Conner Reed is a senior at Boston University, majoring in Journalism with a minor in English. Set to graduate this spring, Conner is concluding his university career as director of Smokefall, an upcoming three-act play produced by BU’s student theater organization Stage Troupe. After working on this production myself as an assistant manager, I became both impressed and intrigued by Conner’s innate ability to access and articulate a text rich with symbolism, intricate relationships, and vast stretches of time. And while it unquestionably takes an entire cast and crew to showcase a successful play, Smokefall will owe a significant portion of its success to its director.
Growing up “in a literal log cabin” in Oregon, Conner consistently educated himself on current and developing affairs through a variety of news outlets, ranging from magazine subscriptions to 60 Minutes, to national news that grew his appreciation for the stylistic nature of recounting a real-world event. Coupled with his involvement in theater (although he never directed a show until joining Stage Troupe) he developed a passion and inclination for nonfiction storytelling through a narrative lens.
Conner in BU On Broadway’s production of Spring Awakening
Conner has complimented his passion and field of study by immersing himself in a multitude of activities on and off campus. He wrote for the Daily Free Press, eventually taking on the role of Film and Television Subhead. He wrote remotely for a culture website in Portland, Oregon and interned for an arts magazine in London, eventually narrowing his focus within journalism to audio. It was during his freshman year at BU that he became involved with student theater after attending BU on Broadway’s production of Urinetown. He acted in shows for both BU on Broadway and Stage Troupe but did not tackle directing until the fall of his junior year.
“This is a silly, cinematic vignette,” he noted when describing how he came to direct his first play Stupid Fucking Bird. Conner knew he was interested in directing, but the final push came when visiting his past director and close friend in the hospital. His visit coincided with the day that members of Stage Troupe pitched shows to be produced the following semester.
“There’s a play that I saw in Portland called Stupid Fucking Bird that I loved that I would really like to direct, but I know that we can’t do it because it’s too long.”
Emboldened by his friend who offered the encouragement he needed, Conner pitched the show that night and was soon approved to be its director. And despite his claims that he was very “unpolished” in his approach, the ability to provide guidance, extract details, and fine-tune the extensive network of elements needed for a production clicked with him. Conner laments that he was a “fine” actor, but never before had he felt such intense pride as when Stupid Fucking Bird was performed. No longer was he was just performing a text but watching as it manifested onstage from the result of a collaborative process.
Conner with the cast of Stupid Fucking Bird on closing night
Conner pitched Smokefall for the spring of 2018. Having read the script two years ago, he was initially put off by its apparent alienating and “tell don’t show” nature. Fast forward two years to the fall of 2017 where he undertakes a second reading of the script. This time, the play resonates with him, reaching a depth of connection that has Conner describing Smokefall as “a Xray of my brain.” Where before the play appeared grandiose, he now recognized both its humor and the manner in which it explores what drives our motivations, as human beings, to exist in the complicated and often messy contexts of a family. To sum it up, Smokefall was “a shot to the heart.” And he had to showcase this to audiences.
Smokefall’s directing process came with its challenges. The primary challenge, Conner revealed, was the fact that the play is simply “ludicrous.” The five actors that constitute the cast are not only tasked with portraying multiple characters; they must also embody a largely symbolic being with a distinct and relatable essence of humanity. How difficult can this be? You might wonder. Well, two of the characters are fetuses conversing inside a womb and another character eats paint for breakfast… so Conner is now charged with finding an emotional center, grounding these symbolic protagonists in reality, or risk the play’s “head being shoved so far up its own ass.”
Sure, every play has its trials. But there are also an infinitely greater amount of joys that accompany these challenges. For Conner, working closely with his actors and actresses was an unparalleled highlight.
“I chose some of the most game, gorgeous people to help me… I was very lucky that the actors that I was working with constantly took me closer and closer to the center of what the play was about.”
Through character meetings and rehearsals, Conner and the cast diligently analyzed and experimented with the text to locate and understand its hidden meanings and enlightening secrets. If the characters are a blank canvas, it was Conner’s job to aid his cast in blending the colors until a very real, very human, piece of art was created.
He found immense success due to the fact that from the start, the synergy needed to yield these results blossomed. When casting the show Conner searched for both elasticity and an ability to be directed. He needed his actors to listen to his direction, study the notes he provided, and then return with visible proof that they have followed his advice but can also introduce something new to the play. Fortunately, his talented cast of five meets every expectation and has shaped his role of director into an unforgettable experience.
