Encore: Elizabeth Fuller and Conrad Bishop
Friday, April 22, 2016
Interview by David Templeton
Elizabeth Fuller and Conrad Bishop, the multitalented, long-married team at the core of Sebastopol’s Independent Eye theatre troupe, approach their art with a fervor and devotion rarely seen outside of religion or psychosis. Over the decades, they have tackled all forms of theatre, from the traditional to the experimental. They have also written books and produced syndicated radio series, frequently collaborating with other artists and theatre companies to create bold, description-defying new works. But they are arguably known best as puppeteers. Employing gorgeously crafted handmade characters (with eerie glass eyes), Bishop and Fuller have fused puppetry and live acting to bring to life stories as diverse as Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
For the last year and a half, their chief obsession has been Shakespeare’s King Lear—a tour-de-force 100-minute production performed without intermission, all done within a portable box the size of a small refrigerator. Bishop plays Lear; Fuller plays the Fool. All the other characters are puppets. Independent Eye will be presenting King Lear on June 14, 16 and 18 at NohSpace in San Francisco as part of foolsFury's Fury Factory Festival of Ensemble Theater.
| Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller. Photo: Robert Fischer
How did you meet?
Conrad Bishop: It was in college. We were students at Northwestern, in Chicago, in 1969. We were in the theatre department. I was a sophomore, and Elizabeth was a third-year transfer. We sat across the aisle from each other in a Stage Left class.
Elizabeth Fuller: The professor had a sense of humor that was dryer than a gimlet. Conrad and I were the only two people in the class who got his jokes. The rest of the class would sit there still as stone, and we’d be laughing like fools. So obviously, we noticed each other.
Bishop: The first thing we ever did together was a directing project. I cast Elizabeth in Woyzeck and staged the murder scene. Our first artistic encounter involved me having my future bride stabbed in the face. It was an auspicious beginning.
Fuller: After we graduated and started our first ensemble, we were making fifty dollars a week, touring around the country, but it was enough to live on. This was in the late 60s, early 70s. The world has changed so much since then, and theatre has definitely changed.
How do you feel theatre has changed?
Bishop: I think it’s harder to be a true artist than it was, especially for playwrights. So much of the contemporary writing I’ve seen is trivial and boring. It all seems to follow a formula. It reeks of terror and insecurity. I think it’s a terror of taking chances that won’t pay off. To a degree, I think that’s always been the case, but there’s clearly more pressure now to make money and pay off whatever student loans have accrued. And the younger companies, who are often made up of recent college graduates carrying a shitload of debt, they can’t afford to do anything original or experimental.
Fuller: The load of debt young artists are carrying from the beginning is criminal. How can you feel free to take artistic risks when you start your life as a virtual indentured servant?
|Conrad Bishop as Lear and Elizabeth Fuller as the Fool in the Independent Eye’s touring production of
Shakespeare’s King Lear. Photo: S.N. Jacobson
You’ve called your upcoming East Coast tour of King Lear your farewell tour. Is that farewell to ‘Lear,’ or farewell to touring?
Bishop: Possibly to both.
Fuller: Oh. I would give you a nice cup of salt to apply to this, of course. But it really is getting to be a lot for us. We did 8500 miles of driving on this last tour. We did 21 performances in 11 different locations. It was exhilarating, but it was also exhausting. Especially because we camp in our vehicle when we go on tour, staying at truck stops or maybe at friends’ houses, and we never know exactly where we’ll be sleeping every night.
Bishop: We resolved long ago that we would not do another show unless we could design it to fit in the back of our Prius. Lear does fit in the Prius, all of it. The stage, the puppets, everything, it all fits in the back. [Laughing.] It’s designed to do so, with great skill and exactitude.
Fuller: This last tour of Lear did very well, and on our way home, since we were excited about the revenue we’d made and response we’d gotten, we actually decided to stay in motels on the final leg of the tour. We haven’t done that in a long time.
But you intend to stop performing after that?
Bishop: Oh no. We still have things we want to do. In a drunken moment, recently, we decided we might try to put together a new solo piece for Elizabeth. So we’d like to do that, and I think it might happen. But probably not something like Lear.
Fuller: Lear is an absolute beast. We’ve had shows we’ve done for a long time, like Macbeth, which we did from 1978 to 1994. It was a rare grace, for us, to have a show like that living within us for such a long time.
Bishop: We never stopped discovering new things in it. The same is true of King Lear. We’ll keep discovering new things in it until we stop doing it, or die.
Fuller: And possibly even after that.
Find out more about Bishop and Fuller and the Independent Eye at independenteye.org.