Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Interview with Fathers of the Dark Knight stage play creator!

Hey folks this is Jake, and I have a interview with  Roberto Williams, director of Fathers of the Dark Knight stage production. Enjoy!
All photos are property of Roberto Williams!

Hey Roberto,  what is your educational background?
Roberto Williams
I am a graduate of the Laguadia High School of Music and The Arts (class of 1985), and I completed 3 years at NYC’s School of Visual Arts as a film major. 

How did you get started working with kids?

In 2005, I ended a 10-year career in Federal Law Enforcement as a contract linguist working on narcotics wire-taps.  With no other prospects lined up, I turned to the arts as a way to make a living.  I formed LION’S ROAR KARAOKE as a promotional service for bars, lounges, and restaurants, and as a for-hire service for private parties, weddings, anniversaries, holiday and corporate events.

Shortly after, I answered an ad placed by a Brooklyn Community-Based Organization soliciting the services
Andrew Davis Feliz as Batman.
of Teaching Artists specializing in vocal music.  These individuals were to be assigned residencies at various public schools throughout the city to set up classroom time or after-school programs for the arts.  After several years working in the public school system, I made the decision to register myself and my company directly with the NYC Board of Education as a Teaching Artist vendor so that I could work independently and under my own guidelines.  It was at that point that LION’S ROAR KARAOKE became LION’S ROAR ENTERTAINMENT.  I accepted assignments at private schools as well as public schools, and I used my newfound creative freedom to produce ambitious student-based shows and events that thrilled audiences!

What’s your background in comics?

Creating the outfits!
My connection to comic books dates back about as far back as I can remember.  As a little boy living in Brooklyn in the very early 1970’s, my older brother and I were exposed to the daily television adventures of The Batman, Superman, Spideman, The Lone Ranger, and so many other characters.  It wasn’t long before we discovered the original source material of those characters… the COMIC BOOKS!  At .25 cents per book, my brother and I voraciously began to collect the titles of our favorite characters.  With my preferred hero being The Batman, and his being The Amazing Spiderman, we quickly fell into a pattern of collecting DC Comics and Marvel Comics titles, respectively.  Soon, I my interest in drawing emerged and I developed my artistic skills by copying my favorite panels from Batman comics.  Pretty soon, my bedroom walls were covered with a couple of hundred drawings of The Batman and Robin swinging into action! This passion continued as I entered into High School  and then into college.

What made you so fascinated with Batman, and why did you wish to tell the true story behind his creation and make a play about it?

Well, that is something of a complex story to tell:

As a kid, I knew that the eerie Dark Knight Caped Crusader of the comics was nothing like the cowled boy-
scout from the television series that everyone seemed to be so familiar with.  And I wanted to know more about the guy from the comics!  HE was the one that resonated with me and somehow rang true… even at the age of 7!

Also, it’s important to note that at that age, I was already attracted to darker things.  I loved the old Universal Studios monster films “Frankenstien”, “Dracula”, “The Wolf Man”, and others.  I watched them religiously on late Saturday night television and on “Chiller Theater”.  I began to enjoy atmospheric murder mystery-type stories like Ellery Queen and Columbo, and the old “gumshoe detective” films of the past. 

So as I became more and more involved with The Batman’s comic book exploits… as he was revealed to me as “The World’s Greatest Detective” and simultaneously as “The Masked Manhunter”… I realized that my affinity for the character was just a logical extension of the strong attraction I felt for darker material.  The spooky portrayal of The Batman in the comic book works of Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers made a powerful impression on me.  I soon discovered his tragic and grim origin story, and as the years passed, I rejected more and more material that presented The Batman in a campy light.

Creating the outfits. 
It frustrated me to no end that my favorite hero was largely defined by the silly television series which continued to play in daily syndicated reruns.  At school, it was not considered “cool” among the other kids to like The Batman.  He was thought of as “corny”, and I endured a LOT of teasing (and bullying) for having chosen him as my preferred hero. Pretty soon, I became known as the “Batman-kid”.  The other kids would sing the “Jingle Bells, Batman smells…” song anytime I entered the room, simply to annoy me.  But I didn’t care.  I remained faithful.   The Batman was my hero, and nothing was going to change that.  There was just something about that awesome, spooky costume… something about the bravery and nobility of a man with no super-powers leaping into danger to protect the innocent… and punish the guilty... that spoke to me.  When it came to The Caped Crusaders, as far as I was concerned… what was NOT to like?

I remember walking through Times Square in New York City one night with my family and spotting a Batman poster in a novelty shop that stopped me right in my tracks.  It was done in an illustrative style that was much more realistic than standard comic book artwork.  It depicted a spooky Batman stalking the rooftops of Gotham City as an avenger of  the night.  I begged my father to buy me the poster.  But he refused to part with the $2 cost saying that it was a “waste of money”.  Years later, (I believe it was in 2004), a buddy of mine purchased that same poster for me as a birthday gift for well over $100.

Growing up throughout the 1970’s, it did not take long for me to notice that my favorite hero was created by a guy named “Bob Kane”.  I mean, there it was… prominently displayed in every Batman comic book I ever read… every Batman TV episode, or cartoon:  “Batman Created By Bob Kane”.   
Creating the outfits. 

