By Sheryl Flatow
For J. Barry Lewis, PBD’s virtual reading of The Trip to Bountiful marks his first time officially directing a play by Horton Foote. Unofficially, however, he had a hand in directing the 1988 world premiere of the playwright’s The Habitation of Dragons at Pittsburgh Public Theater, where he assisted the production’s novice director – Horton Foote.

Lewis, who was already an established director, was hired as stage manager for The Habitation of Dragons. “I would stage manage when it gave me the opportunity to work with certain individuals,” he says. “How do you learn to direct? You learn by watching, by observing, and this was an opportunity to sit with the master.” 

He had previously met Foote through a friend, but only got to know the playwright when they worked together to bring the new play to life. “He was one of the kindest, most gentle individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting,” Lewis says. “Because he had never directed a play, I sort of became the de facto director on the side. I didn’t have an official position as assistant director, but I assisted him in myriad ways because not only was he directing, but he was rewriting the script. We spent a lot of time together, talking, watching, listening. Very little takes place in his plays. They’re not about great, big themes; they’re about small, personal themes, which then reveal extraordinary stories of the individuals. For Horton, it was always about the specificness of who these people are in this situation, and what challenges them to rise, sometimes above tragedy, sometimes above the norm. And out of that he created a whole cloth which is theatrical and dramatic.”

Lewis describes The Habitation of Dragons as a play about a dreadful event and how the people affected try to emerge from this tragedy. “It had a large cast and was quite extraordinary in its scope and passion,” he says. “Horton’s method of directing at the time was talking about the story. He was a great storyteller. He would spend half of rehearsal talking about who these people were, the struggle that they were dealing with, and why they spoke the way they did. And he would then let the actors work through their own blocking and intentions, aspects of directing that I had really focused on in my training. He was brilliant at telling and narrating and guiding the actors. The technical aspect of directing was not his forte.

“But I learned from him, in a very important way, the importance of the details that you go into when you’re looking at who the characters are,” Lewis continues. “Characters respond because of what’s written on the page. But the characters are also part of a larger fabric, and the more you understand about who they are and where they come from, the better you understand what their disappointments are and what their joys are. All of those things color character development. I try to marry that with an understanding of the delivery platform I’m working with – the stage we’re performing on, the actors playing the roles.”

Foote’s playwriting career, which spanned 68 years, was launched Off-Broadway in 1941 with a piece called Texas Town. He wrote prolifically, first for theatre and then, when television was taking off, live teleplays. The Trip to Bountiful premiered on The Philco Television Playhouse on March 1, 1953, and had a brief run on Broadway later in the year. “He was a Texas man and he wrote about the people he knew,” says Lewis. “He had a lot of success during the Golden Age of television, and then he went to Hollywood and won an Academy Award for his adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. But the Hollywood work began to slow down, and in the 1970s his plays went out of fashion. So he and his wife, Lily, went to Maine to raise their four children. But he never stopped writing. And in the ’80s, following the success of the movie of The Trip to Bountiful [1985], there was a major resurgence of interest in his work.”
Many of Foote’s plays are about the idea of home or, as Ben Brantley wrote in an appreciation in The New York Times following the playwright’s death in 2009, “the illusion of home.” He said that to Foote, “Home is the prison you can never walk away from and the sanctuary you can never find the entrance to.”

“That’s a spectacular way to put it,” says Lewis. “You can substitute the word ‘family’ for ‘home,’ and that, too, reflects his work. He always wrote about the strengths and weaknesses of family. And there’s no better example of that than The Trip to Bountiful. Here are three people who are trapped; not because of lack of love, because they do love each other, but because of circumstances and because each of their needs is different. And because of the past. The past is always very important in Horton’s work. That which came before is responsible for the present. You cannot negate nor step away from the past. We are who we are because of it.”

