INTERVIEW: Curio Theatre’s Charlotte Northeast on Directing The Bald Soprano

On how she used the Internet and the Kardashians to make sense of and modernize Ionesco's much-absurd play.

Charlotte Northeast

Charlotte Northeast

Eugene Ionesco is as hard to crack as a walnut. The famed writer is known for his absurdist plays, and The Bald Soprano is a perfect example of Ionesco’s signature style of exposing truth through subtle hints in the text. The play, which is essentially about the breakdown in communication between two couples, is opening at Philadelphia’s Curio Theatre Company this month, and we caught up with theater artist and director Charlotte Northeast about her unique take on the production.

I’m curious as to what drew you to the project at Curio because it really is such an absurd play. Quite honestly, they approached me, and I was like, “Yeah, sure! Okay!” A traveling minstrel will work anywhere! However, after the first time I read it, I thought, “Oh, God! What have I gotten into?” The fact is, we haven’t really changed much. Ionesco wrote this in 1950 and he talked about how through the noise, we really don’t communicate with each other. We’re actually much worse now because we have this giant thing called the Internet. This play is about how we fail to communicate, and now we do this globally all the time. For me, that was the reference point. I’m going to do a traditional take on the stage, but there is this layer of the Internet.

The other thing I tried to do when approaching it was to keep in mind that the truth is the most absurd thing, so I didn’t try to be absurd for absurd’s sake. Whenever possible, these characters are grounded in truth, grounded in trying to make a point. Nothing is gratuitous. That’s what turns people off, when they think, “What the hell is this?” But, if they can see an organic situation, they can get the jokes. That’s where I’m coming from. We’ll see! Normally I have a really clear idea when I direct, but with this one, I can’t predict anything.

There is a real focus on human communication in the play. That seems quite relevant to our culture today and how social media has changed our landscape so much. What I’ve done is in the set we have these projection elements. The play proceeds as normal, but once in a while, a synapsis will fire something that inspires a projection. The projections don’t move the plot, but once in a while they will pop up and they’re very modern. For example, at one point, there’s a discussion about whether a woman is ugly or pretty, and the Kardashians pop up. It’s a little shoutout to that world and that access point for a modern audience, and hopefully that reads to them.

I know Ionesco’s text isn’t easy, but there is always some truth underneath all of that absurdity. How do you and your actors dig in to it and find logic? We tried to find where relationships come together and fall apart. In doing so, the lines have their own life. There are two couples and a fire captain and a maid who have the most human connection. The couples have this stilted, British quality to their relationship.

There’s a bit at the end where they appear to be saying non sequiturs to each other, but when you look at the patterns of when the characters speak, there’s some connection. When you view anything with a kernel of truth, people believe you. I could say “The sky is green,” and if I said it with enough conviction, you’d believe me. We tried to find the truth; Once the truth was found, the absurdity naturally followed. I’ve never rehearsed a play this way.

You’re also a member of the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, which has been generating a lot of buzz in the theater community lately. What has that experience been like? It’s been crazy! What I think is the greatest thing that came out of it is the sort of amazing validation that what we’re doing resonates with people. We have a simple mission: go do good work. And where does good work come from? The truth. That’s been the basis for all the work we do. It’s so enormously gratifying. We may have, like, $5, but we’ll continue on! It’s hard running a company. The Barrymore win was insanity and awesomeness. We didn’t think we’d win, so when we did, we lost our minds.

The Bald Soprano at Curio Theatre Company begins tonight, December 2nd, and runs through December 19th. For tickets and more information, go here.

Keep up to date with Ticket’s local arts, culture and events coverage. Here’s how: