Interview: Beau Willimon and Aaron Rossini Preview New Play 'Breathing Time'
By Brooke Wylie
Historically speaking, when Beau Willimon puts pen to paper, some compulsively watchable entertainment is the result––if the name doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because you were too busy wondering what Frank Underwood was going to get up to next to read any of the title credits during your latest “House of Cards” binge-watching session, we get it, we’ve been there too.
Even before taking up the mantle of writer and showrunner on Netflix’s cultural phenomenon, Willimon made a splash as the man whose ideas inspired George Clooney’s “The Ides of March”. Willimon co-wrote the script, which was based off of his play “Farragut North”, with Clooney and Grant Heslov.
Given that track record, it should come as no surprise that there is a buzz of excitement surrounding the world premiere of Willimon’s latest play, “Breathing Time”, which is being mounted by New York’s own Fault Line Theatre Company.
During a recent interview, Beau Willimon and Aaron Rossini, a Fault Line co-founder who is also directing the play, talked in-depth about the production and working together to bring it to life.
As it turns out, “Breathing Time” is a play that Willimon wrote the first draft of directly following the completion of “Farragut North”, but ultimately had to set aside as its predecessor started to take up a good portion of his time. Still, Willimon staged several workshops of “Breathing Time” over the years, and it just so happens that the minds behind Fault Line Theatre Company came to know about it by way of one such workshop.
“We knew that it was exactly the type of play that Fault Line loves to do: character driven, socially relevant. So, we started shaking the palm trees to see if we could get Beau to pay attention to us,” Rossini said. “We wanted to expand the type of people that we were working with. We love the play. We’re hoping for the best. I think we impressed Beau a little bit and he impressed us a little bit with his play.”
To hear Willimon speak about his decision to work with Fault Line is to know that the admiration was definitely mutual. “I sat down with them and was really impressed with their passion for the play, with their track record so far and we just hit it off straight away,” he explained. “So from my point of view, this was an opportunity to resurrect a play I deeply cared about and have it see its world premiere here in New York City, with folks who really understood it and who I knew would do a really good job.”
Fault Line Theatre Company was founded in 2010 and the group originally produced classical plays, but Rossini said that they have discovered “quite an affinity for new work” in the years since their launch.
“So often, in the theater world you are jobbing out and doing work for other theater companies, you’re cast in a show, you’re designing a show, you’re directing a show, you’re doing the work that someone else wants you to do. We started Fault Line as an opportunity to do the work that we really wanted to do and to play the way we wanted to play, and rehearse the way we wanted to rehearse and perform the way we wanted to perform. So it was an opportunity for us to really connect to our own work and our own personalities on stage. We wanted to produce socially relevant, character driven plays for today’s audience and employ all of the best people that we know,” Rossini said.
And indeed, it was that ambition and dedication on the part of Rossini and his co-founders that really made an impression on Willimon.
“I remember so many people coming out of grad school or having just moved to New York that wanted to start their own theatre company and they would talk and talk and talk and there was no action, it was all talk. …These folks had that conversation up in Providence (many people in the company met at Brown) they came to New York and they actually made it happen,” Willimon said. “And just to do it at all, but to do it with any amount of success, which they have, is even harder. To find that kind of dedication is rare.”
Both Willimon and Rossini spoke to the collaborative nature that exists in the theatre as both an essential and rewarding part of the process of staging any play.
“One of my favorite things about making plays is how the conversation expands. At first it’s a small conversation, it might be just a conversation that the playwright is having with his keyboard and then that might expand into a conversation with a director or a collaborator and then that expands to a pre-production conversation with a design team and then that expands into casting and then the rehearsal conversation…so it starts with this very personal and individualized experience and opens up really, really wide,” Rossini said.
“There’s 20 people at the theatre right now building the set. It’s one of my favorite moments when I get to walk in and open the door and the set is happening right in front of you…” he added. “I’ve seen the way that the conversation of the play expands into all these artists, it’s amazing.”
Willimon explained that in this case the early conversations he had with Rossini were especially important, as he has spent much time removed from the process given that he is currently in the midst of writing season three of “House of Cards”.
“One of the important parts of this process for me was placing faith in Fault Line to develop and rehearse and design this play without me being able to be involved on a day-to-day basis,” he explained. “I think there’s advantages to it as well…when I come in, I’m seeing it with fresher eyes than a lot of people in that bubble. So, there’s advantages and disadvantages to that, but a definite leap of faith and wonderfully, it’s worked out that each time I’ve come into the rehearsal room the leaps and bounds that Aaron and the cast have made have been so impressive.”
