArhtur Fellowship (an important distinction), is arriving in Durham to oversee these alterations.

Furthermore, Voss says, the association with the Duke name gives the show national attention, while a good production will in turn reflect positively on the University. For the professionals involved with Birdy, the advantage of starting at Duke is that mounting a production in North Carolina is significantly cheaper than in New York.

Kevin Knight, who is directing Birdy, finds important inspiration at Duke. From his current residence, he can hear a military bugler play Taps at sundown, as well as a train passing by-two important features in the play. Knight, who is British, designed the set for the original productions of Birdy in London and Philadelphia (where the action is set). While working on the play's various incarnations during the last four years, he has become intimate with the drama, yet he believes that "being here puts a distance between me and the play."

With new performers like Grant Show (Melrose Place) and Michael Pitt (Dawson's Creek), he adds, "something that's familiar suddenly becomes different." These actors were chosen in a casting in New York, where they gave outstanding performances. Grant Show (see interview), for example, "blew us away with his audition," Voss says.

Knight, who was trained in London and directed a company of his own there for several years, praises the Duke facilities: Here, he enjoys "the luxury of having enormous amounts of space." For Knight, designing and directing are very different activities. While he calls himself a "design whore"-he'll take on any project; that's what pays the bills-in order to accept a directing call, he needs to be "interested in the central debate of the play." He needs to feel he is making a specific contribution to the interpretation of that play.

However, targeting a play for a New York opening brings compromises. In order to accommodate a Broadway schedule, half of Birdy's run (the show opens with previews on Tuesday) will be during the University's spring break. While Voss is not too worried about that-less than a third of the audience comes from all of Durham County, including Duke-Theater Previews is trying to accomodate students by offering them preferential seats in rush seating.

The students involved in the production of Birdy-some of them since last fall-are thrilled by the experience. Carmen Abrazado, who worked with both previous Theater Previews shows, is now an assistant production manager. For her, being a part of Birdy is an "opportunity to experience theater the way it is in 'the real world." Headed for a career as a freelance theater artist, she believes that "it is of the utmost importance for those who intend to do this stuff for a living to understand what it's like in a non-academic working environment."

Melanie Moyer, a senior who is working as an assistant company manager-unpaid, like all 13 student interns-agrees. She describes her work as "an excellent opportunity for [Duke] drama students." Amanda Smith, a junior, is considering a career on the business side of the theater industry. In contrast to student productions, Smith says, everyone involved with Birdy "is dedicated... and most of them love what they are doing so much that they don't really care about the money." In addition to her presence as producing intern at Duke, Smith is working with Spring Siskin, "the commercial producer who is handling the Broadway end of the show."

Knight considers his own directing assistants-Eamonn Farrell and Chris Schuessler-particular assets. While he is "haunted by the play" he has worked on for so long, he says Farrell and Schuessler provide "a new perspective from the outside." He calls them "both very, very talented."

With all this enthusiasm, it seems that Birdy really can't be anything but a hit. Voss says that while the specific location on Broadway is not yet known, there will be a theater in New York waiting for the play. Knight agrees-he believes that the outlook for this production on Broadway is "sunny."

For more information on performance times, see calendar, p. 11.


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