A Center City debut for student director

An MFA student directed a play that debuted at the Adrienne theater.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo premiered at the Adrienne Theater in Center City Sept. 17. COURTESY LUIS FERNANDO RODRIGUEZ
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo premiered at the Adrienne Theater in Center City Sept. 17. COURTESY LUIS FERNANDO RODRIGUEZ

What David Girard said he loves about the aesthetic of Philadelphia theater is that it is “sweatier, bloodier and more visceral” than other theater scenes.

Girard, a senior Master of Fine Arts student, has taken center stage as director of the Temple Theaters FringeArts Festival hit, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.”

“This idea of how to be a successful citizen-artist, I’m more interested in that than becoming famous as a director – I don’t care to head there,” Girard said.

Girard, an equity actor who worked in New York theater before joining the Philadelphia arts community, remembers his experience with “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” as more than just his Center City directorial debut, but as the night he premiered a six-page monologue with fewer hours’ worth of stage preparation.

“I did five shows in 72 hours – I’m exhausted. I want to go to bed,” Girard said.

When one of Girard’s actors attended to an urgent family matter just hours before the show’s Sept. 17 opening, Girard assumed his place, he said. Working without a script, Girard found a way to be both the director and the directed.

“Five years from now, when I talk about this show, that will be one of the first things that comes up,” Girard said, laughing.

Girard graduated summa cum laude from Russell Sage College, an all-girls school, where he was a male apprentice majoring in theatre and English. Studying as a male apprentice allowed for him to attend the school that traditionally only accepted women. Finding acting and directing to be “wildly different” and establishing that he didn’t enjoy doing both simultaneously if the situation didn’t demand it, Girard didn’t focus on directing until 2004, when he directed the Saratoga Shakespeare Institute’s contemporary play, the “Ghost of Shakespeare,” before moving on to direct the more classical “Macbeth.”

Girard, who admits to not understanding the “function” of a director, enrolled in Temple University in pursuit of his MFA in directing. “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” which closed Sept. 28, was his thesis project – but the story hasn’t stopped there, he said.

“[Temple had] the faith in me to direct a show downtown,” Girard said, “A show that hasn’t been produced in Philadelphia before.”

Part of the experience’s charm for Girard was that the play premiered in Center City – nowhere near Main Campus. The ability to bring talented Temple students to the heart of Philadelphia’s arts scene was, for Girard, very important.

“There’s tendency not to leave this campus – we’ve got all those food trucks – that’s all you need,” Girard said, jokingly. “Anytime we can get students off that campus and get them into the city is great to experience the real creative side of Philadelphia.”

The Los Angeles Times hailed “Bengal Tiger at a Baghdad Zoo” as the “most original play about the Iraq war,” using elements of mystical realism and humor to become a universal study of feuding cultures and heroes on a journey. Girard believes that the play’s mythological aspects, like the talking tiger, allow audiences to connect personally.

“The tiger goes through an existential journey – how can you not make a parallel to man?” Girard said.

The play drew a diverse crowd and encouraged people to explore emotions surrounding life, death, regret and love during wartimes. Though there is no happy ending, Girard said it gives audiences the opportunity to analyze our human experience.

“As a nation, anyone who remembers Sept. 11, there’s some [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] there,” Girard said. “It had a psychologically damaging effect that we haven’t dealt with as a society and this play is talking about that.”

To convey such a large topic in a nuanced way, Girard worked carefully with the production crew and the actors. He collaborated with lighting, sound and video professionals to make the Adrienne Theatre, a small space, into the vast gardens the play demanded. Using visual projection and sound, Girard found his desired aesthetic without overwhelming the space.

His first steps with the actors involved creating an “intuitive headspace” that inspired risk-taking. The play, demanding a humorous element staged within an impossibility – a dead talking tiger – needed the actors to not only focus on making their delivery comical, crisp and clear, but also to explore the depth the play offered.

“[The play] was constantly changing and growing … the actors were surprised at how deep [it] went,” Girard said. “It exceeded any and all of their expectations.”

Part of the play’s growth began when Girard cast Alice Gatling as the Tiger. Gatling performed a role originated by the late Robin Williams. Girard cast Gatling because she “just worked” within the role, and she has since become his muse.

Girard said he was prepared to “work hard and work fast,” and “lived with the script.” Researching and intuiting the play’s needs, Girard’s preparation allowed him to guide his actors while also leaving room for collaboration.

“Theater is ritual,” he said. “Human beings need to tell stories—that’s who we are. If I can connect to the audience through some shared experience, then it gives me a greater responsibility as an artist [to do so].”

Girard holds that the play is open to interpretation, but that communication, or lack thereof, is an overarching theme.

“There’s something very prescient about this play because we have a bit of a mess [in the Middle East],” Girard said. “Invading a country without a social and cultural plan creates a failure to communicate. We are a world lost in translation.”

Though Girard expects to graduate in Spring 2015 he said he wants to direct Gatling in a one-woman show. After that, he said he has three choices: stay in Philly, return to New York City or “live out of a suitcase.”

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