The director Alex Timbers, who specializes in shows about historical figures, has collaborated with David Byrne on the galvanizing “Joan of Arc.”
Photo by Pari Dukovic
Written by Rebecca Mead
Five actors gathered in a room on Lafayette Street, in downtown Manhattan, to start rehearsing a new work for the Public Theatre, “Joan of Arc: Into the Fire.” Written by David Byrne, formerly of the Talking Heads, the show recast the enduring, improbable story of Joan—a teen-age girl in medieval France who experienced divine visions, led an army to defeat an occupying power, and was burned at the stake for heresy—as a rock musical that spoke to the current political moment. It was early January, and, that morning, U.S. intelligence officials had arrived at Trump Tower to brief the President-elect, Donald Trump, on the findings of an investigation into the recent election, in which they had concluded that President Vladimir Putin, of Russia, had acted to insure the defeat of Hillary Clinton. Inauguration Day was looming, and the rehearsal room had a troubled mood that reflected more than the ordinary anxieties of creating a show.
The actors arranged four tables into a rectangle and sat down with Alex Timbers, the director of “Joan of Arc.” Timbers, who is thirty-eight, is tall and fine-featured. He wore a denim shirt and black jeans that hung off his lanky, slightly hunched frame. His hair is dark and thick, and he frequently runs a hand through it, like a Romantic poet on deadline.
Despite the air of disquiet, Timbers, who talks like a cool high-school teacher—lots of vocal fry, the repeated use of “awesome”—addressed the cast with rousing enthusiasm. He explained that, though the show had been in development for two years, it remained a work in progress. “I don’t think anything is sacred—we are going to be building this together,” Timbers said to the actors, all of whom were men except for Jo Lampert, a thirty-one-year-old newcomer, who was to play Joan.
Timbers presented a scale model of the stage design, which had been conceived by Chris Barreca. When built, the set would be black and austere, and filled with enormous L.E.D. screens. A staircase extended from wing to wing, and at center stage there was a vertiginous platform. The set was on a turntable, and as it revolved it represented everything from a cathedral to a prison tower. A six-piece rock band was to be installed, in cutout platforms, on the stairs. The music demonstrated Byrne’s facility in different genres, and included elements of pop, jazz, and reggae, though Timbers likened its predominant mood to the numinous Nordic rock of the band Sigur Rós.
Timbers planned to use few props onstage, but, in a corner of the rehearsal room, a cabinet contained items that could have been borrowed from the set of “Game of Thrones”: swords, goblets, a crown. Timbers invited the cast to play with the props as they attempted to straddle the fifteenth and the twenty-first centuries. “One of the keys to any successful musical is everyone telling the same story,” he said. “We are creating our own little world here, and while we are doing that we want to be sure that the things that excite us about it are the same things.”
To give the actors a sense of what excited him about the musical, Timbers turned to a text published in 1896: the preface of Mark Twain’s “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc,” a fictionalized retelling of her life. Timbers read aloud:
When we reflect that her century was the brutalest, the wickedest, the rottenest in history since the darkest ages, we are lost in wonder at the miracle of such a product from such a soil. She was truthful when lying was the common speech of men; she was honest when honesty became a lost virtue; she was a keeper of promises when the keeping of a promise was expected of no one; she gave her great mind to great thoughts and great purposes when other great minds wasted themselves upon pretty fancies or upon poor ambitions; she was modest, and fine, and delicate when to be loud and coarse might be said to be universal; she was full of pity when a merciless cruelty was the rule; she was steadfast when stability was unknown, and honorable in an age which had forgotten what honor was.
Lampert, who wears her dark hair in a spiky mullet, and has the long face and androgynous features of a Byzantine icon, stared ahead intently, her eyes brimming with tears. “Damn,” she whispered.
Timbers set the pages aside. “This is a show about faith and self-belief,” he said. “I think that, with the horrors of the context of today, and of 1425, it is really relevant.” He added, “Even the most unlikely individual can change the course of history through will and self-belief, and can make the impossible possible.”
