In conversation with Nick Bowling and Vanessa Stalling

Right before the start of performances for The Lehman Trilogy, co-directors Nick Bowling (NB) and Vanessa Stalling (VS) sat down with dramaturgs Carol Ann Tan (CAT) and DeRon S. Williams (DSW) to unpack the play, this all-new Chicago production, and how they’ve been working as co-directors. 

This interview has been edited for length.

Carol Ann Tan (CAT): The Lehman Trilogy tells the story of the rise and fall of Lehman Brothers, an American global financial services firm. What specifically drew you to the story?

Nick Bowling (NB): I saw the original production on a huge screen at Northwestern University, through the National Theatre Live, so the actors were even larger than life than they would be on stage. It was an incredible film experience, but beyond that, I’m always excited by stories and playwrights that can make history exciting, and can also find intelligent ways to condense hundreds of years of history into a short amount of time and an exciting event.

Stefano Massini, who is this story’s original writer and creator—Ben Power adapted it for the British, English-speaking audience—reminded me a little bit of how Lin Manuel Miranda wrote for Hamilton, where I thought, wow, he’s giving us so much history in three hours. Similarly, this play covers 160 years of a family and does it in such a concise and beautiful way.

The story is about the financial rise and fall of Lehman Brothers, and yet it’s poetic, digestible, and riveting—and that, to me, was astonishing. The most exciting thing to me was seeing that history told in such a way that it didn’t feel like a lesson. It felt like a ride: a wonderful, graceful, poetic ride. That’s unexpected for a play about people who made that much money.

Vanessa Stalling (VS): Similarly, for me, it was epic. It was grand. That initially drew me to it, wanting to be a part of and experience theatre on a grand scale. Also, it was written specifically for theatre and is this amazing celebration of theatricality. Nick and I are super excited about how we leverage theatrical elements and engage audience imagination, because that’s what the theatre is about, what this piece wants, and what drew us to it.
Then, of course, to experience the play’s content in this moment of grappling with who we are in this country. What shaped us? Why? What informs our behavior? What informs our culture? What informs value, and what’s important? It’s a powerful kind of durational experience. It’s a gathered audience, sitting together for a durational experience, wondering what has shaped us.

NB: I like that you called it an experience, Vanessa. It has that feeling of an event. It’s more than a play. It may be about the size and scope, but also, there’s something about the style. It is an experience.

DeRon S. Williams (DSW): Picking up on the notion of the American dream and other ideas within the play, such as African Americans, cotton, the development of the financial system, and immigration, what advice do you have for your actors? How do you work with these actors to ensure a greater understanding of these concepts as they create their characters?

VS: It’s interesting, because I think the play tells a story of history masquerading, as if that history being portrayed is all factual. I think part of what the play is asking is to look at the Lehman brothers as a metaphor for everything that has made the American financial system. We go on this journey of American capitalism with these brothers, looking at the cotton market, profits from slave labor, the formation of the bank to reform the country after the Civil War, connecting the country through railroads, and the making of the Panama Canal, as if these brothers themselves made all of that. What’s at the heart of it is representative, a metaphor for America.

But an actor can’t act out a metaphor. An actor can’t be a metaphor. An actor must be flesh and blood and heart and instinct and be able to be invested in what they are trying to do. Sometimes, that’s at an intellectual level, and sometimes at a very gut, instinctual level.

Although it will be important to understand at an intellectual level what the play is doing. Can we all as a team have the proper context for what the play is doing, what it is not doing, and what is missing? This play was built from an outside perspective. From an American perspective, some of the gaps in history would be unsatisfying. The play doesn’t grapple and deal with slavery as part of the backbone of our financial institution, but the audience is asked to connect those dots. How are we talking about our history, but then also, what does the play need to activate that emotional journey as well as create that moment of wondering about our history and what has shaped us? The beautiful thing about being at TimeLine is that we can provide some dramaturgical context for an audience and our actors going into it.

I’m thinking about this play at a more micro level as, wow, is it made for Chicago theatre? Absolutely. Everything is remarkable about Chicago theatre in terms of virtuosity and chops and activating audience imagination by an actor being able to take on several roles, by objects being able to become many things in an audience’s imagination. It’s like Chicago’s just made for that. That’s kind of exciting, too, to think about [the play] from a Chicago entry point. 

–Vanessa Stalling

NB: Vanessa, I thought you wrapped it up beautifully. I’ll add: At one point, I thought Massini—this Italian, kind of poetic, romantic writer—didn’t fully grasp how America was built on the backs of those who were enslaved and how our American dream and capitalism came to be where it did in 2008. But I’m wondering more now if what he’s done is given us these posts that tell us—that outline this story and say to an American audience—you have a responsibility to figure this out. You don’t just get to sit back while we take care of every little detail for you. You need to understand that when they say cotton and talk about the South in this play, they are talking about slavery.

One way to go about it is to push that information at us; the other way is to set it there and make us come to it and figure our way through it. As Vanessa said, he’s making this bigger metaphor and wants us to understand that, but he’s not handing that metaphor to us. He’s setting it up for us and letting us figure that out.

VS: Yeah. It’s almost like taking this thing that’s so abstract, like American Capitalism with a capital A.C., and putting it into the scope and scale of a human being, so that the audience has an entry point to understand “what’s my relationship to this?,” versus something so abstract that you can distance yourself from it.

NB: It should get an audience continuing their experience outside of the theatre because there are so many little openings that lead to pathways and wormholes that are all exciting, and yet, there’s also this very clearly laid out linear story within this play. Both of those things are true. We always hope at TimeLine that people will go home and figure out what else is behind the play.

