Director Luke Leonard with the cast of  Bum Phillips . Photo by Corey Torpie, 2014.

Director Luke Leonard with the cast of Bum Phillips. Photo by Corey Torpie, 2014.

October 14, 2015
Interview with Luke Leonard, creator of ‘Welcome to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’
By: Meagan Meehan, AXS Contributor

59E59 Theaters is a respected establishment for seeing quality theater in the New York City area. In the fall of 2015, 59E59 Theaters welcomed the premiere of a play titled “Welcome to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” a musical with a dark side. According to the official press release: This dark musical comedy set in Dharhan takes an intimate look at the barriers between genders and cultures through the lives of American expatriates. This new musical from downtown darlings Monk Parrots features a Saudi-pop fusion score by Peter Stopschinski (Austin's Rude Mechs) with lyrics by Obie Award-winner (and long-time collaborator with Lisa D’Amour) Katie Pearl. Recently, AXS spoke to the writer and director of the show, Luke Leonard, about his experiences working on this production and in the theater industry in general:

AXS: What inspired you to become a director?

Luke Leonard (L.L.): I became a director out of a necessity to produce my own work, though, my directing skills and style are inspired by athletic coaches from my past and artistic mentors and friends such as Joseph Chaikin, Robert Wilson, Mac Wellman, companies like Rude Mechs, GAle GAtes et al., New York City Players, and Berliner Ensemble, to name a few.

AXS: When and why did you decide to start writing plays?

L.L.: In 1994, I was an undergraduate in Texas with an urge to write a play, but I couldn't get anything on paper. I explained my frustrations to the department chair and he gave me a deadline to deliver a draft. I guess I decided to write my own play because I was frustrated by most of the popular plays being produced. In high school, I found a collection of plays by Sam Shepard, which opened my mind to the possibilities of what could be done onstage and his biography inspired me to move to New York. I moved to New York in 1995 and I have been making theatre ever since.

AXS: How did you get the idea for "Welcome to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia"?

L.L.: The idea for Saudi came from a visit that I made to Dhahran in 1999. I was there for six weeks and the experience left an impression and questions. There seems to be fear associated with the Middle East that is often exploited by the media, so in search of an intimate perspective I remembered my own encounters and interviewed several American expatriates that worked in Saudi Arabia for over 30 years as well as a few Saudi natives.

AXS: What other plays have you worked on and what were they about?

L.L.: I'm attracted to anomalies. I conceived and directed an opera about NFL coaching legend, Bum Phillips, and commissioned Kirk Lynn and Peter Stopschinkski to write the book and music, respectively. “Bum Phillips” premiered in 2014 at The Ellen Stewart Theatre in New York and played Texas in 2015 at the Stafford Centre, and was attend by NFL players from the Houston Oilers era, such as, Earl Campbell, Robert Brazile, Curley Culp, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, Mike Barber, Kenny Burrough, and Vernon Perry, to name a few. I've collaborated with playwright David Todd on two productions, “After an Earlier Incident” (La MaMa) and “Here I Go” (59E59 Theaters). AEI blends various Romeo & Juliet tellings through a hauntological lens. “Here I Go” is a romanticized depiction of a Dolly Parton fan in her 60s contemplating suicide. When I'm not creating new work with my theater company and collaborators, I direct for other companies and enjoy directing opera. I've directed “Turn of the Screw” (Symphony Space) and “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” (UT-Austin and Gertrude Opera).

AXS: If you could make any kind of play, with an unlimited budget, what type of play would you make and why?

L.L.: I have a lot of ideas. I'm curious about staging Medea inside of a Chuck E. Cheese and wonder if it would work. I've started thinking about a one man show, a love story about a man that's been kicked in the mouth by a horse, and Monk Parrots is considering a mini festival exploring the one person genre. We're considering new solo works by playwrights to include in this event. But with an unlimited budget, I'd probably want to make a new piece called “Mama, Apple Pie, and the Electric Chair” an opera in three acts about celebrity and capital punishment in America. Each act focuses on a different subject related to the main theme and each act would be written by a different composer/librettist team, e.g., Mac Wellman/David Lang, Kirk Lynn/Peter Stopschinski, and I would like to work with composer Ted Hearne and a writer that I haven't worked with before. I will direct all three and design with my collaborators, so contact me if you are reading this and want to get behind an ambitious new production by kick ass artists!

AXS: So far, what has been the most rewarding thing about being involved in the theater industry?

L.L.: The most rewarding thing about working in the theater is seeing transformations in people. The moments that I am excited about are when performers are pushed beyond their limitations and shine, and when audiences are challenged and approach us after with new perspectives or understanding about their own experiences. Theatre thrives on community. Forming uncommon unions, filling gaps, watching people work hard and feel better about who they are, that's what it's all about...making people better.

