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‘The Bus’ rolls into town

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Last year, the San Francisco-based New Conservatory Theatre Center brought a touring production of “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later” to the Unitarian Universalist Church. Continuing that tradition, the company is bringing a new play titled “The Bus.” I caught up with director Sara Staley via email to talk about the show, which plays 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the church.

Question: What is “The Bus” about?

Answer: It is the story of Jordan and Ian, two boys who regularly rendezvous in a parked bus that belongs to the most powerful church in town, Golden Rule. Late at night, they meet to explore sexual feelings that are at once awkward, humorous, and must remain a secret. When their meeting place is in danger of being discovered, the boys find themselves caught in a conflict between Golden Rule and a gas station owned by Ian’s father and the clash proves explosive. Can Jordan and Ian move their fragile relationship into the light, or will church and family drive them back?

I would add that it’s a story about family, love, the small town experience, belief systems, relationships, respect for differences, and how the secrets we keep can sometimes have tragic consequences.

What attracted you to this script?

I have been the director of the YouthAware Educational Theatre program at NCTC since 2001, and we work to educate young audiences about bullying, respect for differences, school safety, and other LGBT issues through theatrical performances in schools, so I was initially attracted to the playwright James Lantz’s honest portrayal of the two young buys Ian and Jordan in this script. I think that their dialogue especially will resonate very truthfully with our younger audience members. While the story of Ian and Jordan has themes that have been explored in other scripts, I thought the particular method of storytelling James Lantz uses is interesting (like using Ian’s younger sister as sort of an Our Town-like narrator. I am also attracted to scripts that play with theatrical devices like this one does, like breaking the fourth wall and using minimalistic planks, boxes and chairs to create different scenes within the play and transition from one place to another quickly. I also think that while the subject matter for this play may not be new to our audiences here at NCTC, stories like this still need to be told because there is a reality and truth behind everything you see on stage during The Bus. Ian and Jordan’s reality of having to hide who they are and their relationship with one another is the truth for many young LGBT youth and adults across this country.

For those who didn’t see last year’s “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later,” can you recap the NCTC’s touring program? How do you decide which productions to tour out-of-town?

Yes, I also had the pleasure and privilege of directing The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later” for our first Pride on Tour production last year. Part of our mission statement at NCTC is that “Theater is a community event and a way to build community.” From my experience last year with the tour, this part of our mission statement is especially true with our Pride on Tour Program. What was so great to me about touring Laramie, besides bringing communities a theatrical experience that they might not otherwise be able to see, was getting different organizations that advocate for LGBT rights and provide services in their community to come together for a common goal. NCTC’s artistic director Ed Decker has done the leg work in rallying these communities and organizations that we are visiting on tour, and the disconnect between some of these organizations working towards the same goal within the same communities was surprising. Since we are visiting the same communities this year with the tour that we did last year, the community organization, engagement and momentum has really been building since Laramie leading up to our performances of The Bus. I look forward to engaging and dialoging with tour audiences during the post-show discussions that I will facilitate after each performance on tour. Like Laramie, I think the reason The Bus was chosen to tour is that it has a very universal “this could happen anywhere” kind of accessibility, and the play offers opportunity for a wide variety of audience members (gay or straight) to connect with the characters, setting, and the story.

Talk a little about the challenges of touring a show. How much did you have to scale down the original production?

No scaling down! Same cast, crew, etc. We are taking the entire set, props, costumes, sound design on tour with us. The only difference is that our production here lived in a very small 60 seat black box theater space, and we won’t quite fill the stage in our larger venues on tour like we do here at NCTC, but besides that, the lighting limitations in each venue, and the floor not being painted as it was for our production here will be the only other differences. We really want to give our Pride on Tour audiences as close to the same production quality that our audiences saw here at NCTC as we can.

Who do you see as the target audience for “The Bus” in terms of age?

Again, this play has a very universal appeal. “The Bus” is only rated R for language in my opinion, and I work developing theater for young audiences. I would say language aside, that middle school age and up is appropriate for viewing “The Bus.”

How is religion treated as a theme in the play?

I think audiences will be surprised at how religion and the church is treated in this play. I think the show description makes it seem like a very “us against them” type scenario within the script and it’s not. While religion and the church definitely influences the characters’ decision making, how the story progresses, and relationships with one another within this town, the actual Golden Rule church depicted in the script has a very back seat (sorry, pun intended) role in the script in terms of the actual relationship between the two boys. I think “The Bus” does comment on how religious beliefs can influence our relationships with one another, how we live our lives, and how we look at the world. It also does challenge the validity of the black and white “right vs. wrong” teachings that religion often offers its followers.

What do you hope audiences get from this show?

I hope audiences will empathize with the honest portrayal of these characters that my fantastic company of actors offers in The Bus, and that the themes of love, family, relationships, beliefs, acceptance of yourself and respect for others will resonate with our audiences long after they leave the theater.

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