“I’m interested in the process of turning on the lightbulb in students’ minds, of turning students to a state of awareness,” says John Blondell, the chair of theater arts at Westmont College. “Their confidence is growing. Their intentions are refined.”
Blondell is one of Santa Barbara’s treasures, an internationally renowned theater director who is cofounder and director of the Lit Moon Theatre Company and teaches full-time to our small community.
When I meet the charismatic Blondell, he admits to being a bit jet-lagged — he’s just flown in from Macedonia, where he directed a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bitola National Theatre. He directs Macedonian actors in English, but the performers perform in their native language.
“It’s a great jumping into the unknown,” he explains. “The elephant in the room is the language. There’s got to be a great amount of trust. It’s a very open process.”
It’s the fourth time he’s worked with the same company, and they’ve been developing a visual vocabulary that international audiences can understand. “Visual storytelling becomes very important for me,” he says.
John was born in Belleville, Illinois, and raised in Lake City, Minnesota. His mother was a high school English teacher who threw neighborhood pageants, and his father was a great storyteller. He grew up in a household of literature. “In high school, I thought I was going to be a marine biologist,” says John, who was enamored by Jacques Cousteau film strips. “I was interested in the romance of what Cousteau was doing and not the science.” So, at first, he majored in organic chemistry at a state university in Minnesota.
From 1983 to 1990, he studied under the supervision of Bob Egan, director of UCSB’s theater department, where he earned his master’s and PhD degrees. “I was finishing up my PhD at UCSB when I was told Westmont College was looking for someone to direct and teach some classes,” explains John, who was chair of the program at 28 years old.
A couple of years later he cofounded Lit Moon. “It kind of materialized,” he says, recalling the 1996 semester he taught abroad, when he became captivated by the Edinburgh Theatre Festival. “I went to a production of Gogol’s Overcoat by a Bulgarian troop called Theatre Credo,” he remembers of the experience that fired up Lit Moon.
Westmont allows him great flexibility, as he directs in many countries around the world, such as Finland, Macedonia, and Albania. “When I was in Finland, I was gone for six weeks,” he says. “Westmont has been amazingly supportive.”
He’s been happily married to his wife, Vicki, for 25 years, and their love story is rather Shakespearean. Vicki’s sister, Leslie, was a first-year PhD student at UCSB and suggested that John should meet her sister, explaining, “You’re perfect for each other!” After writing her a tongue-in-cheek letter about their marriage, John met Vicki on April Fools’ Day, and they were married 10 days later. They now have three sons: Nicholas, William, and Simon. “All’s well that ends well,” as the Bard would say.
John Blondell answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Many years ago, when Vicki and I were first engaged, I wrote her a letter — remember those? I told her that, like the Queen song, “I Want It All.” I didn’t know what I meant by that, but I knew that I wanted to find out what I meant by it with her. I would say that we have mustered a Big Ballooning Life, full of love and kids and friends and artistic projects and great food and nice wine and lots and lots of discussions over morning coffee. So I guess the answer is: Life with Vicki. The Whole Thing.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Well, this is completely self-aggrandizing, and consequently somewhat embarrassing, but since you asked: I crave the moments in the theater, in a show that I have directed, when I can feel that audience and actors are in complete communion, when they rise and fall with one another’s heartbeat, when they enter into each other’s empty spaces, and merge into a collective, fluid unity that only the stage can muster. This doesn’t happen very often. It is, however, what every theater artist craves, its potential makes possible every rehearsal, and when it happens, it’s heaven on earth.
What is your most marked characteristic?
I love the theater, love the people in the theater, love the sights, sounds, and smells of the stage. I talk about theater all day, go home to talk about it over supper, go to rehearsal to talk about it some more, go home for a glass of wine to talk about it even more, and then have parties on weekends to make up for times during the week that I didn’t get to talk about it. Vicki tells me I am humored. I guess I am.
What do you like most about your job?
I have an amazing job! For 30 years, I have had the incredible privilege to direct and talk about plays and theater, work with students, read books about art and culture and acting and directing, engage in important (and frivolous) discussions about life and living, and collaborate with other like-minded, somewhat kooky artistic folk toward the making of events that people watch, write about, and talk to you about. Wow! How did this happen!?
What is your greatest fear?