When directing a play for the stage, Lewis is known for his extensive research and his meticulous attention to detail, all of which he shares with his cast throughout three weeks of rehearsals. For the reading of The Trip to Bountiful, he has two days of rehearsals and three additional hours on the day of the performance. Clearly, his methodology will be different. “You still share your knowledge, but you can’t get so far into the detail work, the emotional life, the undercurrent that makes these people who they are,” he says. “You just rely on the actors to do a bit more in-depth research or reading than they might normally do. They have to spend time getting to know their character in advance, and fortunately there’s lots of material out there about the play, about the movie, and about the themes. And then you just have to plug it all in, so that the actors can hook into Horton’s voice and style and bring out his original intention. We have a very fine cast, and we’re so fortunate to have Pat Bowie playing the lead. She understudied Cicely Tyson on Broadway [in the 2013 revival of The Trip to Bountiful], and she’ll guide me as much as I’ll guide her.”        
Lewis stayed in contact with Foote over the years. “We’d check in, and he would tell me about his projects,” says Lewis. “Even in those conversations, he was a storyteller, sharing stories about his work. You know, when you read his plays, the dialogue is so simple that sometimes people are dismissive: ‘There’s nothing going on,’ they say. But it’s very much the opposite of that. There is an enormous emotional truth in his work that is not easily accessible at first, but when the door opens, it just floods through. He had a unique, American voice and he stuck with it throughout his career. He believed that his plays were always about the people that populated his world. That’s who he wrote about. They were the essence from which he created all his work.”  
By Sheryl Flatow
Pat Bowie had been studying acting at a small theatre in Chicago for about a year, when the company announced that it was going to be producing the musical Cabaret. She read the script and knew at once that she wanted to play Fraulein Schneider, the sixtyish German landlady who accepts a marriage proposal from the Jewish Herr Schultz but ultimately rejects him, fearful of the brewing storm. 

“I went to the audition and when I said I wanted to play Fraulein Schneider, I was asked, ‘Don’t you want to play Sally Bowles?’” Bowie says. “I said, ‘No, I know I can do her. I want to do this older woman.’ I wore a wig and I sang, and the next thing I know I’m auditioning for everyone in the theatre because no one really knew me. And I got the part. What was interesting was that during the run, older ladies would come backstage and say, ‘Oh, my dear, you did the right thing.’ It was so bizarre. There I was, this young black woman playing this older German woman, and people were talking to me like I was really Fraulein Schneider. But the thing is, I just knew her. As Sophia Loren said in a recent interview, ‘There are some parts you just know.’ You bring yourself to whatever role you play, you find the character within you, and you do it the way you think it should be done. Of course, you take direction, but you know internally who you are and you live from that place.”
Bowie’s approach to acting has served her extraordinarily well. She has worked steadily for decades, appearing on Broadway, Off-Broadway, in London, and in major regional theatres throughout the country, portraying an eclectic gallery of characters. She has twice graced the stage at PBD, first as Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun, and then as Ethel Thayer in On Golden Pond. It’s a career forged out of talent, determination, confidence, and a healthy dose of chutzpah. 

Next Monday night, November 30, she takes on the role of Carrie Watts in PBD’s Zoom reading of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful. Mrs. Watts is an elderly widow who lives unhappily with her son and daughter-in-law in Houston, and longs to return to her hometown of Bountiful one last time. It’s a role Bowie is intimately acquainted with, having understudied Cicely Tyson in the 2013 Broadway revival. But she never got to play the part.

“It’s a play I really like,” says Bowie, who also had a small role in the ensemble of the revival, and appeared briefly in the film version. “And again, I understand this woman. It’s got to be a terrible feeling when you have no control over your life anymore. A friend of mine in London, a very vibrant woman, had a stroke, and now she needs to have someone with her 24 hours a day. I’ve been thinking a lot about that. If you don’t do whatever it is you want to do right away, you don’t know if you’ll ever have the chance to do it. Carrie is looking back at her life and she wants to see Bountiful one last time. She wants to be her own person one last time. It’s interesting to me that when she meets this young girl on her journey, she’s able to talk to her in a way that she hasn’t been able to talk to anyone else. And I know from an experience I once had on a plane, it’s often much easier to share secrets with a stranger than to somebody you know, because you’ll probably never see them again. Who are they going to tell? It makes you feel safer.” 

Bowie met Foote, “a southern gentleman,” when she appeared in the original Broadway production of Dividing the Estate, and has appeared in several of his plays. “What’s fascinating about his work is that nothing really happens, and you think, ‘How can someone write a play in which people just talk, and nothing really happens?’” she says. “But then you realize, something really does happen. By the end of the play, the characters are changed. There’s a darkness in many of his plays, but they’re also funny. He understood that that’s life: people say and do things that make you laugh, even when things are dark.”
Bowie was born and raised in Evanston, Illinois, a Chicago suburb on the North Shore. “People would sometimes refer to it as a ghetto, but it wasn’t,” she says. “It was a wonderful, black community, with a black doctor – a woman – a black dentist, a family of policemen, and aldermen. My father died when I was 2 ½, but the community was very protective. It was great to be part of that, but I also couldn’t wait to get out. And I knew I was going to get out of Evanston and be somebody. I could sing from the time I was a child, and I always wanted to act. I didn’t know how it was going to happen, but I knew it was going to happen. “

When she was 19, Bowie went to work at Saks Fifth Avenue in the neighboring town of Skokie. “The store was having a talent show and I decided I’d be in it,” she says. “I sang ‘La Vie en Rose,’ wearing a big hat. Bob Newhart’s sister worked in the store, and she came over to me and said, ‘You’re wasting your time here. I am going to take you to someone who can give you some training.’ And she found a vocal coach for me.”