A prolific director, Timbers has since his early twenties specialized in offbeat revisionist fantasies about historical figures. To make the past come alive, he presents it as a modern spectacle, with inventive use of light and video. The first significant work that he directed in New York, in 2003, was “President Harding Is a Rock Star.” Written by Kyle Jarrow, it focussed on Harding’s reputation as a corrupt adulterer, and promoted the theory that Harding died from eating poisoned crab procured by his spurned wife. The show concluded with a danse macabre between Harding and a giant crustacean.
Timbers was last at the Public in 2014, directing Byrne’s début musical, “Here Lies Love”—an exhilarating show, co-written with Fatboy Slim, that used disco music to tell the story of Imelda Marcos, the wife of the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Timbers put the audience inside a simulated night club and staged the action throughout the space, often on mobile platforms. The immersive drama enlisted members of the audience to help tell the story, by serving as mourners in a funeral march, for example, or as participants in a rally. The result was disconcerting: before theatregoers fully realized it, they were applauding the rise of a brutal kleptocrat.
Timbers’s début outing at the Public, in 2009, was “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” a satirical musical about the first populist President. He wrote the script; Michael Friedman wrote the music and the lyrics. Six years before “Hamilton” recast the Founding Fathers as hip-hop strivers—and eight years before President Trump signalled his own historical allegiances by hanging a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office—“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” reimagined Jackson as an emo rock star. (He was played, with brutish charisma, by Benjamin Walker.) For musical inspiration, Friedman listened to such overwrought bands as Dashboard Confessional; the play’s first song begins, “Why wouldn’t you ever go out with me in school?” Friedman told me that emo, which “is actually music that Alex listened to,” is “so emotional that it’s ridiculous, and so ridiculous that it’s emotionally affecting.” He went on, “I think this is the secret to Alex’s work—something becomes so ironic that it actually becomes true.”
The show was transferred to Broadway but closed after three months. It was only slightly ahead of its time: the opening number, “Populism, Yea, Yea,” featured angry citizens singing such lines as “Take a stand against the élite / They don’t care anything for us / And we will eat sweet democracy / And let them eat our dust.” With profane swagger, Jackson declared, “The American people deserve an alternative to croquet-playing cock-gobblers. I’m gonna fucking shit all over you guys with my brand of maverick egalitarian democracy.”
Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, said, “Alex recognized not just that populism was coming but the particular combination of ludicrous and dangerous that populism is. You can’t quite get a fix on the show—clearly it is critical, but it also understands and embraces what is attractive about that kind of populism.” The show’s satirical tone had its detractors, however: Native American artists, and others, criticized it for insensitivity in its depiction of the genocidal Trail of Tears.
Eustis first encountered Timbers’s work in 2008, when Timbers wrote and directed an Off Off Broadway musical called “Dance Dance Revolution.” Loosely based on the Japanese video game of the same name, and set in a future in which dance has been outlawed, it had a cast of fifty-six; the theatre’s capacity was only ninety-nine people. “It was nuts, but there was a commitment to accessibility, and it was completely playful,” Eustis said. “Alex likes to take risks, but he does it in a way that is passionately concerned about the audience’s experience. He seduces them.”
Presenting “Joan of Arc” in the age of Trump gave Timbers’s task added urgency, Eustis said: “The question of resistance to oppression suddenly feels like it’s our daily bread. There is a need to say that legal authority and power are not the most important thing—that the most important thing is the power of conscience, of what we know is right, and that that is not just an internal matter. It is something that can lead a nation to rebel.”
On January 15th, in a large rehearsal space at the Public, Timbers and the cast began staging Joan’s defense of the city of Orléans. A scaffold had been set up to simulate the staircase set. He told his actors to imagine themselves as “British football fans” caught up in a “pub celebration—very aggressive, with something wild and dangerous about it.” David Byrne, in a bright-blue sweater, sat at a table, helping Timbers refine the storytelling.
In the fourteen-twenties, the English, having established control over the north of France, sought to capture Orléans and, from there, launch an assault on the southern half of the country, which was loyal to the French crown. With the help of their allies, the Burgundian French, the English forces lay siege to Orléans in 1428. Joan declared it her holy mission to defend the city, and the following year she led the loyalist French forces, known as the Armagnacs, to victory.
