Interview with Playwright / Director Roberto Williams

Bat Signal HistoryLast month Theater For Nerds reviewed a show that not only chronicled the adventures of Batman, but also the real-life writers and artists who created. him. We spoke with the Roberto Williams, Director and Playwright about Fathers of the Dark Knight.

Theater For Nerds: The show has a storyline about Batman fighting crime, but also deals with the artists who created the character. How do these storylines intersect in your show? 

Well, I always intended to have the biographical portion of my script be the emotional foundation for the play. The fantasy character vignettes were originally envisioned only as “colorful diversions” away from the larger true story.

Roberto 311However, as the script developed, the dominant emphasis between biography story and fantasy vignettes shifted radically back and forth. In the end, it finally settled slightly in favor of the fantasy, I think, mainly for the sake of production value and spectacle.

Simultaneously, it became pretty clear to me that the average audience member knew virtually NOTHING about Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson. As a playwright, I knew that I had no audience expectations to contend with regarding those three figures. And unlike the iconic fantasy characters, I did not feel the obligation to cast actors to match any particular physical “type”, nor ensuring that I matched the cadence of the style of speech, dress, movement, etc. of the real-life historical figures.

What was ultimately MOST important to me was that I tell the story of what actually happened back in 1939 as accurately and truthfully as I could, based on the research I had done prior to writing my script. With the limited documentation and (often conflicting) accounts of the lives of Bob, Bill, and Jerry, an occasional dose of creative license, extrapolation, and educated-guessing was employed when writing some of those scenes.

TFN:  Is there a symbolic nature to your Batman story that relates to the story of his creators?

There is! And the interesting thing is that I did NOT have to invent it nor work very hard to find it! As I went along in the writing, I kept finding symbolic parallels already in place between the fantasy Batman vignettes and the events surrounding the three biographical figures of the play! There were also DEFINITE personality trait parallels between Bob, Bill and Jerry and the characters and stories that they were creating. Depending on the vignette, those three gentlemen easily stepped into the role of paralleling any one of their own fantasy characters! Bob Kane’s arrogant, stern, overly-critical role over his fellow comic book creators paralleled The Batman’s stern arrogant, overly-critical role over the other costumed heroes. Bill (“the Boy Wonder”) Finger’s characterization as a loyal, faithful, and good-natured partner to Bob mirrored Robin (The Boy Wonder’s) identical traits as The Batman’s partner. And in many ways, Jerry Robinson’s admiration for Bob and Bill’s work (and his late inclusion into their team) paralleled Batgirl’s admiration for the Dynamic Duo’s mission and her joining of their crime-fighting team.

Why did you create this show?

Suffice it to say that for nine years, I worked as a Teaching Artist of vocal music and drama in the New York City public school system (grades 5-12). I was dismayed to see the budget for Arts in education shrinking rapidly every semester. As a result, teachers and students alike became increasingly frustrated in their attempts to create viable stage works with less and less resources every year. Costumes, sets, props, and production values were dropping sharply across the board. And each production was less impressive than the last.

I wanted to address this troubling issue for my own group of students, by creating an ambitious production that would feature high-end production values in as many areas as possible. I knew that such a project would be time-consuming and expensive, and that it would be vital for me to select subject matter that would emotionally excite me.

What about the descendants of the real-life people depicted in the show?As an educator, I had another ambition. I wanted to mix seasoned adult actors into the cast of a play featuring my student actors in order to provide them with the enrichment of an experience that was as professional as possible.

Well, we were thrilled and honored beyond belief when Athena Finger, the grand daughter of Batman co-creator Bill Finger contacted us about our show! She saw an image of our beautiful theatrical one-sheet poster (designed by Arlen Shumer) on Facebook and became curious as to the nature of this production titled “FATHERS OF THE DARK KNIGHT”! She contacted me for more information, and after a few months of friendly correspondence back and forth, she asked if it would be alright if she could attend one of our rehearsals during a trip to New York City! We happily agreed, of course, and we were beside ourselves with excitement!

Bill Finger was just recently given a cover art credit for his original Batman design. How do you feel about the credit given to comic creators, and their compensation for their work?

Naturally, I am thrilled that Bill Finger was finally given credit that he richly deserved (even if posthumously) for his role in the creation of The Batman’s design. When the production team and I learned of this impressive milestone, we were thrilled to the point of celebrating! I think I speak for my entire cast and crew when I say that our experience working on FATHERS OF THE DARK KNIGHT has inspired us all to develop some pretty strong feelings about comic creators receiving the proper credit AND compensation for their work!

