Turning 100:
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Fall 2012
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Dexter Bullard

by Myra Eder

Curtains rise and stage lights blaze at the Cort Theatre in New York City this fall. A trio of major talents from DePaul is there as the key creative forces behind the scenes of award-winning playwright Craig Wright’s dark comedy, “Grace.”

Dexter Bullard, head of DePaul’s graduate acting program and artistic director of The Theatre School’s Showcase Series, sits in the director’s chair for “Grace.” Costume designer Tif Bullard (SNL ’07) and Nan Zabriskie, head of the makeup program at The Theatre School, complete the trio. It’s the Broadway debut for all three of them, and they all were members of the creative lineup for Wright’s off-Broadway success, “Mistakes Were Made.”

“‘Grace’ asks the big question, ‘How do we establish faith for ourselves?’” Dexter Bullard says in a pre-opening interview.

“And since we really are not in control, how then do we explain what actually happens to us?”

The play’s story revolves around an eager, young evangelical Christian couple that met in a Bible study class in Minnesota. They have moved to Florida to pursue the husband’s dream of launching a chain of gospel motels.

Or, as the New York Daily News labels the potential concept, “Where would Jesus stay?”

Life in their rented condo brings Sarah (Kate Arrington, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Ensemble) and Sam (award-winning actor Paul Rudd) in contact with two personalities whose beliefs are distinct departures from their own. Michael Shannon of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” an ensemble member of Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre, and one of television’s most revered stars, Ed Asner, complete a small cast at odds about the big question. All connect in the Florida building where Sarah and Sam live.

“Grace” opens with the play’s conclusion, a deadly accident that has claimed the life of one person and left another seriously disfigured. The tension builds as the script rolls backward and works toward the life-shattering catastrophe.

Asked about his Broadway first, Dexter Bullard, who has garnered awards across Chicago’s huge theatrical landscape, says a director’s role does not change when the production has a Broadway address.

“I realized the directing you do for any project is what you need to get done. It depends on the material and what you want the results to be,” he says.

“Directing involves practicality and effectiveness.” That is, the director must figure out what will work for any particular scene in a script.

In a 2011 interview with Chicago Public Radio, WBEZ-FM (91.5), Bullard was more specific: “Every project is another example of active sculpture, a different way of applying the same tools: rhythm, structure, motion, intention (all in a) 360-degree world.”

Bullard sharpened those tools during 17 years with the now-shuttered Plasticene, an experimental Chicago theatre company he founded that garnered rave reviews. “Grace” calls on Bullard’s eclectic theatre background with a demanding script. “It’s about humanity, damages, choices and human vulnerability &hellip about what’s happening to people who live in a mundane world and who have these extraordinary experiences—people like all of us.

“(As director) I would like to think (audiences) are reminded that each person has to negotiate what they believe with what actually happens in their lives.”

If Dexter Bullard has a muse, she is Tif, his wife and costume designer for the play.

When asked about her collaboration with Dexter on their Broadway debut, Tif Bullard says, “It came down to who can give Dexter the looks he wants and who will work best with him to do this.”

“For Dexter, it’s all about the play. And we work really well together.”

A dancer, writer and performance artist, she credits her degree from DePaul’s School for New Learning for nurturing her eclectic interests in the arts.

And she is convinced that clothes—costumes—have an intense impact in a play and in daily life.

“I loved clothes as a kid,” she says. “In the fifth grade I began to notice kids treated me differently depending on how I was dressed … and I could manipulate how people saw me with just an outfit.”

“Clothes can create a lasting impact,” she says.

She talked about the first time her now-husband of eight years saw her. “I had blonde hair and was wearing a strapless dress, classic looking, a waif-like Audrey Hepburn. That moment stuck in his brain, and he always sees me as that blonde 22-year-old character.”

“When I’m reading a script, my train of thought focuses on ‘How can I get this (character) across to the audience symbolically, visually. How do I see this character (dressed) and how will the audience perceive it.’ I want the actor to take possession of the costume.”

Zabriskie, who is head of makeup and wigs at TTS, approaches her craft similarly. “Few people really consider the work of a makeup designer. But the effects are critical to how a character is perceived,” she says.

“Makeup is an evolving process, a tap dance between the needs of the theatre and script, the budget and the repeated applications to the actor’s skin.”

“Grace” calls for one complex design. “Michael Shannon’s character lost a lot of skin on his face. It’s an accident,” she says. Zabriskie spent countless hours designing a prosthetic for that effect.

Asked about Asner’s makeup for “Grace,” Zabriskie quips, “There’s no makeup for Ed Asner. He’s wonderful.”

Visit graceonbroadway.com.

Reporter and columnist Myra Eder covered politics and the arts for Star Newspapers in Chicago’s south and southwest suburbs for more than 25 years. As a freelancer based in Tinley Park, Ill., she writes about the arts and business worlds.

Coming up at The Theatre School

Showcase Series
At DePaul’s historic Merle Reskin Theatre
For tickets, call 312.922.1999

“Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika”
by Tony Kushner
directed by Jane Drake Brody
Feb. 8 to 17
Previews: Feb. 6 and 7
Wednesday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, 2 p.m.

“Measure for Measure”
by William Shakespeare
directed by Catherine Weidner
April 19 to 28
Previews: April 17 and 18
Wednesday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, 2 p.m.

MFA 13
World Premiere
by Ike Holter, Alumnus
directed by Dexter Bullard
May 17 to 26
Previews: May 15 and 16
Wednesday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, 2 p.m.

New Directors Series
At the Greenhouse Theater Center
2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago
To reserve free tickets, call 312.922.1999

“The Royal Hunt of the Sun”
by Peter Shaffer
directed by Ian Frank
Feb. 1 to 10
Previews: Jan. 30 and 31
Wednesday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, 2 p.m.

New Playwrights Series
At the Greenhouse Theater Center
2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago
To reserve free tickets, call 312.922.1999

“A Tribute to Thick Leonard”
World Premiere
by Gil Tanner, Class of 2013
director TBA
May 10 to 19
Previews: May 8 and 9
Wednesday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, 2 p.m.

Chicago Playworks for Families & Young Audiences Series
At DePaul’s historic Merle Reskin Theatre
For tickets, call 312.922.1999

“Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy”
by Gary D. Schmidt
adapted by Cheryl L. West
directed by John Jenkins
Jan. 19 to March 2
Tuesday and Thursday, 10 a.m.
Saturday, 2 p.m.
Excluding: Jan. 26, 29, 31

“The Coral King”
by James Ambrose Brown
directed by Ann Wakefield
April 2 to May 25
Tuesday and Thursday, 10 a.m.
Saturday, 2 p.m.
Excluding: Apr. 6, 9, 11, 13 and May 4, 7, 9