AXS: Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to mention?

L.L.: I just returned from directing Gertrude Opera's Australian premiere of David Lang and Mac Wellman's, “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field,” and the company has invited me back next year to direct a Gluck opera. Aside from that I am back to the drawing board with Monk Parrots, seeking touring opportunities for our repertoire, and looking for my next freelance directing gig. I'd actually love to see our opera written by Kirk Lynn and Peter Stopschinski about Bum Phillips produced as an extended run in 2017 in Houston, Texas.

AXS: What advice would you give to someone who is aspiring to enter the theater industry?

L.L.: My advice to an aspiring artist would be the same thing that a wise woman told me, "If there is anything else you can do, do that instead." But seriously, it is a hard profession, so you have to really love it and be okay with the lifestyle. You have to remain patient and persistent, and wish for good luck. I advise people starting out to just say yes. Choose your battles wisely and be ready to compromise. It is important to network. Don't be afraid to introduce yourself. And remember that being an artist is among the most necessary and worthy of all occupations.

Wednesday, July 3 , 2013
Interview - Luke Leonard of "Bum Phillips," an opera based on the life of the former Oilers coach
By Byrne Harrison,

Luke Leonard is a director and artist living in New York. He is a founding member and the Producing Artistic Director of Monk Parrots, a nonprofit, vanguard theatre company. His stage productions have been described as "taking creditable gambles... outstanding" by The New York Times, "bold and experimental... a clear vision...pure theatrical experience" by, and "visually arresting" by Austin American-Statesman. In 2011, compared Monk Parrots to "young artist revolutionaries."

After hearing that he is working on an opera based on the life of former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips, I spoke with Luke about the opera and its upcoming premiere.

Having grown up in Houston in the '70s, I know how much of an influence former Oilers coach Bum Phillips was in Texas, and even around the country. That said, he doesn't seem to be the typical subject for an opera. What inspired you to create an opera based on his life?

I was interested in doing a project about happiness, or being in/capturing a moment. I was also reflecting on the effect that playing football growing up has had on my aesthetic and leadership skills. I was looking for books written by coaches to learn more about coaching methods. The name, Bum Phillips, came to mind and I was instantly filled with nostalgia. Coincidentally, Bum published an autobiography in 2010, so I ordered it right away and after I read it, I knew that I wanted to make a new work based on his life. It fit perfectly with the ideas that I was interested in exploring.

Houston was a very special place in the late 1970s and it was due in large part to Bum Phillips and the Houston Oilers. The fans embraced the team and their coach in a citywide phenomenon called "Luv Ya Blue". It was as if everyone could bleed the same shade of light blue. The city was joined by the sense of family that Bum Phillips instilled in his players. I was only a child, but the devotion that my parents (and their friends) had for the Oilers, the Astros, the Astrodome, the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, etc., rubbed off on me, inspired me... it was the culture, and it can only be described as a magical time.

The story of Bum Phillips and the Houston Oilers is the perfect vehicle to explore the concept of happiness and living in the moment, but it is also a chance to look at what happens when the party is over. Undoubtedly, Bum left a mark on the NFL and Houston, but his tenure with the Oilers was stripped away by owner Bud Adams, robbing the city of its leader. In over 30 years, Houston has never experienced another bond quite like "Luv Ya Blue" and the present condition of the Astrodome, arguably, symbolizes a neglect of heritage. Despite its current state, the Astrodome is a container for wonderful memories and dreams. Bum Phillips is really a universal story about courage and healing.

Why an opera?

Well, I have been pursuing a career directing opera ever since returning to New York in 2010 after receiving a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Texas at Austin. I also lead Monk Parrots, a nonprofit, experimental theater company that devises new works and embraces alternative approaches to making theatre. We're always looking for bridges that bring people together. Football is epic and opera is epic, so a Bum Phillips opera seemed to make perfect sense. Opera is music-driven versus a musical, which is more narrative/text-driven. A Bum Phillips musical seemed too obvious or gimmicky, and it didn't seem to match the scale and emotion of American football. We call it an opera because the piece is all sung, but composer Peter Stopschinski's approach is modern and accessible, so it does teeter between what people consider an opera and a musical. I would like to see it on Broadway someday!

Reaction on the internet runs from bemusement to snark. What would you say to your doubters?

That's a great question that hasn't been asked. Funny because I just started reading a book written by Andy Warhol called "Popism" and he talks about how everyone laughed at his early coke bottle paintings, and at Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg (also a native Texan), Frank Stella, Jasper's just natural to criticize something new that isn't easily understood. I actually think the snarky comments are funny, but they can sting if you let them because you're investing an enormous amount of time and hard work, and you're trying to do something personal and with good intentions. I don't know. I think for the most part people are supportive.

