Dan Jemmett and Billy the Kid | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Dan Jemmett and Billy the Kid

A British theater maverick (who lives in Paris) tackles a Wild West legend ... as imagined by a Canadian poet

Just shoot me: Dan Jemmett (left) directs Jay in a death scene.
Just shoot me: Dan Jemmett (left) directs Jay in a death scene.
The actors rehearsing The Collected Works of Billy the Kid don't have a script ... and it wouldn't help them if they did. Because if director Dan Jemmett were using one, it would include stage directions like "Just try anything for now. Just to stimulate our imaginations and pretend what it could be."

Jemmett has, in fact, given that very direction to actor Andrew Hachey, who is trying to mime a straightjacket escape, representing Billy the Kid's final prison break.

Gathered in the North Side's recently shuttered Garden Theater, Jemmett and his cast of five are creating a new stage version of Michael Ondaatje's experimental and critically lauded 1970 book of poems about the legendary outlaw -- evoking his short life, violent death, and elusive myth. With about two weeks left before the June 14 opening night of the Quantum Theatre production, Jemmett and his cast have spent much of their time making the show up -- "devising" it, as Jemmett says -- largely through improvisation.

But that, says Jemmett, is the only way to adapt Billy the Kid. "You try to put yourself in there, which is what [Ondaatje] did," he says. "In that sense it must be about us, as well."

Jemmett, 40, was born in London, lives in Paris and has presented his work internationally. He's earned a reputation for shunning conventional narrative in productions like Dog Face -- the striking, bloody and country-music-scored adaptation of a 17th-century revenge tragedy he staged for Quantum in 2005. Billy the Kid is a similarly radical mix of the realistic, the melodramatic and the aggressively theatrical.

For instance, key roles (Billy himself, and Sheriff Pat Garrett, who gunned him down) will be played by multiple cast members -- and in one case by a ventriloquist's dummy. There's a giddy dance number, plenty of violence, and Jemmett's signature mix of vintage pop music (Booker T & the MGs, for example). There are poetic monologues and scene changes where characters just hang out on stage -- a broad stretch of battered wooden floorboards between the front row of the old porn theater's seats and its big movie screen.

The scene being devised now, like the rest of the show, is a work in progress. Hachey and fellow cast members John Fitzgerald Jay, Miki Johnson, Rick Kemp and Kristin Slaysman sit at a table, pretending to have breakfast in a New Mexico frontier ranch house, circa 1880. Hachey, playing Billy, looks distractedly away. He rises from his chair, walks across the stage, plucks a vinyl record from a pile scattered on the floor and slaps it on a turntable. Then he disappears behind the ratty red velvet curtain that's clipped to a wooden frame at center stage. As the PA blasts The Beach Boys' driving cover of "And Then I Kissed Her," Hachey bursts through the curtain, hugging himself as though he's trussed in a straightjacket, and begins to mime an escape.

Though Hachey has practiced the scene before, Jemmett has him try again, this time to a dreamy Drifters tune. After another take, to an instrumental of Otis Redding's high-spirited "Shake," Jemmett -- who's been seated, bobbing lightly to the music -- walks onstage, hugs himself straightjacket-style, and suggests that Hachey be less real. "Like a rock 'n' roll dance," he says, while demonstrating big, convulsive movements on the downbeat.

"It's fake," he tells Hachey. "Totally fake."

Hachey subsequently does the bit to Memphis Slim's rollicking piano number "Barrelhouse Boogie," Willie Nelson's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," with its regretful fiddle, and then utter silence. Jemmett, meanwhile, directs the rest of the cast to first watch Hachey -- which they do impassively, as though they're a nightclub audience -- and then, on another take, to simply ignore him and keep eating.

But nothing's resolved and shortly, they leave this scene to work on another. In fact, the straightjacket bit is eventually dropped from the show altogether -- another instance of Jemmett's willingness to experiment in the face of deadlines.

"With a script, you'd be seeking to represent something," says Jemmett. "It would be a way of having tamed the thing in advance. And I think it shouldn't be tamed. We should take the unruly nature of the thing onstage with us."

Billy the Kid gets its name in the Garden's lights.
Billy the Kid gets its name in the Garden's lights.

Jemmett has longish dark hair, perpetually tousled and receding. Behind his glasses, his hazel eyes are set in a round, pleasant face, eyebrows characteristically gathered in a quizzical, slightly anxious look.