Over the past 75 years, The Batman has developed into a multi-billion dollar business for DC Comics and Warner Communications. And while we celebrate Mr. Finger’s recent creator acknowledgement by DC Comics, we believe that it was long overdue. We see it as a shameful tragedy that one of The Batman’s principal creators died penniless and alone as a relatively young man in 1974.

I can certainly understand that the comic book industry functioned very differently in 1939, usually offering creator credit only to originating artists and not to the support staff working under them (writers, ghost artists, inkers, letterers).

However, when the ego and greed of some individuals rob others of their richly deserved credit, then I believe that every effort should be made to bring the truth to light in order to correct what amounts to be an injustice. The fact is, the industry had changed considerably long before Mr. Finger’s passing. Pencilers, writers, inkers, letterers, and editors… working together to originate a character… were already being thought of and credited as “creator teams”. And yet there was STILL a concerted effort on the part of Bob Kane AND National periodicals Publications (DC Comics) to withhold Bill Finger’s credit and proper compensation. I believe this was a disgraceful situation for ALL of the comic book creators caught in a similar circumstance.

Your show has very elaborate costumes. Tell me about how they are designed and built.

The Batman

Well, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that the realization of those costumes was one of the biggest challenges facing this entire production. And it was the iconic fantasy character costumes themselves that were at the very heart of the decision to change this play from its originally intended Superman theme to its final Batman theme instead.

The task of designing the costumes was quite involved, and it was a process that I chose not to delegate to someone else. As a Batman fan, I was keenly aware that what would be defined as the “optimal” or “definitive” versions of these characters’ outfits was a very subjective thing. FATHERS OF THE DARK KNIGHT would need to present these characters in a way that reflected my own sensibility and visual palette.

I immediately imagined a bold approach to costuming… one that featured the primary colors of the comic book world leaping out dramatically to grab the audience during the gloomy, smoky, and shadowy fantasy vignettes.

Even with the play not addressing the mechanics of costume design in great detail, I nevertheless wanted to approach the likely thought process behind the costumes in a way that was logical, and very character-based.

There was one issue that I was wary of regarding the presentation of characters in spandex tights. Obviously the actors would all have to undergo rigorous exercise regimens to look their very best in these form-fitted garments. But the thing that concerned me most was my DESPERATE preoccupation to avoid the cheap-looking “Halloween costume” sheen of lycra spandex in all of the related characters. Other (low-sheen) stretch fabrics did not offer the primary color assortment nor the color vibrancy of lycra spandex. So my solution to this problem was to fabricate the tights for ALL the characters with the dull side of the lycra spandex fabric facing outward. To my eyes, this would make a tremendous difference in the “legitimacy” of the characters’ final looks on stage.

Clearly, The Batman’s costume was going to be a very important aspect of this play. It had to immediately feel real, legitimate, and it had to illicit the proper mood and tone when first glimpsed by the audience. It was going to need to accept stage lighting well, while not coming off as a cheap, garish Halloween costume. The outfit’s textures were going to require special attention so that it would feel rich, elegant, organic, and powerful.

My approach to the The Batman’s overall costuming philosophy was that Bruce Wayne intended to frighten criminals while striking at them from the dark shadows. The only touches of vibrant color on the uniform (chest emblem and utility belt) would be strategically intended to be seen even in low light. This gives the uniform some contrast and visual interest, rather than being monochromatic and dull. I was of the opinion that the royal blue seen in comics for decades as The Batman’s main costume pieces were actually always intended to be black. In Bob Kane’s earliest renderings of The Batman, the blue was actually represented as highlights on shiny black garments. Yet somehow, over the years, the blue became more and more dominant. But it seemed logical to me that BLACK was always the intention for a mysterious figure who would stalk from the shadows.

Also, I wanted to approach the Batman’s uniform with THREE basic prescriptions in mind:

1) Para-military survival gear

combined with…
2) Primitive, tribal natural organic textures

combined with
3) Stately old-world gothic tone

For the para-military side, I designed the all-important yellow Utility Belt to appear as a bulky, (but neatly organized) collection of ammunition pouches and high tech vials containing The Batman’s myriad of weapons and urban survival crime-fighting gear. I wanted it to look big, well-stocked, and slightly dangerous. Since The Batman as I would portray him focused more on his Martial Arts training, fighting skill, and detective ability, I wanted a belt that would heavily suggest some of the gadgets that would become part of his later arsenal.