“What a swell guy”, I thought.  I had no reason to think differently, and this Kane fellow was clearly quite the innovator.  I even remember spotting his name in the credits of the “Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse” cartoon of King Features Syndicate, and realizing that those characters were just comical versions of his other creation Batman and Robin.

As the 1970’s came to a close, I watched with delight as The Batman character grew even more grim and moody.  The comic books were steadily creating a bigger gap in tone between the gritty stories being published, and the character’s still-dominant Adam West TV series public perception.   A whole new generation of fans gradually began to discover the character. He developed greater popularity and more legitimacy!  It was becoming okay to like the Caped Crusader!  By the middle of the 1980’s, It had actually become cool to be a Batman fan!  Frank Miller, Brian Bolland, Alan Moore, Dave Mazuchelli and so many other talented artists were all putting their indelible stamps on the Bat-mythology with their classic comic book works, and whispers were beginning about The Batman coming to the big screen!  It was a happy time for me.  I had TWO heroes that I looked up to:  One was fictional and wore a wicked cape and cowl.  The other was a real-life artist, who had single-handedly created an iconic American legend.

But then in 1989, something happened:  No, I’m not talking about the release of the long-awaited
“BATMAN” film by Tim Burton.  And I’m not talking about the new wave of Bat-mania that seemed to take the country by storm.  No… I’m talking about the publication of a single special edition magazine.  I’m talking about a publication that would have me seeing my “hero” Bob Kane in a whole different light.  David Anthony Kraft’s Comics Interview Super Special hit the newsstands and comic book specialty shops in late 1989.  It was billed as an edition devoted entirely to telling the “real origins of The Dark Knight”.  It would feature interviews with Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson, Dick Sprang, Gardner Fox, George Roussos, and Bill Finger’s son Fred.  Each of these legendary figures told stories, in their own words, of their involvement in The Batman’s origins.  Naturally, if you ask three people to tell the same story, you are going to get three different perspectives.  I expected that.  What I didn’t expect was the undercurrent of what I was reading.  It was something darker… uglier.

Episode after episode was recounted by Golden Age artists that painted Bob Kane as an egotistical, belligerent, plagiarist who refused to give the proper credit for the contributions of his collaborators. For years, it was virtually unknown that writer Bill Finger was instrumental in helping to shape the Batman’s final costume and method of operation… or that artist assistant Jerry Robinson originated the concept of The Joker and developed the final look of The Batman’s colorful protégé Robin The Boy Wonder. And while Kane himself had become contrite and somewhat apologetic about his hand in the late Bill Finger’s disenfranchisement, he nevertheless remained defensive and confrontational regarding Jerry Robinson’s claims of contribution.

For years afterward, I read various publications that confirmed and repeated these un-flattering allegations about Bob Kane, not the least of which was Kane’s own autobiography “Batman and Me” published in 1989 and “The Batcave Companion” written by Michael Eury and Michael Kronenberg. 

Meanwhile, the years passed and eventually I entered into the field of Arts in Education. It didn't take long
for me to notice a definite need among the current generation of young people for strong examples of moral values. I saw an opportunity to instill such values in my students through the performing arts and through the excitement of the comics.  I wanted them to develop pride, dignity, and self respect through their own talents and hard work... and I often rewarded my hardest working students with spare Batman comics or trinkets that I had laying around.  It was important to me that my students learn the value of striving for excellence, in whatever they did, so that they could make a significant mark in this world as decent and productive human beings.   That became the cornerstone philosophy of every performing arts program or class that I taught… every student show I produced.

And every step of the way, I wore my Batman fandom on my sleeve (and literally on my lapel) for the express purpose of inviting student inquiry that would allow me to express the importance of moral code... via The Dark Knight's example.

In 2010, I accepted a three-year teaching residency assignment at a Bronx performing arts high school. As the Director of the Vocal Music department, and as an active assistant in the Drama department, I put on numerous concerts, stage musicals, and dramatic plays throughout the years that provided production value unlike anything the school had seen before.  I quickly developed a reputation among the students and school administrators as an instructor that delivered exciting, quality product. With each ambitious production I put on, the (self-imposed) pressure to TOP myself with bigger and more spectacular productions grew.

Then, during the Spring Break of 2011, one of my students (who sadly, was involved in gang activity) was brutally murdered at a party he attended.  For over a year prior to his death, I had warned this young man to change his ways… to become an example of decency and excellence to the younger students who looked up to him.  But he was stubborn, angry, rebellious... as so many inner-city youngsters are... and now he was gone.  I loved this student as if he were my own son, and when he was killed, I fell into a deep depression.  But in short order, it became necessary for me to acknowledge that other students depended on me… that they looked to me for answers and to be an example of artistic possibilities and excellence.  So I forcibly snapped myself out of my depression and redoubled my efforts to show them their own value and beauty as children of The Bronx… to hopefully prevent this from ever happening again.