Timbers, a Yale graduate, is deeply steeped in history and politics—he prefers nonfiction for his leisure reading—and he is well versed in dramatic theory. But he wears his learning lightly. Scott Brown, who co-wrote “Gutenberg! The Musical!,” which Timbers directed Off Broadway, in 2006, calls him “smart but not stuffy,” adding, “He is not a guy who is going to lead with his degree.”
When directing actors, Timbers often invokes pop culture to help them grasp the emotional resonance of a distant historical moment. At one point while guiding Kyle Selig, who was portraying the Dauphin of France as an amusingly callow figure, Timbers urged him to lean back on his gilded throne with his knees spread wide—an adolescent imagining himself as a gangster. “Yeah, you can go ‘Scarface,’ ” he said. He also worked with Sean Allan Krill, who was playing Bishop Cauchon. After Joan is captured by the English, Cauchon urges her to save her soul by declaring that she was lying about hearing messages from God; she initially capitulates, but then recants, which leads to her execution. Timbers observed to Krill that Cauchon’s horrified realization of the trial’s ramifications was his “Lance Ito moment.”
Timbers discussed how the Siege of Orléans should unfold onstage. He referred both to the patriotic oratory of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” and to the frenetic rhythms of battle in a Nintendo game. He placed Joan and her defenders downstage, and had the occupying force jeer at her loutishly from atop the scaffold staircase. The leader of the English forces, the Earl of Warwick, played by Terence Archie, sang with a sneer—“The whore! She speaks! The slut from the farm”—while his men fingered their swords and gestured crudely, singing, “These men? Your pimps! Who do you think you are?” Guided by the movement director, Steven Hoggett—who is best known for his work on “Black Watch,” a propulsive staging of the Iraq War—the English forces engaged the French in highly stylized combat.
During the battle, Joan is hit in the breast by an arrow—its flight through the air would be signalled by a whizzing sound cue. Jo Lampert practiced crumpling in slow motion. She was carried offstage, apparently dead, her arms in a crucifixion pose. “She’s hit!” the English forces crowed. “We got her! She bleeds and she cries!” A few moments later, Joan miraculously reappeared atop the scaffold.
Timbers and Byrne had struggled with the characterization of Joan. “What makes her tricky as a musical-theatre protagonist is the way she is so driven,” Timbers said. Typically, protagonists must overcome self-doubt, but Joan is galvanized from the start. The risk was that her story would feel static, but Timbers decided that Joan’s certainty could come off as thrillingly strange: “What makes her so exciting is that she is such a believer, and believes in herself and has faith in herself.”
In rehearsal, the part was being shaped to play to Lampert’s unusually flexible voice, which can shift from bluesy to pristine in an instant. The presentation of Joan would also capitalize on Lampert’s distinctive looks, which defy previous portrayals of Joan as a buxom warrior (the celebrated painting by Ingres) or as a gamine waif (Jean Seberg in Otto Preminger’s film “Saint Joan”). Lampert is five feet eight but weighs only a hundred and twenty-five pounds; she moves with a punkish slouch, as if her collar were perpetually turned up. Surrounded by ten tall, muscled men, she looked as if she had been plucked from a high-school track team and thrown into an N.F.L. game. Byrne’s music, which featured a number of ringing choral passages that would be amplified to fill the theatre with male voices, heightened the audience’s sense of Joan’s singularity, and of her vulnerability before the implacably masculine institutions of monarchy and Church.
Such gestures helped make Joan of Arc a more sympathetic figure for modern theatregoers, who might otherwise find her an alien presence. Steven Hoggett told me, “By today’s standards, she’d be a religious fundamentalist. She is strident and absolute, and death is beneath and away from her as she moves forward.” Joan of Arc was obsessed with taking her country back, and there have been many unsavory claimants to her legacy—most recently, Marine Le Pen, the French right-wing nationalist leader. Lampert told me that she was determined not to present Joan simply “as a myth.” She said, “This was a real person in real circumstances, not someone written about just to provide us with hope through metaphor.”
But Lampert’s Joan is not an ordinary person: she is a rock star. Onstage, she asserts her dominance by straddling a microphone stand and, later, kicking one over. Byrne said, “There are certain gestures and movements, vocal things, that you can do onstage that are stirring to an audience. I, for the most part, try to avoid those things in performance—it seems manipulative—but in this case it is in service to the character. It gives me license to have her do those things I would never do myself.”
