More Than a Musical: An Interview with Urinetown Director Jessica Bird

By Taylor Steinbeck

Artwork for the Young Conservatory's 2018 production
of Urinetown: The Musical.
Urinetown: The Musical—the Young Conservatory show opening at The Strand this week—is not your typical night at the theater. This Tony Award–winning musical takes place in a city controlled by the corrupt Urine Good Company where you have to pay to pee. Urinetown lampoons everything from capitalism to big industry, while backed by the sounds of Broadway-spoofing songs. We sat down with director Jessica Bird to further crack open this clever comedy.

How would you describe this show?
Urinetown is comedic satire. It hits you in the gut with how real it is and how it speaks to the state of where we are right now in this country, but it also makes you laugh about it.

What's your vision for this production?
This show will be set in a dystopian San Francisco since a lot of the themes are relevant to what’s happening in this city. There's so much economic disparity—just walk outside The Strand Theater and you'll see it. There's also the issues of water scarcity, which is happening in California at large. A question on a lot of people's minds right now is how do we preserve our resources for future generations when resources are already scarce?

Since this is such a political piece, I’m curious how the younger performers engage with the material.
It surprises me because these young actors often see layers that I don’t even see. At our first rehearsal, the kids were bringing up police brutality and the #MeToo Movement, and using those current events to connect to the story. The actress playing the lead character pointed out how whenever men are interacting with her, it's always in a sexual way, which isn't appropriate. Sometimes younger students are more adept at these kinds of difficult conversations than even adults.

What does the music add to the story?
It’s interesting because the piece itself is satire, but it’s also very much parodying a lot of other musicals. And so the music specifically brings those in. You know, you have West Side Story and Les Misérables, Oliver!, and The Threepenny Opera. The music always helps drive the story forward. It definitely does that but it keeps the satire in it. Funny lyrics. It’s a super funny piece, but also reminds you of some very real issues that we’re facing today.

What do you hope for the young performers to take away from this show?
What I love about working on projects that tackle political issues is that our activism goes beyond the stage to larger conversations about how we ourselves can take action. We've gone on some incredible community engagement events where the cast served food to the homeless at GLIDE and visited The EcoCenter at Heron's Head Park to learn about water sustainability. Instead of only talking about how a lot of this is happening in San Francisco, we’re engaging in these issues and getting involved.

Urinetown: The Musical
runs August 8­–18 at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to get involved with the Young Conservatory? Fall classes will be announced soon!

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