Published in KPBS On Air Magazine December 1994
“A relentless dynamo, a prodigious writer, immensely theatrical. His life was quintessential Victorian, filled with triumph and tragedy.” Director Will Roberson is rhapsodizing about one of his favorite subjects: Charles Dickens. A dozen years ago, at age 23, Roberson tried to write a musical about Dickens’ life. He still has hundreds of pages of notes on “Dickens in the Mother Lode”. “There was just too much stuff,” he says, with some regret.
But that background made Roberson a natural choice to direct the 19th version of “A Christmas Carol” at the San Diego Repertory Theatre (November 30-December 24). After years of offbeat and oddball takes on the 1843 tale of greed and redemption, “I told them I wanted it set in Victorian England,” says Roberson, “and they said ‘Thank God’… The period itself is what the piece is about. The first part is very Dickensian, very overblown. The last two sections are very spare. They’re gorgeous. Something happened to him… He wrote the piece in almost a fever dream, in just a few weeks. It overcame him.” As the story goes, Dickens penned the parable partly for the money, but he later said he laughed and cried over it more than anything else he’d written.
Roberson and Doug Jacobs, the Rep’s co-founder and artistic director, have spent a good deal of time retooling Jacobs’ “Christmas Carol” adaptation. Music will be intrinsic to the production. “The spirit of the piece is very much like music,” Roberson explains. “It’s like a symphony. In the first stave, the man is a frozen stone. In the second, he’s confronted by old pain and regret — so intense, he finally feels something. The third stave focuses on humanity, a whole world rich and full and celebrating Christmas. In the fourth stave, Scrooge experiences terror and death. And in the fifth, he’s reborn. It’s like a Joseph Campbell myth journey.”
For musical inspiration, Roberson has once again called on his pal, Steve Gunderson, who’s written, says the director, “a stunning score.” This show reunites Roberson’s 1987 “Suds” team, including Gunderson (who also plays Bob Cratchit), Xavier Velasco (choreography), Bill Doyle (musical director) and Melinda Gilb (actress). “These are people I love to work with,” says Roberson of his creative team. “And they’re my closest friends.”
Being surrounded by close friends is a blessing for Roberson right now. This hasn’t been an easy year. First, his father had a heart attack. Then his uncle died. Then he lost his longtime companion, Doug Pagliatti, to AIDS. With his own health waxing and waning, Roberson staged a massive celebration at the Old Globe in October, per Doug’s wishes. The Globe is where Pagliatti was production stage manager and where Roberson got his real start. “The Globe was my school,” he says. “I never went to college.”
Right after high school, he joined the Navy, and became a Russian translator. At 20, he was stage manager at a little opera company in Northern California (he grew up in the tiny rural town of Norco, near Riverside, where his family raises and trains rare Peruvian horses). He’d written plays since he was a kid, “but from the first second, I knew I wanted to direct.” The Globe’s artistic director, Jack O’Brien, became his mentor. The influence is clear; Roberson’s effervescence and linguistic extravagance are vintage O’Brien.
The Globe director is enthusiastic about his protégé. “Will has outstripped all expectations… He’s proven himself to be a gifted writer and collaborator in musicals and genre works. His is an authentic and original vision — the enviable blend of an inspiring acting coach and a thrilling storyteller.”
Says Roberson of O’Brien: “He instilled in me a passionate love for illuminating the text of a play… My work is more hard-edged [than his], less sentimental. We’re from different generations, different Americas. He was rosy Post-War. And I’m Not-Much-Left-in-the-Nineties.” From 1982-1986, Roberson was O’Brien’s assistant director (a role he assumed again for the Broadway production of “Damn Yankees” last year). Then he started freelancing. “Jack taught me ‘The secret is getting asked back.'”
Roberson has obviously followed that advice. His very busy schedule (he directs 9-10 shows a year — from opera to mystery-spoofs) often hauls him out of town: to New York, Atlanta, Phoenix, Charleston, Houston and others. He directed the national tour of “Porgy and Bess” and is resident director of the summer Shakespeare Festival L.A. Locally, he frequently writes and directs for Julia Holladay’s Mystery Cafe, and has worked at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company as well as the Globe and the Rep.
Last summer, he co-wrote and directed the San Diego/world premiere 60’s moon-shot musical, “Dixie Highway”. A Florida production is planned for spring. Meanwhile, Roberson and Gunderson are working on a new book musical (“a multimedia extravaganza”) based on the life of waif-like Warhol scene-maker Edie Sedgwick. Roberson plans to direct Scott McPherson’s “Marvin’s Room” at the Gaslamp in January and “Othello” next summer at Shakespeare L.A.
It’s been a life filled with triumph and tragedy. Virtually Victorian.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.