Born in London, Jemmett was the son of stage actors who stopped acting to raise a family. His father, Anthony Jemmett, loved puppetry but died when his son was 21. Jemmett attributes his fascination with traditional theatrical forms -- including a stint as a street performer of Punch-and-Judy shows -- to a desire to somehow memorialize his father.

"I grew up with a nostalgia for a theater I never knew," says Jemmett.

Those older forms blended with the experimental theater Jemmett discovered while studying at Goldsmiths College, in the '80s. Inspired by American opera and theater visionary Robert Wilson, Jemmett founded Primitive Science, a company that mounted stage versions of works by such nonplaywrights as Franz Kafka. Billy the Kid cast member John Fitzgerald Jay, a longtime collaborator of Jennett's, remembers starring in an adaptation of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, a book proposing a model prison. "A lot of people walked out on the Bentham piece," says Jay, 44, amused by the recollection. "They filed out."

Jemmett's career seems to have hit its stride with his acclaimed 1998 London production of Ubu Kunst, Luis Alberto Soto's adaption of Ubu, Alfred Jarry's proto-absurdist classic. Jemmett staged the play's battle scenes by having the stripped-down cast of three smash crockery, with saucers representing the grunts and bigger pieces denoting higher ranks. "The big tureen, the general -- kraaggh!" recalls Jay.

In 1999, Jemmett moved to Paris with his partner, stage director Irina Brook -- they live there with their two children -- and discovered a new freedom. Because he was British, the French let him mess with the classics, as in, "Well, you can do what you like with Shakespeare, because you must know." His Presque Hamlet, staged in Lausanne and Paris, reimagined the play as a piece about an actor seeking his next role. Shake, an adaptation of Twelfth Night, filled its 17 roles with five actors and a ventriloquist's dummy; the stage included beach huts for costume changes. The show helped convince French critics to name Jemmett Best New Talent for 2001-02.

Then came Dog Face, based on The Changeling, a 400-year-old revenge tragedy by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. Recast by Jemmett as a play within a play for a troupe of itinerant actors, it debuted in France, where one critic enthused that the production "brilliantly confuses the audience -- are bad actors acting well, or good actors acting badly?"

After seeing Dog Face in France, Quantum's Karla Boos invited Jemmett to restage it here. The Pittsburgh version, which opened in March 2005, was mounted in Lawrenceville's cavernous old Hepppenstall Plant, and included cannibalism (faked), nudity (real) and an on-stage jukebox dealing Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash. The production went on to play Madrid's prestigious Festival de Otoño.

More recent successes for Jemmett have included The Little Match Girl, an internationally staged musical adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fable with acclaimed neo-cabaret trio The Tiger Lillies. Jemmett's also been invited to direct at the legendary Comédie-Française. The Festival de Otoño, meanwhile, liked his work enough to invite Billy there this fall -- even before rehearsals began.

Of course, you can't please everyone. In 2003, invited to stage a holiday production of Cinderella at London's Lyric Hammersmith, Jemmett set the action in a run-down fairground. Critics couldn't see the carousel for the shooting gallery. Sam Marlowe, in The Times (of London) called the script "witless and leaden." Writing for The Independent, Rhoda Koenig called it "a show that is so much worse than dreadful that it smothered any incipient stirrings of rage and indignation." She was also offended by "the hilarious comedy of an old man trying, and failing, to do a handstand and a knock-knock joke about tuberculosis."

Asked about Cinderella now, Jemmett laughs. As with Billy, he "devised" Cinderella with the cast, in about a month. But he says he set himself up by trying to rework a classic at a "middle-class theater" accustomed to family-friendly Yuletide pantomimes. "It was a suicide mission, really."

Hardly an on-the-lam Billy the Kid having a shootout with Pat Garrett. But in theater terms, perhaps, it was close enough.

Tall tale: Miki Johnson (left) adds a few feet to play Pat Garrett opposite Kristin Slaysman.
Tall tale: Miki Johnson (left) adds a few feet to play Pat Garrett opposite Kristin Slaysman.

When Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid was published, he was 26. It was the third book of poetry for the esteemed author of The English Patient. Ondaatje, who grew up in Sri Lanka and London, then moved to Canada at age 19, says he wrote Billy the Kid because the dozens of books and movies about Billy had made him familiar and safe. "I just thought, 'I've got to go back to the basics. He's got to be sort of scary as well as charming.'"