Bowie eventually got a job in a nightclub, and one day her future husband (also her future ex-husband) heard her sing and told her he was going to make her a star. He worked for Prestige Records in New York, which signed her to a contract. She cut two albums in the mid-’60s, but her vocal career never took off. It’s mystifying: you can hear her jazzy renditions of “I’ve Got Your Number” and “Feelin’ Good” on YouTube, and she had a terrific voice. “The French love jazz, and someone wrote a tribute to me not long ago. They clearly thought I was dead,” she says, laughing. “My daughter, Jessica, let them know I’m still alive.”
Although Bowie had always wanted to act, she was not actively pursuing a career when she started down that path. A friend, Ruth, who was a film student at Northwestern University, invited her to appear in a film she was making. “There was something I did in the film – I don’t remember what it was – and Ruth asked me why I did it,” Bowie says. “I told her I didn’t know. I just did it. And she said, ‘You need to act.’ I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, so I thought, ‘Why not?’”

It was Ruth who took her to the theatre/acting school where she wound up doing Cabaret. An agent saw the show and signed her. “It took me a while to get my career going because, at first, no one knew what to do with me,” she says. “So, a bunch of us started a group called the Chicago Theatre Company in order to do plays we really wanted to do.

“Our second play was a Brazilian work called Sortilege,” she continues. “I had a friend who was appearing at the Goodman Theatre, and I said to her, ‘Tell Greg Mosher [the artistic director] to come and see the play.’ Well, he came. And I walked up to him and said, ‘So, when are you going to integrate the Goodman?’ I thought, what did I have to lose by asking. He said, ‘Within six months.’ And that’s exactly what happened. I was hired within a few months, and performed there for about 10 years.” Her work ranged from August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone to Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. “I also was in the last play written by Tennessee Williams, A House Not Meant to Stand,” Bowie says. “It premiered at the Goodman, and I got to meet him. I had just one line, but I was thrilled that my name would be listed in the original cast of a Tennessee Williams’ play.”   

Once her career took off, she worked all the time, in Chicago and regional theatres. (She would make her Broadway debut in 1993 in The Song of Jacob Zulu.) She appeared frequently at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, run by a man “who was truly in my corner,” Dennis Zacek. “I did a lot of roles for him that most theatres would not have cast with a black actress,” she says. During this time, a friend told her there was going to be a conference for artistic directors from all over the Midwest, and that they were looking for someone to speak about diversity in acting. “I spoke, and I didn’t think anything would come of it, but what I said was written up in the newspaper. And then I got hired by the Court Theatre at the University of Chicago to play Amanda in Private Lives [in 1987]. It was a mixed cast and a big deal. At one of the talkbacks, someone asked the director, Nicholas Kent, ‘How is it that you decided to have a black actress in the role?’ And he said, ‘Noel Coward actually wanted Josephine Baker to play the part, but he was not allowed to cast her. So, this is not really extraordinary.’”

Bowie worked with Kent at the Court again in 1988, when he directed Mustapha Matura’s Playboy of the West Indies, based on J. M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. Kent had previously directed the play at London’s Tricycle Theatre, where he was artistic director, and Bowie told him that she “wouldn’t mind working in London.” Tricycle Theatre was going to be doing a play about Billie Holiday, and Kent said he would have a part written specifically for her. “I played Billie’s mother,” she says. “It wasn’t a very big part, but who cares. I got to go to London, and I went back once a year for about 12 years to work at Tricycle and other theatres. I also did BBC radio plays, which I loved.” Her notable work in England included tours of Playboy of the West Indies and Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Tricycle productions of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner and Wilson's King Hedley II, which marked the play’s English premiere.

One of the few things Bowie hasn’t done since Cabaret is appear in a musical. “I wanted to be a ‘serious’ actress, so I couldn’t be bothered with musicals,” she says. “It was foolishness on my part.”

Her most recent stage appearance was in Signature Theatre’s 2019 production of Foote’s The Young Man From Atlanta, playing a former maid. In The New York Times, Ben Brantley wrote, “She has the quintessentially Footean name of Etta Doris Meneffree, and she is portrayed by Pat Bowie with a matter-of-factness that feels like pure poetry.”

“It was a small part and it was great fun, and I was glad I didn’t have to carry the show,” she says. “It was perfect for me. I don’t know if I could carry a show onstage at this point in my life, unless I had one of those earpieces. You reach a point where you think, ‘What would be best for me to do now?’ You know, it’s life. You make adjustments. Doing a part like that makes me feel as if it’s a new start. I’m very grateful.”