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Bill Pullman on Visionbox, Healing Wars, and the importance of having a place to experiment

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While many people might recognize Bill Pullman as Lone Starr in Spaceballs or the President in Independence Day, the movie star is also an accomplished stage actor who's passionate about helping the performing arts. He'll be at the L2 Arts & Culture Center tonight to support Visionbox, the Denver actors' studio designed to help locals develop their craft.

We spoke with Pullman about his involvement with Visionbox, his new multimedia piece Healing Wars, and how important it is for actors to have a space to experiment:

Westword: How did you get involved with Visionbox? Bill Pullman: Well, I have known Jennifer Rincon for a lot of years from being in New York together. And then I lost touch with her and we got back in touch when she saw a play on Broadway that I was doing. She was working with the National Theater Conservatory at that time in, like, 2003, and she said that maybe I could come up to work with the students at some point. And I did come up and do a workshop that then led to a larger production of a piece that we created together called Expedition 6. We ended up touring it with eight students from the Denver Center Theatre. In that process, we talked a lot about acting training and the acting styles that are important for unusual...not kitchen-sink dramas, but things that are requiring other kinds of skills from actors, and started a dialogue about that. And then when she had this idea to start a theater company and resource institute, she decided to sort of continue on with some of these practices. And I really was glad to hear that she was developing them, and I wanted to support her and come and participate in the fundraiser.

Why do you think that the kind of training Visionbox is providing for actors is necessary?

Well, you know, there is a base of interest in Denver that's very strong and there are some avenues at the universities that are offering programs, but there are quite a few professionals who are outside the university system. I think that the idea is that a lot of them really want to have not just a place to study and focus on improving their craft, but also a place that they can perform in. And that's the kind of thing that Visionbox is offering. It was the kind of thing that I really took advantage of when I first moved to New York. I was part of a class and production unit called the Image Theater. It was very helpful to have a training area, an exchange of ideas with other students and teachers, and then we created productions that tested out a lot of the work that we were doing in the classes. I ended up doing a production of Curse of the Starving Class, the Sam Shepard play, with other people at the Image Theater, and we ended up taking it to Off Broadway. And that kind of got me going, and I got my first review in the New York Times....So it makes a lot of sense to form these little safe havens to hone your craft.

You'll be performing from Healing Wars at this event. Tell me about that.

Healing Wars: It's an unusual project, unusual for me, too. It's a collaboration with Liz Lerman, who has been the artistic director of a dance theater company called the Dance Exchange, a unique dance company in that it's a multi-generational company and they do pieces in collaborations with non-dance or theater people. So they've done dances with Buddhist monks and nuclear physicists and shipyard builders and those kinds of things in a way of trying to stretch the idea about what dance is. So my wife [Tamara Hurwitz] has been in that company for four or five years, and when Liz stepped down this year from the Dance Exchange she wanted to create a piece with Tamara and I, so I've begun on this piece that she conceived called Healing Wars. It's a piece that's kind of in development, and we hope to be in theaters in about two years. So I thought that maybe I could adapt some of it into the piece that we do for the benefit.

What's the adapted piece like?

It's a kind of a presentational piece that's not going to focus on dancers or anything else, so it's going to be kind of a one-man show, which is taking material that I was focused on and reinventing what is going on around me into a strictly media presentation. So using the media specialist Kate Freer -- she's an amazingly capable videographer -- we're working on doing a lot of interactions with media during this piece. It'll be twenty to thirty minutes' worth of material that'll give a little bit of a sense of some of the issues we've been dealing with in Healing Wars, which is basically a look at at war -- especially the Civil War and the current Afghan and Iraq wars -- as seen through the prism of caregivers. What's the media? Is it documentary-style?

A lot of the text is documentary-style, adapted from non-dramatic documents that have been adapted to work in this kind of work. And a lot of the images are culled from different sources in our research about the Civil War and the current Afghan and Iraq wars. There's everything from lists of names of the dead that Walt Whitman and Clara Barton collected to current discussions with bioengineers who are involved with study of traumatic brain injury in the current wars. So it's a big, wide spectrum. And it'll be a vastly edited piece that'll work to create that collage of different images that will support the text.

Is preparing for something like the

Healing Wars

different from how you prepare for a more normal stage or film role?

Yeah, yeah, this is a very different thing. I've really enjoyed doing this workshop and I hope to be involved with it further, and I'm enjoying the collaboration with Liz Lerman. I told her about this idea of trying to adapt some of the material for this benefit, and she's gonna help shape it and she's helping me keep the link with Kate Freer, and we're going to treat it as yet another kind of incarnation of the research that we'll be doing over two years about this material. And it's a great opportunity to then come to Denver with Jennifer, who's really focusing on new media and how it can be incorporated into production.

How is it different working with new media?

There's a different sense of what character is. You become a vessel for a lot of voices, especially if some points are adapted from a speech that was given by a doctor who treated wounded marines around Fallujah around 2007-2008. Some of it is from a surgeon who was involved with setting up impromptu field hospitals during the Civil War. So it's really thinking about other things than just one character and strict character development, which I'd be normally doing.

You've played such a wide variety of roles over the years. What do you look for in roles to play? Is there any common thread?

I kind of wait so see what the material is and see if it can stimulate thoughts about what to do. I do like certain genres. I like noir kind of stories, I like comedies of all kinds. There's a movie that I did for TNT which is called Innocent that's based on a Scott Turow novel, and this was a well-done script that I thought was very tight that had some good actors in it, so it made sense. So this year I also did Torchwood, a season with a ten-episode arch of the character. I had never done that kind of thing before and I found that to be very satisfying.

Was it different working on a TV series with more time to tell the story, versus a film where you just have two hours to get the whole thing across?

Yeah, it was. We shot it over a five-month period this year. You sign on not having read all the scripts, but we were unusual in that we had three, I think. Usually you start with the pilot and trust that your character's going to be consistently developed. I hadn't really predicted how much trust there is involved in just assuming that you really trust in the show developer and really collaborate. So it really had a very different kind of development arch than the normal pattern I work on while working on films.

What do you hope that actors get out of working with Visionbox?

I think they will have a chance to have a home that is a place to both study and create new pieces from and to give themselves permission to be very adventurous with the kinds of formats and style that they're gonna present.

What's important about that?

I think that there's an interest in making good theater, and Denver's always had a great tradition of making good theater. It's had some very strong institutions that are well-financed to develop pieces. But I think for a really healthy theater town, you need a diversity of approaches and you need some spaces and creative environments that are away from the top-heavy institutions of theater, so that you can see visions that are maybe not typically brought into the fold of a larger institution.

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