In “Joan of Arc,” Lampert goes through more costume changes than Lady Gaga at the Super Bowl: a leather motorcycle jacket, a skintight chain-mail shirt, a shiny armored jerkin. Timbers and Byrne decided that rock-concert motifs would convey Joan’s conviction and charisma in a way that made sense to contemporary audiences. Presenting Joan as a star, and the audience as her implicit fans, would also coax theatregoers into believing in Joan’s rightness of purpose, at least while they sat in the darkened theatre.
Timbers is an aficionado of the rock-concert genre. “It is often where the cutting edge of design and staging is happening,” he told me. The set for “Rocky: The Musical,” which he directed on Broadway, in 2014, and which was also designed by Chris Barreca, employed a gantry structure that mimicked the set of Nine Inch Nails’s 2005 concert tour.
“Joan of Arc,” like “Here Lies Love,” is almost entirely sung, and, because pop-music lyrics are not particularly expository, the staging, the lighting, and the sound design must tell much of the story. In rehearsing the battle scene, Timbers directed the actors to train flashlights on the Earl of Warwick’s face when Joan appeared atop the scaffold, as if resurrected, to underline his fear and horror. The final staging has more than a touch of Grand Guignol: the audience first hears Joan’s avenging voice, apparently coming from nowhere. Then, aghast, the English spot her on an elevated platform at the rear of the stage, silhouetted against L.E.D. lights. Plucking an arrow from her armored breastplate and casting it down the stairs, Joan looks monumental and impregnable, somewhere between Nike of Samothrace and the Terminator.
[Jo Lampert plays the lead role in “Joan of Arc.” In Timbers’s staging, she is frequently surrounded by ten tall, muscled men, so that she looks as if she had been plucked from a high-school track team and thrown into an N.F.L. game.]
Jo Lampert plays the lead role in “Joan of Arc.” In Timbers’s staging, she is frequently surrounded by ten tall, muscled men, so that she looks as if she had been plucked from a high-school track team and thrown into an N.F.L. game.Photograph by Joan Marcus
Timbers is not a director who is especially admired for the nuanced performances he elicits from actors. Nor is he celebrated for reinventing canonical works in innovative ways. Rather, he is best known for helping to generate new work that is unconventional in form and content; his shows often feel raw, improvisational, and energetic, even though this effect is achieved through highly controlled stagecraft. David Korins, the set designer for “Here Lies Love,” told me, “Some directors are great about helping writers, and being great with texts. Some are amazing with actors. Alex is an insightful thinker coupled with a modern-day P. T. Barnum. He has such a specific vision of what he wants his productions to look like—he sketches, and pulls research, and can talk intelligently about design.” Last year, Todd Haimes, the artistic director of the Roundabout Theatre Company, hired Timbers to direct an antic, steampunk revival of “The Robber Bridegroom,” a musical based on the Eudora Welty novella. Haimes said of Timbers, “I don’t know that he is necessarily the first choice for ‘Death of a Salesman’—I am sure he would do a beautiful job, but there are probably ten great directors who could direct that. There is probably only one great director who could direct ‘Bloody Bloody’ or ‘Here Lies Love.’ ”
Timbers’s breakthrough show, in 2003, was another cheeky revisionist biography: “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant,” which recounted the life of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, as if it were a Nativity play. All the actors were between eight and twelve years old, and the set resembled a school gymnasium. When Timbers and his team received a letter from Scientology officials objecting to the production, they leaked it to the Times. The paper subsequently gave the show an admiring review, describing it as “a cult-hit blueprint for a young generation that prefers its irony delivered with not a wink but a blank stare.”
Timbers often becomes involved in a show in its earliest conceptual stages: helping the writer of a musical come up with ideas, or imagining how to convert a film or a book into a stage production. For “Rocky: The Musical,” he devised a spectacular coup de théâtre: a full-sized boxing ring that slid out to extend over the first six rows of seats, displacing audience members onto the stage, where they became spectators to the show’s pugilistic climax.
