Orlando director Bobbie Bell discusses his 'anti-fascist' production of '1984'

The cast of 1984
The cast of 1984 Photo via Garden Theatre

If you're of the opinion that Orlando's artists are too apolitical or afraid of offending corporate interests, you obviously haven't met Bobbie Bell.

"This is my year of anti-fascism," the director and recently retired Seminole State College professor proudly told me while explaining how he came to helm the stage adaptation of George Orwell's 1984 for the Garden Theatre. "When I was asked if I'd do it, I said, 'Yes, please, more,' because other than [the era of] Lindbergh and America First prior to the second World War, I don't think this country has been closer to proto-fascism in its history."

According to Stephen Fry's QI quiz show, research shows "at least a quarter of the people who claim to have read 1984 are lying." But phrases like "Big Brother," "doublethink" and "thought police" have permeated the collective cultural consciousness, to the point that, Bell says, "You don't even have to have read the synopsis of 1984 [to] have a general concept of what it entails." Those who do remember the dystopian novel will notice that Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan's adaptation – which is making its regional debut in Winter Garden following headline-making runs in New York and London – is the first to incorporate the book's appendix, which Bell says reframes the story as "science fiction posing as history."

"The play begins with a group of people assembled to discuss the book, and they talk about the appendix and what it means," Bell explains. "It's dramatized, but there are references to the futuristic backwards-looking function of the play." The multiplicity of temporal perspectives is partly why Bell says 1984 is "a terrifying play to do for me because it's complex, which is [also] why it's interesting to do. There are five separate timelines going on at every single moment, so keeping those balanced so that the audience has a good experience takes some careful conducting.

"There will be arguments in the lobby, I hope. There will be people wondering what the heck happened."

As a result, Bell says that of all the renditions of 1984, he thinks this one is the most faithful "because it doesn't give you a strict narrative. Is Big Brother real? Is Julia [played by Kristie Geng] in love with Winston [played by Brian Zealand], or is she a member of the thought police who's been sent out to entice him and get him to betray his thoughts? There's nothing in the novel to indicate one way or another."

1984 debuted on London's West End in 2013 during the Cameron administration's surveillance state scandal, and it landed on Broadway only a few months after the inauguration of Donald Trump, whom Bell calls a "proto-fascist." ("I don't think he's smart enough to be a real fascist.") For his version, Bell has integrated his signature Brechtian staging style with the cutting-edge multimedia and visceral violence that were hallmarks of the earlier productions.

"There's not a single person in the play – actors or audience – that isn't under surveillance at one point or another, and who don't find themselves up on stage," says Bell, hinting at the show's immersive-bordering-on-invasive use of video. "No one is safe."

Similarly, while he doesn't consider the show to be torture porn (as some British critics claimed), Bell advises not bringing children to this show. "I think the play is terrifying, but I think Alfred Hitchcock is terrifying," says Bell, referring to the intense interrogation scenes that had some New York audience members fainting and vomiting. "I wouldn't use gratuitous violence on stage, but in 1984 people are tortured, so ...," he trails off with a dark laugh.

Bell says that as complex as it is for him to balance the play's emotional and physical aspects, it's been even more challenging for his cast. "The actors are required to be both in the moment, but also technically very precise, because their performances are timed to the brilliant sound design [by Jack Audet]," Bell explains. "You have to match what you're doing to the timing of the sound and the video, while also being authentic. It's maddening, and I admire them very much for doing it."

1984 is only the latest boundary-pushing play to make its regional premiere in Winter Garden during the tenure of Rob Winn Anderson, whom Bell calls "a delight" to work for. "It's important to keep pace with not only our growing Winter Garden community but with the ever-changing landscape of our world," says Anderson, who recently announced his retirement as the Garden Theatre's artistic director. "It's been my goal to have our theater's programming reflect these changes and provide thought-provoking content, as well as shows that entertain and bring laughter into our lives."

1984 opens at the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden March 1 and runs through March 17.

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