Kevin S. Bright has had a long, storied and remarkable career in film and television. As the executive producer and director of more than 50 episodes of FRIENDS including its series finale, he won an Emmy Award for his work as EP on the show. We chatted with Kevin about how he got his start, and his work as director on the gorgeous capture of THE LION and where the future of theater is headed (you guessed it! Streaming!)
What attracted you to entertainment as a profession, and more specifically to the theater?
My dad, Jackie Bright was a comic and had some really big success in the beginnings of TV doing things like the halftime show for Muriel’s Cigars, a game show called Try and Do It when he was performing as a comic, and he performed on the vaudeville scene. Vaudeville is an alternative form of theater, it’s more of a live variety show but there are sketches and all the theatrical conceits apply. Later on in life, he was a manager of talent. Going back to the late 1960’s, he represented Yiddish theater actors. As a kid, I went to the Yiddish theater, seeing whole plays that were not in English. Being a Manhattanite, and born into a theater-loving family, we got schlepped to Broadway and Radio City Music Hall. So I would say that’s where it started for me.
What drew you to the Geffen Playhouse?
When I spoke to Gil Cates Jr. (the executive director of the Geffen Playhouse), I loved how open he was to the consideration of streaming and filming shows. I feel that it’s the future of theater. Theater faces financial challenges, and I see the future where you can livestream something on Broadway every night of the week, if you don’t live in the city or even this country. So much more potential opens up and you are going to get many, many more people excited about theater that are not theatergoers right now. It’s seen as something that is unaffordable, unattainable. Now by using the technology that opens it up to everyone, and doing it well, it will put more butts in those seats! I loved that the Geffen was willing to look at the theater in innovative ways.
What was it about THE LION that you knew you wanted to capture for the screen?
Gil approached me about the possibility of this [THE LION] fulfilling part of the vision for the Geffen – shoot shows and stream them. I thought this was the ideal prototype – one guy, 3 guitars on a stage. I saw it and loved it – it’s a great musical and I was especially interested in Benjamin’s guitar playing. I’m a big music aficionado and Benjamin’s playing style reminds me of the British guitar players John Renbourn, and American guitarists like John Fahey and Leo Kottke. Benjamin has hybrided a really unique style – he’s flashy but not self-conscious. The story is incredibly compelling, but the guitar playing strings it all together.
Talk to us about the process of filming a theatrical production.
With this kind of subject, you can be minimally invasive and capture the show without interfering with the live audience. We were not going to cancel shows to shoot this, we were going to shoot this live in front of two separate audiences. I needed to make sure that this was satisfying visually for tv but would not ruin the live experience. I couldn’t have cranes and jibs and cameras walking around– that would have driven people crazy. Seeing the play several times allowed me to understand where I could be a fly on the wall. The Audrey Theater (at the Geffen) is set up so there’s not a bad seat in the house. I tried to shoot so that you could see the performance from many different perspectives, and they are all satisfying and unique. The perception of the show changes if you’re closer to him, whether you see two guitars or one. So I wanted to give the viewer that experience in which you can have the best seat at the best moment.
You worked on one of the most successful shows of all time, and now you’re seeing musical theater pop up more and more on screen. Are there any of these TV shows that you have loved?
I think shows like Glee and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are a tremendous hybrid of television visuals with a theater sensibility and specifically, a musical theater sensibility and that’s not the last time we’re going to see it. My partners on FRIENDS, Marta [Kauffman] and David [Crane] are also musical theater writers, so we’ve been interested in seeing shows like this happen on network TV for some time.
Tell us a little bit about the LA Theater scene.
The LA Theater scene is a cross between NY and regional theater - you get the best of both. We have large stages downtown, and we have other fantastic theaters like the Geffen. Places like the Geffen are beehives for innovation, creativity and doing things the big theaters can’t do.
Stream THE LION filmed live at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles right here on BroadwayHD!