His taste for new work was born partly of necessity. “People generally don’t get to direct, like, Chekhov or Tennessee Williams until they’re forty-five—there was some adage I heard that you have to have gray hair to direct,” he told me. “I was, like, ‘Wow, they don’t teach you that in college.’ ” But he is also temperamentally inclined to muck around with genre and form. In 2006, Timbers commissioned a friend of his from Yale, Elizabeth Meriwether—now the showrunner of “New Girl”—to write a play based on “Hedda Gabler.” The resulting show, “Heddatron,” featured robots as cast members. The machines, which were built by a feminist robotics collective, didn’t always work as intended, and Timbers incorporated their malfunctions into the production: sometimes a robot would run into a wall and stay there. Michael Friedman, the “Bloody Bloody” composer, told me, “I remember arriving angry, because the concept seemed so stupid. Then I had a moment, near the beginning, where I had a revelation about ‘Hedda Gabler’ that was so pure and true, about how women are portrayed. I was, like, ‘Oh, I understand Ibsen now.’ ”
Timbers favors theatrical effects that do not hide their artificiality yet nonetheless have a powerful emotional impact. In 2012, he co-directed “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a play, by Rick Elice, that provided the backstory to “Peter Pan.” A ship’s rope was ingeniously transformed, through the actors’ manipulations, into a porthole, a mirror, and the churning surface of the sea. Like “Bloody Bloody,” “Peter” began with a direct address to the audience. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” Timbers said. The idea was to “immediately kick down the footlights and say, ‘O.K., you’re here, you can see me—we’re all in this room together.’ ” (Timbers is directing a forthcoming Broadway adaptation of “Beetlejuice,” and he told me that he plans to embrace the mayhem-making potential of the title character, who “should be able to smash down the fourth wall and land in your lap, if necessary.”)
“Peter and the Starcatcher” transferred from a downtown theatre to Broadway, and ended up winning five Tony Awards. But Timbers has sometimes struggled on Broadway. “Rocky: The Musical” closed at a loss, after a six-month run. Last year, he was fired as the director of Disney’s “Frozen: The Musical,” which is being planned for Broadway. He was replaced by Michael Grandage, the veteran British director. Thomas Schumacher, the head of Disney Theatrical Productions, told me, diplomatically, “Alex is gigantically talented, but sometimes you get to a place where, creatively, you are not on the same page.”
Timbers isn’t at liberty to discuss “Frozen,” but he bristles at any implication that his success with avant-garde theatre might preclude his success in the mainstream. “I think it’s an easy narrative to say, ‘Oh, Alex does edgy, weird things and there isn’t always a place on Broadway for that stuff,’ ” he told me. “Off Off Broadway and Broadway have a lot more in common than people think. The greatest, most successful Broadway shows—be it ‘The Lion King’ or ‘Rent’—are all doing something formally experimental.”
Timbers’s earliest influences were rock music, comedy, and movies. “I remember seeing this U2 concert when I was in high school,” he recalled. “They had this hanamichi”—a catwalk that extends into the audience—“and Bono and the Edge came out. The Edge had an acoustic guitar, and Bono sang ‘Staring at the Sun,’ and it was, like, ‘Wow.’ It was a huge gestalt shift.”
Theatre was of less interest. “I had seen theatre as this rarefied, élitist thing that really didn’t speak to much in my life,” he said. Then, in 1993, he went to the Broadway production of “Tommy.” He recalled, “It was in dialogue with popular culture—there were music-video visuals, there was cinematic staging, it was loud, and it felt brash and vital. It felt to me that it was important you were there—that the show couldn’t have happened without the audience.” Timbers, who was born in 1978, is too young to have seen the Talking Heads in concert. “But I have seen ‘Stop Making Sense,’ like, five times,” he said. The film begins with Byrne walking onto a bare stage with a portable stereo. He plays a cassette tape, which turns out to contain the backing track to “Psycho Killer.” Timbers said, “The theatrical engine of building the whole thing just from a person with a boom box—I have certainly thieved that many times in my own work.”