In myth, Billy has been both: a cruel killer and escaped convict in the novels and newspapers of the 19th century, an idealized folk hero in the 20th. On film he's been portrayed by Audie Murphy, Roy Rogers, Buster Crabbe, Robert Taylor, Paul Newman and Marlon Brando. Eugene Loring immortalized him in a ballet. On the soundtrack of Sam Peckinpah's 1973 film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Bob Dylan (who co-stars as an accomplice of The Kid's) sings, "Billy, they don't like ya to be so free."

Myth accumulates, however, in the void of knowledge surrounding the New Mexico horse thief who died at 21. Billy the Kid appears to written history only at age 13, as Henry McCarty; researchers remain unsure even where he was born. When his mother remarried, he became Henry Antrim, later renaming himself William Bonney. He wasn't known as "Billy the Kid" till just months before taking two fatal shots, in July 1881, from the Colt .44 of Lincoln County Sheriff Patrick F. Garrett.

Ondaatje's book is no cowboy movie. With language like

The beautiful machines pivoting on themselves

Sealing and fusing to others

And men throwing levers like coins at them

And there is there the same stress as with stars

The one altered move that will make them maniac

it is hallucinatory, abruptly violent -- more Luis Buñuel than John Ford. It conflates historical fact with pure fiction, offering Billy, Garrett and other personae as both larger than life and intimate as breath. It's a collage-like work that at once expresses and peels back the layers of Billy's myth.

It also gives an adapter many options. Maybe too many. "It's a small book, but it's vast," says Jemmett.

Some literary critics, noting Billy's keen eye and sensitive nature, consider the book a portrait of the outlaw as artist. Others interpret it as more a reflection of Ondaatje himself. "[O]ne is always conscious of Ondaatje speaking through the mask of ... the other characters in the book," wrote Andreas Schroeder in 1972.

"[T]he book is for me a kind of funneling of various people's ideas and emotions," Ondaatje once said, in discussing Billy during an interview. "So I think in that sense that the book was almost written by a community, and this is very important to me."

Jemmett -- who has said he enjoys making his theatrical projects as challenging as possible -- says one thing that drew him to the book was its difficulty. "I often find that my favorite books are ones I can't read," Jemmett says. For years he carried around Ezra Pound's Cantos. "I'd go into it randomly, not understanding a fucking thing, except be hit by one phrase."

The story of Jemmett's Billy the Kid begins, as so many stories concerning the Wild West do, in a coffeehouse in Toronto. That's where John Fitzgerald Jay, who'd known Jemmett since their early '80s days as young actors in London, met Ondaatje, his neighbor in Toronto.

Jay, a native Nova Scotian, had a lifelong obsession with Ondaatje's work; Ondaatje, as it happened, had seen Jemmett's Shake in 2001. "I thought it was one of the most original things I'd ever seen," says Ondaatje, reached by phone in Boston recently, during a book tour.

Jay put the two men in touch; eventually they talked about an adaptation of Billy the Kid.

Ondaatje wrote his own, relatively conventional, stage adaptation of Billy, which premiered in 1974. But while it remains popular in Canada and the U.S., Ondaatje is unsatisfied. "It wasn't quite dramatic enough," he says. "The book is still the version that seems to be closest in spirit to Billy the Kid."

A true adaptation "needs to be very wild and dangerous and funny and heartbreaking -- just a few things," Ondaatje quips.

Jemmett agrees. The book is a fragmentary collection of thoughts, sensations, anecdotes and fictional newspaper interviews, narrated by personae we often can't identify, let alone trust. "The play seeks to make everything OK," Jemmett says of Ondaatje's adaptation, "and the book is not OK."

Ondaatje is taking no role in Jemmett's work, though he says he and Jemmett "met and talked a lot about it how it could be done, and he and I see eye to eye on it."

He'll see it when he visits Pittsburgh, during the second week of the play's run. "It's going to be a complete surprise to me."

And perhaps to Jemmett as well. He's grateful for the freedom of working without a set script, but "[T]here's a kind of pressure with that as well," he confessed just a month before the show opened.

"I try not to think about it."

Long the target of neighborhood activists and redevelopment officials, the Garden Theatre was for some time the lone functioning building on a boarded-up block of North Avenue. Though the theater stopped showing skin flicks in April, posters out front still advertise "4 Big Hits," and its old-fashioned marquee bulges toward leafy West Park. The place even retains touches of an earlier elegance, including the terra cotta façade and the front portico, with its molded plaster, two long mirrors and colorfully tiled floor.

The city's Urban Redevelopment Authority, which bought the building, has lent the space to Quantum. Blank for weeks, the theater's marquee now announces "Quantum Theatre's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid."