I have spent the last 30-plus years of my life as a director. I have practiced it, taught it, argued about it, defended it, thought about it endlessly, studied it, read about it, sung its praises, made a nice living by and from it, professed it, traveled to cool places to do it, championed it, philosophized about it, laughed about it, and criticized others who do it. My greatest fear is being found out that I don’t really know what I’m doing.
Who do you most admire?
I have to say that I most admire my father, Douglas Blondell. He was a high school industrial arts teacher, boat builder, and furniture maker (he built nearly every piece of furniture in our house). Though there are many things to admire about him, including his artistry, craftsmanship, and ability to tell a ripping good story, most significant was the way he persevered through the dark times of losing three wives to cancer, including my mother, and his ability to create a home of safety, nurture, and humor in times that were bleak and desperate.
What is your greatest extravagance?
This is very easy to answer: I have recently developed a taste and proclivity for high-end whiskey, and it has developed a proclivity and taste for me.
What is your current state of mind?
My current state of mind is rather split. I am filled with concern about the state of our world, consumed with obligations and duties of my profession, and frankly a bit overwhelmed with all I need to accomplish on a day-to-day basis. On the other hand, I enjoy a wonderful life with my wife, Victoria Finlayson; am excited about the growth and development of our sons, Nicholas, William, and Simon; tickled with the development of my students; and excited for new artistic projects with my students, Lit Moon Theatre Company partners in crime, and other artists throughout the world.
What is the quality you most like in people?
I am drawn to folks who are funny, curious, and imaginative.
What is the quality you most dislike?
What do you most value in friends?
Humor, insight, compassion, and sensitivity.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Awesome.” “That’s amazing.” “Are you kidding me?” “No way!” “Both things are true.”
Which talent would you most like to have?
Many years ago, when I was very little, 7 or 8 I think, I heard a recording of me singing with a bunch of other kids. I listened aghast, realizing that the croaking, loud, out-of-tune, and obviously tone-deaf little kid was MEEEEEEEEEE!!! I ran sobbing into the nearest bathroom, placed my cheek against the tile and the slightly moldering grout, and swore then and there that I would never let anyone hear me sing for the rest of my life. And, except for singing to our children, I would say that I have more or less kept that promise. So the answer to the question is: I Would Like to SINGGGGGGGG!!!!
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
This is a toss-up: I am an unrepentant procrastinator, and I also need to lose 15 pounds. If I were to change one thing about myself, I think I’ll go with the latter. Oh, wait. Maybe the former. Ah, I’ll just decide later …
Where would you most like to live?
Every now and then I fantasize about buying a house in Greece or Southern Italy — Vicki just rolls her eyes. Today, my destination fantasy, and subject of much online searching, is the Greek island of Corfu.
What is your most treasured possession?
I have to say I have two, both of them photo albums. One of them was made by my sister Ellen, and is an album of images of our family of origin when she and I were but wee little ones. The other was created by my wife, Vicki, and is an album that she made one Father’s Day, full of images of our three boys when they were but wee little ones, accompanied by a charming, wistful, and funny commentary of life with Daddy.
Who makes you laugh the most?
Mostly my fellow theater friends (they know who they are), who are never-ending sources of sass, surprise, and storytelling.
What is your motto?
In 2012, while working on a show in Bitola, Macedonia, I was hanging with a number of friends before we were going to head to London to play our production of Henry VI, part three, at the Globe to Globe Festival. We had been at one coffee bar for a couple of hours (this is what they do in the Balkans), and my friend Ognen said, “Come on; let’s go.” “Where are we going?” I asked. He said, “We are going to change the atmosphere.” Since, then, that has been my motto: in life, on the stage, during my day. Change the atmosphere.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I fear this answer might be something of a cliché, but here goes: William Shakespeare. Not because I think I am somehow like him, or because we share perspectives or life stories (even if his could be accurately known), but because thinking about him, directing him, wondering about his plays, and listening to his language for so many years (more than any other playwright) have led to something that borders on a philosophy of life. My identity as a director has somehow (surprisingly) conflated with his work in such a way that I can no longer imagine my life without his influence and inspiration.
On what occasion do you lie?
I’m from Minnesota, and I’m a Swede. Minnesota Swedes never lie; they just stare at you blankly, and move deftly to the next topic.