Timbers grew up on the Upper East Side. His father was an investment manager; his mother worked in the legal department at Sotheby’s. They divorced when Alex was in elementary school, and he lived with his mother, in the East Eighties. When he and two friends were in seventh grade, they created their own public-access TV sketch show, “The Shamu Review.” Timbers recalled, “We would do restaurant reviews where we would have a sign that said ‘Good Food?,’ and we would go outside restaurants and hold it up and get reactions. We had a segment called ‘Pyro Time,’ when we would get a fish from Chinatown and a cork stick of dynamite, and blow it up, and play ‘Carmina Burana’ over it. It was irreverent and dumb, and kind of smart.”
At the time, Timbers was a student at Buckley, a buttoned-up Manhattan private school for boys, but the school’s focus on sports and competitiveness didn’t suit him. He became friends with kids at other schools, and they more closely resembled the protagonists of Larry Clark’s 1995 movie, “Kids,” for which Timbers auditioned. Timbers said, “Growing up in New York, living alone with your mother, you grow up really quickly. You are out doing things at a younger age than anyone else is doing in the country. You fend for yourself and make your own friendship circles. You do drugs at an earlier age. ” (Timbers drew on his background when he helped create “Mozart in the Jungle,” the Amazon series about classical musicians, which is set in a privileged Manhattan milieu.)
After ninth grade, Timbers chose to live with his father, his stepmother, and his two young half brothers, in the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest. He attended the local high school. “I had never gone to a co-ed school, and I had never had an experience out of the city, and I had never really had a conventional family life,” he recalled. “Lake Forest was not the most diverse place in the world, but it was a very new experience to be in, like, a John Hughes suburb.”
The school had its own television studio, and the students wrote, directed, and produced programming. “The first thing I made was when I got a tour of the local police department, and I made a music video to the Cypress Hill song ‘Pigs,’ ” Timbers said. “It was in bad taste, but people couldn’t believe the access I got.” Timbers contributed to a student sketch-comedy show, and went on to run it. He recalled, “I did this whole emo thing, set to the Smashing Pumpkins, about a kid whose best friend is a tapeworm, which was played by a pipe cleaner. The kid ingests it, and it creates all this drama with his mom.”
Timbers threw himself into extracurricular activities, in part, because the family life he had sought in Illinois was upended by catastrophe: his half brothers suffered from a rare disease. His stepmother and his siblings spent Timbers’s junior year pursuing medical treatments outside the state. Both boys died before reaching school age. “The tragedy and victories that one normally might have were amplified in my life,” Timbers said. “That sort of duality became intertwined as I started to create work in high school. What came out of that was trying to find comedy in dark situations, and trying to find the subversive side of what might seem like sunny situations.” Chekhov is among Timbers’s favorite dramatists, for this very quality. “It’s funny, funny, funny, and then it suddenly turns on a dime, and it’s deeply sad,” he said. “Those kinds of juxtapositions, to me, are really exciting.”
Timbers entered Yale in 1997, and enrolled in the film program. But, as a fan of Tim Burton and David Lynch, he was dismayed by how theoretical the classes were, and gravitated instead toward the theatre program. As a senior, he directed a memorably Brechtian production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Aaron Lemon-Strauss, one of Timbers’s contemporaries, was in the audience. “It was classic Alex Timbers—having fun, singing songs—but every once in a while there would be these super-subversive elements,” Lemon-Strauss recalled. “During one of the big dance numbers, the stage went black, and the light went on the audience, and the actors stopped and stared at the audience for laughing at women being objectified.”
In a class on experimental theatre, Timbers studied videos of productions by Richard Maxwell, Robert Wilson, and the Wooster Group. He and some classmates were inspired to create a dance work, called “Une Pièce de Mouvement Historique avec le Géométrie,” that told the history of mathematics through the lives of Copernicus, Thomas Jefferson, and Le Corbusier. “We wore sherbet-colored pants, and wifebeaters, and the music was all Steve Reich and Philip Glass,” Timbers recalled. The show lasted only twenty minutes, but audiences were told to arrive half an hour early, for a reading period: Timbers and his friends had created an elaborate study packet. “The show was like a Xerox of a Xerox—a confused parody of something we had never seen,” Timbers said. “But it was also a way of trying out avant-garde tropes.”