For me, it is the primitive, tribal aspect of the outfit that holds the most fascination, and appeal. When dealing with this costuming mind-set, I imagined the approach of a fierce, tribal warrior: A large BEAST has been vanquished in bare-handed combat, and the human warrior now wears its outer hide as a symbol of his own fighting prowess. The cranium and upper jaw of the animal is worn as a headdress, with only the lower half of the warrior’s own face exposed. The warrior honors the spirit of the fallen creature by wearing it’s skin and fighting on…

This primitive approach inspired me to look at the Batman’s costume mostly in terms of organic textures like leather. In my mind, the bat-cowl, cape, gauntlets, trunks, and boots would ALL need to share an identical black leathery texture. By contrast, the accents of color on the uniform (chest emblem and utility belt) would need to feel manufactured and synthetic. The skin-tight charcoal grey (middle ground) body suit bridges the two worlds by appearing not quite synthetic and not quite organic. But my color palette and texture choices were also firmly dictated by my desire to stay true to the costume of the comics and to preserve the visual contrasts. Going with an all-black armored body suit (as is typically done in live-action Batman films) was not an option for me since it would only make the character mono-chromatic and very difficult to see on stage.

In order to lend the character the stately, old-world, gothic flavor that I thought was necessary, I paid special attention to the silhouetted outer contour of the assembled costume. The figure’s lines would need to be razor straight, emphasizing a powerful vertical force that was bigger than life. The long ears of the Bat cowl and the fanned-out lines of the cape at rest were intended to give the character height, power, and a Dracula-like presence.

The sets are also quite elaborate, especially that Bat-Signal, tell me about the sets!

Thye Joker's Missile

Well, I began designing the sets for FATHERS OF THE DARK KNIGHT even before I sat down to write the script. I had very strong images in my head for the final look of this play, and some of its signature moments. As a result, my original designs were very ambitious approaches to environments that would be featured throughout the show.

However, as is the case with any venture of this size, eventually economics and available stage space dictate what is possible and what is not. I am most gratified that the sets still generally appear as “elaborate” to the audience, because in virtually every instance, major compromises to my original designs had to be made. Bob Kane’s Bronx Apartment went from being a three-walled, fully furnished environment, into a permanent, sparsely furnished space off the stage. The Iceberg Lounge originally featured giant, art-deco penguin and iceberg-themed flats, decorated around a grand circular stage and four round candlelit cocktail tables. By showtime, the flats were gone, the circular stage was gone, and the cocktail tables had become two instead of four.

You mentioned the Bat-Signal. That was a very large stage prop that really excited me to design and construct for this play, and it was one that I envisioned from the very start. Before I even gave this production its title (back when it was just loosely referred to as “The Batman Play”), I had a strong sense that a Bat Signal scene was going to be included. As a Batman fan, I have always loved the concept of Gotham City’s gruff Commissioner Gordon, standing on the roof of Police Headquarters, summoning The Caped Crusaders with an old Bat-retrofitted anti-aircraft searchlight.

I began doing research very early on and gathered up as many reference photos as I possibly could of the old General Electric and / or “Kleig” searchlights used by the military in WWII. My initial thinking was that I would need to build a cosmetic prop (to size spec) that could light up on stage, and manually pivot and tilt. A simple projector with a specially-prepared slide would provide the dramatic Bat emblem image sweeping over the auditorium walls and ceiling.

For a while, I actually considered purchasing the shell of a real GE searchlight from an Arizona scrap yard that specializes in their restoration. Unfortunately, the 60 inch main reflector alone (even as a gutted shell) weighed in at approximately 1000 lbs (!)… definitely NOT appropriate for a simple stage prop that would need to be moved around and assembled / disassembled quickly.

In the end, I brought my schematic drawings and plans over to the kind folks at Ace Wood Turning in Brooklyn NY. They were able to faithfully translate my designs into an 8-foot tall working stage prop, expertly fashioned out of solid wood! The Bat Signal was even built as a rolling prop, manageable by just one person… two for assembly and disassembly!

Another stunning stage set prop was The Joker’s 13-foot tall cruise missile, featured during the play’s finale. It took a lot of effort to locate a base tube of that size for the basic missile fuselage. In the end, I used a thick cardboard 24 inch diameter “sonotube” . These tubes are typically utilized as molds for making rounded cement columns. Using large sheets of high impact styrene, I created the missile’s nose cone warhead and the stabilizer fins.

Could you tell the same story without the high production values?

I suppose I could… but where’s the fun in that? LOL!

All kidding aside, I felt it was important (in the original spirit of student enrichment) that I taught my cast and crew of young performers (and future theatrical producers) to always challenge themselves artistically. This meant challenging myself by example. This meant striving for ambitious production values that would not be easy to attain.

