Slowing Down: A Conversation with Bill Fennelly

(Photo by Diana Lambert)

Although he couldn’t articulate what it was at the time, Bill Fennelly always knew he wanted to be a director.

At the age of twelve, he saw a production of Hedda Gabler directed by Mark Lamos at Hartford Stage Company. Looking up at the stage, he thought, “I want to do that.”

At fifteen, Bill began his own theater company, and at seventeen got his first equity contract when Lamos hired him to be in his production of Julius Caesar. After graduating from the University of Hartford with a degree in Musical Theater Performance, Directing, and Dramatic Writing, he was hired back on faculty to teach the graduate opera program. From there, he became the Associate Director of The Gershwins Fascinating Rhythm, his first Broadway musical.

While attending graduate school at the University of California San Diego, he began working with Des McAnuff, becoming the original Assistant Director on the creation of Jersey Boys. After, he worked on The Lion King tour, Frankenstein, and Cirque du Soleil’s Banana Shpeel

In late 2019, now as an Associate Professor at Drexel University, Bill found himself with a commercial Off-Broadway venture, regional theatre offers, and numerous University projects just on the horizon.

In March of 2020, everything was put on pause.

Despite these unfortunate odds, Bill has continued to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic, bringing light to the events that occurred during this period through the development and direction of original verbatim play Essential.

I had the opportunity to speak with Bill and hear first hand about his experience as a professor and award-winning stage director during this time. In our conversation, he discussed his pre-pandemic projects and their momentum, the pandemic pause, the creation of Essential, his own reflection and transformation, and the future of the entertainment industry. 

Below is his story.

Pre-Pandemic Projects

What was happening in your professional life before COVID-19?

“I had just come back from a sabbatical that I had packed really full – I was developing a world premiere jazz project. I also was developing the world premiere actor-musician version of You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown at Cincinnati Playhouse. Then, I went from that project to a one man, 33 character play in Hartford. From there, I went to Taipei developing a Musical Theater Directors Lab in Taiwan for Taiwanese directors, and I was in the development process for a world premiere Panto at People’s Light. I was also in pre-production for a new production of I Hate Hamlet that was supposed to open up this fall at the Maltz Jupiter Theater in Florida and getting ready for a production of The Laramie Project at Drexel. 

Upward Trajectory

Can you speak a bit on the actor-musician version of You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown ? 

“I have been collaborating with Nick Cearley and Lauren Molina of the Skivvies on the development of this project for several years. We had a very successful run at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park a year ago. Then in January, we were invited to New York to meet with a lead producer and a major commercial producing organization at one of their Off-Broadway theaters. It became clear that there was serious interest in trying to bring our actor-musician You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown to New York in the summer of 2020. There was real momentum.

It was exciting to think, right before the pandemic, ‘Oh, there’s a commercial Off-Broadway venture on the horizon.’ I was feeling really, really positive about where things were heading. Then everything shut down, and that was really scary.” 

Put On Pause

How have your professional projects been affected by COVID-19?

“The Charlie Brown project has been paused. There is conversation around trying to deliver it, maybe not in a theater initially, and we are hoping we will be able to be a part of the reopening in New York when theaters are able to open again safely. The I Hate Hamlet project was postponed. We are slated to resume work on that in February of 2022. We’ll see what happens with that, but I’m hopeful.”

An Undetermined Definition of Essential

How did Essential come to be?

“As we started to have a conversation about the 2020-2021 season at Drexel, I pitched the idea that I would teach a documentary theater class in the fall, that we would generate interview material, and then transition into some sort of production in the winter quarter. I knew that I wanted to work with David White, so we brought him on board and he and I began to brainstorm ideas. One of the things we said in the early days of it was that we didn’t want to recapitulate the horrors of the pandemic. We wanted to create something forward-looking and positive.

