Chris Mangels has always had great ambition and a vision large enough to fill it up. I’ve often envied him that. Nearly 25 years ago, our cohort at College of the Sequoias in Visalia watched him mount his own adaptation of The Three Musketeers at the Enchanted Playhouse Theater with a sense of awe – and a twinge of trepidation. Full of fight choreography, big costumes, bigger sets, and clocking in at nearly three hours, it seemed like only Mangels’ intense drive could get it done.
He’s been getting it done ever since. Now a professor of cinema and theater arts at C.O.S, Mangels challenges his students to rise the occasion of ambitious theater every year. Mangels often adapts and reconceives established works to craft his own vision, as he has done with this fall’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. The results challenge his production team, and give his casts and audiences something to rise toward. As a result, College of the Sequoias puts out some of the most innovative and original fully staged productions of any theater department or company in the Valley.
At C.O.S., Mangels has sharpened his vision on The Crucible, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, In The Heights, Tartuffe, Animal Farm, Dracula, The Henriad, Company, Julius Caesar, Urinetown, The Hobbit, The Grapes Of Wrath, As You Like It, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Rashomon, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Our Country’s Good, and Richard III. He’s also directed indie productions of Hamlet, Avenue Q, Assassins, and Art at Visalia’s Fourth Wall Theatre.
Do all of his works hit their mark? There are certain productions where folks could debate that. But that may be the best mark to hit, after all. If no one has an opinion about the work, how ambitious was it, really?
Here’s Chris Mangels’ Drive-Thru Interview.
In one word, describe your present condition.
In one sentence, what’s going on in your world?
I am working on overseeing tech/dress week for our brand new adaptation of The Tragedy of Macbeth, which includes synchronizing about an hour of demanding live performances with about 40 minutes of highly complex video projections and an intricate sound design.
With no restrictions on content or form, describe the present condition of your artistic outlook.
I feel really positive about the trajectory of the show. I have had the most amazing collaborators on the project: beginning with several friends who gave me some very candid feedback on my adaptation over the summer; to the incredibly talented video editors who have been working tirelessly to deliver finished content; to my young cast, who have been so incredibly game to try absolutely anything I suggested; to my own closest collaborators in the Theatre Department who have never wavered in their support. This kind of collaboration is very rewarding. At this point, I am mostly focused on how the audience will receive it. It’s a really complex piece that doesn’t offer easy answers. That is what I set out to craft, but I am still not sure if what we have put together will hit its mark or be misinterpreted. But that is – ultimately – out of my hands now. I can only breathe life into it and then let it do as it sees fit.
Why The Tragedy of Macbeth?
I have loved Shakespeare’s original work snce I first read it in high school. It’s thrilling, economical in its narrative, and rooted in great tragedy. That said, I would like to stress that this is NOT Shakespeare’s Macbeth any more than Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors in Plautus’ Menaechmi. It features MUCH of his language, and (I hope) honors his themes, but there is a whole lot of Chris Mangels in this, from character and plot manipulation to a good chunk of text written by me in iambic pentameter.As for the production itself, I have had about a thousand takes on an adaptation for it over the past 20 years, and when I saw which students would be returning to the 2018/2019 school year, I decided (quite last minute, actually) to go ahead with one of those concepts.
Oddly, enough, it has evolved SO much – from where it began in April to where it was in August when I finished the first draft – that my original concept is almost unrecognizable. I don’t know that I have ever worked on something that so greatly dictated its own trajectory. What began as an a really fun and exciting approach has evolved into something that I think is both astoundingly relevant and presented in a fashion that I, personally, have never experienced. I don’t want to presume how the final product will be perceived by others, but I can tell you that it brings me to tears almost every night because of how it resonates in this divided world. I hope it resonates with the audience, in whatever way they let it. I don’t need them to leave with a ‘message’, but I do want them to think and question and be challenged and ultimately come out different than they went in.
What do you find exciting about working on this production?
We are trying very hard to push the boundaries on what our company is willing to tackle. That has resulted in the steepest artistic learning curve that I, personally, have ever found myself on. I joked with the cast on Day 1 that the character of Macbeth might not be the only one suffering from the tragic flaw of ambition. In the end, though, I always hope the gamble will be worth it, and we might change the way local audiences define what a theatrical event can be.
Who is the ideal audience member for this iteration of Macbeth?
I would say it’s the person who comes in to experience something new. Preconceived notions should be checked at the door.
As a theater artist, what are you better at now than ten years ago?
I have grown better at trusting in my collaborators to develop different but equally appropriate content compared to my original vision. I am still a LONG way from ultimately reaching that place, but at least I feel like I can finally see the target.
What’s the last thing you do before a curtain goes up on a production?
I always TRY to have a quick meeting with my cast where I thank them and hand the show to them. At that point, the ball is pretty much completely in their court. When I get to sit among the audience and experience the show while the company runs with it, it’s one of the most satisfying experiences in the world.
What are your top three theater reads?
I do not read as much as I wish I did, but I am currently working on Year of the King: An Actor’s Diary and Sketchbook
by Anthony Sher, and I am fascinated by the candid nature of the way he shares his process. As for plays, I couldn’t possibly tell you what my ‘favorites’ currently are, though I always love the work of Yasmina Reza, Conor McPherson, and Martin McDonagh.
What would you like to see more of on Valley stages?
Variety. A lot of great work is being done all around, but I wish we could continue to offer more diverse fare. I am very much a theatre goer, but I do not wish to see the same [title] produced on multiple stages in a 50-mile radius within one season. Reinvention of oft-done works is great, especially when it dabbles in shifts in race and gender, but I can only see so many commercially-minded productions of the same show with different casts before I just have to say “thank you but no thank you.” That said, I am delighted that these same shows often bring in audiences who might not otherwise attend a live theatrical event. I call them the ‘gateway’ drugs of live theatre. If we can get you hooked on Mamma Mia then pretty soon you might be begging for Measure for Measure.
How do you recharge? What do you do when you want to take a break?
I spend time with my wife, Diane. She is my haven. We alternate between laying in bed and watching Netflix, going for long walks around our neighborhood, and traveling. Traveling is the greatest reward of all after a project is complete.
What’s next for you?
As a director, a reimagining of my 1994 adaptation of The Three Musketeers. This time I am taking a cue from Shakespeare and making the protagonist, D’Artganan, a ‘trouser role’: She will be a young woman who has dreamt of being a Musketeer ever since her father (who was also a Musketeer) died, but – of course – it’s 1625 and she is not a man, so she has to pretend to be a man to be accepted into their ranks. This is my gift to all the badass young women who dream of saving the princess instead of being the princess. (Princesses are great, but that route has been covered by many, many others.) It will be the first truly family-friendly show I have done since 2012’s The Hobbit, and I am really looking forward to it.
The Tragedy of Macbeth at College of the Sequoias runs October 12 – October 21st at the C.O.S. Theater in Visalia. Information here. Tickets Here.