Inside, the smells of disinfectant and incense don't quite mask a musky odor. It's cool and damp, with paint blistering off the deep-red walls and constellations of raw white plaster on the matte-black ceiling. The movie screen looms over the set, a reminder of the venue's checkered history. (The screen hides a nearly forgotten vaudeville-era proscenium stage; directly above the set hangs the porno-era video projector.)

Jemmett longed to stage Billy the Kid in an old movie house, and Billy's theme of myth-making resonates with the 1915 building's distant past as a neighborhood cinema. "We met an old man out in the street the first day we were here," says Quantum managing director René Conrad. "He told us about all the cowboy movies he used to see here."

Similarly, Jemmett has a kindred spirit in Quantum's artistic director, Karla Boos. After Dog Face, the two had discussed a possible Pittsburgh follow-up. Quantum stages its works in borrowed, typically unconventional spaces, which have included old warehouses, empty office buildings and Allegheny Cemetery. More importantly, Boos and Jemmett both wanted to build Billy from scratch in collaboration with the performers. She'd done something similar with such recent Quantum shows as The Red Shoes, a sardonic take on the Hans Christian Anderson tale that featured broad comedy and flamenco dancing.

"This is what's interesting to me," she says: what happens when you're "gathered with a bunch of artists in a room" -- whether they have a script or not.

After arriving in Pittsburgh in mid-May, Jemmett began rehearsals with passages he wanted to use, a loose structure, and some staging ideas. "I had a feeling of it as a cabaret of some kind," Jemmett says. "Like a sort of strange burlesque happening in somebody's kitchen."

The actors had been chosen largely through improv-style auditions. But the words would all be Ondaatje's, and the main theme the construction of Billy's persona -- how he is perceived by others. It's a theme that makes ironic one of the first lines spoken in the play, by "Billy" (as played, for the moment, by Jay): "Not a story about me through their eyes then. Find the beginning, the slight silver key to unlock it, dig it out. Here then is a maze to begin, be in."

Often, says Jay, Jemmett gives the actors the text and lets them simply play with it. During one rehearsal, for example, the second actor who spoke as Billy was Kristin Slaysman -- dressed in strappy heels, opera gloves and a feather boa. And how to depict the shooting death of Billy's pal Charlie Bowdre? With a hail of spitballs? Bring in the bicycles?

Some obstacles are technical. At one rehearsal, Jemmett and cast discussed how to signal to the audience that two actors had swapped a role. Should they stand a certain way? Pass a hat? Jemmett said he liked "the idea that the closest we can ever get to this character is his hat. Or his boots." (Hats, in fact, are a big part of the show.)

Jemmett calls his collaborative, trial-and-error process "devising," by which he means "a way of trying to, as a group, be or behave with the material in the space." But it's all done, he adds, "in the sense that we know [a faithful adaptation] can't be done, really."

Andrew Hachey, the compactly built 23-year-old, Toronto-based actor who embodies Billy for much of the play, says the process is challenging -- and not just because the actors might learn big chunks of text only to see it assigned to someone else. Jemmett keeps his actors constantly on stage, even when they're not the focus. "We're trying to find a balance between not distracting from the main action and not dying on stage," Hachey says.

But Hachey, used to gigs like playing "Benjamin" in a regional-theater production of The Graduate, gets a charge out of such assignments as digging around the Garden with a flashlight, looking for tools and machine parts to deploy in one scene. "You get really excited. This isn't like working for IBM."

Cast member Rick Kemp says Jemmett levels the usual theatrical hierarchy, in which actors rank well below directors in terms of input. "He's truly interested in creativity no matter what quarter it comes from," says Kemp, a British-born, Pittsburgh-based actor with a booming voice and wild gray hair.

Jemmett fosters a community feeling in his productions. Sheila McKenna remembers him cooking dinner for the Dog Face cast; on a day off, the Billy cast took Jemmett to his first baseball game, at PNC Park. And as with Dog Face, Billy rehearsals have begun with a lively game of volleyball on the stage set. It's partly to work up a sweat, partly to promote teamwork: Each player on a team must contact the ball at least once before it's slapped back over the makeshift net.

Improvs too are games of rapidly altered trajectory. "You can do five improvs that all die," says Jay, and Jemmett "comes in with more positive energy and feedback."

During rehearsals, the script changed daily. In constructing Billy, Jemmett speaks not of arranging a narrative so much as locating the "tempo." And indeed, "Music is a gigantic part of every rehearsal," says Miki Johnson, the slender, 27-year-old Pittsburgh-based actress who plays guitar and sings in the show. "He jams, you know? That's the environment he creates."