CAT: You mentioned that the play is written from a non-American perspective. Given the intersection of a non-American perspective on an American issue, is there anything surprising or unexpected about the American identity or the idea of being American?

NB: Maybe the most surprising thing, for me at least, was that—oh, we’re doing an American production of this play, and it needs to be done differently. There’s a responsibility to it that differs from that of the British production.

What surprised me was that they can create this play and characters separate from themselves, but it requires us as Americans to own what they’re talking about. I’ve never felt quite so much ownership over a play in a very long time than I have over this one. Maybe because of that juxtaposition, because that first production was a European production, and we’re doing one of the very first American versions. That responsibility, that way of trying to reconcile capitalism and look at these brothers—even though they are immigrants, they and then their children and so forth are very quickly Americans. The play is about what it means to become an American.

VS: Absolutely, and I echo everything that Nick just said. It’s one thing on a technical level, too, how we both have a point of view on the production from the inside as an American doing this play responsibly, while hopefully maintaining something objective about an outside eye telling you what they see. We’re trying to maintain that type of distance for our audience as well so that they can wonder about themselves by looking at themselves. That’s maybe more complicated, and I don’t even know if we will be able to point to it when we see it. It’s just something to lift up in the process of making the play.

I’m thinking about this play at a more micro level as, wow, is it made for Chicago theatre? Absolutely. Everything is remarkable about Chicago theatre in terms of virtuosity and chops and activating audience imagination by an actor being able to take on several roles, by objects being able to become many things in an audience’s imagination. It’s like Chicago’s just made for that. That’s kind of exciting, too, to think about it from a Chicago entry point.

DSW: Thinking about the two of you as individual artists and directors, it’s not often that we see co-directed productions because we know, as directors, we have our own vision, we have our own thoughts about a particular play. But you decided to collaborate. How has that experience been? Why did you choose to collaborate on this project?

NB: I called Vanessa about six months ago. Was that how long ago it was, Vanessa? I was set to direct this play, and I was freaking out because it’s big, and there’s a very little roadmap with this play. The play has a handful of short stage directions. It’s very poetic, and it’s unclear what the playwright’s intent was. I called her to say I was nervous about directing this play. Then I also said, I’m starting to feel more responsibility as a director in a world that’s questioning more and more of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and actors are questioning those things too; many people are looking to a director in a production. That’s a lot of pressure and responsibility on that director to be the leader and the one making decisions. I think I was looking for help.

VS: At the same time Nick had that moment, I was having a similar moment of, boy, I feel isolated as a director, especially in this thinking of directors as the top of some pyramid. I don’t think I jive with that, especially with my background, coming from Redmoon Theatre, where we were always co-directing, or else there was always a solid group of artists working together. I missed that. Something about going through the pandemic made me yearn for that. When Nick said, “Hey, I’m not quite sure,” I asked, “Would you like to direct it together?”

NB: It had not actually occurred to me. What had occurred to me was that maybe Vanessa needed to direct this thing. But then when she said that, I was like, wow, the fog lifted. I thought that was exciting. We never planned on it. As we’ve been doing it, we’ve been learning. I’ve worked with choreographers and music directors who are part of the team in that way, and obviously, I’ve thought that way a lot with them, but to co-direct is a very new thing. I often told Vanessa that I feel like we’re in an arranged marriage because we’re learning about each other as we go forward.

We just made this instinctive decision to work together. For me, breaking that idea that the director is at the top of the pyramid is extremely exciting and scary because when there is that format, you at least know what your job is. You know you must make that final decision. You still collaborate. You work with everybody, but theoretically, the buck comes down to you making that decision. There are great things about that. It’s a relief in some ways for everybody because they know that one person needs to make that decision.

But now, having two of us, we’re both going to be making that decision, and that’s a whole new way of working. It has its advantages. We lean on each other. We ask each other. We collaborate and compromise and talk about things. I’m sure it’ll have its disadvantages, too!

We want to have this conversation with the actors when we begin rehearsals because we don’t know exactly how that will always happen. Still, and most importantly, we have learned how to respect each other, give and take with each other, trust each other, and let one person take the lead and back off. That’s strange sometimes as a director, but I’m really liking it.

VS: Yeah. It’s been a lot of fun. I always feel like when one of us doesn’t know, the other one’s like, oh, what about . . . We can inspire one another, feed off each other, and brainstorm with each other, which has been fun. Also, Nick is a geek like I am about the pre-production process, so that is a place where we have met and have been able to practice a little bit just on paper and in conversation what it might be to make this thing reality. That’s been lovely to do our geek-out pre-production, combing through the play bit by bit.

NB: A lot of choices and decisions, and I’m excited to be making them with Vanessa.

VS: Likewise.

NB: Thank you.

CAT: As directors, you don’t necessarily want to dictate what the audience will experience, but we want to hear how you’re curating this theatrical experience. What are you centering in the audience experience of this event?

NB: I hope the audience gets caught up in the story of the Lehmans, and in some ways, the romantic story of these immigrants who came to America, who fell in love, who had fun and crazy love stories and arguments and family complications and passed this whole thing onto another generation and another generation, and how it just grew and grew and grew, which is the typical kind of story that I think we Americans love. It’s a great ride, then suddenly, the thing gets pulled out from under you, and you’re like, wait. I have to remember what this company became.

VS: I think that’s well said. I, too, hesitate to tell the audience in advance about my hopes and dreams for their experience of the play because that will layer onto their experience. I want audiences to be able to come to a theater so that they can have moments of wondering about themselves, have moments of problem-solving, and experience moments of astonishment.

The Lehman Trilogy runs at Broadway In Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse from September 19 through November 26, 2023. 

Leave a Reply