As is the case with most directors, the abundant time Conner spent working intimately with this play has allowed him to develop new skill sets and grow into a role that is fairly new to him. While his experience directing Stupid Fucking Bird was undeniably incredible, he remarks that his tendency “to be detail-oriented to a fault” could at times be a hindrance. Directing Smokefall, he no longer follows along in the script as a scene commences, cringing at every dropped line. He has loosened a desire for rigid control and thrives off of collaboration. When directing a play that lacks fast-paced action but contains a wealth of ideas, Conner’s dedication to a constant and positive exchange of interpretations has opened the floodgate to the beauty of Smokefall.
One example I wish to cite of Conner’s ability to unearth hidden connections and locate deeper meanings within the play was shared with me during our interview. His initial approach to analyzing the characters was to understand why every male actor plays two roles. As Conner’s search took him further, he landed on the realization that Smokefall is very much a play of mirrors in which characters are purposefully colliding to complement each other.
Conner tells me that Act 1 is titled “Help Me Remember”- a quote used directly in the play by Daniel, a husband and father that for a plethora of reasons plans to leave his family (a group consisting of his father in law, 16 year old daughter, and wife who is pregnant with twins). Mere minutes prior to Daniel walking out on his family forever, he whispers to the twins inside his pregnant wife’s belly “help me remember the glory of living.” This is significant, Conner tells me, as his father-in-law (the Colonel) has crippling dementia, and is constantly forgetting his own surroundings and the identities of those around him. The Colonel thus acts as a mirror for Daniel’s own fears. Daniel feels himself losing his love for his family, and forgetting his role within his own home. These realizations are echoed tangibly by the Colonel, tormenting Daniel in the process.
Conner in Spring Awakening
This is just one instance of Conner’s affinity for finding significances in a deceptively docile setting. After gaining knowledge of how he unraveled these characters, I then had to ask, who is his favorite? He responds that it is too difficult to genuinely settle on an answer, but if given thought, there are two characters that leave a resounding impression on him.
The first would be “Young Colonel,” who, as you may guess, is a younger version of the current, dementia-plagued Colonel that we are introduced to in Act 1. In Act 3, however, audiences are gifted with the presentation of a younger Colonel. He is healthier, “spritely,” and an enduring father figure in comparison to the Colonel audiences see as largely defined by his disease. Conner has a large appreciation for this juxtaposition of the old and the young, as it instills a mentally crippled man with a degree of his former strength.
But is it Violet, the wife of Daniel and mother figure in Smokefall, who appears to have cemented a special place in Conner’s heart. Similar to his overall change in attitude towards Smokefall from when he first read it 2 years ago, Conner has come to see Violet in a completely new light. Upon first acquaintance with her character, he found her role to be “a sexist classification of what femininity should be.” Violet, after all, cooks, cleans, and cares for her family all day, and then suffers from a complete lack of identity and purpose in their absence.
Conner reveals, however, that Violet is more than a mere projection of what her family requires of her. Noah Haidle, Smokefall’s playwright, wrote this piece for the ultimate caretaker and support system in his life- his mother. Violet was thus constructed as a thank you to the unconditional love that his mother bestowed upon him. According to Conner, Violet is “the strongest character in the show” because “she is a martyr figure… she decides consciously to give up a lot of the immediate pleasures of her life to reap the greater pleasure of holding the people that she loves really close to her, and it’s absolutely gorgeous.”
Smokefall confronts audiences with the reality of the choices we make when faced with horrible and often unbearable existences. Daniel chooses to leave, but Violet chooses to stay, to “constantly give love” instead of seeing herself as a victim of circumstance.
That is one of the defining reasons Smokefall will resonate with audiences. “It is this gorgeous, funny, total startling beacon of hope for people who have pursued the things they thought they wanted to pursue and felt unfulfilled by them,” Conner tells me. There are universality and truthfulness to Smokefall that is capable of reaching audiences across many spectrums and grounding them with a source of comfort.
I was shocked when I found out this is only the second play that Conner has ever directed. He possesses a dedication and uncanny ability to root out meanings from the corners in which they hide and then sculpt them into truths. He is grateful to Stage Troupe and BU on Broadway for helping him break down the barriers that before had kept him from stepping into the role of director.
“Every single moment I’ve thought about a million times,” Conner confesses. Through the teamwork that Conner has pioneered, there are sure to be a million reasons why Smokefall will leave a lasting impression on us all.
Want to see Smokefall live? Performances begin Thursday, March 29 and end Saturday March 31. Tickets on sale here