I wanted my students to learn for themselves the value of diligence and hard work, when striving for excellence in quality. I wanted them to learn what steps MUST be taken when one strives to be, not just very good, but the very BEST at what they do. The mantra I always voiced among my students was that “being excellent is NOT good enough when you dream of being the very BEST!”

Also, from a practical standpoint, the script I had written was quite big and ambitious. It would be impossible to perform FATHERS OF THE DARK NIGHT in one of the many small “black box” type theaters that are spread around the city. I knew that I would require a large venue (like a grand auditorium) to accommodate what would essentially be two plays in one. To my sensibility, a venue of that size works best when presenting a work of ambitious scope.

 You cast the show with some young actors. How did you find and recruit your cast?

Much of the cast was initially recruited among the pool of students I worked with as a teaching artist in the NYC school system. Later on, as the show expanded, sources for casting presented themselves everywhere. I placed casting notices on Casting 360, Mandy.com, facebook and craigslist. We even discovered our Dick Grayson / Robin the Boy Wonder (Mark Anthony Montalvo) last year at New York Comic Con while promoting our play. He was one of the thousands of visitors walking through the Javits Center in NYC that day.

 What can audiences learn from this show?

As far as the biography scenes of this play are concerned, it is my hope to shed light on the way Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson remained un-credited for their significant contributions to the Batman mythology. I want people to know that for the last 75 years, whenever they have read “Batman Created by Bob Kane” anywhere, they were only reading PART of the truth.

There is also a philosophy regarding the IMMEDIATE taking of action upon opportunities as they present themselves that I wanted to impart to the audience. For all his faults and massive ego, Bob Kane was still a man who took advantage of an opportunity when it presented itself back in 1939. As a result, he became an incredibly wealthy and successful man. In his final scene in this play, Bob delivers a monologue where he quotes the German philosopher Goethe on this very subject, and it was a mantra he believed very deeply in.

I peppered my script with many things that I hope audiences will take with them: I wanted to provide a lesson in letting go of the ego and forgiving others for the injuries they have caused you… I wanted to advise that one should consciously ENJOY every moment of their current situation and the people in it (even the struggles). Life is far too short, and there WILL come a day when even those struggles will be looked back upon fondly as “the good old days”.

As for the fantasy portion of the play, it was my goal to demonstrate (particularly to the younger viewers who may not have been exposed to it) that there is still tremendous viability, resonance, excitement and power from a classic approach to the BATMAN’s mythology.

I wanted to show my audience (particularly the younger generation) something else in regards to Batman… something steeped in the traditions of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’ I wanted to expose them to how gothic and elegant and spooky the character could be when presented properly… like Dracula. I wanted to emphasize the character’s skills as a martial arts fighter and as a world-class detective. I wanted to present Robin the Boy Wonder in a way that he has VIRTUALLY NEVER been presented in any live-action medium… as a colorfully dressed young boy… laughing and mockingly taunting thugs and criminals while fighting them. I wanted to show what a brilliant creation Robin is… simultaneously serving as a bright, cheerful counterpoint to The Batman’s grim darkness while also providing the drama of having someone to solve clues with AND be concerned over.

How will it be appreciated differently by comic book fans, and non-fans?

Well, comic book fans will certainly appreciate the scope, action, color, and excitement of the fantasy Gotham City scenes while seeing all of these characters VERY FAITHFULLY translated over from the pages of the comics right onto the stage. They will see a play that is being produced by an entire cast and crew of fans (just like them) who have worked long and hard to ensure that EVERYTHING we all love about the Batman mythology is brought to the stage with reverence and respect for the original source material.

Non-comic book fans will have a different experience. I believe it will primarily be an educational one. I believe they will likely gravitate toward the biographical Bob Kane and Bill Finger storyline just as they learn the details of their incredible true story. I had a very nice lady say who attended one of our performances say to me that she was never a Batman fan before seeing my play, but as a result of seeing FATHERS OF THE DARK KNIGHT, she is now curious to go back and see the animated films and shows and to read some of the classic tales like Batman Year One, The Killing Joke, Batgirl: Year One, and The Dark Knight Returns.

What’s next for the show after this run?

FATHERS OF THE DARK KNIGHT is by no means over after this first run of shows. We are all deeply committed and looking forward to keeping the FOTDK brand alive even as we work to improve the show and make it bigger and stronger. Talk has already begun of a return to NY Comic Con in October to once again promote the play. And I fully expect that a preliminary search for a new auditorium venue will commence even before the summer ends.

So keep watching our official website www.fathersofthedarkknight.com for all of the latest news, information, and announcements about the triumphant SECOND RUN of this tremendous theatrical experience!

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