A Director's Viewpoint - Gary Lee Reed on "The Andersonville Trial"

It’s no small wonder that a direct descendant of the Civil War’s Confederacy commander-in-chief Robert E. Lee should be attracted to directing THE ANDERSONVILLE TRIAL. This play explores the trial of the commander of the Confederate Andersonville prison, Henry Wirz, who allegedly caused the death of thousands of Union soldiers. Emmy-award winner Gary Lee Reed has acted in and directed plays in England and the United States. Most recently, he received 22 nominations and awards for his critically acclaimed Hollywood production of “Godspell.” Gary has directed comedies and whodunits with equal ease and success and now turns his talented hand to THE ANDERSONVILLE TRIAL, which opens on March 5, 2016, at the Grove Theatre Center in Burbank. 

Gary Lee Reed was interviewed on February 23, 2016 for his personal views on theater and his newest directorial stint, THE ANDERSONVILLE TRIAL.

 

Gary Lee Reed

I UNDERSTAND THAT YOU ARE A DESCENDANT OF ROBERT E. LEE. HAS YOUR FAMILY EVER TALKED ABOUT ROBERT E. LEE? ARE YOU A HISTORY BUFF? 

I’m not sure how close a relative I am. I’m from Texas, and my family always said at reunions that we were related to Robert E. Lee. They went on like that, but they never were specific about the relationship. I know that Lee was from Virginia and not Texas. During the play, I decided to look into the connection. It turned out that, in 1846, Lee and his entire family moved to Texas for four to six years; and some of the family stayed in Texas. Lee came to Texas to manage the Mexican-American War. He was going up in rank and doing incredible work between 1842 and 1846, and he’s a hero in Texas for gaining our independence. That was before the Civil War. My mom’s name is Mary Lee. Robert E. Lee’s wife and one of his daughters had the same name. One of my mom’s cousins was R.E. Lee. I’m not sure of his first name, but his middle name was Ernest, which he went by. Maybe Lee was closer to our family than I thought. Now I’ve got my brother looking into it. 

I enjoy history plays because the research is fun. There’s so much to look into. Who is he, and why does he behave that way? But what I’m really drawn to is compelling stories. Some history is over-told and stops being dynamic. It’s the relationships that draw me, the conflicted nature of one or more of the characters. I knew so little about Andersonville. I remember I was on tour in Georgia in the 70's, and I went to Andersonville prison to look at it. There wasn’t much marketing about it, and I don’t think that Georgia is very proud of Andersonville.

 

Gary Lee Reed

WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO “THE ANDERSONVILLE TRIAL?” THIS IS A CLASSIC WHICH HAS BEEN PERFORMED IN MORE THAN ONE MEDIUM TO RAVE REVIEWS. ARE YOU TRYING TO FIND A NEW WAY TO LOOK AT THE PLAY? 

There’s new relevance now to the play. When it was first done around 1959, the Civil Rights movement was nearing its height. Not much was done with the piece for quite a few years after that; and now, all of a sudden, it’s relevant again. Last fall, when I was thinking about doing this play, they were talking about removing the Confederate flags; and a guy with a Confederate flag on his car killed people at a church. There’s a line in the play where somebody says that a torn Confederate blouse can cause riots in the streets. The General replies that they shouldn’t move the trial to keep it out of the moral territory where it happened. That’s still an issue 100 years later. No one ever asked to be forgiven for the horrors of that war. We just blamed one man and hanged him. We never really dealt with it. Everybody else was pardoned, and we moved on. No one else was ever brought up on war crimes. The Southerners who lost their land during the war were out of luck. The Black families never got reparation. And the Northerners had prisons like Andersonville, but nothing came of that. No one ever really healed, even though we put a band aid on it every 30 or 40 years. 

It’s interesting that Robert E. Lee owned slaves too. But he paid them, and they had their own living quarters and could educate their children. They weren’t mistreated. Lee said that he was against slavery but that at least his slaves were better off.

 

YOUR RECENT DIRECTING PROJECTS INCLUDE A MURDER MYSTERY AND A MUSICAL COMEDY. IS THIS TURN TOWARDS HISTORICAL DRAMA A WELCOME BREAK FROM THE OTHER GENRES, OR DO YOU PREFER LIGHTER SUBJECT MATTER AND/OR COMEDY? 

I enjoy doing the heavier work. I direct those plays for my actors. I love taking actors on a journey with a wide range of emotions. There’s truth-telling and honesty in most heavier plays. I do musicals for the audience. There’s escapism and fantasy in musical plays. How can a scene be truthful if suddenly you start singing in the middle of it? That doesn’t happen in real life. It’s tough to make a musical honest and truthful. You need to jump into a fantasy world. I like to do both kinds of work. 

HOW DID YOU LIKE WORKING WITH THE NATIONAL THEATRE OF LONDON? DID YOU FIND THE BRITISH WAY A BIT DIFFERENT FROM THE AMERICAN WAY? WHAT WERE SOME OF THE DIFFERENCES? 

It’s definitely different. They attack things from a different angle. The British are more text-oriented. They start with the text and get everything they can from the text. Many American actors feel they can paraphrase the words and that it’s all about emotions, the physicality of the role. They want to start acting instead of understanding. I was mainly acting in England, and I learned some valuable things. For example, we tend to direct from left to right. If we want tension, we move actors further apart. I learned that you can direct vertically. You move a person upstage or downstage to get tension. It changes the staging of the show. 

WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON RIGHT NOW? WHAT ARE YOUR FUTURE PLANS? 

I’m directing a new musical version of “Alice in Wonderland” called “The Story of Alice.” We’re opening on April 23, 2016. The music is new and all over the place; we’ve even got some 90's pop music in it. It takes place in the present, and we’ve added some characters from different versions of the show. I’ve also written a play called “Personal Effects” about events in my life. My father left the family when I was nine, and I never saw him again until I was 40 and he was in his coffin. The FBI arrested him for domestic terrorism and sent him to prison. He left behind five boxes that my brothers and I open after he’s dead. I’ve had two readings so far, and they went well. Now I’m ready for a workshop production.

 

Gary Lee Reed is keeping busy with projects that add richness to the Los Angeles theater scene. He added his final words about THE ANDERSONVILLE TRIAL for the reader: 

“I’ve heard people say they hate history plays; but THE ANDERSONVILLE TRIAL is a lesson in history, not a history lesson. It’s about brilliant, conflicted individuals caught up in horrifying events. No one is blameless in this living nightmare, but they’re trying to come to terms with it. We know how the Civil War ended, but to hear the story told by these people is pretty amazing. There’s something the audience can take with them out of this play. The play can shed light on a history we don’t want to talk about, and it can be life-changing for the two hours we’re in the theater.”

 

THE ANDERSONVILLE TRIAL opens at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 5, 2016, and runs through April 10, 2016. Performances are at8 p.m. on Friday and Saturdays and 3 p.m. on Sundays. The Grove Theatre Center is located at 1111-B West Olive Avenue, Burbank, CA 91506. Tickets are $25. For reservations, call 323-960-7738 or online at www.plays411.com/andersonville.

 

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