After college, Timbers returned to New York. He and a friend from Yale, Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum, presented a production of “The Fever,” Wallace Shawn’s lacerating 1990 satire about liberal complacency, in the homes of friends and acquaintances. “We went and did it in every Upper East Side living room that we could get access to, and said, ‘Invite your friends,’ ” Timbers said. “Jacob performed this ninety-minute monologue about going to another country and seeing poverty. Meanwhile, people were sitting around drinking wine and eating cheese.”
In 2002, Timbers founded a downtown theatre company, Les Frères Corbusier, with Lemon-Strauss and Jenn Rogien, another Yale grad. The goal was to make absurd, experimental work, often with found material. Rogien, who is now a costume designer, said, “Alex had this unique approach—taking these somewhat dry and boring historically grounded figures and making something compelling and provocative out of them.”
Timbers rented an apartment in the theatre district, next door to the Walter Kerr Theatre, which was showing “Proof”—an intelligent but staid play. “My apartment, meanwhile, was filled with all these fluorescent tubes and old TVs and weird disco balls—all the stuff we would use for downtown shows,” Timbers recalled. “I became the person you called when you needed a fog machine.”
He still lives in the theatre district, though several years ago he moved into a sleek high-rise overlooking the Hudson River. The apartment is decorated with a designer’s eye for color—gray furnishings, orange accents—and with ironic postmodern touches. In the living room, there is a plaster bust of Caesar Augustus, painted to look as if it were made of aluminum; in the bedroom hang two oversized photographs of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, which were salvaged from an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society and repurposed for a Les Frères show. Timbers acknowledged that, during his dating years, they were an interesting talking point. He now lives with his girlfriend of five years, Rebekah Melocik, a musical-theatre lyricist who also teaches chess to children. Their commitment was sealed after she pulled an eight-month-long prank, pretending to stalk Timbers in the guise of an obsessed admirer. “I thought it was weirdly loving and thoughtful that someone would put so much time into screwing with your reality,” Timbers told me.
In 2006, David Byrne attended “Hell House,” which Les Frères presented at St. Ann’s Warehouse. Timbers created an immersive house of horrors by following the instructions of a “scare them straight” kit, which evangelical churches use to frighten parishioners about the consequences of homosexuality and other “sins.” Byrne told me, “ ‘Hell House’ was found theatre—‘Let’s take something and represent it in a new context, and amp up the staging a bit, but not do anything else to it.’ To me, that was genius. You knew that Alex had a point of view, but for the most part he stayed out of it. It was left for you to go, ‘Oh, my God.’ ”
“I was very interested in the Brechtian idea of negative argument,” Timbers said. “So much theatre about politics is hagiography or a polemic.” He sought not just to lampoon historical figures, or to valorize them, but to create an uneasy sympathy. “Boozy,” another Les Frères show, featured Robert Moses as a messianic figure, and cast Jane Jacobs, the anti-development advocate, as the villain of the piece. “The idea was that, by arguing the opposite of the truth, you unlock something, and see something in a new way,” Timbers said. “The thing that made you feel that the piece worked was not a good review. It was when someone came back a month later and said, ‘I read “The Power Broker” because of you.’ ”
“Joan of Arc” represents a significant shift in strategy for Timbers, because he plays Joan’s heroism straight: her saintliness is never subverted. As rehearsals began, he told me, “I’m starting to get more skeptical of satire in musical theatre.” He added that “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” with its irreverent levity, now feels to him like a show conceived by a young man. “What I love about ‘Joan of Arc’ is that it’s hugely hot-blooded and emotional,” he said.
In early February, Timbers and his team began technical rehearsals at the Public’s Newman Theatre, where “Joan of Arc” was to be performed. Timbers, in a baseball cap, shared extremely precise notes on sound and lighting, which he’d scribbled on a legal pad. Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum, Timbers’s friend from Yale, told me about a night when he and Timbers went dancing in San Diego with the cast of a show: “There was this totally spectacular d.j. performance, that had this incredible lighting design—it was something Alex had never seen before. So while everyone was jamming to the music Alex turns on his phone and is recording the effect of the light. To see that pure delight in the visual mastery—to cease dancing, and to record the whole light plot—that reveals a lot about what gets him out of bed.”
