True West Director Isaac Byrne on Rejuvenating Theatre Audiences

“To be perfectly honest, I was really excited to do True West,” director Isaac Byrne says of his current production for the Curious Frog Theatre Company. “The idea of doing it in a found space seemed really cool, too. The idea of doing it with an all-Asian cast — in the beginning, I was like, ‘Huh. OK.’ I was a little nervous that they wanted to do some heavy-handed political or social allegory. That wouldn’t have been the project for me.

“But by the end of the process, I was very moved and touched by the whole experience. I’ve worked with a lot of hungry and talented actors before; guys who will do anything to nail the moment. Alvin [Chan] and Edward [Chin-Lyn] — I’ve never worked with actors who were so hungry, talented, and thankful. They’re two wonderful actors, but as Alvin said to me once, ‘You know if I’m doing Shakespeare I’m always cast as Horatio. I’m the friend. People never think of me as the lead role in a contemporary play.'”

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The Curious Frog’s True West runs through the end of this month. We caught it on Tuesday, and it’s a must-see — albeit for the brave. The tight, East Village apartment space means you’re right in the middle of Austin and Lee’s wild brawls… toasters, golf clubs, and all.  Click here for ticketing info. Byrne’s upcoming projects include Mommy In Manhattan (“a fun Sex and the City for moms-type multimedia show”) and 52 Man Pickup, which will play the New York Fringe Festival in August. Below we hit him with Flavorpill’s one-question interview.

Flavorpill: So it’s sad but true — most people who go to the theatre are really, really old. How do we change that?

Isaac Byrne: Art is very simply about communication. It’s the simplest form. It’s communicating ideas and emotion to other people. I feel like for a long time, theatre really got away from that. At the same time, we’re competing with film and television, which both do what theatre used to do so much better than theatre ever can. A lot of theatre is bad television. I hate to say that, but it really is. You go, and you’re watching this guy who isn’t as sexy as Brad Pitt, and the director isn’t as good as Steven Spielberg — even one of his bad movies. A great play? There’s nothing better. A bad play? There’s nothing worse. And a bad movie is still better than a good play. But it’s not better than a great play. My feeling is if you can see one of those, there’s nothing in the world better than that.

Take True West. The found space we’re working in is what really sucked me in. I’ve become a believer now in Curious Frog’s mission, and I love them. It’s the fact that you’re not going to get that experience watching TV. You’re not going to have Lee’s trench coat whip past your legs. And you’re not going to witness a moment unfold from behind and watch as an actor’s neck tenses up. There’s this sense of, “Wow. This is what’s happening right now.” You can feel things happening in the room in a way that you can’t with television or film.

That’s why I get upset when I see theatre trying to do what film and television can do. We can’t do it! We have our own strengths. Let’s play to those. Give people an experience that they can’t get while watching TV and film. That’s what will bring them back to theatre. I hope so anyway.

FP: That’s a good answer.

IB: I hope so. You go to school for these things, and then you live in poverty while you’re doing all this. And you ask yourself why. You have to know why!

Images courtesy of Nic Musolino