As a Batman fan… even after all these years… the notion of a Batman stage production for the school was already something that I had begun to discuss with a few choice students. While trying to find a way to make the Batman show concept something that the school Principal would sign off on, I developed the idea of telling the story of  former Bronx kids Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson.  I saw a golden opportunity with this real-life story to help my students realize that greatness, drama and elegance can come even from poor kids of The Bronx … just like them!  It did NOT have to end with brutal gang violence or death.

 Where is the play located?

We are currently in negotiations with Bronx Community College to present our play at the Hall of Fame Playhouse in the Roscoe Brown Student Center.  It is our intention to premiere the show at the campus in the early fall utilizing the BCC theater students as stagehands and crew.

Why did you decided to go with fundraising?

This production has been in development for nearly 2 years.  During that time, I have personally designed and fabricated most of the (fantasy character) costumes and props that will be featured in the play.  I have lit and photographed a series of “glamor” production stills that demonstrate the mood and tone of our show. Designs for elaborate set pieces… fight choreography for intense action sequences… casting sessions… development of our official website… script re-writes… weekly rehearsals… Live promotional appearances… you name it, I’ve done it… and PAID for it right out of my pocket. Shows with ambitiously high production value like the one we are launching, are quite expensive to produce.  So far, it is estimated that I have spent roughly $10,000 - $11,000 of my own money to develop “FATHERS OF THE DARK KNIGHT”.  And I calculate the final production cost of this show to be $30,000.  It became necessary for me to begin a grassroots fundraising campaign through Indiegogo.com to realize my dream of producing this exciting stage play with my hard-working students.

Which characters are going to be featured in the play?

Well the main characters of the play (on the biography side) are artist Bob Kane, writer Bill Finger, assistant artist Jerry Robinson and  Publisher / Editor Vince Sullivan. (On the fantasy side) there are Bruce Wayne/ The Batman,  Robin The Boy Wonder,  Barbara Gordon / Batgirl, Nightwing, Alfred Pennyworth,  Police Commisioner James Gordon, The Joker, Harley Quinn,  Oswald "The Penguin" Cobblepot,  Edward "The Riddler" Nigma, Two-Face, and Catwoman)

Can you mention a few of the key actors in your play?

THE BATMAN:  Played by 19 year old Bronx drama student Andrew Davis Feliz.  2012 graduate from the Bronx's Theater Arts Production Comoany School. And currently enrolled at the New York City College of Technology.

BOB KANE:   Played by 20 year old Kenneth Thornton of Staten Island.  2011 graduate from Harlem's Rice High School, and one of the original founding members of the Rice Company Theater Troupe.

BILL FINGER:  Played by 21 year old Bronx native Ezekiel Jackson. TAPCO  High School graduating class of 2010.  Graduate of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy NY/LA. Certified stage fight choreographer.

HARLEY QUINN:  Played by 18 year old Bronx native Jennifer Paniagua.  TAPCO High School class of 2013. Classically-trained dancer, and vocalist.

What if the fundraiser isn't met? You aren't going to quit?

One way or the other, we will meet our fundraising goal!  And even if we fall short, there is no way that "Fathers Of The Dark Knight" will ever be cancelled. The students are fully committed and so am I.  We believe far too strongly in this project... have far too much faith in its entertainment (and educational) value... to ever abandon it.  By any means necessary, we are determined to show the Public School system, student theater, and the Bronx Community at large that even if it is by force of will alone, quality artistry can and will be produced on the stage by and for young people. For us, there is no turning back.

Seeing as you put so much time, effort and money into this one project are there any other projects you have down the line besides this one?

The productions I put on with my students are always very complex and very ambitious... none more so than "Fathers of the Dark Knight".  The origins of this play took shape while I produced a full chorus workload and several concerts, and while I assisted in various other productions for the school's drama Department.  I do not believe that splitting my artistic focus in that way is ideal, and it is certainly a contributing factor to FOTDK's long development time.

Artistically, I prefer to work on one thing at at time, and take it to its conclusion before assuming a new project.  Unfortunately, working as a performing arts Teaching Artist does not allow for that.   This reality weighed heavily on my decision to NOT actively pursue a teaching assignment this school year and instead work full-time to produce "Fathers Of The Dark Knight".

Concept sketch drawn by Roberto Williams!
This production is pushing everyone on the team to the absolute limits (and beyond) of their chosen artistic discipline... myself included.  I am demanding a level of quality and integrity in the  work produced from myself and from everyone involved that has likely far surpassed anything that has ever been asked of them before.  In order to produce something of this magnitude successfully, I believe that total focus is required... especially when resources are limited.   That level of single-minded focus is what I practice, and it is what I teach my students to employ in their own artistic ventures. There will always be another project after this one. And one after that.   But what they are and exactly what form they will take, I simply do not know at this time. I can say this: Typically, the spark for my next project usually presents itself just as I'm drawing my current artistic adventure to a close...

Roberto, thanks for the interview. I want to wish you great success in this project. You have done something great with this play and I can feel your devotion to your students. We here at the Broken Infinite will do what we can to help you get the word out. Furthermore, I look forward to seeing more from this project in the coming weeks. Thank you for sharing with me and the rest here!

You can help by either visiting the main home page of Fathers of the Dark Knight here: http://www.fathersofthedarkknight.com/


Jake Estrada 

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