Bain Boehlke has become a legend in local theater by directing the only way he knows how: conducting an endless and exhausting search for the truth of a play.
Bain Boehlke had dressed up for rehearsal. A TV crew would be getting footage of the Jungle Theater founder as he directed an afternoon rehearsal of "Waiting for Godot" and as the crew tested sound levels, Boehlke sat quietly, reading "The Dramatic Notebooks of Samuel Beckett."
"Do you want us to overact for the cameras?" Allen Hamilton asked the director.
"I don't think there's any room left to overact," Boehlke deadpanned.
Boehlke then watched his cast -- Hamilton, Jim Lichtscheidl, Nathan Keepers and Charles Schuminski -- walk through the first act of Beckett's classic work on human relationships. He wrote just a few notes and never spoke.
The act ended and Boehlke offered his thoughts, beginning with the script's first beat.
"I think he has a stone in his shoe," he said about the moment when Keepers' Estragon winces while trying to pull off a shoe. "I think he has a stone in his shoe. You know, I had a stone in my shoe last week and I was in a place where I couldn't take the shoe off. I was in a store and I couldn't get to it. It stayed in there. You know what I mean?
"Now, the opening scene," Boehlke continued. "This first scene is more available than we think. This opening section has air in it. That's a consideration, but not a deep consideration. These are not mental things."
On it went for 45 minutes, Boehlke parsing the script line by line, suggesting meanings and interpretations, specific readings -- and digressing into etymology, theology, psychology or what he had done the night before and why it was relevant.
"The greatest failure is to think that all we need is to discuss this," he said without a hint of irony about his lengthy oration. "These things need to be worked. We need to rehearse these things."
The film crew, which had packed up, wanted to leave but they needed to retrieve the microphone attached to Boehlke's shirt collar.
"Let's take a break here," Boehlke said. "I'm blathering on with different stuff here, trying to get some thoughts out -- laying down some alphabets. That's how we talk, we use so much shorthand. You know what I mean?"
Still asking questions
More than 50 years after he got into the theater game, Bainbridge Boehlke, 73, is still in full voice. The production that opens Friday marks the third time he has directed "Waiting for Godot," yet he refuses to rest on previous interpretations. He directs in the style that has made him legendary: exhausting himself, his actors and the text and hoping that something like a play emerges.
No matter how much success he has enjoyed -- McKnight Distinguished Artist Award, Ivey Lifetime Achievement winner, more than 20 years leading the Jungle -- Boehlke finds a new anxiety and compulsion with each piece. He refuses easy answers.
"Theater isn't just a play," he said. "That would be stupid. When you've been in theater as long as I have been, you understand what's at stake. I'm into the human heart. It all begins and ends with understanding about the suffering."
Boehlke sees language as the key to a play, yet feels words are imprecise and almost cheap in their inability to convey honest emotion. He says he doesn't consider his process to be intellectual, but he will expound for the better part of a two-hour lunch on theology, history, arcane aspects of existentialism and his current fascination with Olympic athletes.
Actor Terry Hempleman, who first worked at the Jungle in 1991, perfectly captured the man in an essay he wrote when McKnight honored Boehlke in 2009:
"If you wrote a book about how to direct a play, Bain would get everything wrong," Hempleman wrote. "He talks too much and doesn't let the actors 'try it.' He will call you for rehearsal and then make you wait for hours while he is working on the first three lines of the scene before yours. And then there is the falling-asleep thing. [He's known for nodding off in rehearsal occasionally.] The first thing he does in rehearsal is commit what many actors consider an unforgivable offense: He gives 'line readings.' He tells the actors how to read not just any given line, but every single line sometimes."
So why do actors come back for this adventure in crazy town?
"Every production becomes an examination of life, politics, male and female sexuality, Western civilization, our work as artists, and ourselves," Hempleman wrote.
"He's not like anyone else I've ever worked with," said Stephen Yoakam, who has acted several times with Boehlke. "You're not going to leave any stone unturned."
Before Yoakam embarked on "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" with Boehlke, he took co-star Michelle Barber out to lunch to give her a heads-up about the director.
"He told me to hang tight and be patient," Barber recalls. "Because everybody had said, 'He'll drive you crazy.' And then on my first line of the play, he had me say it about 15 times over and I thought, 'Oh, my God.'"
Barber, though, has become a fierce advocate for Boehlke's passion, his attention to detail and his incredible ear.
"I would say a line and he'd say, 'Say it a little higher; now say it like a little child,'" Barber said. "He had this great way of musically singing the line."
Keepers, who worked with Boehlke in "The Swan" several years ago, said he would advise neophyte actors to put on their armor before stepping into the rehearsal room.
"Don't be too sensitive," Keepers said. "The stuff that comes out of his mouth is fantastic. And don't think that he's out of his mind. He knows exactly what he's doing."
It's in the language
Interviewing Boehlke offers a primer on what actors go through. Waiting to cross Lyndale Avenue near his south Minneapolis theater, Boehlke talked about his latest capital project at the Jungle.
"We're putting in new seats," he said. "I have three priorities, in this order: comfort, cost, aesthetic. Being comfortable is so important to me. Some theater practitioners don't care about comfort and I get so mad. But you have to do it right. This is the first time in 10 years, so we don't have any history we can look at; there's no example we can look at."
As he sits down to lunch, he launches, unbidden, into his history with "Godot." The first time he did it, he imagined the principal characters of Vladimir and Estragon as motorcyclists.
"This is what happens with contemporary directors, especially with plays that they feel are abstract, but they aren't; they are really quite specific. The utterances, the language, they're quite specific."
Ah, the obsession with language, what Boehlke calls the "specificity of vernacular and idiomatic melody and tempo."
Ask the actors, he says, "They'll tell you I'm a bear about that."
Indeed. Yoakam said Boehlke is capable of "talking for 40 minutes about the word 'otherwise,'" searching for the "rhythms of the language, and not just in what the words mean, but how they sound."
Two minutes later, Boehlke noted Beckett's belief that "words fail."
"I mean, if words were sufficient to a happy world, everything would be hunky-dory, wouldn't it, because there are plenty of words going around," Boehlke said. "But words arise from impure springs of the human psyche."
This leads Boehlke to talk about resentment, the loss of innocence, human origin stories, Jung, grace, epiphany, love, the miracle of 50-year relationships (such as Estragon and Vladimir in "Godot") and "the whole deal -- the real deal."
"Living together in community without brutalizing and demeaning each other," he explains.
Hempleman chuckled when told about Boehlke's need to talk.
"He never speaks from anything but the purest of heart," Hempleman said. "The talking thing is not from ego; it's from a need to understand and be understood. He's still Hamlet. He has so many questions."
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299