"It's like chipping away at the piece of granite, and he's seeing the form that's under there, while we're wildly hacking at the bits of rock to help him see what's under there," says Jay.

In Quantum's Dog Face, Jay played the neurotic, tic-ridden heavy, named DeFlores. In a scene where DeFlores was to eat the severed finger of a murder victim, Jemmett wanted Jay to chomp a baby carrot. The cast suggested a parsnip would look more realistic. But, says Jay, "Dan was like, 'No, no, no, it's a carrot. He didn't really cut his finger off. It's make-believe.'"

Jemmett's disdain for suspension of disbelief -- that implicit contract between audience and performers -- is essential to understanding his work. (Although audiences still went aauuggh when Jay bit into the carrot.) "He's very keen to make sure that people are aware that these are performers acting in a play," says Jay, who in Billy the Kid frequently embodies remorseless lawman Pat Garrett.

Jemmett calls the idea of representing a character as written in a script "ridiculous."

"I can't see much theater," he says. "Most theater. Because I reject it."

Of course, breaking the fourth wall in theater is old hat, and Jemmett is hardly alone in using puppets, anachronistic music and over-the-top staging. The German playwright Bertolt Brecht, for example, pioneered many techniques Jemmett uses: rejecting narrative realism, disassociating actors from their roles, and cultivating a fairground atmosphere spiked with lots of songs. But in Jemmett's work there is little of Brecht's overt social commentary, or his use of characters as social archetypes. And where Brecht tried to sap the emotion from his plays -- in order to make the audience see society's evils all the clearer -- Jemmett seems to find in such techniques merely a more imaginative path to emotion.

In a 2005 interview with CP about Dog Face, he described discovering country music at age 18, while curing the loss of a girlfriend with some whiskey and a George Jones album: "I was struck by the fact that I was somehow manufacturing [emotion] through the saccharine effects of the music and ... the Old Grand-dad, but it was real, too."

Such methods stand more conventional approaches to theater on their heads.

As in film and TV, theater's default position remains realism. Ever since Stanislavsky introduced method acting, the trend has been toward actors mining their emotions -- working from the inside out. Sheila McKenna, the Pittsburgh-based actor and director who donned a mustache to play the heroine's father in Dog Face, says Jemmett works from the outside in.

"For him it's just such a personal style," says McKenna.

In most plays, "You fit yourself into the character," says Kristen Slaysman, 26, of New York, whose roles in Billy include Angela Dickinson, the dance-hall performer who's the Kid's lover. But thanks to the collaborative "devising" process, Slaysman says, "Here, there's this large chunk of you."

When he sketches sets for plays he's directing, says Jemmett, he adds circles representing the heads of audience members. The thought balloon over one little head says, "Great!"; another says, "Rubbish!" It's one way of confronting a principal paradox of theater: While no work is complete until an audience sees it, too much worry about how an audience might react will hamstring the work. Or as Jemmett says, "I think you're kind of lost if you start trying to anticipate what somebody in the audience might think about what you're trying to do."

Besides, he'll find out soon enough. The wooden seating platforms Quantum has built atop the Garden's green leather chairs (no, you won't have to sit in them) are empty. But Jemmett knows they won't be for long -- and one gets the sense that a little deadline pressure inspires him.

Nine days before opening night, the Garden has been transformed: Quantum's stage lighting, designed by C. Todd Brown, is up, modeling the theater's decaying grandeur and the sparse set, by Stephanie Mayer. During a run-through, Jemmett pays close attention to an early scene in which the cast lines up and faces the audience, each actor taking a turn being Billy. With each run-through, the cast puts a different spin on the material. At one point, Jemmett says of the actors, "It's not a question of being bad or good. It's a question of them being themselves."

But the last word should go to the ventriloquist's dummy, who plays Billy in a couple scenes. In one of them, actor Rick Kemp assumes a comical falsetto to play the Billy doll as he's interviewed by a newsman.

"Did you have any reason to go on living, or were you just experimenting?" Andrew Hachey, as the interviewer, asks Billy.

"I don't know whether I'm happy or not," answers the doll. "But in the end that's all that's important -- that you keep testing yourself."

Quantum Theatre presents
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid
June 14-July 1
The Garden Theatre
12 W. North Ave., North Side
$25-30 ($15 students). 412-394-3353 or www.proartstickets.org

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