Inside the Newman Theatre, Timbers focussed on a scene in which Joan is inducted into a company of French soldiers through a series of gruelling physical exercises. Timbers stood in the auditorium adjusting the actors’ positions—five inches to the side here, thirty degrees to the right there—to create the desired tableaux. With a week to go before previews began, major adjustments were still in order. Bright side lighting was casting the set in unattractive relief. “It looks like scenery we cobbled together—we either need to embrace that or clean it up and make it look monolithic,” Timbers declared. The costumes were also being tinkered with: Timbers didn’t like the Dauphin’s cape, which was in blue crushed velvet. “It needs to be like the cape Macklemore wore at the MTV awards,” he said, referring to a matador outfit that the rapper wore in 2013. “This is a little too Henry VIII.”
Previews began less than a month after Inauguration Day, and during the following weeks Timbers began to allude more and more directly to the political drama unfolding outside the theatre’s walls. As audience members filed in, they were confronted by a banner, hung across the stage, bearing the words that Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, had recently used to stifle the dissent of Senator Elizabeth Warren: “She was warned; she was given an explanation; nevertheless, she persisted.” At the start of the show, a video montage of protest imagery rolled back the years from 2017 to the fourteen-twenties: it began with photographs of the Women’s March and ended with woodcuts representing the Siege of Orléans. Timbers imbued the opening moments of the show with a sense of gloom and defeat. Ten male actors, dressed in contemporary work clothes, delivered a chorus of hopelessness in the face of the Hundred Years’ War and, by implication, of the Trump Administration.
Timbers had expected the show to be opening at the start of a Hillary Clinton Presidency. He had told me, “I thought the show would be hopeful, and now I’m hoping it stands chest-proud, as the wind blows against it.” The violence exerted against Joan, and her grim struggle with political opponents, now has an added resonance. Twice in the show, Joan is grabbed by the pussy—she is examined to determine if she is a virgin, as happened in historical fact. This may be the first musical to incorporate into its stage directions the fondling of a medical speculum.
Although the show is Timbers’s most sincere production, his gift for comedy does not go to waste. The institutional forces that conspire to destroy Joan are presented with gleeful mockery. The French nobles are effete and opportunistic, and serve an unworthy monarch: at Timbers’s request, the Dauphin’s cape has been altered to include a hoodie with dangling white drawstrings. A phalanx of dancing clerics, in mitres and purple-and-gold tunics, suggest a papal conclave performing backup at a Prince concert. And Joan’s moment of triumph—the crowning of the Dauphin in the cathedral at Rheims—is enacted with goofy exuberance. French courtiers twirl and toss flags like oversized cheerleaders, dancing in front of L.E.D.-generated stained-glass windows.
Such moments throw into relief the harrowing culmination of Joan’s short life, and the violence of her end. In one preview that I saw, a camera installed on the lip of the stage filmed Lampert’s face during the trial, and projected the image onto a screen behind her: drenched in harsh white light, Lampert looked both haggard and unbroken. The effect conjured up the jumbotron simulcast of a pop star in a stadium concert, or of a political figure at a convention. By framing Lampert’s face in tight closeup, Timbers was also alluding to a cinematic Joan of Arc: Renée Jeanne Falconetti, the star of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film. The staging turned Joan into a populist leader, a sacrificial victim, and an icon of resistance: an urgently contemporary figure demanding an immediate response. Two weeks before opening night, Timbers sent me an e-mail: “More and more, it feels like the show is sitting in dialogue with ‘tragedy of the intellect’ plays, like Brecht’s ‘Galileo,’ ‘Coriolanus,’ or Ibsen’s ‘Enemy of the People.’ It is about an individual who knows what is right in a time when it would be easier to be silent.”
At one point, Timbers told me, “I always want that kind of pact you make with the audience.” With “Joan of Arc,” he was determined to stir theatregoers, and he kept imagining himself as someone watching it for the first time. “What, when I leave the theatre, do I want to be feeling?” he asked me. “Do I want to take action? Is it ‘I want to look up Joan on Wikipedia’? Or is it ‘I want to start an organization’? That’s the kind of stuff I am thinking about.”