“The cast, when it really comes down to it, is the play. All of these other elements are there in service of the actors…the text is there in service of the actors. So, I knew that if we had a great cast, we had a decent shot of doing something that was good. And we have a stellar cast. They are young, talented ambitious actors who have really dived into this play. It’s a real privilege, I’m lucky to have a cast like this,” Willimon added.
Though Willimon said he is always hesitant to impart a sense of what one could or should walk away from any play feeling, as that’s the work of the play itself, he did speak to some of the motivations and driving elements of behind the play.
“This is a play in which my goal was to really listen to the characters. It’s very observational, like a fly on the wall. the things the characters confront…are alternately devastating and funny. I think that comedy and drama are actually not all that different from one another, it’s just sort of what accent you place the syllable on. In this play, more than any other play I’ve written, that accent twitches back and forth,” Willimon explained. “Ultimately, the play is about loss. It is about the way that we try to make sense of the senseless. There is a tragedy within it, but surrounding that tragedy is a joy and a hope and an attempt, sometimes successfully and sometimes not to connect.”
Willimon also noted that the inspiration behind one of the characters, Jack, was ultimately rooted in a guy who worked for a major financial institution that he frequently encountered at a speakeasy. And not just any speakeasy, but one that he described as “the kind of place Gotti used to go to…for real.”
“He was this fascinating a**hole…I say a**hole endearingly because he could talk your ear off, he was dripping with confidence, he loved life and was not shy about telling you about how much he loved it and also the things that he didn’t love. He just was this verbal tornado,” he explained. “I alternately couldn’t get enough of him and just wanted him to shut up. And the stories he would tell, not just of his financial experiences, but his experiences in all walks of life, when I look back really was the genesis of one of…Jack. So I followed him into the office in my mind, and you don’t have a play that’s just one person sitting on a stage at a desk, so I asked myself, who would he work with?”
Rossini said that it was the depth and humanity of the characters that really drew him to the play.
“For me, one of the most attractive things about this play and one of the things I find so beautiful about it, is that on a day in, day out basis I think that there is something, and I don’t mean this to sound as cynical as it comes off, life is inherently meaningless but what this play tells you is that it’s only meaningless if you don’t make meaning,” Rossini explained. “You have to make meaning out of it. You connect with the people that you connect with..but what’s beautiful about this play…is it could be someone across the train from you on the subway, it could be someone you meet at a restaurant, it could be someone who is sitting next to you at a speakeasy, that’s how we make meaning in life. Not just by being alive, but by forcing it, you have to make meaning yourself.”
“Inside of every single human being there’s this little flame of every version of every human emotion across the entire rainbow of human emotion and some things are extraordinarily easy for a particular actor, some are a little more difficult, but it’s all there. You have this little flame inside of you and it’s our job to fan that flame and really turn it into a huge, huge bonfire sometimes,” Rossini said. “That’s the really, really fun stuff in what we do.”
Willimon agreed, saying that as a medium, the theater can offer things from a creative standpoint that others cannot offer in the same way.
“I think that’s one of the reasons theatre remains my first love. I started out in the theatre long before Hollywood came a’ knocking and I’m very lucky that it has, ‘House of Cards’ is one of the most rewarding artistic experiences of my life and the work that I got to do on ‘Ides of March’ before that, but I was perfectly happy with the notion before all of that happened of spending my entire life in the theatre, because it can do something that film and television can’t, fully, which is that communal, collaborative experience. …Finishing the last page of the play is really only the beginning of the process. Because then you get in the room with the people you have to hand it over to. You really begin to discover the play when more people get involved, and then ultimately it’s a process of letting it go,” Willimon said.
“By the time it gets handed over to the audience, I’m just another one of them…and that’s exciting because you feel like its an artful act of communication and there’s not really any other artform quite like it in that regard.”
As exciting as the moment of revealing work to an audience must be each and every time, it stands to reason that nerves come into play each and every time too. Rossini said that is absolutely tue.
“Never goes away. It’s one of the best things about it. I don’t think there’s an artistic endeavor worth doing that doesn’t cost you something,” he said. “And part of what it costs you is those nerves and excitement and the sort of drum roll leading up to the show opening.”
That drum roll must be particularly loud for both Rossini and Willimon at the moment. “Breathing Time” begins previews on Friday, March 21 and officially opens on Sunday, March 23 at the Teatro Iati Theater.