We didn’t really have the idea yet until the first night of the curfews here in Philadelphia after George Floyd’s death. It was a 6pm curfew and my husband and I were walking our dog in Center City. As we were walking this young security guard came to the corner. He was loaded down with bags and he had his dinner in his hand. He looked at his phone and he said, ‘They’ve stopped running the buses. How am I going to get home?’ I said, without even thinking, ‘Our car’s right here if you want. We could run you home.’ It just felt like this was not a night for anyone to be out on the street. It took us about 20 minutes to drive him home to that neighborhood and we had this great conversation about so many things – human being to human being.

When he got out of the car this light bulb went off. I was inspired by his heroic act of going to work, and all of those people who were continuing to go to work everyday. People who were leaving their homes to try to keep our communities, our society, open and moving forward at a time when we were so uncertain, where there’s so much death and tension, where there was so much distrust. These people who have said that they are going to put themself in harm’s way to continue to earn a living for their families and to keep things going for other people. That was really inspiring to me. There was a lot of early conversation around this whole idea of ‘essential’ and who was ‘essential.’ We began to widen out the lens of the project and we began to look at not just who, but what has been ‘essential’, and what are the lessons from this time that we can use to build a better world.”

Evaluation and Reflection

How have you dealt with the changes that have occurred during this time?

“There are a lot of challenging things. Watching the news reports and watching the numbers rise was just so infuriating and scary. Watching all of the political tension and division around it was really frustrating. I knew people who were really sick. I’ve known people who’ve died. That’s been really hard.

It’s been a really incredible period to evaluate what really matters. How to be healthier about working and about living and taking care of yourself and each other. The importance of self-care and the importance of creating spaces where people feel like they can be healthy. This has been an intense, painful period of personal reflection and professional reflection. But the good things that have come out of it are really good. It’s just forced me to slow down. I guess I didn’t realize how much I needed to slow down until this forced shutdown happened. The things that I’ve learned about my own health, my own well-being, my way of working – what I’ve been able to spend time thinking about and working on has been really positive.”

Resiliency and Return

What do you think lies ahead for the future of the entertainment industry?

“I think in the long run the theater is going to be fine. We are resilient creatures. It’s not going anywhere. I do worry very much about the impact this is having on the lives and well-being of theater artists. It’s devastating and every day that goes by it gets harder. A positive thing that has come out of this time is the creation and acceptance of new ways of delivering content and I think that will be with us forever, I think that is a good thing. I don’t think Broadway theaters or regional theaters are going to become obsolete. People love going into those spaces, humans crave the communal experience, so I know we will return to those spaces eventually. But it’s going to require a vaccine. It’s going to require a real commitment to social distancing outside of those spaces. There may be a period where we have to wear masks as audience members when we go into those spaces, and I’m willing to do that. I hope when we’re able to return that we will be able to go back to full operational capacity. We go back to Broadway. Regional theaters reopen. Our theater-going culture returns. We embrace a wider array of diverse voices who will create new stories to help us better understand who we are.”

The Ongoing Transformation

Do you have any words of inspiration to those who may be going through or have gone through similar experiences?

“I’m going to say slow down. There’s so much happening right now, and so much needs to happen. It won’t always be like this. So, if we can start to build more humane methods of doing things, ways of working that are based on listening and breathing and being attuned to the world that we’re in, then we can hopefully carry those discoveries with us as things start to open up and we start to ratchet up the pace.

I feel like I haven’t really breathed in four years. There are political reasons for that, there are professional reasons for that. It was a really good moment for me to just really focus on slowing down and being present. To notice more, to listen more deeply. I went through a period of great reflection. A transformational process, which is ongoing because I don’t think it ever ends. I don’t think you want to have a finish line with this work. 

I am asking, how can I go deeper? How can I be more empathetic? How can I consider more? How can I listen more? How can I sit gently and presently in that space while navigating many truths? How can I be more engaged in things that are about healing? My hope is that I can stay connected to that work when things go back to ‘normal.’ Slow down, continue to breathe more mindfully and keep my pace slower to go deeper, to do more meticulous work.”

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