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UCSD Theatre Blog Interview

Monica Bill Barnes and David Wilson Barnes
Talking on transitioning from students to working professionals

Monica Bill Barnes is a choreographer, performer, and the Artistic Director of Monica Bill Barnes & Company. Barnes founded MBB&CO in 1997 with the mission to celebrate individuality, humor, and the innate theatricality of everyday life. Her work has been performed in venues ranging from Upright Citizen's Brigade to The BAM Opera House, and has been presented in more than 80 cities throughout the US. Current projects include a collaborative show with radio host Ira Glass that combines radio stories and dance, Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host; a collaboration with author/visual artist Maira Kalman creating a guided Museum Workout; Happy Hour, the world's only office party turned dance show; and One Night Only, the company's show that premiered in NYC in fall 2017.

David Wilson Barnes previously appeared in The Power of Duff (2013) at the Huntington. He has performed on Broadway in The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Off Broadway in Don’t Go GentleDavid (MCC Theater), The Big Meal (Playwrights Horizons), All New People and Becky Shaw (Second Stage Theatre), Lady (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater), Vengeance (stageFARM), The Square (Ma Yi Theatre Company and The Public Theater/NYSF), Hamlet (The Public Theater/ NYSF), Jail Bait (Cherry Lane Theatre), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (La Mama ETC). Regionally he has worked with American Repertory Theater, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Geva Theatre, The City Theatre, Long Wharf Theatre, Cape Playhouse, and Acadia Repertory Theatre. His film and television credits include True Story, Lily & Kat, The Bourne Legacy, You Don’t Know Jack, Love and Other Drugs, Company Men, Taking Woodstock, Seducing Charlie Barker, Capote, Halt & Catch Fire, Elementary, Blue Bloods, The Big C, Louie, A Gifted Man, 30 Rock, The Eastmans (pilot, series regular), Sex and the City, Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: SVU, Conviction, All My Children, and As the World Turns.

When you formed the Monica Bill Barnes & Company Productions in New York, 1997, what was your initial vision? Did you hold to that idea over the decades?

My initial vision was simply a hope that I could make shows that strangers would come to. I founded the company when I was 24 years old, so I'm sure I had a sense of vision at the time, but it was really during the first decade of making shows that I figured out what kind of work I was actually good at making. And in many ways, I think that the "vision" is still a desire to make shows that strangers want to see. From the beginning I've tried to make dance feel relatable, often using humor as a way of making an audience feel like they are invested in the performers. It's impossible to laugh at something that you do not understand. So maybe a sense of humor in the work has also been constant.

You have performed in over sixty cities, been commissioned and presented by The American Dance Festival, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, and The BAM Opera House. Are there regional differences in Dance appreciation? 

I don't know if there is a regional difference in dance appreciation, honestly I don't know if I could really define what dance appreciation is, but what I do know is that there are regional differences in what is considered funny. What's great about comedy is there is no room to wonder if something is funny or not, if it's funny, then you will hear people laugh, period. As a performer, you can figure out something about an audience in the first five minutes based on how they react immediately and then the rest of the show is a process of making slight adjustments to relate to that particular crowd.

How did your dance training at UCSD prepare you for your artistic career as a dancer and dance maker? 

This may be the right moment to say that I was a philosophy major. My plan was to go to law school with the hope of becoming a judge. So a good amount of my time at UCSD was spend studying philosophy. But every other waking moment was spent in the dance and theater department. This strange combination of activities provided the perfect environment for me to figure out how to work. I also had wonderful mentors in my professors, Jean Isaacs and Margaret Marshall, and the opportunity to work in the theater department. I was able to perform in every kind of situation which feels like the best training any performer could hope for. 

What was an early memory of your meeting David at UCSD? 

Ha. Ok, Dave was in a show and I was running the light board, I had never run a light board and I was terrible at it. I accidently went to a blackout during a sword fight and in the complete blackout that I managed to make, I couldn't see the board and ended up turning on all the house lights revealing all the actors frozen in terror with their swords held over head as to not hurt anyone. Throughout the painful tech process, Dave was profoundly good natured and made everyone laugh. I was completely taken with him and aside from a few disasters I created, he did not notice me at all...which weirdly did not bother me, because for no good reason I felt certain that this was a beginning of something great.

Questions for David - 

You played the young troubled priest in the stage version of “The Exorcist”. How did you prepare for the arduous role and did you enjoy the run in Los Angeles? 

I did enjoy the run of "The Exorcist". As far as preparation was concerned, I was so familiar with the story already, there wasn't too much preparation. The real joy in the process was working with John Doyle, who's a bonafide genius. The way he worked was so organic and gentle, it taught me a lot about allowing the play to be as opposed to imposing what you may "think" is the way the play "should" be. We are seeing you everywhere these days on TV. Which series do you favor if you’re allowed to tip your hand?

My favorite television project so far - and one of the most satisfying experiences of my life - is playing Phineas McCullough on AMC's "The Son". 

How did your university acting training assist your fine range of skills on stage and on camera?

UCSD was an absolutely wonderful environment to have cut my teeth in. The fact that I was surrounded by not only students, but also grad students and working professionals and all that entails, gave me the most wonderfully well-rounded view of what it was to be a professional actor. I've always been one who learns best by doing, not thinking about doing, and UCSD really fostered an environment of experience that allowed me to make mistakes and learn and grow. It was perfect. 

What was an early memory of your meeting Monica at UCSD?

Ha. How long do you have? In short, I didn't know she was this dynamic, incredibly talented, burgeoning artist when I first met her. In fact, it was the complete opposite. She was doing her practicum (do you even do that anymore???) running the light board in a production of Timberlake Wertenbaker's "The Love of the Nightingale". So I first experienced her as a very quiet, confused, technically inept light board operator (she threw us into a black out during a sword fight, for instance). Needless to say, I wasn't that drawn to her. It was only after I found out that she had played the Fighting Cock in a production of Jose Rivera's "The Promise" that I was bowled over. In the production, she was in full bird makeup and unitard. I had no idea that that was the same person that nearly killed us in 409 small. I didn't know dance at all and she was AMAZING. It was like falling in love with a superhero. I'm glad to say that this hasn't changed in 25 years. She's still my superhero.