I understand you met with Mr. Phillips about this project. What did he think about it? Was he an opera or theatre fan to begin with?

We drove to Goliad on Sunday, March 10, 2012 to meet Bum and Debbie at their ranch. Peter was with me as well as my parents. We took the Phillips' a pecan pie from Goode Company. I think this was before much of the score and book had been written, so it's funny that "pie" made it's way into the first scene called, "Picnic". Bum seemed to really like the idea, but he didn't know if it would work in New York. I tried to reassure him that it would and expressed my desire for a Texas presentation, too. I found him to be very accepting of all things. He told us that Lawrence Harris used to play for the Oilers and became a professional opera singer. I don't remember asking Bum if he was a fan of opera or theatre, but he likes music and he's a big fan of John Wayne movies. My mother sent me a John Wayne compilation DVD that includes The Searchers, which is one of Bum's favorites.

In his... well, I hesitate to say retirement, since he seems to be more active than ever... but in recent years, Phillips has been more known for his charity work and Christian ministry. Will that be included in the opera, or will it focus more on his early life and coaching career?

Yes, for a man approaching 90 he is sharp as a whip and has a ton of stamina. He is certainly active and it's very impressive. His strength and endurance reminds me of Ellen Stewart, the Founder/Artistic Director of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (where we will present the world premiere). You couldn't keep Ellen down, even in her 80s. She was a firecracker, an amazing woman, and she left behind a inimitable legacy, which is now under the artistic leadership of Mia Yoo. The primary source material for the opera is the autobiography, Bum Phillips: Cowboy, Coach, Christian. It includes moments throughout his entire life and it is structured like a football game. Act I focuses on the early parts of his life; such as, the myth surrounding the source of his nickname, his relationship with his father, his time as a Marine Raider in WWII, and concludes with a football game from the 1979 season. Act 2 includes scenes about retirement, divorce, the prison ministry, and of course, more football games. It's ambitious and it will be challenging to stage, but that's what I'm all about, a challenge.

Who are your collaborators on this project?

Kirk Lynn is the librettist and Peter Stopschinski is the composer. I met Kirk at UT-Austin when I was a MFA student. He is a professor at UT and I took a class with him called New Play Dramaturgy. Kirk and Peter are both members of the nationally renowned theatre collective, Rude Mechs. Kirk is a founding member and Co-Producing Artistic Director of the Rudes. Peter is Co-Artistic Director with composer Graham Reynolds of the nonprofit, Golden Hornet Project. Kirk has been a mentor to me in many ways and very generous about sharing information and helping me with grant writing. Peter and I are both from Houston and grew up during the "Luv Ya Blue" era. We both have strong affections for that time. We're all native Texans, which is really cool. There are a lot of Texans in New York and we have several in our company, Monk Parrots. Joey LePage is the Co-Producing Artistic Director of Monk Parrots, who I also met and worked with at UT-Austin. Joey and I have been working together since 2008. He has assisted me on several productions and is the assistant director of the Bum Phillips opera. The costume designer is Alison Heryer. Alison and I started working together in 2007. She designed the most extraordinary costumes for a contemporary opera that I directed in 2010 called The Difficulty of Crossing a Field by David Lang and Mac Wellman. I also invited Marie Yokoyama to join the creative team as Co-Designer. Marie and I collaborated on Monk Parrots' 2013 production, After an Earlier Incident: A Dyschronic Romeo & Juliet, which premiered at La MaMa. We'll be adding more amazing artists to the roster, too.

When are you planning to bring it to the stage?

The world premiere is booked for March 13-30, 2014 in the Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York. We will present a benefit performance at Dixon Place on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013. In July-August, we will work on the production designs during our Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Swing Space Artist Residency, and we might begin the casting process during the residency, as well. We're looking for a Texas-based presenter to partner with to take it to the Lone Star State.

Tell me a little bit about your theatre company, Monk Parrots.

Monk Parrots, formerly DUMBO Theater eXchange a/k/a DTX, incorporated in New York in 2001 to present new plays by emerging artists. DTX managed a space in Brooklyn where 30 productions were produced, including plays at the 4th and 5th Annual DUMBO Arts Festival. In 2007, DTX changed its name to reflect a departure from DUMBO and a commitment to collaboration and devised theatre. In 2011-2013, Monk Parrots produced 4 premieres, 3 public readings, 3 workshop performances, and a European premiere. Awards include 2013 and 2011 Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Swing Space Artist Residencies, a 2012 Foundation for Contemporary Arts Emergency Grant, and a 2012 USA Projects grant to commission Bum Phillips, An Opera.

What sort of works has the company produced?

Monk Parrots produce and tour concept-driven live performances that cross artistic boundaries. In 2011, we created Gay Rodeo By-Laws, an abstract play about assumptions associated with being American that was loosely inspired by James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Additionally, we remounted our performance work, The Art of Depicting Nature As It Is Seen By Toads, a structured improvisation based on Sanford Meisner's Word Repetition Game, and staged a site-specific performance of Barry Gifford's Hotel Room Trilogy at the Roger Smith Hotel. In 2012, we premiered Here I Go at 59E59 Theaters, a piece about a sixty-something widow and Dolly Parton fan who whips up a banana pudding and contemplates suicide, which also premiered in Italy at the 2012 La MaMa Spoleto Open. This year, we premiered a new work at La MaMa called After an Earlier Incident: A Dyschronic Romeo & Juliet, which was our second collaboration with playwright David Todd (Here I Go). We aren't limited to one form (performance art, site-specific, theatre, musical/opera), but all of our works share the same core ambitions: to attempt the impossible and advance the art of theatre.

If you could say anything to your prospective audience, what would it be?

Be prepared to be surprised. You don't have to like opera or football. You're going to like this!

Thank you for taking time to talk about your show. I can't wait to see how it turns out.

Michael Howell as Tybalt in Monk Parrots’  After an Earlier Incident  at The Club at La MaMa. Photo by Emily Boland, 2013.

Michael Howell as Tybalt in Monk Parrots’ After an Earlier Incident at The Club at La MaMa. Photo by Emily Boland, 2013.

February 23, 2013 q&a preview by Luke Leonard, Producing Artistic Director of Monk Parrots

What is your job on this show?

Director/Production Designer.

What is your show about?

Monk Parrots’ world premiere of After An Earlier Incident: A Dyschronic Romeo and Juliet sets its sights on the classic star-crossed lovers, refracting their story to expose the past inside our present.

When did you know you wanted to work in the theater, and why?

I grew up an only child in Houston left to my imagination under the enormous Texas sky. I would keep busy by making performances, like when I asked my grandfather to build a wall with ankle and wrist straps, so that I could break free and reenact the final dance sequence from the movie, Staying Alive. He attached leather to a plywood sheet and placed it in the middle of a pasture. I set my boom box in the grass and asked for some privacy, though, I sensed he was watching with my grandmother from the window of their house, probably totally perplexed at this skinny kid in tube socks ripping himself from wood and leaping about. It was like an open rehearsal in grass under the sun, with water moccasins, blue racers, and quarter horses nearby, and a Nestle Crunch ice cream bar waiting for me in the freezer as remuneration. Theatre has been a part of me since an early age. Making theatre is a chance to celebrate the complexity, absurdity, and beauty of life. The only child in me, longing for siblings, appreciates theatre because it demands collaboration. My collaborators and colleagues are family.

Why do you do theater (as opposed to film, or TV, or something not in the entertainment field)?

I admire all arts and theatre brings them all together. It can appear simple on the surface, yet be complicated underneath and that tension excites me. I arrived at directing because it benefits from (and often combines) all of my interests in the fine arts, performance, design, writing, dramaturgy, and choreography. I learn something new with every production. Theatre teaches me about the world. I share a view with artists like Ad Reinhardt et al. that artists are very important to society and have a responsibility. I admire TV/film, but overall there seems to be less responsibility and concern regarding what is produced for popular culture. Art teaches people to think individually and for that reason theatre can be a very dangerous and meaningful place.

Why did you want to write/direct/produce/act in/work on this show?

AFTER AN EARLIER INCIDENT is based on the concept that we are haunted by the myth of Romeo and Juliet. The tale never dies and reflects the present. This approach presents challenges and questions, e.g., have we become desensitized to the story by continuing to repeat it? If something never dies, can we be nostalgic about it? Questions like these led us to the concept of Hauntology, a term coined by philosopher, Jacques Derrida. Do we have genuine feelings, or are we numb? Did the story of Romeo and Juliet die with Shakespeare’s version? Can it be surpassed, or are we stuck with it? And if we are stuck with it can we become unstuck? The term “hauntology” started to be applied to electronic music around 2006, the same year that the Hearst Tower was completed, the first LEED certified skyscraper erected post 9-11 in NYC. The tower can be viewed as hauntological because it combines two facades, a 40 story modernist diagrid atop the original six-story art deco landmark. Together they form a whole, i.e., the past inside the present. We are adapting a text by David Todd, incorporating songs and electronic sampling, and we’re very excited by the design elements. AEI should be a fun, strange, and beautiful show.

Which “S” word best describes your show: SMOOTH, SEXY, SMART, SURPRISING?

A word from the play: shitstorm.

How important is diversity to you in the theater you see/make?

Mac Wellman (a Monk Parrots advisory board member) said in an interview that the arts are “truly cosmopolitan.” Diversity and discourse promote a healthy and democratic society and we hope our theatre can encourage that.